Lalon‘s origin is not known. No one knows where he was born, who were his parents, which religious, ethnic or cultural communities he belonged to. A farmer found him in the Kaliganga river, a tributary of Ganga, used to flow through Kushtia, but now dried out; he was a child of fifteen or sixteen years of age when he was found, nearly dying from smallpox when Malam, a farmer in Cheuria, Kushtia, discovered him early in the morning lying between the muddy edge of the river and the splash of the water flow. Malam called his wife Matijan and took Lalon to their house, treated and took care of him and brought him to life.
That his life began by surviving in between soil and water, in between elemental realities of material being but as a non-being, arouses very deep symbolic meaning among Lalon’s followers. That is the reason why the symbolic narrative about the origin of Lalon became integral to Lalon’s philosophy as well: his birth is both known and unknown. It is known because he came from water, from Kaliganga River, but yetl unknown since he was almost dead and what Malam received was a being hanging in between the mud in the river and splashing water.
Except for the above, the apparent 'real story' of his ‘birth’, nothing is known about him.
Malam and Matijan had no children. They felt deep affection for the child who was by then nadly affected physically by a deadly bacterial attack of small pox, particularly to his e face. Lalon even lost an eye from the disease. The care and love Lalon received from Malam and Matijan helped him recover and for the rest of his life, the couple was his only family. Matijan and Malam’s household became his place of re-searching, learning and articulating the wisdom of life.
When the wisdom of Lalon started to shine he drew many disciples. But it is Matijan, it seems, that was the first devotee to grasp Lalon's message. In recognition of her wisdom, love and motherly care, Lalon instructed that Matijan be buried next to him. It is important to note here, hat Lalon’s shrine should be named as the Matijan-Lalon shrine – and that was the wish of Lalon; but his wishes could not realise due to the dominance of patriarchal culture in the society, despite the fact that to the Lalon followers it is the shrine where Lalon and Matijan are sleeping side by side; Malam is buried along with Lalon’s other close disciples, outside the main shrine.
Lalon died at the age of 116 years on the first of the Bengali month Kartik (mid October). The day he was ready to say good bye to his disciples it was a kind of celebration in songs and joy. Lalon did not believe there was anything beyond death, but death was a personal event, an experience that remained beyond language. No one could taste death for others. So he was anxious to develop a cultural encounter with death to destroy its theological spectre.
It is said that he was singing a song when the time arrived for him to leave. ‘I am going’ – he said to his disciples. It is sung throughout a whole night. For Lalon, death was not something fearful, as theologians have made people believe. One has to prepare happily for death. This is a cultural preparation. Dying is like a marriage. Something you look forward to. Fear of death must be overcome. Therefore the white colour signifies the preparation for death, a cultural thing and not any so-called spiritual icon or sign of asceticism; white never implies denial of life in Lalon’s teachings.
He lived a very healthy life, taking care of of very meticulously developing a food system which is unique in Bengal. It is inspired by the Vaishnavites of Bengal, but unlike Vaishanavs and Brahmins, Lalon rejected the idea of food hierarchies or in other words vegetarianism. If one starts making hierarchies in food system sooner or later it is reproduced as social hierarchies, into caste systems, or vice versa. His food system was based on metaphoric avoidance of certain food since food are also symbols and elements of language. One should avoid meat if animal in any culture is metaphorically seen as a being unable to control inherent desires or biological propensities. He was not an ascetic and not a vegetarian. Vegetarianism in Bengal was associated with Brahmanism and Lalon did not believe in the food regime of ‘pure and impure food’ of the higher castes.
To Lalon followers the proper name ‘Lalon’ is immortal and will generate a plethora of meanings if the name is evoked in any social context and will guide people to journeys to joyful lifestyles, although, bodily, he disappeared. Lalon appeared as an idea in flesh and blood and such appearance is known as ‘abirbhab’; accordingly the death or the disappearance is called ‘tirodhan’. These terms are full of philosophical implications.
It is interesting to note that the biological act of birth has no meaning as such to Lalon or Lalon’s followers, rather it is the appearance of wisdom in biological forms. Our capacity to transcend the natural given biological being is the event of ‘appearing’ that we should look for. This event is to be celebrated, not the birth. So Lalon has no birth date, no one knows when he was born. But when the proper name called ‘Lalon’ appeared as the symbol of wisdom, we instantly realise that an event has been born in time, place and in specific being in flesh and blood. This event could never be erased by death or time. This event is known in Lalon’s philosophy as ‘Shahaj Manush’, literally means ‘simple appearing of being’ but went more deeper than the preceding Vaishnava movements known as ‘Shahajiyas’ but retaining the truth of the biomateriality of the ‘body’.
Shahaj Manush appears in the real material body, and no abstract spirituality is attached to the notion. Lalon was thoroughly am materialist, and was never believed in the so called ‘spirit’ or spirituality’ beyond the domain of the body.
Hindus claimed Lalon as belonging to their religious sect and so did Muslims. Both communities wanted to communalise him, after his name became a household word. Communalisation of his birth is a possibility he anticipated in his life time and a reason he never revealed his identity.
His followers were humble people and their protests went unheard because of intense communal claims by both religious communities. Hindus said, he was a Kayastha, adopted by a Muslim guru, and Muslims said he was a Muslim by birth. Yet Lalon never revealed his Guru. He just continued to live with Matijan and Malam, who adopted him as their son and later as their Guru, throughout his life. He was not very widely known during his life time, although he was noted by many eminent writers and intellectuals of his time, such as Rabindranath Tagore.
However, Lalon did not seek contacts with the middle or upper class. He did not even want to be anywhere near Rabindranath Tagore, because Tagore came from a Zamindar (large land owners) family. However when Tagore invited him, he did not go; both lived around the same time in Bengal.
Another famous man of that time was Ramakrishna. But Lalon could never become like Ramkrishna, charming the elites of Kolkata. All his life he lived at the outskirts of Kushtia.
Lalon was against all forms of socio-economic hierarchy, caste, class, and gender and any forms of politics of identity based on race, nationality, etc. He did not believe in divisions according to “Jat“(caste), “path” (hierarchies and division of social space by which who can accept food and water from whom is determined ), class, patriarchy, religion and nation.
Lalon was not a nationalist, despite the fact the anti-colonial nationalist movement was fermenting in the subcontinent. It does not imply that he is not against colonial oppression, of course he was; he was against all forms of oppression. However, when the oppressed constitutes an identity as a necessary tool to encounter the oppressor, the identity overtakes the universality of human beings. Perhaps he saw the danger in identity politics decaying into fetish. Imaginary identities may appear as real and could become a serious hindrance to resolve human conflicts and can not move beyond the apparent differences to celebrate the unity of the human beings.
When he was found by Malam and Matijan, Lalon was already a grown up boy and it is obvious that he knew about his family, his village and his community. Nevertheless, he never revealed his family background or the so called ‘identity’. This act of non-disclosure of his origin that Lalon maintained all of his life is highly political. Living in a society violently divided by caste, hierarchy and communal division, Lalon knew very well that the so-called natural origins or birth histories always create social meaning and produce politics of identities. He was vehemently opposed to caste, all forms of social and economic hierarchies, communal identities or all forms of social difference that might carry slightest potential to breed political division in the society. No wonder, he wrote many songs against caste, family status and hierarchy. He adopted the name ‘Lalon’, a curious choice – it could be a name belonging to any community and could also be a name of a woman.
Lalon is brilliant in raising very fundamental issues relating to women-men relationship playing on the margin between biological and the social construction of this relation.
The famous song
‘mayere bhajile hoy tar baper thikana’
is based on a story known in rural Bengal. Parvati, one of the great Hindu Mother-Goddesses, the wife of Mohadeva or Shiva, was once asked by her husband about the origin of the world. Is it from the masculine or the feminine principle? -- Mohadeva asked Parvati. Parvati thought for a while, but decided consciously not to reply, she went into ‘silence’. Why? Because if she says the world originated from women, implying her, she will be a sinner of being a bad wife, since patriarchal rules were dominant. On the other hand, if she says it is from the masculine principle, implying Shiva, she will become a liar. So her ‘silence’ became her words, or her words are made of silences. Silence is the feminine punctuation in the masculine discourse and it could be read only through a methodology known in Lalon’s philosophy as the ‘nigam bichar’. It is the task of the sadhus or the saints to read the ‘silence’ and break both the dominant structure of the existing discourse and the patriarchal relation.
Most importantly, Lalon indeed raised the difficult methodological question of addressing the biological difference between men and women and the social meaning they produce in different social contexts constituting various forms patriarchal hierarchies between women and men. The famous song, ‘mayere bhajile hoy tar baper thikana’ could be read from that perspective as well. The meaning of the Father is revealed only through the naming the name of the Mother and that is indeed the task of the real wisdom, he claimed.
The philosophical twist of the Bengali word ‘bhajana’ is almost impossible to translate in other language. ‘Mayere bhajile’ literally means ‘worshipping mothers’ but Lalon was meaning completely opposite of deifying the women as Devi, but inviting intellectual and meditative engagement to reveal the meaning of being Mother (not motherhood). Mother signifies the origin of all beings both as the ceaseless process (Prakriti), as well as the subject of the process. Mother is both the Subject and the process. Father or Shiva is not an independent entity outside Mother, or Parvati, but integral to the notion of Mother. So, one knows Father only by knowing the Mother.
He did not use the concept “nari“ (woman), but always referred to “mother-father“ dialectics. “If you want to know the father you have to worship mother”– an unconditional submission to the feminine principle is demanded by his philosophy and the lifestyle.
He was familiar with Hindu as well as with Muslim religion and mythology and used both freely in his talks and songs. Thus, the Hindu god Krishna played a great role in his songs.
About Lalon’s philosophical and mystic school
Chaitanya Mohaprabhu or Lord Sri Chaitanya was born at Nabadwip, a small village in undivided Bengal and the district it belonged was known as ‘Nadia’. The present district of Kushtia where we have Lalon’s shrine was indeed part of Nadia. Nabadwip means New Island that rose from the river Ganga. Lalon carried the philosophical legacies of Nadia. It is not merely a geography, an administrative district, but the history of an unique formation where Islam in the Eastern part of India grounded itself, encountered and mingled with Jaina, Buddhist, Hindu and other religions and cultural practices and generated great literary, philosophical and the cultural movement Bengalis are proud of. Nadia was the center of learning, the great place for Indian Logic, Sankhya and Baisheshik philosophies and a strong oral tradition of dissemination of knowledge. The theoretical and the philosophical sophistication of Lalon was not surprising at all, if we remain aware of the glory of Nadia.
Lalon belonged to the “Nadia“-school of Vaishnavism retaining all the legacies of Bengal’s Tantric tradition. It is partly true, but wrong because he is also a break in Nadia school. Broadly speaking, there were two paradigms in Vaishnavism recognised by Lalon followers: the Brindavan school and the Nadia school. They would argue that after Chaitanya, the great spiritual leader of Vaishnavism left Nadia for Brindabon leaving Nadia in charge of Nityananda, the struggle against caste and social hierarchies continued. Nityananda is the great Guru of Bengal’s tantric, bhakti and socio-political movement of the most oppressed.
He was one of the three trio, in Bengal known as ‘tin pagol’, or three mad men of Bengal, the other was Aidaitacharya.
Needless to mention that they infused different elements in the Nadia school, but the movement took specific character under the leadership of Nitynanda, followed by his son Birbhadra and a Muslim woman known as Madhab bibi. This is the reason why all the spiritual movements of Bengal that grew from the grass root and articulating the voice of the subalterns, invariably refers to Nityanada as the Guru of all Gurus, wisest among the wise, etc. Because, they claim, it is Nityananda -- and not Chaitanya, the great logician and master in linguistic and rhetoric, or the great Brahmin scholar Aidaityacharya – both coming from the higher caste Brahmin family, was central to the great philosophical revolution in Bengal that started with Chaitanya’s appearance in Nadia. Even until today any subaltern socio-spiritual movement articulating in songs, known in Bengal as ‘bauls’ or ‘bayatis’ will first offer his or her song to Nityananda.
In contrast to Nadia, the Brindabon school appropriated the glory of Chaitanya to turn his teachings into a canonical ‘shastra’ (religious discipline) of Vaishanavism.
Two types of transformations took place:
(a) oral to the textual – the oral tradition of knowledge production through songs, theatrical performances and social mobilisation had been turned into canonical texts;
(b) secondly, the religious texts were rendered lifeless, they were taken away from the popular knowledge practice and were written in Sanskrit.
Brindabon is therefore a turning back to the caste ridden Hindu tradition to become an integral part of Hinduism. Chaitanya was uplifted again to the upper caste, this has always remained the major complain of the school developed after Nityananda in Nadia and culminated in the figure we now know as Fakir Lalon Shah. The Brindabon school is popular among middle and upper classes and castes and acceptable to Brahmanism.
On the contrary, Nadia rejected Brahmanism all along. Brindabon as a reaction has turned against Nadia; the profound philosophical turns in Nadia has been systematically ignored and silenced by the educated elite of Bengal by simply referring them as ‘Lok Sangeet’ – folk songs. Fakir Lalon and others are simply known as ‘bauls’ -- a misused and abusive term by the upper caste and upper class elite implying that these philosophical utterances rendered in songs should simply be treated as musical performances by some lowly rural minstrel who resigned on life and has nothing to do in the real material world. Their musicals are overly sad overtures of some poor fellows that often break your heart!
Having said this, we must also say it categorically that Lalon was not a mystic, in the sense. let’s say. Jalaluddin Rumi is a mystic. He is strongly grounded in the philosophical traditions of Bengal and one can easily make sense of him. To produce meanings of Lalon’s poetico-philosophical statements, that could also be sung, one must have some basic readings in Chaitanya’s teachings, an understanding of the difference between the Shakta and Vaishanava bhakti movements, Navya Naya (or Bengal’s logical systems), Shankhya philosophy and good command over Islamic philosophy and others.
One can not understand Lalon unless taking an historical account of Tantra of Bengal.
It is very difficult to talk about Tantra because of its vulgar representation and understanding in the west as a sexual art of maximizing pleasure. This is completely opposite what Lalon would mean by it. Of course in this ‘exotic’ subcontinent there have been utterly perverse Tantric traditions that attracted the tourists and the Orientalists. The consumerist capitalist society has also discovered in Tantra a ‘spiritual’ or ‘new age’ justification to practice all kinds of sexual perversion and packaged them as commodities to sell in the market. Nevertheless, Tantra is a generic term and there are many Tantras. So, how could we respond to the enquiry is Lalon a Tantric? The reply should depend what one means by Tantra or Tantric? Yes Lalon is a Tantric but he is also not a Tantric as we understand Tantra now. He was bitterly critical of Tantra as well, as named his practices as ‘Karan’ – literally means practice.
To make our point intelligible, Lalon was a materialist, that is what Tantra meant to him, and he is situated within the tradition of Nityananda. It means that there is no truth outside the material body and separation of the human ‘body’ from its capacity to think is simply wrong or absurd. He would definitely reject the position of Descarte and the whole of western epistemological and ontological tradition for its false premise that ‘I think therefore I am’.
He would argue that the ‘body’ is given to us before we even start thinking; the obsession to be certain of the existence or certainty of the truth of a statement will have to be assessed by the desire behind such impulse. There is no truth as such, we become true through the use of our ‘body’ in a self determined way in the material-historical world – this is the meaning of Tantra for Lalon. He will also reject western materialism that began with weird and mystical conception of ‘matter’, in order to reconstitute body and consciousness by that category remaining eternally forgetful that all these categories are products of his or her thinking bodies in its unitary form.
The ‘body’ is the universe and the universe is the body -- it is the first axiomatic principle of Tantra. One can easily notice that there is nothing about sex or sexuality in this basic premise. So ‘body’ is not an individual entity but a continuum, the challenge is to ‘taste’ the universe in and through the body as a material being, both as a means as well as the Being of all knowing.
To do it well one should remain healthy, must remain conscious about body and follow how the body behaves under different conditions and how it is related to our faculties, etc. Body has sexual impulses known in bangla as ‘Kam’, it is natural. However, the body of the human beings has also the capacity to transform ‘kam’ into ‘prem’ – that is love, love for others. In human bodies Kam and Prem stay together like poison and the nectar. It is the task of the wise person to extract the nectar from the poison. One can not taste love without the material impulse of the body, but love transcends the body – and such transcendence happens only in the case of human bodies – and that is his point.
Lalon was not a Sufi at all. Sufi traditions do not have the same ontological or epistemological premise like Lalon, more so, since Lalon was never theological. Sufis, being a spiritual movement originated within Islam, can not but accept the existence of Allah before any other being. In love of Allah Sufis desire to be reunited with the Being of all beings. In contrast Lalon will never assume a Being outside the given ‘body’ of human beings. Allah is right here in the human shape to ‘know’ and ‘taste’ himself, Lalon would argue.
Allah Ke bujhe tomar opar Lile
Tumi Apni Allah dako Allah bole
O Allah who could decipher your endless play
You are the Allah but calling for Allah yourself
‘Allah’ is what human beings experiences in their thinking bodies and calling out for that being in their language and theologies.
He is misunderstood as Sufi because his songs are replete with Arabic and Persian words and Islamic metaphors. However, careful readings reveal that he not only criticized and distanced himself from Sufis, but offered a quite original interpretation of the meaning of prophet hood and the spiritual mission of Islam – to rediscover Allah in the human body. He never deviated from the Nadia School, but encountered and absorbed the great Sufi traditions as well as Islamic philosophy resolving the questions raised by those traditions within his system of thought.
Nevertheless Sufis were his close allies. He never undermined the spiritual strength of Islam and one is simply astonished to note how the converging and often conflicting trends are being resolved and absorbed by him. He wrote plenty of songs for Mohammed and similarly plenty for Chaitanya and Nityananda. His songs interpret the philosophical meaning of Chaitnaya over and above the appearance of a historical figure. These are known as songs deciphering ‘Gourtattya’. Similarly, he interpreted in ‘Nabitattya’ – the meaning of the arrival of the last prophet, explained the significance of the prophet-hood of Muhammed, the messenger of Islam. Through these songs he brilliantly positioned himself as the great philosopher explaining the idea of the ‘wise’ and the ‘wisdom’ and the necessity in every epoch of the arrival of a Guru -- the wisest of the wise – who in flesh and blood must re-interpret all texts and utterances that went before her or him to remind the human beings their mission of becoming true through their socio-historical role to emancipation.
It is profoundly important to understand Lalon within the Nadia tradition or as the apex of the philosophical schools within ‘Nadia Parimandal’ (circle of Nadia) and not as Sufi tradition, despite the fact that Sufis are allies to Nadia, otherwise one could completely miss the contribution of Lalon to philosophical discourse. I will try quickly to make my point clear.
Let’s go back to Chaitanya. Chaitanya did not want to become a Brahmacharya (a celibate). He was married. He accepted celibacy only after he decided to become a Sanyashi (determination to give up all worldly affairs). He is one of the famous Indian logicians. But in the day to day rhetoric with his wife his intelligent philosophical mind concluded that the neither Logic nor Rhetoric is the way to truth; in the same degree intellectualism is not the ideal human practice to become true.
Chaitnaya’s philosophy is based on the love story of Krishna and Radha. Chaitanya started to claim that when Krishna as a man made love with Radha he tasted the ‘body’ as a masculine being. But how did Radha – the feminine – did taste Krishna? How Radha felt the ‘body’? Taste here is used in a very literal and sensuous way but at the same time in a highly philosophical sense. The actual bangle word is ‘ashwadon’. In the western philosophy taste as faculty of knowledge has hardly any role and pathetically undermined in the hierarchy of senses.
But Chaitanya biologically is a man. Is it possible for the man to taste the body as woman? Chaitanya claimed in the affirmative, yes, he said, it is possible and thus he made the first philosophical revolution in the history of Tantra. To Tantra or to the pre-chaitanya Tantric tradition body is material in the sense of materialism in the western philosophical tradition.. Chaitanya said, when you do not see your lover and bodily feel the loss -- the feeling, the imagination of the loss of the lover, the imaginary pain of the heart are at the same time the pains of the body. What Chaitanya was arriving at is the role of imagination in human history, Imaginations are real, and human beings can transcend the body by imagining himself as woman. Femininity can not be locked in the biology. Chaitanya transformed his bodily desires as the desire of Radha for Krishna. But neither Radha nor Krishna are real beings. Desiring the imaginary as the object of sensuous love opened up a new philosophical horizon. This is the great philosophical revolution in Bengal. We can not go detail into other profound contribution of Chaitanya but it must be understood that Chaitanya’s practice is both a practice of the body as well as the imagination. He used to be called ‘Gour’ or ‘Gora’ meaning fair. He was very handsome and very attractive. The legend goes that through his practice he incarnated both Krishna and Radha in his body. Through his desire and intense urge to taste his body he united the masculine and femine in his material body, emotion and imaginations. Philosophically it implies that imagination can take material form and human history can not be explained without taking account of the human dreams and imaginations, including revolutionary or radical departures.
Lalon accepted Chaitanya but with a reservation. He realized that Chaitanya brought the desire for the imaginary non-being of love-object at the center of human objective and this unfolded the immense possibility of the human ‘body’. However, in his songs he argued, Chaitanya must also be understood in epistemological terms and not simply as a metaphor, i.e. incarnation of Krishna.
So he raised the first brilliant question, albeit metaphorically: if Chaitanya is the incarnation of Krishna, why is he not ‘black”? Why is he ‘fair”? In bangla Krishna means black. If Chaitanya is was ‘balack’ when he was Krishna, why he is now fair? Well because Chaitanya is both Krishna and Radha in one body, he is both male and female. If so, why Krishna had to re-incarnate again in Bengal? The reply from Lalon is that he had three incomplete tasks and therefore he had to incarnate to accomplish these tasks. What were these tasks? One could decipher the tasks from the activities of Chaitanya. Interpreting Lalon;s famous song, ‘moner katha bolbo kare ami moner katha bolbo kare / mon jane ar jane maram mojechi mon diye jare…we could easil;y decipher what were the tasks of Krishna in the incarnated body of the ‘Gour’ (Chaitanya). These tasks according to Lalon:
1. To destroy the dominance of male or masculine principle and erase the gender divide, biology should not be the determinant of our desire for the good life or should not be the hindrance for emancipatory imaginations.
2. To develop the will to transcend worldly affair, to cultivate authentic human desires; implying to do away with the ego and the private property.
3. To transform the personal love into universal love for all and to be self conscious ‘slave’ to the community
One could easily note that these are all non-Brahmanical desires. One may also sense that the philosophico-political turn of Bangladesh could only begin with Fakir Lalon Shah.
(Published in the New Age Eid Supplement 2005 - reprinted with kind permission of Farhad Mazhar in this website )