After looking for folk religion and folk music in villages for years together, I came to realise that it was in part a conundrum, but if one could strike the right person (knock on the right door), one could be rewarded with more than what one had expected. For this purpose, it is essential to learn their symbolic language, to develop the ability to distinguish between “education” and “conversion”.

If one wished to ascertain someone’s religious belief, one should not ask: “Are you a Baul?” Or “Are you a Fakir?” Rather, one should enquire: “Is yours the house of Sati-Maor Deendayal?” Or, “Do you belong to the Patuli stream?” Immediately one would see a flash of clear recognition on the face of the Udasin. Once, by way of testing, a Baul asked me a cryptic question: “Did you do the job of digging the soil?”

I replied: “Yes, I did the job of the horse-shoe as well.”

My last words worked like a miracle. The Baul then opened up to share quite a few things with me.

The secret gharana of folk religion carries a few distinctive meanings in its separate bandishes (lyrics). Let me share an experience of mine, when I was attempting to fathom the original secrets of the Marfati (messenger) Fakirs.

On that occasion, I was privy to a doctrinaire discussion among two Fakirs late at night. It was after the days of ambubachi (three consecutive days in July when many Hindu widows keep a fast, traditionally) when the rains had ceased. Jahan Fakir and Shukur Ali were in a conversation. When daylight appeared, I discoursed with Jahan Fakir who belonged to Satgechhiya, Bardhaman (Burdwan in West Bengal), and was nearly illiterate, with no formal education and abjectly poor. His inner clothes and the loose cloak on top were all quite unclean. He refused to open up to me: with a world of excuses.

Finally, to make him angry, I commented: “You all seem to be very fine. If you discard Shariat (scripture) or forget it, would you abide only by Marfati (messenger) then?”

He seemed visibly hurt at first; then apparently the light of truth suddenly dawned on him. Slowly, Jahan opened up. “Tell me, sir,” he said. “Don’t you read the first Book of alphabets first, and then the second book? But do you manage to forget the First Book by that time?”

This conversation seemed like a flash of lightning: coming from the mouth of an illiterate man. I was stupefied for a long time. Suddenly, I realised; Shariat was the “means” while Marfat was the “end”. Picking up courage, I said, “I realise you don’t follow scriptures. But why don’t you follow castes, what’s the argument there?”

Very quietly, Jahan began to hum:

The Brahmin as quite a different caste,
Has Mother Nature made this steadfast?
Must you follow caste’s tyranny, my brother?
Ballal Sen played the devil’s trick
To create lineage and caste’s prick—
Come, search the Vedanta and show me rather!

I liked his approach; my mind was fulfilled. Jahan seemed to be in a good mood and repeated almost to himself: “Man has made scriptures, and man, too, has created castes. Who has perpetuated Brahmins and Kayasthas among the Hindus, and Saiyads and Khondkars among the Muslims? Our Duddu has sung:

Ignorant man goes by own caste—
Which, his whole life, follow he must!
Dogs and jackals: they have all
Same lineage-caste, their wherewithal—
Separate caste is man’s load: carried till the last!

That’s why we looked for the true man. That man was neither in the Vedic rituals, nor in the Islamic suras,—neither in ritual pestles nor in mosques. He who looks for man himself is the real Baul.

I interjected: “Then is the higher caste out? Are scriptures and the Quran null and void?”

“Yes, please. To us, they hold no meaning. You stay with your caste and lineage, quoting scriptures, following the diktats of Maulavis and Brahmins. We don’t follow castes. We believe that the poor man’s god lives among the poor, amidst the common man. Listen to this song…

Whom do you discard as the lowly men?
Perhaps Braja’s Krishna in their den!
Calling them ‘Sudra’, ‘Chanral’, ‘Bagdi’ has had its day
And will now fall in total decay:
Their usage would die, as we say, this is our ken!

Prophetic words of this song ring almost true today. The age of calling the supposedly “lowly” classes by the names of “Sudra”, “Chanral” and “Bagdi” seems to be really over. But the protest inherent in these songs—the movement to resist—has also a tendency to create a new racism.

By a process of reductionism—discarding Vedas, Quran, Puranas, Brahmins, Maulavis, temples, mosques, ritual meditations, et al—by the end of 18th century, the Bengal of ours gave rise to a set of sub-religions whose list is both varied and fascinating. That list—as quoted in the book, Vaishnava Bratadin Nirnaya—comprises Baul, Nyara, Dervish, Sain, Aaul, Saddhvini Panthi, Sahajiya, Khushi-vishvashi, Radhashyami, Ramsadhaniya, Jagavandhu-Bhajaniya, Dadupanthi, Ruidasi, Senpanthi, Ramasnehi, Meerabai, Vitthalabhakta, Karta-bhaja, Spashtadayik or Roop Kaviraji, Ramvallabhi, Sahebdhani, Balarami, Hajrati, Gobarai, Pagalnathi, Tilakdasi, Darpanarayani, Bori, Atibordi, Radhaballabhi, Sakhibhavuki, Charandasi, Harishchandri, Sadhanpanthi, Chuharpanthi, Kurapanthi, Bairagi, Naga, Aakhra, Duyara, Kamdhenvi, Matukdhari, Sangjogi, Bar Smpradaya, Mahapurushiya Dharmasampradayi, Jagmohani, Haribola, Ratbhikhari, Bindudhari, Anantakuli, Satkuli, Jogi, Gurudasi Vaishnava, Khandita Vaishnava, Karan Vaishnava, Gop Vaishnava, Nihanga Vaishnava, Kalindi Vaishnava, Chamar Vaishnava, Haribyasi, Ramprasadi, Borgal, Naskari, Chaturbhuji, Pharari, Banshayi, Panchdhuni, Vaishnava Tapashvi, Aagari, Margi, Paltudasi, Aapapanthi, Satnami, Dariyadasi, Buniyaddasi, Ahmadpanthi, Beejmargi, Abadhuti, Bhingal, Manbhabvi, Kishoribhajani, Kuligayen, Tahaliyaor Nemo Vaishnava, Jonni, Sharbhalmi, Nareshpanthi, Dashamargi, Pangul, Beurdasi, Fakirdasi, Kumbhapatiya, Khoja, Gourbadi, Bame Kaupiney, Kapindra Parivar, Kaupinchhara, Churadhari, Kabirpanthi, Khakiand Mulukdasi.

It is a wonder that so many sub-religions coexisted in this land! Where did they vanish? Perhaps the reformist movements among Hindus and Muslims in the 19th century, the preaching of the Christian missionaries, rise of the Brahmo religion and the lifetime preachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Bijaykrishna created such a strong resistance that these sub-religions got shunted and finally receded to take refuge at the back of remote villages. On one hand the high religious ideologies of the times and on the other, the active oppressive policy of orthodox Muslims destroyed the Bauls and Fakirs to a degree.

Sri Ramakrishna even maligned these secular religions directly to note: “There are two alternative ways of gaining entry to a house—either through the open main doors in front or through the lavatory at the back of the house; it is far better to enter by the front door, since an entry through the back door of the lavatory will surely soil the body.” According to him, the process of spiritual attainment involving women and lucre was a dangerous one.

In the late 18th century, a large number of lower-caste Hindus and poor Muslims gave up the larger Hindu and Muslim communities and joined the Baul and Fakiri religions in eastern and northern Bengal. Deserters from Islam were large in numbers.

Lalan Shah and many ascetic religious leaders attracted several common men to their sub-religions through their honest living style, secular ideals and unitary thinking systems. This process led to a severe shock, socially and economically, to both ritualistic Vaishnava and orthodox Muslim communities. Naturally this gave rise to protests and reactions. Many Vaishnava booklets, like Pashanda Dalan (Chastisement of the Heretics), attacked Kartabhaja (the sect that flattered the leaders) and other sub-religions as “heretics”, “perverted” and “practitioners of prohibited paths” by misinterpreting their eulogistic theories and practices with the feminine form and certain other mystic practices.

Perhaps the reformist movements among Hindus and Muslims in the 19th century, the preaching of the Christian missionaries, rise of the Brahmo religion and the lifetime preachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Bijaykrishna created such a strong resistance that these sub-religions got shunted and finally receded to take refuge at the back of remote villages.

In the 19th century, Dasharathi Ray abused these communities in his panchali (ritualistic lyrics); the Jelepara satires of downtown Kolkata by wandering minstrels and professional comedians included many farcical acts and enactments of satirical songs taunting the Kartabhaja community.

The anti-scripture Bauls picked their toughest fight against the Muslim followers of Islamic law, in 19th-century Nadia, Jessore and northern Bengal. By emphasising the other behaviour-patterns of Bauls, such as, quadrilunar cycle realisation and certain abusive practices, Islamic law-abiders emphatically opposed the singing tradition of the Baul. One sect of interpreters intimated that music was inimical to their religion. They staged riots in the musical soirees of Bauls. Under instructions of the Alem community, physical repression began against the Bauls and quite often, their tufts of hair were forcibly severed.

Out of fright, Bauls started hiding or discarding their exterior robes. The contemporary Wahabi, Faraizi and Aahl-e-Hadis reform movements harmed the Muslim Bauls a lot. The latter were forced to return to the ways of Islamic scripture. Many Muslim reformers of the time joined battle by issuing religious decrees against the Bauls. One can come across a commentary against Bauls and Fakirs in some of the contemporary writings, such as, those of Meer Mosharraf Hossain:

The knave guru, the false Peer,
The bangle-wearing bald Fakir:
They’re the real devils, perfidious infidels…

Baul Dhwangsha Fatwa (The Baul Destruction Decree), a book by Maulana Reyazuddin Ahmed from Rangpur was very popular among the orthodox Muslim community. He wrote in its second edition, published in 1825: “In order to eradicate Bauls and Baldies from among Muslims, Bengal must constitute a committee in each district, each village, to congregate on each Friday, who would sharply and vigorously act, till even one Baul or Baldy Muslim claims to remain extant. On the whole, it is the duty of Muslims to try, as best as possible, and rid completely the Muslim society of Bauls and Baldies.”

The attack and false propaganda against Bauls and Fakirs spread beyond the boundaries of the 19th century into the 20th century. It is known that undivided Bengal contained some 60-70 lakh Bauls. Suffering from torture and oppression, their number has dwindled, leaving them cornered. It is seen from written petitions that under the leadership of Maulana Afchharuddin, a group of men chopped off the tufts of hair of all the Bauls—all followers of Lalan—assembled at the Chheunria Ashram hermitage in Kushtia.

Spread over a century, such acts of chastisement and repression have made the community of Bauls-Dervish-Fakir weak and isolated, but unable to erase them as a whole. That was because the people from the lower castes could mingle easily in a secular fashion in the village society. A scrutiny would reveal that most of the sub-religions that sprung up in undivided Bengal were established either by a Muslim or together by a Hindu and a Muslim. Aaulchand, the founder of the Kartabhajaclan, was a Muslim and his main disciple Ramsharan Pal came from the cow-tending class. The founder of the Sahebdhani community was a Muslim Udasin and the chief of this cult Charan Pal, was a cowherd by caste.

In reality, the folk sub-religions of Bengal had at its foundation three streams: direct influence of the Muslim Bauls, Fakirs and Dervishes; the antagonism among the lowest caste against the Brahminical domination; and the clarion call from the secular Vaishnava religion. This last stream needed a social explanation.

Sri Chaitanya appeared in our land almost in a timely role as a saviour. It was the 16th century when he evolved an open-armed, secular plan of Vaishnava religion: in order to resist the wide-spread conversion of Hindus by the Muslim rulers and to end the oppression on the lowest caste by the ritualistict Brahmins. His way of religious practice was to preach the simplest creed: “Harernamaiva Kevalam (Chant Hari’s name alone)”. A strong upsurge of popular wave added momentum to the Vaishnava religion.

But after the demise of Sri Chaitanya, divisiveness arose in Vaishnavism. The Goswamis of Vrindavan paid more attention to establish Chaitanya’s theories by writing treatises in Sanskrit. There appeared hundreds of treatises and texts between the common Vaishnava devotees and their leader Sri Chaitanya. The helpless “lower castes” drowned themselves in perversion and an unruly lifestyle. At that critical juncture came Nityananda’s son Birchandra (or Birbhadra) as a leader and messenger. Birchandra re-converted to Vaishnavism the renegade perverted Buddhist Sahajiyas; the ignorant, copulation-worshipping Tantric practitioners; and the illiterate distressed masses: hungry for salvation. This wave of Vaishnavisation began incorporating many secretive folk practices; breathing exercises and confidential meditative acts. New centres for meditation and spiritual practice appeared in the villages along with the Shripat. On the banks of the Ganga settled the Sahajiya Vaishnavas alongside Patuli, Katowa and Agradweep. People hailed Birchandra as an incarnation or avatar of Sri Chaitanya. They heralded their new leader with new words of felicitation:

Birchandra reappears as Gour’s incarnation:

A blessed sight for those who missed Gour’s vision! In course of time, the folk-gurus brought the Gitahymn: Yada Yada Hi Dharmasya…(Whenever the faith is eclipsed…) and transformed it into such an axiom that a deep faith grew among the crushed, oppressed masses, leading them to firmly believe that Gouranga was an incarnation of Krishna and subsequently Birbhadra—Gouranga incarnate. Following this lead, we observe half amused, a curious development, exemplified in the initial declaration of the Kartabhajas—

Krishnachandra, Gourchandra, Aaulchandra /
are one in three, three in one!

It implied that Birchandra was removed and, instead, came Aaulchandra, giving rise to a new sub-religion for the believers in Vaishnavism. In no time, that sub-religion (that is, the Kartabhajas) was led by Dulalchandra Pal, whose mother (with the original name of Saraswati) was re-named Sati-ma. The latter had a clear resonance of “Shachi Ma” (mother of Gouranga) in its sound. Alongside came the new chant:

The three have the same visage:

Sri Krishnachandra, Sri Gourchandra and Sri Dulalchandra—
Are three names of the same divine image!
How very well-planned was the ouster of Aaulchandra by Dulalchandra from the people’s mind!

One hundred years ago, when Akshaykumar Dutta wrote the book, Bharatbarshiya Upasak Sampradaya (Indian Worshipping Communities), he gave an indication of the many sub-religions of Bengal and produced a general report. The problem was that Akshaykumar did not do any survey himself for his report. He collected material from all and sundry for his reportage. Some mistakes and partiality did creep in. In contrast, Bidyabhushan Jogendranath Bhattacharjee did considerable fieldwork while writing his book, Hindu Castes and Sects. Akshaykumar wrote a very sketchy description of the Balarami community of Meherpur, whereas Bidyabhushan visited Meherpur and penned his narrative only after having met the widow of Balaram.

At the end of the 1960s, when I began enquiring about sub-religions, I preferred Bidyabhushan’s methodology. The remaining part of this write-up is a truthful narration of what I could gather during my arduous walking tours—picking up vital information in its course. It covers the invincible folk forms of those sub-religions which could never be vanquished by civilisation, politics, science and scriptural dominance.

Edited excerpts from Along Deep Lonely Alleys: Baul-Fakir-Dervish of Bengal by Sudhir Chakravarti and translated from the Bengali original Gobheer Nirjon Pothey by Utpal K. Banerjee. Published by Niyogi Books.