Category Archives: a. Religious Syncretism in North India

The Baul Religion

The Bauls of Bengal are people who practice the Baul religion. The Baul people are mostly known for singing because singing is one way in which they project their beliefs (Thielemann 1). This religion is a combination of Hindu and Islamic beliefs and is based on the Upanisads and the Vedas (Capwell 255). To be Baul requires not only studying, but an emersion in the knowledge acquired (Thielemann 20). In order for the Bauls to be consumed with this knowledge, they must learn by experience. The most important aspect is self-realization, sadhana (1). The Baul does need guidance from a spiritual master, sadguru; the only way for a person to fully achieve sadhana is by attempting it themselves, not just learning about it.

The main component of the Baul religion is that the true divinity, maner manusa (the man of the heart), dwells within the human heart (17). The Bauls believe that the human body is the temple of the gods, so they must take care of and properly cultivate their bodies. Before one can unite with the Supreme Divinity, his soul must be completely purified. A person must be purified through body and heart; means of attaining this includes having good thoughts, company, conversation, and environment. One must also completely give up his ego. The main goal for a Baul adherent is to surrender himself to the divinity within himself. Once the human and Supreme Soul has united, he or she is able to attain infinite reality; this is Baul sadhana (21).

The path to attaining sadhana is not easy; it takes much control and selflessness. One of the most important aspects of Baul sadhana is aropa sadhana (the fundamental process of implementation). This is achieved by mastering breath- control (38). Within this process there are three stages to perform: “drawing the breath upwards, suspending it for some time, and finally releasing it again” (39). There is a whole process on how one performs these steps which takes a great deal of strength and control. The first step is called Puraka and it consists of using one’s finger to close the right nostril and breathing through the left, then switching and breathing through the right. The next step, Kumbhaka, is when the Baul holds the breath within him by holding his nose and mouth closed with his right hand. The final step is Recaka, where the breath is released through one nostril. This is a very specific procedure but it helps the Baul gain strength to attain sadhana. The amount of time one is supposed to hold their breath is not specified but being able to train and hold it for long periods of time shows that person has full control over the vital air and their inner strength (40). Another aspect that goes along with the vital air is ajapa (the soundless incantation). After one is fully conscious of the supreme divinity within them, this incantation is automatically pronounced while that person breaths in (41). When the Bauls have achieved the highest level of control, which is done through their breathing, they are able to pursue more in their sadhana (43).

Once the Baul has found his true self, a brilliant light shines before him. This light allows him to see everything within himself by illuminating the inner self. Man’s own self is this light, it is atma (the self – illuminating human soul) (81). To attain the spiritual goal of atma the Baul must have total knowledge of their body and have achieved proper sadhana (Capwell 260). Also, for one to see their inner self they have to tune – out everything outside of their own body.

Baul philosophy is mostly known for the songs that the Baul people sing; in the Samsad Bengali – English Dictionary the definition of Baul is “one of a class of Hindu stoical devotees singing songs in a special mode illustrating their doctrine (Thielemann 1).” Although the Bail religion may be synonymous with singing, it is not the totality of the Baul religion. The reason the Bauls are known for their singing is because it is one way they are able to share and attain sadhana, which people hear and therefore relate to them. The Baul’s song comes completely from his heart. Through his song he can express his feelings and sing them to everything around him. The Baul becomes engrossed in the song he is singing and nothing else around him matters. This is because while singing he has become one with the Supreme Being within him (36). Becoming one with the maner manusa is the ultimate goal for the Bauls, which explains the prevelance of singing within the Baul religion.

While singing the Baul plays a one – stringed plucked drum called the ekatara. This instrument symbolizes union of the body (deha) and the mind (mana). The clothes worn by the Baul also symbolizes unity. Their guduri is a dress that is made of many different pieces and colors of fabric that are sewn together. Each of the pieces is supposed to represent every caste and every religion and they are being brought together in unity and equality in the dress (35 – 36).

The Baul is always trying to achieve sadhana and by singing, dancing and playing his instrument he is able to perform his sadhana. The Bauls believe that worshipping alone is a form of selfishness because it is not universally shared. Therefore, an act of devotional selflessness can be found in the Baul interaction with the surroundings and audience (102). Being unified with all is very important to the Bauls and singing is claimed to unify all individual aspects into a whole. When sound (svara brahma), rhythm (tala brahma) and speech (vakya brahma), combine to make music, it becomes the highest point of emotion and at this point it has gained full strength and that is when everything is united (112).

Although it seems that plain singing is all that is needed to reach this great height of oneness, this is not the case. It is very important that the singer be in tune and be completely focused on praising the divinity within him. If the singer fails to do either of these then negative forces are able to enter his heart (114). Done correctly though, the Baul is able to show his worship to the Supreme Divinity within himself. Samkirtana is the congregational rendition of musical worship. This brings together many like – minded people to worship, which intensify the devotion to the Supreme Divinity.

Music is a way in which the Baul people are able to worship their inner deity and move closer to their ultimate goal of sadhana. Because the Supreme Divinity dwells within the hearts of men, sadhana (self-realization) as the greatest aspiration of the Bauls, is to become completely one with The One inside of them.


Capwell, Charles H. (1974) “The Esoteric Belief of the Bauls of Bengal.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2 (February): 255-264.

Thielemann, Selina (2003) Baul Philosophy. New Delhi: A.P.H. Publishing Corporation.

Related Reading

Capwell, Charles (1988) “The Popular Expression of Religious Syncretism: The Bauls of Bengal as Apostles of Brotherhood.” Popular Music, Vol. 7, No. 2, The South Asia/West Crossover (May): 123 – 132.

Related Topics



Baul Music

Sexual Rituals

Related Wedsites

Written by Emily Kaun (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Kabir, also known as Kabir the Great, is one of the most famous saints in the Indian tradition (Partin 191). He is a unique saint because both Hindus and Muslims are attracted to his teachings as well as in his sayings (Vaudeville 5052). Some may say he was kind of a mystic poet due to his teachings. His teachings mainly consisted of poems and songs, which were in a language that most Hindus understood. He belongs in the category of the first generation Hindi poets, which contained a Hindi dialect. This dialect is not “amenable” to the classifications of linguists (Partin 191). His works are in the form of mystical poetry of various strengths, which allow the literary aspects to come across with philosophical and religious significance (Stahl 141). Kabir is an individual who was able to give expression to personal experiences of inner divine or absolute reality (Heehs 1).

There is little on the history of Kabir, such as what his personality was like, as well as a detailed biography on him. What is known is that Kabir was born as a low-caste Muslim, also known as a Julaha, around the city of Banaras during the fifteenth century (Vaudeville 5052). He was born in 1440, and passed away in 1518 (Stahl 141). It has been claimed that Kabir was born into a family with a Muslim father who greatly influenced his life (Stahl 141). We know that Kabir was born into a caste of weavers, who had recently become Muslim converts, and was raised in a Muslim lifestyle. It is also believed that Kabir was married, with children, and made his living as a weaver, as the rest of his caste did (Bly ix). However, it is unknown how many children Kabir fathered or who his wife was. Kabir’s family belonged to a caste of married “Jogis” or “Jugis”, which are devotees or performers of jog. By practicing this sect of yoga, they believed they may attain a union with the Supreme Being (Bailey 1). Kabir was also involved in the bhakti movement, which was a reaction against Buddhism, as well as parts of the Vedanta philosophy (Stahl 142). Bhakti was related to Vishnuite devotion, where God is seen as the main object of devotion (Partin 194).

Kabir viewed the world as a moment fading between two deaths in a world of transmigration. He discusses self interest, the woman as ‘a pit of hell’, and man turning to his innermost self in order to find what is true (Vaudeville 5053). He did not see the significance in bonds between family members, because he believed those relations rested on self-interest (Vaudeville 2052). Another main belief of Kabir was that death encompasses all, and there would be no escape for one except to its own heart. For example, the only way to rid one’s self of negatives in life, such as egoism, would be to search one’s own soul to find the answers (Vaudeville 2052). Only those who find the answers or the “diamond” within oneself, has a chance at achieving eternity. This is relatable to the idea of jivatma in Hinduism, which is representative of the individual soul. It was believed by Kabir that if man turned away from the outside world, and focused only on the interior world, then one could be drawn to his innermost conscience. One’s innermost consciousness is related to the status of God, according to Kabir (Partin 196).

The words of Kabir appear to be very tragic, but also show his uniqueness as a poet. The tragedy is present when he discusses the insignificance of family, and how many things remains a mystery in life (Vaudeville 5053). His words are full of metaphors and various rhymes. The works of Kabir are regarded for both their literary qualities, as well as their spiritual qualities (Heehs 26). As a person, as well with his words, he is compared to the Buddha, due to his great voice in India (Vaudeville 2053). Rather than having a positive outlook on the world like many do, Kabir was very pessimistic and focused on intrinsic actions. Some may call him ungodly, but he seems to be one of the masters of “interior religion” (Partin 192). There are many words of Kabir, also known as Kabirvanis. However, there is not a book or authoritative version of them (Vaudeville 2052). The poems, verses and songs recited orally by Kabir were collected by his disciples, as well as various followers (Hess 3). It is believed that Kabir had been illiterate and was unable to ever write anything down. Many followers and critics of his work say, “I don’t touch ink or paper, this hand has never grasped a pen. The greatness of four ages Kabir tells with his mouth alone,” in order to describe what Kabir may have been like, and why his works were orally passed on through generations (Hess 3). There is no way to prove that Kabir was illiterate. However, it is known that Kabir preferred his words to be passed on orally, rather than by paper. His message was so popular that they were widely imitated before they could be written down. Kabir’s works were largely an oral tradition in the beginning, and in most instances, still are. The main topic of Kabir’s songs seems to be that God is the ultimate truth (Dass preface). The oldest dated words of Kabir are found in the Guru Granth of the Sikhs, compiled by Guru Arjun in the Punjab around 1604 (Vaudeville 5052). The poetry was also a union of both the Islamic and Hindu traditions (Stahl 143).

There are many stories about Kabir, but the most famous one involves his death and cremation. It happened in the city of Magahar. As Kabir was about to die, two different groups gathered in order to fight over what would happen to Kabir’s body. The two groups were the Muslims and the Hindus. It is said that after Kabir went into his tent to die, his body vanished, and all that was left was a heap of flowers (Vaudeville 2052). The flowers were divided between the two parties as a way of symbolizing both groups’ possession over the body. The Muslims buried their half of the flowers, whereas the Hindus cremated theirs, and arisen a memorial tomb, also known as samadhi, over it. Since the time of his death, a story has circulated claiming that Kabir was born to a Brahman virgin widow, who committed him to the Gangas, and he was later saved and raised by Julahas. This story attempted to “Hinduize” the saint (Vaudeville 2052).

Some Muslims in the past viewed Kabir as being a Sufi because many of his “words” are similar to those of a traditional Sufi (Vaudeville 2052). Even though Kabir was opposed to some practices of the Islamic religion, he still associated himself with Sufi groups (Partin 195). Modern Muslims and Hindus, however, accept the “words” of Kabir. He is also seen as the unifying force between the two religions, even though he himself expressed rejection of “two religions”. Kabir was also against idol worship and caste distinctions, this was because he used several Vaisnava names to speak of God. He, in turn, saw the idols as lifeless stones (Partin 192). Kabir also discusses the importance of purity, fasting, pilgrimages and other ritual practices throughout his various works. A verse Kabir’s pertaining to the ritual washing, discusses the importance of physical and spirtual cleansing. Kabir states, “What is the good of scrubbing the body on the outside, If the inside is full of filth? Without the name Ram, one will not escape hell, even with a hundred washings!” (Kabir 192). His notion of God also seemed to be more than that of worshipping a personal god, as he alludes to a reality that is beyond words, rather than a god (Vaudeville 2052).

Another interesting fact about Kabir, and his poems, is that he sometimes speaks as a man, and other time speaks as a woman. An example is, “This woman weaves threads that are subtle, and the intensity of her praise makes them fine. Kabir says: I am that woman” (Bly xv). This is interesting because it gives Kabir various identities through his literature.

Kabir, who does not have much of a bibliography is seen as being very popular in various religions. He is one who, through his own intimate experience, believed that God is “the One,” “the True,” and “the Pure” (Partin 201). According to Kabir, God is the only one who is able to meet the challenge of death, because he is the perfect guru (Partin 201). Kabir believed the only way one can interact with God, was to delve into the very depths of one’s own soul, and only then, would God be able to speak with one. Even though Kabir may have rejected the teachings of other religions, he was still followed by many, and created his own group.


Bailey, Jan (2006) Jogis

Bly, Robert (2007) Kabir: Ecstatic Poems. Boston: Beacon Press.

Heehs, Peter (2002) Indian Religions: A Historical Reader of Spiritual Expression and Experience. New York: New York University Press.

Hess, Linda Beth (2001) The Bijak of Kabir. New York: Oxford University Press.

Partin, Harry and Charlotte Vaudeville (1964) “Kabīr and Interior Religion.” History of Religions 3: pp. 191-201.

Stahl, Roland (1954) “The Philosophy of Kabīr” Philosophy East and West 4: pp.141-155.

Vaudeville, Charlotte (2005) Kabīr Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 8. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. p5051-5053

Related Topics








Guru Granth

Related Websites

Article written by: Megan Heck (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Guru Nanak

Guru Nanak was a very influential person during his lifetime. He lived during an age of change, and much of that change was due to his teachings. His main goals involved making the world a better place and trying to ensure that all people were equal. His ways of teaching were very effective and they challenged the way that people saw the world that they lived in. Guru Nanak’s lifetime can be divided into three parts; family life, travels, and retirement. It is during his travels that he did most of his teaching and during his retirement that he developed the basis for Sikhism.

Guru Nanak’s father wanted him to take over the family business and become an accountant, but Guru Nanak wanted exactly the opposite. He wanted to lead a religious life and stay detached from worldly attachments (Gurnukh Nihal 36). While he was growing up, Guru Nanak spent a lot of time with both Hindu and Muslim saints. During his childhood, he would gather his friends and discuss the power and greatness of God. He was not concerned with following what everyone else did; he followed his own path. For example, when it was his turn to participate in the Sacred Thread Ceremony, he refused to wear the traditional thread and said that he wanted one that would last for his entire lifetime (Gobind Singh 18). His father wanted to change Nanak’s perspective and decided to arrange his marriage to force him into a ‘typical’ life. Nanak was married early and his wife gave birth to two sons.

Guru Nanak spent the next ten years caring for his family (Gobind Singh 20). During these years, he spent a fair amount of time praying, as he still wanted to lead a religious life. One day after he was finished his prayers, he entered a cave and fell into a trance that lasted for three days. When he awoke from this trance, he ran out of the cave shouting “There is no Hindu and no Musalman.” With this phrase, it is believed that Guru Nanak had three meanings (Gurnukh Nihal 37). First, that all men are equal, regardless of religion or race. Secondly, that Hindus and Muslims had forgotten the true meanings of their religions and therefore no true Hindus or Muslims existed. Thirdly, that he felt he needed to end the hostility between the two groups. With this, he began his life as a missionary.

First he headed east for twelve years. He wanted to visit places that were holy in Hinduism. Along the way, he questioned Hindu practices and challenged the reasons for participating in such practices. Next, he travelled south for five years to see some important places to the Buddhist and Jain religions. After travelling south, he travelled north to the Himalayas for two years. Lastly, he travelled west to the Muslim countries for four years before coming home to spend his last years with his family. During his last years, he nominated his closest disciple, Bhai Lehna to be his successor (Gurnukh Nihal 46).

It is important to note that although Guru Nanak grew up in a society where Hinduism was very prevalent, his teachings and ideas are not based on the Vedas or the Upanisads (Seshagiri 5). His concepts are based on his own thoughts and ideas, which he formed throughout everyday life; they “came to him as and illuminations of his entire life” (Seshagiri 5). Despite this, some of his ideas agree with the Vedas and the Upanisads. For example, both Guru Nanak and the Upanisads oppose being materialistic and self-centered (Seshagiri 5). On the other hand, Guru Nanak rejected the idea of rituals as he focused more on the internal and spiritual aspects of religion. He believed that the reason for living was only the search for Truth, (Seshagiri 5) and that a chaotic and impulsive life is not the way to find Truth. He is claimed to have said, “Truth is the highest of all but higher still is truthful living” (Seshagiri 6). But, what is this Truth that he speaks of? Guru Nanak believed that God is Truth; anything related to God is Truth (Seshagiri 7).

As most people do, Guru Nanak had strong views on God, creation, and the soul. He believed that there was one God who was the creator and governor of the world. He believed that the creator God was responsible for all the other gods and goddesses. It was his view that the God is able to create all things, and the God is fearless and infinite. He also believed that the God has no mother, father, son, wife or relative (Gobind Singh 7). With regards to creation, he thought that everything came into being at the God’s command and that how He did it is beyond our understanding (Gobind Singh 10). Also, he claimed that the limit of the creation is unknown. Guru Nanak thought that the God had created earth as a school for man to learn dharma. Guru Nanak was a strong believer that everything that we do, whether it is good or bad, makes an imprint on our soul (Gobind Singh 12). The imprints combine to form habits and therefore, have an affect of how we live our lives. He also believed that the soul does not die with the body, but transfers to the next body and continues in the next life (Gobind Singh 13). While Hindus believed that there are four different dharmas for the four different varnas, Guru Nanak believed that there is only one religion, and that religion is Truth and that Truth is for all (Seshagiri 8). One of his most apparent beliefs was that men should not be divided by race, religion, or any other such division (Seshagiri 8). He said that there are two different kinds of men; God oriented and self-oriented. Guru Nanak thought that a man’s religion is not defined by words such as ‘Hinduism,’ or ‘Buddhism,’ but by the actions that he performs. He also believed that by thinking of and remembering God alone, the heart becomes pure.

In Guru Nanak’s lifetime, there occurred many social, political, and spiritual advancement, and Guru Nanak is honored for many of these advancements. He helped people notice the flaws that existed in their ways of life. He made it a goal to help people improve their lives and improve the way they treated the people around them. Overall, he tried to expose and correct the negative aspects of life that he saw developing around him. Politically, people were ignorant as to what was going on around them. He began to show people what was really going on and encourage them to change it for the better. Guru Nanak’s goal was to change the outlook people had on life. This increased religious tolerance. He had made a strong impact with his messages and any future attempt to change things back to the way they were before were expected to meet great resistance.

Guru Nanak influenced many lives and many aspects of life that continue to the present. He was a man of action and refused to sit by the side and let the world continue as it was. He had many strong ideas to get his world to live at peace and he did his best to spread those beliefs.


1. Mansukhani, Gobind Singh. (1968) Guru Nanak, World Teacher. Delhi: Light Press

2. Singh, Gurmukh Nihal. (1969) Guru Nanak, His Life, Time, and Teachings. Delhi: The Raisina Printery

3. Rao, K L Seshariri. (1991) Guru Nanak and the Vedantic Tradition. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials

Other Readings

1. Mansukhani, Gobind Singh. (1974) Life of Guru Nanak. Delhi: Everest Press

Related Research Topics

1. Sikhism

2. Religions in India

3. Sikh Gurus

4. Religions in Asia

Related Websites

1. The Sikhism Home Page

2. Guru Nanak

Written by Caitlin Duncanson (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.