The Bāuls of rural Bengal who are found even today, form one of the obscure religious cults of India. They are wandering minstrels comprising mostly mendicants.
The word ‘bāul,’ of uncertain origin, may have been derived from either of the Sanskrit words: Vātula (affected by wind-disease, i.e., mad or crazy) or vyākula (impatiently eager). Both these derivations are consistent with the modern sense of the word: ‘inspired people with an ecstatic eagerness for a spiritual life, leading to ultimate union with the eternal Beloved.’
Historically, this sect might have been derived from the Nātha Cult. However, the influence of Vaiṣṇavism and Sūfism can easily be recognized.
The Bāuls are most unconventional in their customs and manners, habits and practices. They pride themselves on calling their ways as ‘ulṭa’ or ‘the reverse’. That is why they care not for formal observances of any religious practice.
The literature of the Bāuls is entirely in their songs and poems (in Bengali) couched in mystic terms and riddles. Whatever philosophy can be gleaned from these can be stated briefly as follows:
The human body is the microcosm of the universe, the temple of the Dear one. This Beloved, also called ‘maner mānuṣ’ (‘the Man of the Heart’) is the Lord of the universe living in our heart. Hence, any search for Him outside is fruitless. This Divine Personality residing in us is our essential nature, love is the means of achieving union with Him and the lover is the human personality. In the highest union, all limitations are transcended, all differences between humanity and divinity are annihilated.
Madan, Biśa Bhūmimāli, Īśān Yugi, Kṛṣṇakānta Pāṭhak and Lālan Fakīr are some of the celebrated composers of the bāul songs.