The Humanism of Lalan Fakir

The Legendary Baul of Bengal

Lalan Fakir
Lalan Fakir with his Ektara - the single stringed musical instrument. IndiaPost

Lalan Fakir (1774-1890) is regarded as the greatest exponent of the unique culture of the Bauls – a multi-faith tradition of Bengal. He was an unlettered man with no formal education but his lyrical compositions never fail to illuminate even the brightest of minds. 

Was Lalan a Hindu or a Muslim?

Many facets of his life are still fuzzy and debatable, including his exact birthplace and religious identity of his parents.

As one of his most famous songs inquires, “Sab lokey kay Lalan ki jaat samsarey?” (Everyone asks, what on earth, is Lalan’s caste?) Lalan himself chose never to speak about his life. As the legend goes, Lalan was born in a Hindu family. And as such his poetry is infused with the core philosophy of the Vedanta, of tolerance, ahimsa and the oneness of all faiths – which form the major cornerstones of Hinduism. However, Lalan was not affiliated to any one religion and his thoughts always transcended the boundaries of any particular faith. 

Life and Times of Lalan Fakir

At the age of sixteen, Lalan went on a pilgrimage where he was infected with small pox. He was almost pronounced dead by his folks and abandoned in the river Ganga. A Muslim woman found him, saved his life and took cared for him. Upon returning to his community, he was deemed an outcast by his society. This incident is said to have changed his course of life and made him renounce traditional religion.

 

Lalan as Mentee and Mentor

Shiraj Shai was Lalan’s mentor, who had a deep intellectual, spiritual and philosophical impact in his life. After Lalan was cast off by his community, he began living in a forest that later came to be known as his ‘workshop’ or akhara in Chheuriya village in Kushtia district in present-day Bangladesh.

He soon had many followers who were mainly outcasts from different religious societies and people in search of political and religious freedom. 

The Immortal Songs of Lalan Fakir

Lalan was deeply attracted to Baul songs and fascinated by the multi-layered and metaphoric understanding of their songs. Lalan is thought to have composed thousands of songs but only 700-800 of them exist only through oral traditions and his followers of the Baul tradition. The uniqueness of his songs not only depict deep-rooted despise for caste, creed and religion, but also possess astonishing commonsense values and gender equality. 

In one of his compositions, he says and questions that “one can visualize day and night by observing the sky, occurring due to earth’s rotation and this is the truth, but how many people have visualized God?” So, he sings,

Dube dakh dekhi mon ki roop lilamoy
Akash patal khujish jaare, ei dehe se roy

He means that people look for God everywhere, in temples and mosques and go on pilgrimages but in reality, God resides right inside every human body and one does not need to search for it anywhere else. Lalan also envisioned a society devoid of gender discrimination, a liberal society for women where they had the freedom to pursue their spiritual freedom first.

The Core Philosophy of Lalan Fakir

At the core of Lalan’s thoughts lie the essence of Baul philosophy known as ‘Dehatattwa’ – the belief that the Supreme Being resides within the human body. It disregards caste and religious divide and professes that the Absolute lies not in any temple or mosque but in the human heart. Even as religious strife continues to divide contemporary societies throughout the world, together with gender discrimination and caste oppression, it is astounding to learn the vision of an unlettered man through his songs, on how he envisaged a classless and gender-equal society, long before the birth of such modern movements. 

Influences and Discourses

The lyrics of his songs mainly reveal the philosophical discourses of Bengal, continuing the Tantric traditions of the Indian subcontinent, particularly Nepal, Bengal and the Gangetic plains.

His discourses serve as a communion of various philosophical positions emanating from Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Islamic traditions. He explicitly identified himself with the Nadiya school, with Advaita Acharya, Nityananda and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He was greatly influenced by the social movement initiated by Chaitanya against differences of caste, creed and religion.

Lalan, the Mahatma

Like many great men, Lalan was not famous during his lifetime. His Baul philosophy was introduced by Rabindranath Tagore and modern scholars. Lalan believed the 'body' is the universe and the universe is the body. He was a revolutionary and threw a challenge toward gross worldliness. The only sketch available of Lalan is by Jyotindranath Tagore. The title of ‘Mahatma’ or great soul was conferred upon him for his contribution to Humanist society. Lalan died on October 17, 1890, at the age of 116 years.