Harmonious contradictions

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Harmonious contradictions

The double lives of Baul women

by Kathryn Dickason on Friday, November 23, 2012 - 9:30am

Feminine faiths: Women’s spirituality and the shaping of tradition. Scholars, artists, and religious practitioners led discussions at Stanford to highlight the ways in which women’s spiritual labor has expanded and revised religious practice even beyond the confines of the cloister. This three-article series explores the proactive role of women across different traditional and temporal lines: western medieval Christianity, modern Tibetan Buddhism, and contemporary Baul. In these contexts female spirituality has garnered the esteem of male-dominated societies.  Rather than preserving the rigidity of doctrine, “Feminine Faiths” reveals how women empower themselves and others by diversifying the repertoire of female identity and spiritual experience. 


Baul woman performer“I have become a Baul. / I dance well, sing well. / I have even gotten a few disciples. / I have become a Baul. / I don’t do Baul dharma-karma. / Never gone to a guru. / I don’t like the sādhu [holy man] community. / Why? I am my own guru.”  This song, composed by a Bengali woman who practices the Baul religion, takes a jab at her male co-adherents. Rejecting the community of holy men, composer Rina asserts that she is her "own guru." Rina's song alludes to the gendered norms prescribed to South Asian Hindu and Muslim women—and to the relative freedom afforded to men.

Professor of religion Lisa Knight, who spoke recently at Stanford, explores the contradictory lives of Rina and her peers in her book, "Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh." Knight’s ethnographic research reveals that the women of this marginal religious group have assimilated social constraints in creative ways that enable their expression of egalitarian ideals. 

Like their Hindu and Muslim counterparts, Baul women absorb cultural preferences for female obedience, modesty, and chastity. What is surprising, says Knight, is that these internalized gender norms do not brand Baul women with passivity. Rather, these women absorb patriarchy in order to protest against it. Baul women draw from their direct experience with unjust hierarchy in order to fuel the social critique underlying their songs, dances, and lyric compositions.     

A religion based on equality

The Baul religion is a mystical amalgamation of Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. As practitioners of a pro-active faith that seeks moral fulfillment in this world, Bauls believe in worshiping humans instead of gods. Indeed, for Bauls, the locus of divinity is not within a temple or mosque but rather within the human being. Adherents, both women and men, protest against sex-based and caste-based discrimination, advocating equality through Bauls’ signature singing and dancing.

Baul women absorb patriarchy in order to protest against it.  

Past scholars have examined this religion through male experience and male-authored texts, which tend to valorize male Bauls over their female counterparts. Consequently, these scholars have painted an idealized, uniform image of Baul practitioners and have missed the internal struggles of Baul women. By putting women’s voices at the center of her investigation, Knight produces a very different result. Underneath their graceful performances, Baul women must operate around the conflicts and contradictions entailed in the gender system. Situating Baul women within the chauvinistic and highly-stratified societies of Bengal and Bangladesh, Knight argues that her subjects carefully balance their identity as Baul and as women. The goal, Knight says, is to legitimate their behavior in religious and secular spheres, as well as to empower other women facing similar challenges. 

Public liberation and private domestic duties

Baul women demonstrate their faith most visibly through public performances of music, song, and dance. Onstage they don bright costumes and loosen their hair before male and female spectators. In some cases, these performances are so engaging that the audience sings and dances along. Physicality is central to Bauls' devotional program.

Departing from domestic norms, many Baul women travel, with or without their husbands, to different performance sites and festivals, much like itinerant entertainers. Bauls often disregard pūjā (ritual observance) in the temple and at home, preferring to worship actual, rather than abstract, beings. Knight encountered Baul women from diverse marital situations: some are married to a supportive Baul husband, others to a (hypocritically) abusive Baul husband, and some are divorced. In an interview with Knight, the Baul performer Rina confided that her husband might leave her because of the attention he, as a dynamic performer, receives from women - but she expressed confidence about her own future. The Stanford audience burst into laughter as Knight related Rina’s response: “Of course I’d be fine. Women do everything men can do. It’s only when men are around that we think we need them. If they’re not here, we don’t need them at all.”

"Women do everything men can do.  It’s only when men are around that we think we need them.  If they’re not here, we don’t need them at all.” 

At home, Baul women cannot escape their domestic duties. They are wives and mothers who live in a socially-stratified society, alongside the modesty, chastity, and obedience of female neighbors. Rather than flouting these conventions, Baul women accept these norms during their day-to-day life in order to garner respect. It is only during their public performances that Baul women are able to protest gender inequality – a fact that renders their messages all the more poignant. Baul women’s first-hand knowledge of injustice gives them raw material to reflect upon and to use in crafting a moral position. In her fieldwork, Knight witnesses Baul women oscillating between private spheres and public performances to achieve a composite identity that is both socially acceptable and politically provocative.  

The contradictory identity of Baul women

Baul women

Enmeshed within a complex network of social relations, Baul women act within a rich repertoire of feminine ideals. In some contexts, they acquiesce to patriarchal realities in order to live a socially respectable life. Conversely, the liberal quality of their religion permits them to transgress the confines of the home. Knight argues that, in this constant push and pull, Baul women embody a contradictory identity.

One of the ways that Baul women balance their discontinuous lives is by cultivating their emotions. In their dual roles as religious leaders and modest women, Baul women experience both bliss and pain. They celebrate moments of connection among humans in performance settings - yet they are pained by the societal divisions that regularly cause discrimination. For example, they receive joy from being mothers while also finding that motherhood within a male-dominated milieu limits their freedom. By performing songs and dances that critique their anti-feminist, caste-driven society, Baul women unleash paradoxical feelings. It is in these cathartic moments that Baul women work out the peculiarities of their identity.

Knight concludes that Baul women are “encumbered actors” working within social strictures, yet simultaneously promoting unencumbered religious ideals. Put differently, Baul women are aware of their curtailed freedoms and limited status as women, but they translate their frustration into performances that foster hope and change. As mothers, mystics, and minstrels, Baul women dance between prescribed gendered norms and religious freedom to authenticate and sanction their roles in society. At the end of the day, the harmony emanating from Bauls’ musical compositions mirrors the strategic balancing act of their daily existence.


South Asian religion professor Lisa KnightLisa Knight is a professor of South Asian religion at Furman University. Her talk at Stanford was co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, the Department of Religious Studies, the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies, and the Center for South Asia. She is the author of Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh.

Religious studies graduate student Kathryn DickasonKathryn Dickason is a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies, focusing on western medieval Christianity. Her interests include female mystics, liturgical rituals, and religious iconography. She is also a closet dance historian. Dickason is a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.