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Tantra from Below: The Religion of the Human in Bāul Traditions and Some

Implications for Tantric Studies

Kaustubh Das

Introduction: Who are the Bāuls?

In this paper I will use the Bāul tradition to query the definition of tantra from both a
historical and a sociological position. Bāul is a popular heterogeneous esoteric tradition of
rural Bengal that rejects both the householder and the ascetic model of practice formulated in
classical Indian society.1 My main sources on the Bāul philosophy and practice are
Shashibhushan Dasgupta’s Obscure Religious Cults2 and Jeanne Openshaw’s Seeking Bāuls
of Bengal3. I have augmented this textual scholarship with insights from my own interaction
in the field with the Bāuls over the past eight years. I have particularly interacted with those
groups who are associated with the annual mela of the Vaishnav poet Jaideva, held every year
on makar sankranti at Kenduli village in the district of Birbhum.
Before we get into academic definitions of the Bāul tradition, I would like to briefly
summarize the popular view of this path. At a very basic level, all followers of the Bāul way
agree that their system is ‘mānuṣh dharma’,4 loosely translatable as ‘the religion of the
human’. However, the term ‘human’ is very broad and can be interpreted at any level from
the grossly physical to the rarefied abstract. Therefore, as we look more closely at the shades
of difference between Bāul practitioners, we find their paths diverge according to how they
have defined the ‘human’. This is the basis of the wide range of practice and belief to be
found within the broad category of the ‘Bāul’, and this diversity does raise problems when
we try to summarize the basic premises of this tradition. In addition, the Bāuls will often say
that the ‘human’ precludes or renders irrelevant such components of identity as caste or race.
Identity for the Bāuls is largely elective; thus a person born a Muslim may become a Bāul, or
a Hindu may decide to be a Fakir, and both will consider themselves to be following mānush
dharma. Thus Bāul practices seamlessly integrate Fakir culture on the one hand and sahajiyā
Vaiṣṇav culture on the other. They very self-consciously identify themselves as ‘Bāul–Fakir
sampradāya’ or a collectivity of Bāuls and Fakirs united in their core identity as ‘mānush’ or
human. This eclecticism sets Bāul culture squarely outside caste-based society since
siddhahood is entirely delinked from birth and descent. In this paper I will argue that this
doctrine of identity is the basis for the Bāul s’ theorizing of the social. I will then see whether
Bāul ethics are derivable from their metaphysics or not.
In the popular sādhu samāj, or within the larger uninitiated population in contact with the
sādhu samāj, the Bāul path is negatively understood as a path that is not Vedic and not
tāntric. It is not Vedic because it rejects any and all textual authority and also rejects ritual as
a means to realize the absolute. It is considered not tāntric, because in the popular sādhu
samāj and also in the larger Brahmanical society of Bengal, ‘tāntric’ meant particularly a
Śākta tāntric. Someone who, like the Vedic householder, attempted to seize the absolute by
chanting arcane mantras from a textual source along with the performance of ritual and idol
Alternatively, a simpler positive definition of a Bāul is someone who sings and lives by
the mahājani padas, which like the carjā padas of the 84 mahāsiddhas, are songs by the
For information regarding the householder-ascetic divide please refer to Patrick Olivelle, The Saṃnyāsa
Upaniṣhads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Shashibhushan Dasgupta, Obscure Religious Cults, Kolkata: Firma KLM, 1976.
Jeanne Openshaw, Seeking Bāul s of Bengal, New Delhi: Foundation Books, 2004.
In this paper I shall be using Sanskrit terminology transliterated into English as well as Bangla terminology
transliterated into English. The speech conventions of each language have been maintained as such.
perfected masters. Essentially there are two markers of qualification for a Bāul to recognize
and accept a song as mahājani. First, it must be composed by someone who is known to have
removed or resolved the subject-object binary within the structure of their own
consciousness. That is to say the composer must be a siddha. Secondly the composer must be
able to provide an interpretation of the song that refers back to deha tattva. Deha tattva is the
Bāul body of knowledge regarding the interconnectedness of consciousness, mind and body.
This definition has the advantage of using the most noticeable feature of Bāul culture, the
songs, as an access point into their philosophy.

The Esoteric Context of Bāul-Fakiri in Bengal

Having settled on a definition of the Bāul, we now must undertake the task of situating the
Bāul within the larger world of Bengali esotericism. In Bengal, as in many other places in
India, we find that there is a ‘high’ tradition of Vedic and tāntric ritualism against which the
tradition of mānush dharma of the sahajiyā Vaiṣṇavs, Bāuls and Fakirs defines itself as
‘low’. Bengal geographically has always been on the fringes of Brahmanical society.
Varṇadharma came late to Bengal, and as with other marginal territories, the purity of
Bengali Brahminhood was a recurring concern for the ruling elite. Here we have a small
population of not very pure Brahmins controlling a large non-Aryan population who were
generously supplied with their own pre-Aryan deities and practices. Being at the very edge of
the Brahmanical fold, Bengali Brahmins relied heavily on tāntric practices to legitimize their
social position and that of their Kśatriya patrons. By the end of the nineteenth century large
Śākta pujas in Bengal were primarily patronized by wealthy zamindār families, typically
under the tutelage of a kula-guru who would be a Brahmin with Śākta-mantra dīkṣa. It is
important to note that in this form of Śāktism the primary participants are the Brahmin guru
and the feudal patriarch initiate. The wife of the zamindār would have the same peripheral
role in the ritual as she would in the performance of a Vedic ceremony. Upper-caste
Bhadralok Śāktism in Bengal, by the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth
century much rather preferred to approach Śakti through the safer relationship of child and
mother. Famous Śākta tāntrics of that period like Vama Khyapa and Sri Ramakrishna
Paramhamsa, despite all their antinomian behavior, strongly maintained the mother-child
relationship to Śakti, at least in their public façade.
The case of Rammohan Roy is even more convoluted5. He was a Brahmin with secret
Śākta initiations, but in his public life he was the founder of the Brāhmo Samāj. The
reformist agenda of the Brahmo Samaj tended to ‘clean up’ Bengali religion to bring it more
into consonance with European ideas of a solid, respectable, quasi-Protestant tradition. The
Samāj celebrated the masculine Brahman as the ultimate principle. This is strange given
Rammohan Roy’s exposure to the tāntric traditions, since early tantra had very vehemently
rejected the idea of Brahman alone as the absolute principle, and had transcended it.
Rammohan Roy discards the metaphysical advancements of tantra in order to realign
Brahmanism to an iconoclastic father god like that of the Jews and Christians. From a tāntric
point of view, this is a step backwards.
Clearly, after the coming of the Europeans, there was a tendency to cut tantra down to
size, to downplay the more disturbing elements of the practice, to remove Kali’s strange and
terrible attributes and domesticate them. Only those parts of the tantra that appeared to
increase domestic prosperity within the setting of a Hindu upper caste joint family were
allowed to remain. So Kali as a universal mother figure was a safe concept because anyone,
no matter how mean or conceited, could approach her without fear and demand her favor as
her child. Whatever the actual iconographic meaning of the figure of Dakshina Kali be,
Hugh B. Urban, Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion, Berkeley: University of California
Press, 2003, 62.
within the bhadralok imagination it is the happiest resolution of the Bengali oedipal triangle.
The mother (Kali) has destroyed the father and stands over his corpse (Śiva) and is now
ready to be with the son (the devotee/ worshipper). Here we can see various themes of
patriarchy such as ancestry, inheritance and control of femininity converging. The general
tactic would be to reduce femininity to motherhood, thus making it much more amenable to
control at the spiritual as well as material level. This was the state of things in bhadralok
society, but outside it, in the countryside, and among less well integrated social groups, the
whitewashing of tāntric practice did not go quite so smoothly. At least from the times of
Caitanya, and probably before, Bengal has had a tradition of nomadic singers who move
from ashram to ashram and patron to patron, spreading their message through music. This
society of artists or ‘śilpis’ was a very visible group, thus they were confused with the Bāuls
even though not all of them were practitioners in the strict sense. Openshaw observes with
regard to popular urban perceptions of the Bāuls that they were either considered jesters or
entertainers or, as Rabindranath’s interpretation would have it, as solitary male mendicants.
In the latter case the role of the Bāulani6 is completely erased7while in the former case her
participation is rendered irrelevant. As I will explain later, the Bāul tradition is unique in that
it provides renunciatory robes (bhek) to both men and women equally, usually in couples but
also, more rarely, alone.
What becomes evident is that sociologically, there are two realms within which tantra
operates. There is the realm of high tantra or Brahmanical tantra, where initiates are upper
caste. Like siddhanta Śaivism, the ritual manuals of these traditions were designed to provide
initiations to kings and nobility. These forms typically limit themselves to mantra and ritual
performances, elaborate expensive pūjās etc. Any antinomian elements in these tantric
traditions understandably get toned down when they begin to be patronized by the centers of
temporal power. The other realm of tantra is in folk culture. Here typically we can see the
antinomian elements of tantra gathered and formulated into a coherent critique, not just of
Brahmanical patriarchy, but also of those sections of the tāntric tradition that have colluded
with Brahmanical patriarchy in all its forms. Furthermore, it is in this realm of the low, folk
tantra that most trans-sectarian exchange of ideas and practice takes place. Unlike high
tantra where there seems to be almost an absolute focus on nām-rup or the form of
meditation that uses mantra and visualization, low tantra emphasizes body-based tantric
practices. These practices primarily utilize pure awareness as well as mantra or visualization,
which are seen as less preferable compared to bhāv or emotional purification. Bāuls
particularly are wary of visualization practices, as they claim that since these practices are
based on imagination they can lead one deeper into delusion. The Bāul would much rather
ground the senses in reality and then try to feel the absolute for what it is, rather than try to
achieve it through imaginative visualization. I will discuss Bāul sādhana in detail later in this

Bāuls and Indological Scholarship: The Three Biases

Let us now move on to discussing the view of tantra to be found in textual scholarship from
the nineteenth century onwards. Very early on in the interaction between European scholars
and their native informants, Indological scholarship settled on the corpus of religious texts as
the true and final source of information about all Indian religion. This meant that all those
who followed an oral tradition, such as sādhus, tāntrics, and sanyāsis, were largely excluded
from the process of knowledge-building that Indology undertook. The only group who set
themselves up to communicate with the Indological scholars were the Brahmins who
arrogated to themselves the roles of translators and native informants. The result of this
Female Baā ul practitioner.
Jeanne Openshaw, Seeking Bāuls of Bengal, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 26-40.
skewing of the empirical data was that Indology began to act in a manner that suggested that
Advaita Vedantā and the Vedas were the epitome of Indian religious knowledge.
There were three main biases operating during the period of Indology: the Christian bias
of the scholar, the Brahmanical bias of the translator and the bias of scientific materialism
inherent in the method of inquiry itself. These three biases came together and ensured that
whenever tāntric scholars accessed the tāntric traditions, they tended to pay attention to the
high caste versions of those traditions, and downplayed or ignored other versions. It is
perhaps unfair to call scientific materialism a bias when it was the fundamental tool for
western scholarship. The empirical model of inquiry has been very successful in studying,
understanding and predicting the behavior of non-sentient matter, like rocks, planets, galaxies
and black holes. However it has been a little problematic while studying self-aware beings.
Biological sciences mostly describe the functioning and classify living beings, but as such
have not yet convincingly solved the problem of the material basis of consciousness. Pure
material empiricism cannot take into account the will of the subject; for that we need subtler
methods of inquiry. In the meantime, we have to allow for the inexactitude of the method
when dealing with the behavior of ratiocinating human beings.
When we are dealing with tantra we need to remember that it is a system whose entire
aim is to integrate hitherto limited individual subjects into pure consciousness beyond the
subject-object binary. So by definition our subject is one that cannot be contained in a
simplistic material-empiricist framework. Because of their material empirical bias, early
scholars of tāntrism sought security in the tangibility of texts, archeological remains, and the
surety of widely attested ethnographic remains such as the Bengali Durgā pūjā. Ironically,
this meant that a vast wealth of information on the tradition that could have come from oral
histories, ethnographies and social anthropology remained undiscovered, and much is now
lost in the mists of time. This problem exists within the scholarship on Tibetan tantra as well.
There we see that while much scholarly attention has been paid to studying the Tantric
systems of the large monastic orders, scholarship on householder Tibetan yogīs and tāntrics
(Ngākpā/ Ngākmā) is virtually unknown.
Within this compromised discourse, can we speak of tantra in a pan Indian, trans-
sectarian way or can we only discuss tantra within the parochial limitations of particular
sects and the material evidence they leave behind? This has been a topic of debate among
scholars of the tantra for more than the last two decades. Scholars such as Alexis Sanderson,
Ronald Davidson, David Seyfort Ruegg and Francesco Sferra, among others, have been
seriously engaged in discussing this question. In particular I would like to think this issue
through using Francesco Sferra’s article ‘Some Considerations on the Relationship between
Hindu and Buddhist Tantras’. Sferra’s article is a summary of, and intervention into, the
debate between Sanderson and Ruegg. While Sferra tries to outline some common elements
between non-dual Śaiva and Buddhist tāntric traditions at the level of shared belief, I would
like to elaborate on that position and outline certain shared aspects of tāntric sādhana or
tantric praxis.
To start with, Sferra says of Sanderson’s paper ‘Vajrayāna: Origin and Function’ that ‘The
English scholar makes two points, the first explicitly: there is evidence only of the existence
of a Buddhist, Śaiva or Vaiṣṇava Tāntrism, and we can have recourse to the hypothesis of a
“religious substratum” when no other possible explanation exists; the second, implicitly: that
we must first do our utmost to attempt to determine possible relations of dependence between
the various forms of Tāntrism.’8 Further, Sferra makes Sanderson’s position on the ‘religious
substratum’ clear with this quote: ‘The problem with this concept of “religious substratum”
Francesco Sferra, ‘Some Consideration on the Relationship between Hindu and Buddhist Tantras’,
t_Tantras_2003_>, accessed 6/6/2016.
or “common cultic stock” is that they are by their very nature entities inferred but never
perceived. Whatever we perceive is always Śaiva or Buddhist or Vaiṣṇava or something else
specific. Derivation from this hidden source cannot therefore be the preferred explanation for
similarities between these specific traditions unless those similarities can be explained in any
other way.’9
Before we proceed it must be remarked that Sanderson’s scholarship is important both
from a theoretical and a methodological perspective. Methodologically he reads tāntric texts
against a backdrop of archaeological or epigraphic evidence. Taking an empiricist position,
he says that since texts labeled ‘tantra’ are only available in sectarian contexts, by studying
the other material evidence around these texts we can successfully reconstruct the history of
that sect and also make suppositions about how other traditions were borrowing from it.
However the moment we take this methodological position we are effectively limiting the
study of tantra to only those sections of tāntric practice that left a large textual,
archaeological or epigraphic footprint. More often than not, these groups were the ones
catering to the needs and demands of the ruling classes which in this case would be the
Brahmin–Kshatriya nexus. However a tāntric tradition’s closeness to temporal power may
not always be an indicator of its success as a spiritual discipline. The kaula-charis,
particularly Abhinavagupta, while enjoying a higher level of liberated awareness as
compared to a siddhānta follower, were not patronized by the Kashmiri royalty.
Similarly, his observation that tantra is always already Vaiṣṇav, Śaiva or Buddhist etc, is also
false. The two most notable examples here are the 84 mahāsiddha tradition and the more
recent Bāul tradition. We know Vajrayāna was established in Tibet by Guru
Padmasambhava10 and the Śaiva tantric Abhinavagupta was introduced to the kaula system
and granted jivanmukti by Swayambhunāth.11 Here we can clearly see the mahāsiddha
tradition as the common root that grew into the separate trees of various sectarian tantras. As
regards the Bāuls they shall be discussed later in this paper.

Tantra: The Search for an Inclusive Definition

In ‘Śaivism and the Tantric Traditions’, we can see more clearly what Sanderson considers to
be the defining marks of a tāntric tradition. He says, ‘The term tantra means simply a system
of ritual or essential instruction; but when applied in this special context it serves to
differentiate itself from the traditions that derive their authority from the Vedas (direct
revelation: śruti) and a body of later texts that claim to be Veda-based (indirect revelation:
smṛti). This corpus of śruti and smṛiti prescribes the rites, duties and beliefs that constitute
the basic or orthodox order or soteriology of Hindu society. The Tantrics however saw their
own texts as an additional and more specialized revelation (viśeṣaśāstra) which offers a more
powerful soteriology to those who are born into this exoteric order.’12
Further Sanderson says, stressing his definition of tantra as ritual: ‘The followers of these
cults, even in their undomesticated form, should not be seen as rebels who rejected a
ritualized social identity for a liberated cult of ecstasy. This popular view of Tantrism
Alexis Sanderson, ‘Vajrayana: Origin and Function’, <
s_Bangkok_and_Los_Angeles_Dhammak%C4%81ya_Foundation_1995_pp._89-102>, accessed 6/6/2016.
Giuseppe Tucci, The Religions of Tibet, New Delhi: New Age Books, 2011, 1-15
Abhinavagupta, Tantrasara, trans. H. N. Chakravarty and Boris Marjanovic, Portland OR: Rudra Press, 2012,
sloka 3.
Alexis Sanderson, Saivism and the Tantric Traditions, <
and_Kegan_Paul_1990_pp._128-72>, accessed 6/6/2016, 660.
overlooks the highly structured ritual contexts (Tantric and non-Tantric) of these un-Vedic
practices. A person who underwent a Tantric initiation (dīkśā) was less an anti-ritualist than a
super-ritualist. He was prepared to add more exacting and limiting ritual duties to those
which already bound him.’ Sanderson goes on to say, ‘It is this ritualism which largely
accounts for the rapid decline of the Tantric traditions in recent decades. The complex
obligations and time consuming rituals which the Tantric takes on for life can hardly be
accommodated within the schedule of the modern employee.’13
Following an empirical methodology relying largely on textual and epigraphic sources
Sanderson argues convincingly that Śaiva tantra was the dominant form of tantra, and other
forms such as Buddhist tantra were derivative in the sense that Buddhist writers could be
seen as borrowing phrases from Śaivite sources. His methodological choices of evidence
naturally lead him to focus on siddhanta Śaivism. According to Sanderson, this tradition
began to provide ritual services to the populace which were previously performed by Vedic
priests, such as coronation and rituals for the defense of the realm to kings and aristocracy.
The tradition allowed the uninitiated to witness part of the ritual and make offerings, so it
went on to constitute temple-based Hinduism.
I shall briefly summarize Sferra’s response to Sanderson before explaining my own views
on the subject. Sferra’s ‘point of departure was a question not directly examined by
Sanderson (but implicit in his discourse), that is, a reflection on what made it possible for the
redactors of Buddhist Tantras to include passages from advaita Śaivite texts, such as the
Bhairavatantras, in their works.’14 He begins his argument using Seyfort Ruegg’s observation
that a rejection of the common religious substrate ‘would imply the existence of different
self-contained religious systems without clarifying “the conditions under which the
hypothesized dependence of Buddhism on Śaivism arose and developed”.’15 To explain the
adaptation of parts of a text among different traditions, Sferra makes a supposition: ‘The
authors of these adaptations were aware that they were using works that not only belonged to
the same cultural milieu, but which, more specifically, shared what could be defined as a
common way of interpreting reality and relating to it, which is expressed in a “common
soteriological strategy”. This common “substratum of beliefs and soteric practices” is the
presupposition that allowed Buddhist authors to include passages or verses from non-dualist
Hindu Tantras in their scriptures, and it permitted Hindu redactors to act in a similar way.
Seen from such a perspective, this “substratum”, unlike the supposed substratum of folk
religion, is neither radically inaccessible nor hidden.’16
Sferra thus argues for a shift in the kinds of evidence we consider to study tāntrism. ‘It is
important to bear in mind that a set of soteriological beliefs does not exist in itself, but only
insofar as it is expressed through concrete forms that usually include rituals, various
meditative techniques, ethical behavior, oral teachings, scriptures, institutions, artistic,
literary (and sometimes even architectonic) representations, etc.’17 This incorporation of the
vernacular realm would then allow us to have a more global and accurate picture of tantra. It
is important that we also refer to textual and other evidence against tāntric praxis. Sferra
observes that in tāntric traditions ‘Knowledge is not transmitted through the written word,
but instead through direct contact with its living embodiment’18.

Ibid, 662.’
Sferra, Some Considerations’, 59.
Ibid., 60.
Ibid., 60-61.
Ibid., 61.
Ibid,, 63.
The main thrust of Sferra’s argument makes two connected points. The first point is
regarding the two-fold yogic process of ‘de-identification’. This process, he argues, enables a
view of absolute reality that is transcendent and immanent at once. That is his second point.
The living tantric knowledge is realized by a twofold yogic process: ‘the de-identification
from the mundane personality (prākṛtāhaṃkāra) and the identification or union (yoga) with
the deity. This twofold process has been described as the “recognition” (pratyabhijñā) of
one’s “divine” or in Buddhist terms, “adamantine” nature.’19 The true nature of one’s real self
is something that is accessible ‘at any moment and in any reality’ and not just in specialized
ritual contexts. Sferra continues,

Several Hindu and Buddhist texts stress that the pain of saṃsāra and the beatitude of
nirvāṇa are created by the same mind; therefore, although ritual practices are not
usually abandoned in Tantric traditions, pureness is not primarily attained through
such practices. On the contrary, with a pure mind, it is precisely through ‘ritualized’
contact with the impure that practitioners may accomplish the alchemical
transmutation resulting in the acquisition of powers and, for those who desire it,
liberation. Naturally, this transmutation does not occur through the mere performance
of the ritual but requires an elixir….that is, awareness or knowledge that allows us to
establish direct contact with our most profound nature (svasvabhāva). 20

This transmutation is performed by a constant awareness. De-identification is brought about

by understanding the limiting function of ignorance.21 ‘According to all non-dualist
traditions, overcoming ignorance or applying true knowledge involves at least two factors:
first, a knowledge of the “toxicity” of ignorance (and of its products, starting with attachment
and aversion); and second, a knowledge of the true nature of things.… Only the poison
knower is able to eliminate the toxic element without damaging himself or others.’22
This ‘knowing of the poison’ is the understanding of the true essence of samsara as nirvana.
The knowledge that there are no separate realms of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, but that saṃsāra
could be utilized to achieve nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa, if it is truly absolute. would include and
integrate rather than exclude saṃsāra.
Finally, marshaling this data to address the alleged ‘super-ritualism’ of the tantric
practitioner, Sferra says:

‘De-identification is crucial not only because of its obvious importance in relation to

overcoming suffering (duḥkha), which is the goal of all spiritual teachings, but also
because it represents a viewpoint that can shed light on the other aspects of the non-
dualist Tantric set of beliefs; I am referring specifically to the integration of hyper-
ritualism and anti-ritualism, which is contemplated by both Buddhist and Hindu
Tantric traditions. One of the ways in which ancient sapiential language speaks of de-
identification (a modern term) is as ‘being in the present’.’23

Here to support his argument he quotes a verse quoted by Abhinavagupta in the

Mālinīvijayavārtika: ‘Once a yogin has arrested the wheel of the rays and drunk his
unsurpassed ambrosia, being free from the two times [ i.e. the future and the past] and happy
Ibid., 63.
Ibid., 66.
The tantric idea of ignorance is positive and creative as opposed to the negative connotations carried in non-
tantric contexts such as advaita Vedanta.
Sferra, ‘Some Considerations’, 68.
Ibid., 74.
he reposes in the present.’ 24 Both traditions agree that the present is inhabited not by
rejecting the vikalpas or transient thoughts and sensations but by not identifying with them.
The way to apprehend the omnipresent absolute is to use awareness to counter the limitations
consciousness puts on itself. An absolute that could only be apprehended in limited ritual or
meditative settings would not be the absolute. Quoting the first stanza of Anuttāraṣṭikā,
Sferra says:

Here there is no need for transference of realization, creative meditation, clever

speech, philosophical research, contemplation, concentration or repetition of mantras.
Tell me, what is the ultimate reality, the reality that is absolutely certain? Listen! Do
not leave anything or take anything! Enjoy everything that is pleasant, in whatever
condition you find yourself!25

In conclusion he says:

Notwithstanding the anti-ritualist and anti-gradualist ideologies, ritual has not lost its
importance: anti-ritualism and hyper-ritualism, anti-gradualism and gradualism are
integrated in non-dualist Tantrism; in fact, this integration is one of its most
interesting and characteristic elements.26

Now I shall attempt to briefly provide a context for Sferra’s arguments from the point of view
of tāntric sādhana. Earlier we quoted Sanderson as defining tantra as that tradition that was
different from the Vedic śruti and smṛiti traditions. This definition does not however explain
the precise difference between the two traditions. It only tells us that the tāntric often
commits to more exacting ritual than the Vedic Brahmin.
Pre-tāntric Indian society was conceptually divided into two parts: that of the
householder and that of the ascetic. It may be argued that this division was brought about by,
among other factors, a divergent attitude to desire. The householder occupied the realm of
samsāra, of cyclical existence, of Eros. Here kāma or desire was considered a valid goal as
long as it was mediated by dharma, one’s duty to one’s ancestors, clan, society, the world and
the gods. The householder existed within the Brahmanical caste order. The constant flow of
the desirable here was maintained by constant ritual fire offerings the Vedic householder
made through the priest to the gods.27
In contrast to the householder, the ascetic existed outside of kinship or marital relations
(however, conjugal asceticism was not unknown in the early Vedic world). The ascetics
inhabited the renunciant world of nirvāṇa. They practiced celibacy, shunning any and all
desires as well as the rituals for acquiring their fulfilment. They inhabited the thanatic realm
as they understood final liberation to occur only after the death of the body. In this view
body, mind and the phenomenal world were completely rejected as ephemeral and the only
valid truth was the truth of the spirit. The main concern was to cancel the limiting conditions
of karma. The ascetics went about achieving this by restraining action. The idea in theory
was to stop making new karmic debts and to wait until all of one’s past karmic debts were
paid. This process would take an uncertain number of lifetimes of renunciation to achieve. So
even though Patanjali defines yoga as chitta vṛitti nirodha28; the tapas-based techniques of
the ascetics achieved this by simply aiming for chitta nirodha. The karmendriyas (organs of
Ibid., 74.
Ibid., 77.
Ibid., 77.
For further elaboration please refer to Patrick Olivelle and Geoffrey Samuels.
Yogasutras of Patanjali, trans. Shyam Ranganathan, New Delhi: Penguin India, 2014.
action/ locomotion) and often the jñānendriyas (organs of perception) were not allowed to
express their energy outward. Instead, their energy was retained inwards. As its pressure built
up, spiritual heat or tapas would be generated. However this was an extremely exhausting
method and demanded observance of often tedious vows and strict moral conduct. As a result
success was rare and illusory in this method without the intervention of enigmatic teachers
such as the Tirthankaras or the Buddha.
The inherent problem of the householder-ascetic, or saṃsāra-nirvāṇa binary, was that it
was essentially a patriarchal formulation. It was founded on the control of women’s sexuality.
The Manu-ite householder man owned property and passed it on through inheritance, he
owned his wife who would then take on his caste and he owned any offspring that the woman
might produce. On the other hand, the ascetic controlled women by completely rejecting their
presence. The sankhyan division of prakṛti or the feminine principle as materiality and
puruṣa as pure consciousness mapped easily onto their patriarchal biases. This led to a
vilification of the feminine and its identification with māyā or ignorance. Ignorance in the
ascetic traditions has a negative definition as it was considered to be an obstructing agent
extraneous to the absolute.
Thus as far as pre-tantric soteriological technologies are concerned, the realm of saṃsara
and that of nirvāṇa were two separate unresolvable poles. Nonetheless, around 500 BCE we
see that while Vedic political power is expanding from the Gangetic plains towards the east,
at the same time there is a decline in the Vedic traditions. Namely while old hymns remained,
the Brahmins began to lose access to the visionary trances of the ṛṣis that had inspired the
original hymns.29 If one were to speculate, this could be because Vedic ritual had a larger
entheogenic component than it did a yogic component. As soma supplies dwindled, and the
task of priesthood became hereditary, Brahmins were reduced to being hawkers of ritual
services to any patronizing ruling groups. The loss of Brahmin magic precipitated a great
ferment wherein various kinds of experiments were carried out in order to find a way to
ground ritual in meditative yogic realization. The above-mentioned techniques of the
householder and the ascetic were brought together first in the āgama and later in the tantric
traditions. The āgama tradition may be understood as the phase of early experimentation and
the tantra as a later stage where fundamental disciplinary precepts and practices have
become more organized and clearly stated.
Tantra offered a soteriological system that did not require one to reject the realm of desire
or kin relations, to practice celibacy nor to give up all action. Unlike the ascetic systems
where nirvāṇa would be achieved after many lifetimes, the tāntric method could, if correctly
practiced, offer liberation in a single lifetime. Not only did tantra open out the path of
liberation to the householder, it also reversed the patriarchal vilification of the feminine. In
the tantric systems, the absolute is conceived as a union of masculine and feminine
principles. They are the binaries of Śiva and Śakti, ṣunya and karuṇa, which, while appearing
different, are constantly in union. The theory of illusion consequently differs greatly between
the tāntric and the non-tāntric systems. Advaita Vedantā considers Brahman to be
illuminative and māyā to be something extraneous to it that has the ability to obstruct its
manifestation. However in tantra the absolute, being a conjunction of the active and the
passive principles, is illuminative as well as self-reflexive. It is prakāśavimarśamaya.30 In the
tantric view māyā is the creative power of the absolute; it creates by obstructing or revealing
its own illuminative nature in degrees.
The difference between the householder-ascetic binary model and the tantric model can
be easily located in their varying attitude to desire. This is the logic of the ‘poison-knower’
Geoffrey Samuels, The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2008, chapters 3-4.
Jaidev Singh; Pratyabhijnahṛdayam, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1963, 5.
that Sferra mentions. The household and ascetic forms deal with desire at the level of action.
The householder filters his desires through ritual and dharmaśāstras whereas the ascetic just
avoids desire by avoiding action. The tāntric method on the other hand understands that all
action stems from desire. If one merely avoids action then one does not engage with desire,
nor does one understand it. The liberation granted by tapas or ritual is contingent: the
moment one’s attention falters, there is an opening for desire to seize one again. This is
clearly not a satisfactory outcome. Tantra sought to solve the problem not by avoiding desire
but by turning it into the object of meditation. By engaging with desire, the practitioner traces
it to its physical and mental roots. Tāntrics understand that, while material phenomena
impress themselves upon our awareness as primary, immediate and un-mediated; they are in
fact secondary to mentation. It is through the operation of the mental faculties that any
phenomena can be apprehended. The mental faculties in turn are secondary to pure
consciousness. It is against the backdrop of pure consciousness that any mental or material
phenomena can occur. Thus, the aim of the tāntrics is to apprehend all material phenomena
as fluctuations within the spectrum of mentation which in turn is contained within the space
of pure consciousness.
Perhaps there has been much confusion brought about by the mistaken notion that there is
one definitive tantric technique. It would perhaps make more sense to look at tantra as a
group of techniques inspired by a similar approach. To illustrate this, let us look at the idea of
the ‘poison-knower’ in a little more detail as it exists within the Śaivite tantra and Vajrayāna.
The Guhyasamāja Tantra says, ‘Vajrayāna is the constant immutable bliss of the Buddhas
attained through the instrumentality of moha (desire), dvesha (aversion) and rāga
(attachment)’.31 The five kulas of Vajrayāna are represented by the five Dhyāni Buddhas,
who represent the five virtues of the enlightened mind as well as the five vices or sorrows of
samsaric existence. Initiation into a particular kula ideally is not determined by mundane
factors such as the availability of a tāntric sect in an area or the political dominance it enjoys,
nor is it dependent upon the preference of the aspirant or guru. The guru analyzes the
personality of the aspirant and identifies the dominant vice or affliction. On the basis of this,
the kula of the aspirant is determined and he or she is provided an initiation into the mantra
of an appropriate deity of that kula.32
Within the Śaiva tradition, we can turn to the Spandakārikā to ascertain the theory of
desire. It says:

41.The revelation of the Self arises in the person who is now only absolute desire.
May each of us have this experience!
42. Then, may light, sound, form, and taste come and impede the person who is still
tied to the ego.
43. When the tantrika pervades everything with his absolute desire, what use are
words? He has this experience on his own.
44. May the tantrika remain present, his senses vigilantly sown in reality, and may he
know stability.
45. The person who is deprived of his power by the dark forces of limited activity
becomes the plaything of the energy of sounds…
48. The energy of the sacred tremor that passes through the vulgar person enslaves
him, whereas the same energy liberates the person who is on the path.

Tomy Augustine, Yoga Tantra, Theory And Praxis in Light of the Hevajra Tantra: A Metaphysical
Perspective, Delhi: Sri Satguru, 2008, 63.
For a detailed discussion, please refer to chapter 3-4 of Giuseppe Tucci, The Theory and Practice of the
Mandala, New Delhi: New Age, 2013.
49, 50. The subtle body itself is an obstacle that is tied to limited intelligence and to
the ego. The enslaved person has experiences that are tied to his beliefs and to the
idea that he has of his body, and in this very way perpetuates the tie.33

Here, clearly a positive role is ascribed to absolute desire, which is identified as liberating,
whereas a negative role is ascribed to limited desire, which is seen as manifesting the
phenomenal world of saṃsāra. As long as one is in limited desire, it makes sense to think of
the undesirable. Once desire is absolute it is not possible to conceive of the good-bad, pure-
impure binaries. Verses 48-50 bring us to another important concept fundamental to both
Buddhist and Śaivite tantra : the idea of the Trikāyā. Both the traditions describe reality to be
tri-faceted. There is the material realm and on the other extreme there is the realm of pure
consciousness; mediating between these two is the symbolic realm or the realm of thought.
Pure consciousness constantly transforms into mentation and extends outwards from the
mental body to create the subject-object contact. These are known as parā (pure
consciousness), aparā (materiality) and parāparā (mediating the two, thought).
Corresponding to them are the three levels or modes of tantric practice which are āṇavopāya
(external or bodily), śāktopāya (energetic/ mental or mantric) and finally śāmbavopāya (pure
will or consciousness).34 In Vajrayāna this division is named the triad of nirmaṇkāya,
sambhogakāya and dharmakāya.35 Also both traditions speak of a fourth stage which is
effortless and beyond method called sahajakāya by the Buddhists and Anupāya by the
We would do well to remember Dyczkowski’s views on the matter. He says:

The three categories of practice can be distinguished in this way because they are
each related to different phases in the cognitive cycle. Each act of perception starts
with a different intuition of objectivity in its most generic form through the initial
awareness the subject has of himself. He then defines his specific object by dividing it
off from all the others to analyse it part by part through a series of mental
representations of a discursive order confined to the object previously determined by
the subject’s direct intuitive awareness. This intuition, independent of thought and
objectivity and hence of all gradations (tāratmya), is the form of the awareness of the
yogi who practices the Divine means (śāmbhavopāya) exercises. It is the
consciousness of the subject free of all thought-constructs (avikalpa), comparable to
the initial certainty we have that two and two equals four without need of further
analysis. Practicing the Empowered Means (śāktopāya) the yogi links together the
discrete parts with the whole, that is, himself as the subject with his object, through
the flux of the means of knowledge (pramāṇa) which flows between them. It is like
adding two and two together. The Individual Means (āṇavopāya) deals with the
diversity and relative distinctions between particulars. It is like counting one to four
to arrive at the answer we intuited originally. Thus although the means are diverse and
correspond to different levels consciousness, this does not affect their ultimate goal.
By practicing any one of these means we can achieve both liberation and all the yogic
powers (siddhi) which issue from the perfection of practice.36

Yoga Spandakarika, trans. Daniel Odier, Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2005, 11-13.
Refer to Mark Dyczkowski, The Doctrine of Vibration, New Delhi: Divine Books, 1987, for a detailed
Augustine, Yoga Tantra.
Mark Dyczkowski, The Doctrine of Vibration, , 174
The reason why we can talk about the classificatory formulation as a universal tantric feature
across sects and cults is because, as Dyczkowski says, they are related to different phases of
the cognitive cycle, hence universally applicable to the human species. While all the means
can lead to the absolute, different means have different levels and speeds of efficacy. So
while the āṇavopāya unfolds sequentially in krama, and śāktopāya unfolds sequentially and
non-sequentially, śāmbhavopāya unfolds pretty much in a non-successive manner.37 While
we are practicing the divine means, we are focusing on those aspects of the absolute that
remain operational and unchanging not just in the perfect state of parā, but also on the levels
of parāparā and aparā.
The idea stated in verses 48-50 of the Spandakārikā, quoted earlier, acknowledges the
subtle body or the body of thought/mentation but identifies it as another contingent
achievement which will have to be transcended in order to achieve the absolute. Within the
tāntric ritual the various nerves or nāḍīs are meditatively understood to be connected with the
mentational equipment (mind, intellect and ego etc. and the five tanmātrās, five senses of
cognition five sense of action) through the letters of the alphabet. At the end of the ritual one
apprehends the body of mentation in its entirety. This allows the practitioner to de-identify
with the limited and limiting subtle body and identify with the absolute pure consciousness.
Once this happens, one is not relying on limited methods any more. After this point it does
not make any sense to talk of doctrinal differences. Rather it can be said that the practitioner
then recedes to the source of all traditions.
It would be pertinent at this point to identify that we are dealing with the question of
tāntric praxis. How is the textual world of tāntrism, dealing with philosophy and ritual
procedure, related to the world of tāntric practice dealing with nāḍīs, chakras, visualizations,
visions and samādhis? How is the ritual particularity of Sanderson’s description related to the
transcendent inhabitation of the present described by Sferra? The logic by which a ritual is
composed is guided by the meditative revelation of pure consciousness. This revelation
occurs at various speeds and stages for people of differing propensities. The revelation itself
in its entirety is of the universal human mind-body-consciousness complex. It moves from
the conscious human mind to the unconscious human mind, spanning it in its entirety; it then
moves on to the universal mind to pure consciousness. Thus the tāntric ‘with his senses
firmly grounded in reality’ spans the entire spectrum of the sensible. Experiencing every
permutation of reflective awareness that is possible simultaneously, the tāntrika becomes at
one with the absolute.
The Spandakārikā says:

19. The whole palette of the different kinds of sacred tremoring finds its source in the
universal sacred tremor of consciousness, and in this way reaches the person. How
could such a tremoring limit the tantrika?...
26, 27. Mantras, when they are charged with the power of the sacred tremor,
accomplish their function through the senses of the awakened person. They become
united with the mind of the tantrika, who penetrates the nature of Shiva/Shakti.38

To re-iterate, liberatory insight in non-dual Buddhist and Śaivite tāntric systems arises from
the resolution of the subject-object duality. The creative energy of the absolute limits itself in
varying degrees, creating multiple limited subjectivities that appear independent. However,
even though limited entities appear independent, they are not separate from the absolute. The
absolute inheres in them and they inhere in the absolute. When the tāntrika moves from
limited desire to absolute desire, they are moving from a limited subjectivity to the fullness
Ibid, 176
Spandakarika, Odier, 8-9.
of the union of sunya and karuṇā or Śiva and Śakti. As long as one’s subjectivity is limited,
one’s psyche is open to being seized by limited intelligences. This would manifest in
immoral behavior such as greed, lust, wrath etc. The Spandakārikā offers us not just an
explanation of ritual but also a critique of it. Particularly it makes a point about tāntric ethics,
and the consequences of using ritual or mantra for egoistical or altruistic purposes. The same
warning is repeated in nine of the fifty-two ślokas that comprise this short treatise.39
Trikā masters, as I have said before, maintained a studied distance from royal patronage,
unlike the masters of the Śaiva siddhānta. Thus the critique of ritual must be seen as a
political point as well. Even if ritual is used, one must not identify one’s subjectivity with any
limited aspect of the physical or the subtle mental body. The methods of śāmbhavopāya
transcend the need for any ritual. Instead, as we see in the Dzongchen school of Tibetan
Buddhism or in a Śaiva text like Vijñānabhairava, any action of everyday life can be
meditatively approached. This was particularly true of all biologically universal actions such
as breathing or experiencing emotions or utilizing the sensory and mental apparatus or even
sexual intercourse. However each subjective desire or impulse is traced back to the universal
will from where it originated.
At this point I would return the discussion to the question raised earlier regarding the
interrelation between pure consciousness and tantric ritual carried out externally and/or
internally to pure consciousness. Some light can be shed on the matter if we look at Giuseppe
Tucci’s work The Theory and Practice of the Maṇḍala: With Special Reference to the
Modern Psychology of the Unconscious.40 Tucci calls the maṇḍala a psycho-cosmo-gram.
The mandala is a map of the corresponding microcosmic and macrocosmic universes.
However it not an objective map, it is a subjective map. Discussing Tucci, Tomy Augustine

The maṇḍala is not an arbitrary construction but a presentation of personal intuitions

coloured by cosmological conceptions in an appropriate paradigm. Tucci states, ‘By
an almost innate power the human spirit translates into visual terms the eternal
contrast between the essential luminosity of its consciousness and the forces which
obscure it.’ Jung saw in it the play of a mysterious intrinsic necessity of the human
spirit, which induces within the adept visions and apparitions, of which the maṇḍala
is but a symbolic representation. The maṇḍala is born of those interior impulses, of
archaic motifs or patterns of the ‘unconscious mind’, which also serve as the source
of dreams, fantasies and psychoses and even mythological motifs. It becomes a
psychic tool that forces governing existence into a form, which can be visualized by
the sādhaka and then to reverse the same energy in process of reintegration. It serves
as an external instrument to provoke and procure such visions in quiet concentration
and meditation. It is by concentrating his mind upon these visions delineated in the
mandala that the sādhaka rediscovers the way to reach his secret reality.41

Thus the imagery of the mandala is visionary content emerging from the interiority of the
guru and imaginatively recalled by the śiśya in order to achieve the same altered state of
consciousness the guru experienced. However the mandala is suitably modified to suit the
psychic particularities of the aspirant. Tucci says:

Spandakarika, Odier, shlokas 20, 35, 42, 45-50.
Giuseppe Tucci, The Theory and Practice of the Mandala: With Special Reference to the Modern
Psychology of the Unconscious, trans. Alan Houghton Brodrick, New Delhi: New Age, 2013.
Augustine, Yoga-Tantra, 258.
Nevertheless, when these forces had to be visualized and represented in the form of
deities, the meditator could not escape from the mysterious impulses of his own
subconsciousness. During his absorption in meditation, there could break through and
take shape in these images, from the depths of his psyche, recollections which had
been temporarily lulled, traces of which he was no longer aware and left by
encounters that went unheeded, unforeseen digressions, instincts which had been
repressed. This, indeed, does happen and it explains the great number of methods for
realization of the particular truths into which different Tantras plunge deeply. There is
hardly any great Master who has not composed sādhanas (here: ways or methods of
how to visualize a deity); who has not, that is, recorded in writing, the visions which
appeared to his spirit during the time of spiritual concentration. From the mere fact
that these had appeared to him, that they materialized, he rightly considered them to
be real. They had assumed forms, they were no longer jostled about, obscure, in the
depths of his subconscious; a new possibility of incorporation of the subconscious
had taken shape and it was necessary to make a careful note of it, since in others these
same visions might be repeated.42

So we can say that while tāntric ritual facilitates the re-integration of the self, it is an indirect
or mediated route if compared with the ‘divine means’. To illustrate this point, we can turn to
the Vijñānabhairava. In verses 1- 6, the goddess Bhairavi questions Bhairava. She says that
even after studying the the Rudrayāmala and Trikā texts she has doubts as to what, from the
point of view of the absolute reality, is the essential nature of Bhairava? Is it the energy of the
letters or the nine forms, or does it consist of specific mantras or any of the three Śaktis, or is
it any of the manifestations of the subtle body such as bindu, ardhachandra, nāda, nirodhika
etc? Or is it prāna, the energy in the chakras? To this, Bhairava replies in sutras 7-17 that his
true essence is not anything in sakalā creation. Sakalā is anything with a limited form or
nature. The truth of Bhairava is nishkalā, beyond any limited formal definition or origin.
Certain sakalā aspects are taught to those who are not rooted in nishkalā consciousness to
enable them to reach the true essence. Thus it is out of the reach of any utterable consonants
or vowels. 43
The non-dual tantras do not reject the previous paths as false, but merely as limited
aspects of the absolute wrongly apprehended as the absolute itself. They do not reject the
Vedic identification of bindu as Brahman, or the samādhis of the dualistic tantras outright,
but rather they assimilate and transcend them. They explore the spectrum of consciousness
further until all kalās or creative self-limitations of Shakti vanish and pure absolute
consciousness is recognized.
To conclude this section, we have thus far seen that rather than ritual being central to
tantra, it is a spontaneous inhabitation of pure consciousness that is at the core of the tāntric
systems. Ritual is derived from the insights into the nature of the subtle body accessed during
experiences of samādhi. Also that tantra is not a closed system constantly harking back to
some past textual revelation but instead is open to reformulation of the structure of the ritual
depending upon the insight achieved by the practitioner regarding their own psychological

Love transcending ritual: Tantra and the Bāuls

The discussion regarding the tripartite division of method was intended to illuminate the
dynamic between the ritualistic and anti-ritualistic aspects of tantra in terms of the logic of
sādhana. Defining tantra as ritual not only limits our understanding of tāntric method and
Tucci, Mandala, 74-75.
Jaideva Singh; Vijnanabhairava, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979), 1-14.
the states of consciousness achievable through them, it also leads to the erasure of the
histories of tāntric practice in the subaltern groups of Indian caste society.
Instead of defining tantra in terms of lineages of sectarian ritual because that is the only
thing the surety of material remains allows us to do, what if we chose a different
organizational logic? What if we put in the center of our analysis the mental and supra-
mental states that tantric meditations produce? This would make some sense as the entire
purpose of the discipline of tantra is to produce these ‘religious experiences’ or samādhi
experiences and thereby achieve the progressive annihilation of the subject-object duality
inherent in the psychic make-up of the aspirant/sādhaka. It is worth mentioning that certain
strains of thought in current neuroscience also tend towards a non-dualistic model of
consciousness. Such ideas are theoretically consonant with tāntric ideas of consciousness,
however this is an avenue that is just opening up and requires a greater cooperation between
neuroscientists, scholars of tantric theory and tantric meditators.
We may now return to our discussion of the Bāuls with this context in mind. In this
section I shall argue that the three divisions of method in classical (read: textual) non-
dualistic tantra can also be identified distinctly within the Bāul tradition. Particularly I shall
attempt to cull out the tantric practices of śāmbhavopāya within the Bāul tradition. For most
part the evidence we shall consider for this discussion are Bāul songs.
Defining the Bāuls is a tricky affair because they present themselves socially as a group
not believing in any icons or markers of religious, caste or communal identity. Previously I
said they were popularly considered a non-tāntric and non-Vedic sect. But this is possibly a
mistaken notion arising from the fact that the ritual component in Bāul practice is extremely
minimal. I also said that Bāul songs are a key component of Bāul identity. It is not so much
the singing of these songs but the interpreting of them in the light of the human body-mind
complex and being able to carry out the meditations encoded within, that qualifies one as a
Bāul practitioner. The songs themselves are enigmatic, utilizing puns, riddles and all manner
of verbal jugglery to create and hide multiple levels of meanings. One of the major functions
of the song is to encode sādhanas and pass them on. However, often the same song might
utilize technical terminology from more than one tradition. Fakir Lālon Shah was a
particularly befuddling exponent of this art. He could move with consummate ease in the
same song from Vaiśṇavism to sahajiyā to Islamic mysticism. Also, Bāul songs provide a
very vocal, logical materialistic critique of institutionalized religion, ascetic as well as
Brahmanic; and perhaps of patriarchy itself. They chide their listeners for being silly enough
to be fooled by the doll-play of rituals and other Hindu and Islamic superstitions. In the final
count only that which is verifiable through direct experience is considered valid. This is the
Bāul idea of bartamān or that which is present (in time or to the senses), which shall be
discussed in more detail later.
Like the carjā songs before them, Bāul songs dress up their message in the visual and
poetic metaphors of a rural, agrarian river delta civilization. Unlike the metaphors of high
textual tantra, which are arcane or mythological; Bāul metaphors are very mundane and
everyday. Bāul metaphors are made up of images of river crossings, boats and boatmen, of
date palms and toddy tapping, of marketplaces, buying and selling, of farming, of managing
money, of birds, tigers, fish and snakes. Endless variation is possible, all for the purpose of
hiding the practice in a form accessible to anyone who truly thinks about them and practices
them. Such a compositional strategy makes the songs, and by extension their teachings,
accessible to the commoners. Bāul gurus are mostly patronized by small farmers and may
themselves be farmers. Widows, the lower castes and anyone generally disaffected by
Brahmanical patriarchy would invariably gravitate toward the Bāul s. A Bāul guru also
equally initiates Hindus as well as Muslims. Equivalent practices may be given to two people
one dressed in a Hindu metaphor and the other in an Islamic metaphor. Women are
considered as equal if not superior and active participants in spiritual practice. The most
popularly known form of Bāul sādhana is conjugal. For them perfection in the spiritual path
arrives from perfection in love.
Unlike the carjā pada which are mostly written from the perspective of the
siddha/mahāsiddha, Bāul songs have detailed discussions on the possibility, causes and
symptoms of failure. There is a whole sub-genre of songs that give warnings to aspirants and
sādhakas of the various dangers that await one on the path and advice to tackle them. This is
particularly important in the context of Bāul conjugal practice, as the songs discuss the ethics
and practice of love in detail, since of course failure in love endangers the entire practice.
The songs are generally performed at any site where there is a public gathering, at any time
or location. However, it is in the melā that they may be heard in their original contexts.
‘Melā’ simply meets meeting or gathering, these are annual events generally of two types.
The melā proper is a large gathering numbering often several hundred thousand attendees,
such as the Joidev melā held at the village of Kenduli in Birbhum. These melās are visited by
all Bāul and Fakir lineages of Bengal. The other type is the anuśthān also called a sādhu sevā
or a guru sevā. These are smaller annual meets where an entire Bāul lineage with all its
living initiates meets. Hosted alternately by the śishyas and the guru, they take place mostly
after the rice crop is harvested. Moving from anuśthān to anuśthān, a Bāul can spend as
much as half a year travelling the countryside. This often gives rise to popular
misconceptions, for instance that the Bāuls are mendicants and live entirely under trees.
Mendicancy as such is an optional feature of the Bāul tradition.
Thus it can be said that the Bāul songs provide access to spiritual logic and practices to a
demographic that had been dispossessed by both the Brahmanical caste society and
seemingly radical lineages of high tantra. In particular women, the low caste or the landless
are attracted to Bāul practices and teachers.
All spiritual benefits aside, one main pragmatic reason for the popularity of Bāul
practices among the poor was that it offered a coherent system of sex education and family
planning to the economically disaffected. The sexo-yogic practices taught by Bāul s allow
couples to select the time of conception or avoid pregnancy altogether through non-
ejaculatory orgasms. In a world where the entire logic of patriarchy and the caste system
functions through reproductive heteronormativity, the simple power to avoid pregnancy is a
revolutionary tool.
Here we see another instance of religious studies falling into the trap of the three biases
mentioned earlier. Mallinson argues, relying on late Gorakhpanthi texts and ascetic
informants, that seminal retention in Indic traditions is a myth. He talks instead about the
yogi reabsorbing the sexual fluids after they have been emitted by collecting them in a vessel
and inserting a silver pipe into the penis.44 However, from the context of Mallinson’s fact-
gathering it is clear that the process described by him is a false vajroīi meant for fallen
ascetics. While it is true that the Bāuls may collect combined sexual fluids for consumption,
no self-respecting Bāul or indeed tantric would shove metal pipes into their genitals, silver
or gold notwithstanding. In the strict sense, an ascetic path should not by definition have
sexual practices, nor the consumption of meat and alcohol. If a path is found to tolerate such
practices then clearly there is a self-contradiction. Sutra 111 of the Rudrayamala says, ‘such
are apprehended by the horrendous agents of death; who while in the ascetic vows of
renunciation practice Mahayoga’.45 In high tantra, these self-contradictions are managed

James Mallinson, ‘Yoga and Sex: What is the Purpose of Vajrolimudra?’
%C4%81>, accessed 8/6/2016.
Rudrayamalam, trans. & ed. Sudhakar Malviya, New Delhi: Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, 2010, reprint,
through ritual gymnastics and by policing the initiatory hierarchies.46 This is the point where
the appropriation of the tantric technologies by the Brahmanical or ascetic groups has to be
problematized. As long as they are clinging either to the idea of caste or to the idea of
rejective renunciation, they cannot achieve the ultimate tantric siddhi, which is nirvana in
samsara. Thus, with one foot in the boat of tantra and another foot either in the boat of the
caste order or renunciation; these sects achieving minor siddhis are enamored and trapped by
the various subtle and supra-natural manifestations of their mind’s power. As a result, the
political history they leave behind is not one of ideological struggle and emancipation as we
would find in the case of Kabir or Lalon or any of the mahāsiddhas. Instead the part-time
tāntrics leave behind histories of political conflict and of patriarchal control of women.
Sexuality cannot be repressed or overcome absolutely. It can only be temporarily
controlled. This is because human sexuality is also a material expression of the creative
power of the absolute. Fakir Lālon famously comments somewhere ‘He who (the ascetic)
leaves woman and goes to the jungle (as renunciation, for isolation); doesn’t he get sleep
emissions there?’ The point, though crude, is not ill-made. The question of whether sleep
emission constituted a breach of ascetic vows or not is one that has been debated even in the
earliest texts of the great Jain and Buddhist sanghas. That the ascetic is plagued by desire in
sleep, shows that his method is inadequate. While Mallinson is looking for some forceful
method to curtail ejaculation, the Bāul method is not forceful but easy and spontaneous.
Instead of forcefully controlling or restraining human sexuality, they temper limited,
individual sexual desire until it turns into selfless love. Limited individual sexuality is then
resolved back into unlimited divine sexuality.
I shall not deal with the particularities of Bāul sexual sādhana here, for that discussion
has already been done by Openshaw and others. I will however talk about the theoretical
foundations of Bāul practices. My aim shall be to identify the three levels of tāntric practice
that were discussed in an earlier section, within the Bāul tradition. As I mentioned before
Openshaw and Dasgupta are my major academic sources for this discussion. Let us now look
at how Openshaw defines Bāul. Regarding a previous debate between Upendranath
Bhattacarya and Kshitimohan Sen, on identifying distinct features of the Bāuls, she says

While Bhattacarya, in the course of his refutation of K. Sen and elsewhere, suggests that
Bāuls are characterized by practices with a female partner and those using the ‘four
moons’ (cār-candra bhed) he tends not to define them with these characteristics. One
reason for this is that, by his own account, not all Bāuls do ‘four-moons’ practices, nor do
Bāuls at all stages practice with a female partner. Moreover, it is not only Bāuls who
carry out these practices. In order to define Bāuls, Bhattacarya resorts to the usual
practice of the selection of themes, literally ‘the materials of Bāul harma’, drawn directly
from songs. The five he selects are:

(i) Antinomianism: literally, ‘a spiritual path which contravenes or lies outside

authorized scripture (Hindu and Muslim)’ (bed-bahirbhūt dharma).
(ii) The doctrine of (the primacy of) the guru (gurubād).
(iii) The value of the physical human body- the doctrine of the universe and the
receptacle (body), (sthūl mānab deher gaurab—bhāṇḍa-brahmāṇḍa). The usual
aphorism associated with it runs: ‘Whatever is in the universe is in the receptacle of
the body’ (Jā āche brahmāṇḍe. Tāi āche ei deha bhāṇḍe).

The sale of posts of offices, and spiritual titles such as Mahamandaleshwar is a corruption that can be seen in
the social presence of these ‘ascetic-tantric’ cults. Several questionable high profile cases have recently been in
raised in the Indian media. <
bhavanta-have-no-right-to-take-royal-bath-in-nashik-kumbh-mela-2111634> accessed 6/6/2016.
(iv)The person of the mind/heart (maner mānuṣ)
(v) The truth concerning form and essence (rūp-svarūp tattva). The central notion
here is that the physical body (rūp) of each man and woman is is identifiable with his
or her essence (svarūp), usually equated with Krsna and Radha respectively. In
esoteric ‘sexo-yogic’ practice, the supreme joy of the union of the divine lovers is

Thus while the sexual theme is very prominent in Bāul songs and practice, it would be a
mistake to identify it simply as a system of sacred sexuality involving seminal retention.
While there is a primacy of the guru as the provider of initiations and practical knowledge of
sādhana, the tradition upon closer inspection makes a distinction between a ‘mānab-guru’
and ‘guru-tattva’. The ‘mānab guru’ is the physical human being who grants initiations and
gives teachings. The ‘guru-tattva’ is the state of pure consciousness that the mānab-guru
resides un-interruptedly in, if he or she is truly a mānab-guru. This guru-tattva is universal
consciousness that impels and compels every movement of mind and matter. By achieving a
state of pure love this ‘guru-tattva’ may be recognized which is why male Bāul practitioners
may refer to their female partners as ‘strī-guru’ , ‘rāger-guru’, ‘premer-guru’, ‘nabi’ etc48.
The tradition celebrates nine pairs of lovers, Chandidas- Rami, Bilvamangal-Chintamani etc,
as sādhakas who achieved perfection just through love and without the interference of a
mānab-guru49. Thus while the Bāul tradition requires the three initiations of dīkṣa, śikṣa and
sannyās (taken conjugally), the epitome of the tradition is when none of these initiations is
required. It is a state where perfection or truth dawns spontaneously. This truth is
spontaneously self-arising, thus called sahaja (meaning simple, spontaneous but also subtle).
All manifest phenomena at every moment find their source in it, thus it is called bartamān
(the present). Some Bāul songs will make fun of mantric initiations, chanting mantras while
others will venerate the ‘nām’ or the names of deities as handy and universally accessible
tools. Initiation, guru and mantra are to be rejected if they are not grounded in the sahaja.
However if they are grounded in sahaja then they are accepted and utilized by the sādhaka.
The sahaja, as understood by the Bāuls, is consonant with the ‘spontaneous inhabitation
of the present’ that Sferra talks about in response to Sanderson. Shashibushan Dasgupta’s
Obscure Religious Cults, despite its problematic title, is an insightful work. Not only does he
trace the evolution of sahajiyā from its Buddhist tantric roots and connects them up with the
Bāuls, but he extends his argument beyond the confines of Bengal. He argues that in so far as
they shunned ritual and considered absolute reality to be transcendent and immanent, the
Sant tradition of North India, including figures such as Kabir and the Sikh Gurus, could be
called sahajiya50.

Bartamān and anumān: the religion of the human

Despite the multiplicity of means and lineages, there are two pairs of intersecting binary
oppositions central to the Bāul tradition. The first is the opposition of kām (limited, egoistic
desire) and prem (love). The theory of love or prem is also called ‘manush-vaad’ or ‘manush-
dharma’. The second is the Bāul theory of knowledge focused on the difference between
‘bartaman’ (present to experience)and ‘anumān’ (inference or conjecture). Both sets of
binary oppositions are employed not just to formulate their own meditative praxis but also to
critique the position of the Brahmin householder, the ascetic and the tantric ritualist alike.

Openshaw; Seeking Bāuls, 60-61.
Ibid., 147.
Ibid., 128.
Shashibhushan Dasgupta, Obscure Religious Cults, Kolkata: Firma KLM Pvt. Ltd., 1976, 164-167
Let us start with the idea of bartamān and anumān. While the main schools of Indian
philosophy admit perception, inference and scriptural or authoritative verbal testimony as
valid means of knowledge; the Bāul tradition rejects all of them outright except perception.
The absolute truth of pure consciousness is experiential and thus cannot be scriptural or
inferential. Inference, testimony and scripture all can mislead and hence are dismissed as
anumān or guesswork.51 Anumān is a statement the truth of which is not certain. However it
is impossible to not believe what one has seen with one’s eyes or touched with the hand.
There are two levels of awareness at which the theory of bartamān works out. First is the
level of jīb where our subjectivity identifies with the sensory apparatus and senses move out
towards the object. The tongue tastes and yet we say ‘I taste’, thus the subjectivity has been
harnessed to the outward impulses of the senses. In this state we apprehend limited
conditional truths through limited conditioned subjectivity. So a Bāul does not believe in
gods and goddesses, demons or fairies, because they do not exist in the phenomenal world. A
Bāul also does not believe in conventional social institutions like caste or communal
differences because a Bāul’s senses tell him that all human beings are pretty much the same
and there is no empirical argument why certain castes are untouchable. This level of the Bāul
critique of institutional religion overlaps a great deal with the modern rationalist critique. In
fact at this level of argumentation the Bāul is using what methodologically we can call
scientific materialism.
The second level is what Bāul practice is concerned with, the level of Śib, where the
interaction between object and the senses is utilized to trace the origination of all sensory or
mental activity in consciousness. Pratyakṣha includes ‘laukika’ or sensory and ‘alaukika’ or
extraordinary perception.52 By extraordinary perception we here mean the entire possible
spectrum of perception, particularly those sections which are not accessible in normal waking
state of consciousness.
At the level of jīb, when the subject-object interaction happens, it is mediated by the
senses and discriminatory intelligence, but this mediation is usually hidden. As a result of this
mediation, the senses take a determinative role in the subject-object encounter. However at
the level of Śib (or mānush), the senses and discriminative intelligence both become objects
of perception as much as the limited object ‘out there’. Once the mentational instrument is
apprehended as an object of perception, its origins are traced back by the Bāul sadhaka to
pure consciousness. The idea of searching for the ‘moner manush’ (the person of the heart) is
the identification of the pure subjectivity that lies behind the abilities of the senses.
According to the Bāuls this subjectivity (ātmā) is a thing (bastu), a substance.53 Not a gross
thing but something subtle and resonant. Another metaphor for the ‘moner mānush’ is thus
the ‘ochīn pākhi’ or the unknown bird. Since the Bāul is tracing the prānic energies back to
their sources, the pulsating movements of which feel like the flapping of wings, the metaphor
of a bird is used. The metaphor is as tactile as it is visual.
Openshaw mentions that Bāul sādhanas are methodologically divided into three parts
bastu (substance), bākya (speech) and bāyu (air). The level of bāyu deals with the energy
inherent in the senses, the level of bākya identifies the energies of mentation and the level of
bastu is pure consciousness. 54 However while all three are parts of Bāul sādhana, the Bāul’s
final aim is bastu. Bastu here is pure consciousness much akin to the ‘sāmānyaspanda’ of
Spandakarika. While some scholars argue that bastu in the Bāul tradition refers to semen, the
truth of the matter is that the word bastu in certain conditioned contexts may refer to semen,
but is always referring to pure consciousness.

Openshaw; Seeking Bāuls, 192.
Ibid, 192.
Ibid, 189.
Ibid; Pg 204
The other operative binary opposition within the Bāul tradition is that of kām and prem or
desire and love. Kām is limited or egoistic desire, it includes any action committed for self-
gratification. It includes but is not limited to the idea of sexual desire. Since limited egoity
operates at this level, the personality is constantly seized by momentary desires and afflicted
by various worldly sorrows. In this state the being is fixated by the desire to segregate the
self and the other and hence this is where all violence (of race, class, gender or caste) is
conceived. As such it is the default state of the jīb (limited individual soul), where the human
being is the plaything of the limited energies of the senses. Prem is the opposite, it is action
done for the gratification of the other and not the self. Prem is self-less desire, prem itself is
mānush dharma. Here the limited energies of the senses have merged into the main stream of
consciousness that animates the mind.
The theory of love is further elaborated to present a critique of householder, ascetic and
patriarchal tantric sexuality. Here three attitudes corresponding to three states are described.
At the stage of jīb (the animal or the householder), one is subject to cycles of life and death
(ṭal: lit. moveable) and hence sexual emission is natural. The level of īśhvar refers to the state
of nirvāṇa as defined against saṃsāra, as such one has forcibly removed oneself from the
cycle of birth and death (aṭal: lit. immovable). Aṭal sādhana may refer to the ascetic method
which completely denies any desire, or it may refer to tantric sexuality where seminal
retention is forcibly done through controlling the breath etc. It can also refer to sādhana done
with a female partner in a controlling or exploitative manner55.
Tantric initiatory manuals often refer to the guru producing girls during the initiatory
ceremony and giving them to the initiate. While the texts are very specific about the physical
description of the required features of beauty, the texts are ambiguous at best as to where
these girls were coming from and how much agency they had in the entire situation.
Bāuls are uncomfortable with any spiritual achievement through these means because the
ritual would be done for the self and not the other. Instead they aim for the state of mānush
which is nirvāṇa in saṃsāra. Their attitude to sexuality is sūtal, literally ‘well-moving’, not
motionless and dry but full of the essence of life, simultaneously giving and receiving. This
is the state of prem, where one enters into sexual sādhana not for the self but for the pleasure
of the other. As such the Bāul way is a unique tradition in India where the robes of
renunciation are given to couples. Most renunciant orders are hesitant to accommodate
women, even as celibate nuns, and even when they do, these women initiates are usually
given a lower status.
The Bāul tradition’s rootedness in classical tantra and the advances it has made beyond
its parent are succinctly summed up in this song56 by Duddu Shah, disciple of Fakir Lalon

How does mahānirvaṇ happen?

He who was called Buddha
The one who arose in Licchavi
Five attendant students he had
Sitting on the Bodhi roots,
There Buddha taught Nirvaṇ
What is called as Sunya

What do you understand by the word sunya?

It’s like how the son stays in the father’s body.

Ibid, Pg 158

Private Archive, Collected from Nityananda Ashram, Village Siur, Dist. Birbhum, during Nityananda

mahotsava, Feb 2015

Sunya substance is also like that
The sādhakas of Bastu will know

That Sunya substance is now

Known by the name of rasik dharma
Chandīdas has made the union
By adding the emotions of Rādha and Krishna

These are Buddha’s teaching on Tantra

He was the foremost tāntric master
Duddu says we have been taught this
Through the graces of Lalon Shah Darvesh’

The song very clearly says that the Bāul religion is Buddhist tantrism to which has been
added the theory of love in the metaphor of Rādha and Krishna.
Earlier we spoke of three levels of Bāul practice, that of bastu, bākya and bāyu. These are
three modes which refer to physical control of prāna (bāyu), mental control of prāna through
sounds or symbols (bākya) and the resolution of prānic energies into their source through
pure awareness (bastu). This tripartite formation is further simplified by the Vaiśṇav
sahajiyās. Bhakti in the conjugal context can be of two types. The first is vaidihī bhaktī: or
the methodical, ritual approach to pure love. Here the mānush in not apprehended in one
single stroke but rather is revealed successively over stages. Vaidhīi bhaktī includes ritual
intercourse with breath control as well as more ritualistic methods, such as mantras or
visualizing one’s partner as Radha or Krishna. This is the stage where kām is dominant over
prem but through the cultivation of bhāb (emotion, sentiment, affect), kām is slowly
transformed into prem.
Vaidihī love can be illustrated in the following Lālon song:

How do I do the sādhana

Of pure spontaneous love?
Whenever I try to achieve love
There rise fierce storms in the river of lust

In hopes of finding the jewel of love

I tied fast the banks of the meeting of three rivers
But with just one surge in the river of lust
All my dams came crashing down

What will I say about love?

Lust has become the way leading to love
Love without lust is just so-so
Like a boat that never arrives…

The ultimate guru is the nature of love

Lust is a guru only for oneself
Love without lust, would it reach its conclusion?
Thinks and says Lālon. 57

Thus there is no shaming and rejecting of lust. Rather there is an acceptance and cultivation
of lust within the framework of love. If lust can be made to function within the framework of
love then its qualitative nature changes and it adds vigor to love. We may also note the tone
of lament in the narration of the song. Clearly it is written from the point of view of a
sādhaka who failed at aṭal sādhana. The first verse speaks of a failed hatha-yogic attempt to
restrain ejaculation during intercourse. In the second verse he learns to accept his lust and
move towards love. Established in love in the final verse he says love and lust are not
mutually exclusive opposed principles, but rather love is made of intensified lust.
The second type of bhaktī or love in the Bengali Vaiśṇav context is rāgānurāga. This just
means overwhelming passion. It is a spontaneous and complete loss of the self in the act of
apprehending the other. So much so that there is no self and there is no other. This is the kind
of love that is celebrated in the stories of Bilvamangal-Chintamanī or Chandīdas etc.
Rāgānurāga bhaktī may be said to be described in the following Lālon song:

Blessed is the lover, on this earth

With the force of love drags the moon
From the sky to the depths

Moves elephants through the eye of a needle

Lights lamps without oil
When he follows his strange nature
Moving from here to there

Doesn’t do any mantra japa or any ritual

This pure hearted mad lover
But still to him, our lord god,
Offers constant help

The lover’s beloved is namaz

But without the lord the namaz is baseless
Lālon does the work of a jackal
Renouncing lionhood. 58

This song says ritual tools are useless for the one who has discovered love as a spiritual tool.
Using this tool, that person is forever engrossed in contemplation. The key to success is to
contemplate the object of one’s lust so completely that one’s own lust turns into the partner’s
lust and vice versa. Once the partner’s lust has been assumed the sexual act becomes selfless
and facilitates the birth of true love. But mānush dharma is not merely about forcibly
retaining semen, it is about the fullness of prem.
So while most of the Bāul tradition is made up of discourse around prāṇic control, breath
control, seminal retention, the benefits of consuming bodily fluids, the nature of Rādhā and
Krishna etc; these can be classified as a kind of āṇavopāya or śāktopāya , in so far as these
methods also are based on the physical control of prāṇa or mental control of prāṇa through
symbols. Is there anything akin to the śambhavopāya of the Śaivites or the dzongchen of
Vajrayāna? The answer is yes, a Bāul’s performance in conjugal sādhana is entirely
dependent on his performance in an individual setting. The term moner mānush has two
connotations: one is the physical beloved, while the other is the pure-consciousness at the
base of all subjectivity. Let us see how Lālon talks about it. We already looked at one song,

however we still don’t know what those elephants passing through the eyes of needles mean.
Or the significance of lighting oil-less lamps. In another very famous song of his, Lālon says:

How does the unknown bird

Fly in and out of this cage?

If I could hold on to it
I would put the chains of my mind
On its feet

Eight rooms, nine doors

And in between are cut windows
On top of all of that is the highest room
The palace of mirrors is there. 59

The physical body is measured in the eight rooms, nine doors. The one extra door references
the top of the crown, through these doors the bird of life flies in and out. But then if the eight
rooms are the body then what is the highest room with the palace of mirrors? I believe that
several of Lālon’s mānush or pākhi referencing songs of Lālon can be interpreted as a
śambhavopāya. I would like to illustrate this by utilizing a dhāraṇa from the non-dual Śaiva
text Vijñānabhairava. We have briefly introduced the text before, when we described
Bhairavi questioning Bhairava as to his essential nature. To which Bhairava replied that his
true nature is free of kalā or any limiting conditionality. After this, the first dhārana, he
teaches Bhairavi to actualize that state of Bhairava, is this: ‘Ūrdhve prāṇo, hyadho jivo
visargātmā paroccaret/ Utpattidvitiyasthāne bharaṇād bharitā sthithiḥ.’ This is translated by
Jaideva Singh as follows:

Para devi or the highest Śakti who is of the nature of visarga goes on (ceaselessly)
expressing upward (ūrdhve) (from the center of the body to the dvādaśānta or a
distance of twelve fingers) in the form of exhalation (prāṇa) and downward (adhaḥ)
(from dvādaśānta to the center of the body) in the form of inhalation (jiva or apāna).
By steady fixation of the mind (bharaṇāt) at the two places of their origin (viz.,
centre of the body in case of prāṇa and dvādaśānta in the case of apāna). There is the
situation of plenitude (bharitāstitiḥ which is the state of parāśakti or nature of

So, the nature of the ātmā is visarga, which means emission. It is written as two dots, one on
top of the other (:). The lower dot of the jīva is in the heart or the center of the physical body
and the upper dot is twelve finger breadths above the crown of the head. According to
Dyczkowski’s comment on this śloka, pure consciousness cycles between its limited
individual state and its supreme universal state during each breath. 61 The senses facilitate
apprehension of objects, but themselves lack the subjectivity required to experience. This
limited subjectivity is provided by the pure consciousness which limits itself into the
individual being. To put it in simpler language, what this śloka says is that supreme
consciousness and limited beings are already always entangled with each other. All the
processes of the individual ego, including the physical kundalīnī matrix and the mental body,

Singh; Vijnanabhairava, 19-20.
are activated by descent and ascent of consciousness. If the meditator establishes his/her
awareness in this ascent and descent between these two points then one becomes full of the
plenitude of Bhairava’s parā-śakti. Identified with her, one merges into Bhairava.
Now if we take this understanding of the relationship of breath and consciousness and we
return to Lālon’s songs, we get interesting results. The two points of the visarga are the flight
path of the unknown bird, the ‘highest room’ is the dvādaśānta, the palace of mirrors is the
subtle body of mentation comprising paranormal realisations of bindu, nirodhika, nada etc .
When speaking of the mad lover whom he says ‘makes elephants run through the eye of the
needle, lights lamps without oil…’ he is talking about following the flow of energy
resonances upwards through the brahmarandhra (the crown of the head) which is the eye of
the needle. Following this makes the subtle body manifest, what was in the previous song the
palace of mirrors; here is the lamp that burns without oil.
In yet another song he says,

Near my home is the city of mirrors,

There lives a neighbor.
I have not seen him till today

What do I say about that neighbor?

He doesn’t have any hands, shoulders or head
Sometimes he lives on top of the void
Sometimes he lives in water. 62

Lālon says ‘near my home’, which means he is not talking about a meditative point within
the body. The neighbor that lives there is pure consciousness, mānush. He doesn’t have any
appendages because he is above the body. However in one instant he is in the void (above the
head) and in another in water, that is, within the body. ‘He and Lālon live in the same place,
yet are thousands of miles apart’. In yet another song he says ‘you don’t know what is near
your hand, what will you do going searching in Delhi and Lahore?’. The distance between
the brahmarandhra and the dvādaśānta is twelve fingerbreadths, which is also the length of
the forearm. Lālon is literally saying that pure consciousness is at a one hand distance. As in
Egypt, the length of the forearm is a unit of measure in rural Bengal, also called ‘hāth’ or
hand. Lālon is thus punning on the meanings of the word. The would-be sādhaka does not
know what is ‘near to hand’ and also ‘a hand’s breadth away’. From here on hundreds of
associations open up in Lālon’s songs. The point is not whether a historical link or genealogy
can be traced to Kashmiri non-dual Śaiva tantras, although it can be argued that the 84
mahāsiddha tradition played a formative role in both Trika Śaivism and Vajrayāna in Tibet as
well as the sahajiyā- bartamān-panthī tradition in Bengal. The point really is, if we bring the
logic of śambhavopaya to Lālon’s riddles then we get reasonably logical solutions to those
riddles. In so far as they can be said to divide reality into the three levels of materiality,
mentation and consciousness and also in so far as their liberatory methods derive from this
tripartite division, Śaivism, Vajrayāna and Bāul are consonant. However, the Bāul tradition
offers us a critique of high tantra’s patriarchal and obscurantist tendencies. It presents the
theory of love and conjugal initiations as a way whereby women may be accorded equal or
superior status within the spiritual community. As such these methods also potentially allow
couples and women in particular to reclaim their bodies and minds from the biopolitical grip
of caste-patriarchy. Apart from this there is the obvious historical value of studying a
tradition like the Bāul because it allows us to study a living sociological complex where
tantra is not exclusively Vaiśṇav or Śaiva etc. Here it is many things at once; sometimes in
the Bāul tradition tantra is even Islamic. This may give us a small and somewhat blurry
glimpse of how the mahāsiddha tradition might have functioned within its original historical

In sum, I would state that the links and contrasts between Bāul culture and mainstream
tantra have not been adequately explored. Furthermore, what I have tried to show in this
paper is that the definitions and assumptions inherent in much of present-day tantric studies
tend to exclude a demotic, practice-based tradition like the Bāuls, and thereby impoverish the
discourse. This lacuna is due to the three biases, of caste, colonialism and enlightenment
materialism, which are still throwing their long shadows over the discipline. In contrast to the
materialism of post-Enlightenment Europe, I have attempted to show that the Bāuls too have
their own theory of the senses and the material world which stem from a radical skeptic
position found in other tāntric traditions but uniquely applied by them. Their downgrading of
textual authority and their privileging of life as it is lived from moment to moment has not,
however, led the Bāuls to fall into the trap of naïve realism, since they temper this insight
with an equally well-grounded statement of the primacy and power of pure consciousness.
What makes the Bāul / bartamān-panthī theory of perception superior to naïve or scientific
materialism is that it accounts for the mediatory role of the senses in the subject object
interaction. Bāul sādhana enables a meta-perception that includes the senses and
discriminative awareness as its objects of perception.
In its strong empirical stance and its skepticism towards received ideas of society and
identity, the Bāul tradition has a great deal to offer the modern world. Sanderson’s lament
that the ‘modern employee’ cannot have time for tantric ritualism is belied by the Bāuls, who
formulate their sādhanas in such a way that they are already a part of the initiate’s life. In
particular, the inclusiveness and approachability of the Bāul philosophy set it apart from
other ‘high’ tantras and open up possibilities of real social transformation for its followers
and initiates. To show that the Bāuls also have a sophisticated metaphysics along with a
humane and gentle ethics, I would like to end my discussion with one last song by
Nilokontho, called ‘Momo Sukhodoy’:

The arising of my joy

The day it arises
Will be the day when the (groups of ) mothers will (co-)arise
This world (/household) will all be essenceless/ dead
Becoming formless (indistinguishable) like water flowing into water

Saraswati will be wronged by the vedas

Kamala (Laxmi) will eat inedible substances
The Eternal will lose his life
And the kind woman will become hard-hearted

The day that the wind will be stopped from moving

Snakes that day will rise up and bite eagles
Moths that day will destroy elephants
And the jackal would be feared like the lion

The moon’s rays will be un-soothing (warm)

Brahma will die in the fire (instead of being fed by it)
Varun, (the god of fluids) will drown in water
The lord of Dharma will be an accumulator of sin

Lightning will strike and destroy the holy city of Kashi

Sadhus will get aggravated at the mention of the names of Radha and Krishna
If I become king, it will be that day,
Says the wretched and the poor Neelokontho
That day the sun will rise from the west

Clearly there are two interwoven levels to the song. The first is poetical description of a
fantasized fall of Brahmanical patriarchy and the rise of femininity, the other is esoteric code
for śāmbhavopāya sādhana. This interweaving of the social and the metaphysical views of
the Bāuls into one song is what makes them unique. Neelokontho says his happiness will
arise the day when the ‘group of mothers’ will co-arise. The ‘group of mothers’ in tāntric
parlance is the śaktichakra, the collectivity of all the energies of the mind. Instead of being
scattered and oppressed by limited desire, they shall unite and ‘arise’.
Saraswati being wronged by the Vedas (because of their patriarchal bias) leads to the
eventual rejection of the Vedic ideas of the absolute. While Lakshmi eating the inedible refers
to consumption of bodily fluids in cār-candra sādhana. This would lead to the conquest of
vices and ( the kind woman will be hard hearted) escape from the cycle of life and death (the
eternal will die).
When the two points of the visarga are filled with awareness they expand into each other
and become one, then there is no inhalation or exhalation (arrested winds) and the kuṇdalīnī
energy naturally rises to the crown (snakes biting eagles). The senses (moths) will be the
downfall of the soul under the control of limited desire (elephant). The jackal is a limited
sensation which will be feared like the lion which is the entire sensory spectrum within pure
consciousness (once the limited apprehension is traced back to its origin in pure
The lunar and the solar nādīs will merge, ritual shall cause the lord of ritual to die.
Absolute desire shall be used to counter limited desire (Varuna drowning in water) and all
beneficiary karmas of ritual, at this pure stage, shall be as heavy as sin. Lightning will strike
Kashi means the brahmarandhra shall be pierced, sadhus will be aggravated by nām because
at this stage the sādhaka has gone beyond name and form, even divine ones. If I am to be a
king (a siddha), the ‘wretched’ Neelokontho says, it will be the day everything will be
The song brings the ideas of two apocalypses together. In the core is the meditational
doctrine whereby the tyranny of the limited individual ego may be ended. The outer form
describes the apocalypse that will destroy Brahmin patriarchy. Here the feminine is not
vilified as māyā but rather finds her status as Śakti. The repression of sexuality and the
control of femininity are the foundational stones of the Brahmanical patriarchal social
edifice. Thus it is here that the Bāul strikes. The liberation of sexuality from the vagaries of
limited desire (and dreams of contingent nirvāṇa) leads not only to the liberation of the
individual soul but to a larger social transformation whereby repressed women (and men)
may reclaim their bodies, minds and souls.