Hinduism Bāuls
Kristin Hanssen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0236


Bāuls live in the Bengali-speaking region in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Admired for their enigmatic songs performed to the rhythm of a small drum and a one-string droning instrument, Bāuls are widely viewed as icons of Bengali regional identity. Many singers with a Muslim orientation call themselves Fakirs; most live in Bangladesh, while the majority of singers with a Hindu orientation self-identify as Vaiṣṇava, and some as Śāktas, and are found mainly in West Bengal. Bāuls are householders or renouncers; they tend to be poor and to have a lower caste identity. A number of Bāuls support themselves through singing songs for alms on passing trains, but many supplement this income through part-time work, while still others work full time. Very few earn their living as professional performers. They sing at festivals and fairs and are summoned to perform at ashrams to honor the demise of holy persons. When performing at religious celebrations in villages, or secular events in towns (arranged by the middle classes), Bāuls usually band together as a troupe and are accompanied by lay musicians. Male Bāuls are particularly easy to identify. They dress in white or ocher garments, patchwork vests, and coats when singing for a larger audience and when they beg for alms. Men often wind their hair into a topknot and wrap a turban round their head. Bāul women likewise dress in white or ocher clothes, but, stressing modesty, they tie their hair into a bun when collecting alms and let it loose when they perform on stage. Yet, despite their visibility and popularity, opinions are divided among scholars as to how Bāuls should be defined. These disparate views may in part be traced to colonial Bengal, during which time the educated classes elevated Bāuls as carriers of Bengali tradition in their attempt to fashion a sanitized, unique, and authentic sense of self, stripped of elements that they regarded as problematic. Evidence suggests, however, that most but not all Bāuls learn body-centered practices from murśids or Vaiṣṇava gurus, who belong to different lineages, and who teach esoteric knowledge, not just to Bāuls but a range of other followers, including lay householders and mendicants. From a scholarly viewpoint, given that the body constitutes the main instrument for worship and that the larger universe exists within the human frame, which also harbors the divine in humans, these body-centered practices may be broadly classified as tantric. In 2005, Bāul songs were included in UNESCO’s established Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

General Overviews

Capwell 1974 offers a correction to earlier views of Bāuls as wandering minstrels who sing about their love for “the unknown bird” (āchin pākhi) and “human of the heart-mind” (maner mānuṣ), propounded in Dasgupta 1969 (first published in 1946). A later work, Capwell 1986 (reissued as Capwell 2011), gives an accessible overview of the phenomenon, emphasizing music and instruments, with accompanying CDs and translations as well as interpretations of Bāul songs. Salomon 1992 discusses the significance of the singer and composer Lālan Sāi (a.k.a. Fakir) and provides a sample of his songs translated into English. A useful introduction is provided in Salomon 1995, which also introduces the reader to the history of the phenomenon, citing songs composed by Lālan Sāi in English translations. Hayes 2011 (cited under Historical Context for Understanding Bāuls) sheds light on the historical context for the Bāul phenomenon.

  • Capwell, Charles. “The Esoteric Belief of the Bauls of Bengal.” Journal of Asian Studies 33.2 (1974): 255–264.

    Capwell modifies prior views of Bāuls by defining them as a humanistic sect in which sexual yoga during a woman’s period is described as part of their religious practice. Provides translations of Bāul songs into English.

  • Capwell, Charles. The Music of the Bauls of Bengal. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1986.

    Gives a general overview of Bāuls: their clothes, their instruments, their influence on the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and the Bengali middle classes, but also the structure of Bāul music, pitch and tone, and performances. The work provides interpretations of Bāul songs, which are translated into English in Roman script.

  • Capwell, Charles. Sailing on the Sea of Love: The Music of the Bauls of Bengal. New York: Seagull Books, 2011.

    This is a new edition of the book The Music of the Bauls of Bengal (Capwell 1986). It comes with two CDs with Bāul music.

  • Dasgupta, Shashibhusan. “The Bāuls of Bengal.” In Obscure Religious Cults. 3d ed. By Shashibhusan Dasgupta, 157–187. Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyaya, 1969.

    Discusses Bāul conceptions of the body as a temple, and their belief in the direct love between the individual and the Supreme. Originally published in 1946.

  • Jha, Shakti Nath. “Chāri-Candra Bhed: Use of the Four Moons. In Mind, Body and Society: Life and Mentality in Colonial Bengal. Edited by Rajat Kanta Ray, 65–108. Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Jha discusses the secret ingestion practices that Bāuls and other initiates engage in involving body substances known as “moons” (chandra), and refers to this phenomenon as a folk religion. Writes that ingestion practices are not limited to the Bengali speaking region, but widespread in South Asia, and have deep historical roots. Notes that this is indicated by the presence of the word ”moon” in sacred texts, including the Śiva Saṅhitā, the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā, the Ḍāmar Tantra text, and the work Tirumandirum by the South Indian Siddhā Tirumūlār. The word “moon” also figures in Buddhist Tantra and in Hindu Tantra, and Nath texts written in Bengali also mention four moon practices.

  • Knight, Lisa I. “Bauls in Conversations: Cultivating Oppositional Ideology.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 14.1 (2010): 71–120.

    Knight addresses the disputes about how to define “authentic” Bāuls and then argues that a common thread among Bāuls is that they oppose normative society in a variety of ways. She demonstrates how they work out their oppositional ideology in everyday life and conversations.

  • Openshaw, Jeanne. Seeking Bauls of Bengal. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    The first two chapters of Openshaw’s work offer a detailed and thoughtful overview of the many ways in which the category “Bāul” has been essentialized and defined by scholars, but her monograph purposely avoids discussions of Bāul songs; her main focus is hari-kathā (discussions about esoteric practices) among descendants of the guru Rāj Kyāpā.

  • Salomon, Carol. “The Cosmogonic Riddles of Lalan Fakir.” In Gender, Genre, and Power in South Asian Expressive Tradition. Edited by Arjun Appadurai, Frank J. Korom, and Margaret A. Mills, 267–304. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

    Salomon discusses the legends told of Lālan Fakir from a Muslim and a Hindu point of view and places the poet singer in a historical framework. Her chapter also offers descriptions of Fakir body-centered practices. His songs are rendered in English translations.

  • Salomon, Carol. “Baul Songs.” In Religions of India in Practice. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 267–304. Princeton Readings in Religions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

    Salomon gives a brief summary of Bāuls in historical contexts and provides translations of Lālan Fakir’s songs, where she explains the meaning of the lyrics in terms of esoteric practices. Interpretations are based on textual evidence and ethnographic research.

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