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On Fakir Lalon Shah

On Fakir Lalon Shah

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Published by api-26531682
A refreshing take on Lalon and his ideas by Mazhar.
A refreshing take on Lalon and his ideas by Mazhar.

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Published by: api-26531682 on Oct 18, 2008
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04/04/2014

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On Fakir Lalon Shah
by Farhad Mazhar 
Lalon‘s origin is not known. No one knows where he was born, who his parents were, which religious,ethnic or cultural communities he belonged to. A farmer found him in the Kaliganga river, a tributaryof Ganga, that flowed through Kushtia, but has since dried out; he was a fifteen to sixteen year oldboy 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 back to health.That his life was surviving in between soil and water, in between elemental realities of materialbeing but as non-being, arouses very deep symbolic meaning among Lalon’s followers. That’s thereason why the symbolic narrative about the origin of Lalon became integral to Lalon’s philosophyas well: his birth is both known and unknown. It is known because he came from water, fromKaliganga river, but he is still unknown since he was practically dead and what Malam received is abeing hanging in between the river mud and slash of the water. Except this real story of his ‘birth’no one knows where he belonged.Malam and Matijan had no children. They both felt deep affection for the boy who was by thenaffected badly by the deadly bacterial attack, particularly in the face. Lalon lost an eye to small pox. The care and love Lalon received from Malam and Matijan helped him to recover well and for therest of his life the couple was his 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 become obvious he drew many disciples. But it was Matijan,it seems, who was the first devotee to grasp Lalon. In recognition of her wisdom, love and motherlycare Lalon did instruct that Matijan be buried next to him. In fact, and it is important to note, Lalon’sshrine should be named as Matijan-Lalon shrine – and that was the wish of Lalon; but this wishremained unfulfilled because of the dominance of patriarchal culture in the society, despite the factthat to the Lalon followers it is the shrine where Lalon and Matijan are sleeping side by side andMalam is also buried along with Lalon’s other close disciples.Lalon died at the age of 116 years. On the first of the Bengali month Kartik (mid October). The dayhe was ready to say good bye to his disciples it was a kind of celebration in songs and joy. Lalon didnot believe there was anything beyond death, but death was a personal event, an experience thatremained beyond language. No one could taste death for others. So he was anxious to develop acultural 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 saidto his disciples. It is sung throughout a whole night. For Lalon, death was not something fearful, astheologians have made people believe. You have to prepare happily for death. This is a culturalpreparation. Dying is like a marriage. Something you look forward to. Fear of death must beovercome. Therefore the white colour signifies the preparation for death, a cultural thing and notany so-called spiritual emblem.He lived a very healthy life, taking care of health very meticulously and developed a food systemwhich is unique in Bengal. It is inspired by the Vaishnavites of Bengal, but unlike Vaishanavs andBrahmins, Lalon rejected the idea of food hierarchies or in other words vegetarianism. If one startsmaking hierarchies in food system sooner or later it is reproduced as social hierarchies, into castesystems, or vice versa. His food system was based on metaphoric avoidance of certain food sincefood is also a symbol and element of language. One should avoid meat if animal in any culture ismetaphorically seen as devoid of control of emotion and biological propensities. He was not anascetic and not a vegetarian. Vegetarianism in Bengal was associated with Brahmanism and Lalondid not believe in the food regime of ‘pure and impure food’ of the higher castes.To the 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 joyfullifestyles, although, bodily, he disappeared. Lalon appeared as an idea in flesh and blood and suchappearance is known as ‘abirvhab’; 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’sfollowers, it is the appearance of the wisdom in the biological forms and our capacity to transcendthe naturally given biological being, the event of ‘appearing’, that we should look for. This event isto be celebrated, not the birth. So Lalon has no birth date, no one knows when he was born. Butwhen the proper name ‘Lalon’ appeared as the symbol of wisdom, we instantly realise that an eventhad been born in time, place and in specific being. This event could never be erased by death ortime. This event is known in Lalon’s philosophy as ‘Shahaj Manush’, literally means ‘simpleappearing of being’ but went deeper than the preceding Vaishnava movements known as
 
‘Shahajiyas’.Hindus claimed Lalon as their own as did Muslims. Both communities wanted to communalise him,after his name became a household word. Communalisation of his birth is a possibility he anticipatedin his life time and that is the reason he never revealed his identity. His followers were humblepeople and their protests went unheard because of intense communal claims by two religiouscommunities. Hindus said he was a Kayastha, adopted by a Muslim guru, and Muslims said he was aMuslim 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 widelyknown during his life time, although he was noted by many eminent writers and intellectuals of histime, such as Rabindranath Tagore.However, Lalon did not search contact with the middle and upper class. He did not even want tocome near Rabindranath Tagore, because Tagore came from a Zamindar family. When Tagoreinvited him, he did not go; both lived around the same time in Bengal. Another famous man of thattime was Ramakrishna.But Lalon could never become like Ramkrishna, charming the elites of Kolkata. All his life he livedat 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 by which who can accept food and water from whom), class, patriarchy,religion and nation.Lalon was not a nationalist, despite the fact the anti-colonial nationalist movement was fomentingin the subcontinent. It does not imply that he is not against colonial oppression, of course he was; hewas against all forms of oppression. However, when the oppressed constitutes an identity as anecessary tool to encounter the oppressor, the identity overtakes the universality of human beings.Perhaps he saw the danger in identity politics decaying into fetish. It is a hindrance to resolvehuman conflicts and go beyond the difference 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 obviousthat he knew about his family, his village and his community. Nevertheless, he never revealed hisfamily background or the so called ‘identity’. This act of non-disclosure of his origin that Lalonmaintained all of his life is highly political. Living in a society violently divided by caste, hierarchyand communal division, Lalon knew very well that the so-called natural origins or birth historiesalways create social meaning and produce politics of identities. He was vehemently opposed tocaste, all forms of social and economic hierarchies, communal identities or all forms of socialdifference that might carry slightest potential to breed political division in the society. No wonder, hewrote many songs against caste, family status and hierarchy. He adopted the name ‘Lalon’, acurious choice – it could be a name belonging to any community and could also be a name of awoman.Lalon is brilliant in raising very fundamental issues relating to woman-man relationships playing onthe margin between biological and the social construction of this relation. The famous song ‘mayerebhajile hoy tar baper thikana’ is based on a story known in rural Bengal. Parvati, one of the greatHindu Mother-Goddesses, the wife of Mohadeva or Shiva, was once asked by her husband about theorigin 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 said the world originated from women, implying her, she will be a sinner for being abad wife, since patriarchal rules were dominant. On the other hand, if she said it is from themasculine principle, implying Shiva, she will become a liar. So her ‘silence’ became her words, or herwords are constructed by her silence. Silence is the the feminine punctuation in the masculinediscourse and it must be rewritten as a methodology known in Lalon’s philosophy as the ‘nigambichar’. It is the task of the sadhus or the saints to read the ‘silence’ and break the dominantstructure of the existing discourse.Most importantly, Lalon raised the difficult methodological question of addressing the biologicaldifference between men and women and the social meaning they produce in different socialcontexts constituting various forms of patriarchal hierarchies between women and men. The famoussong, ‘mayere bhajile hoy tar baper thikana’ is a brilliant example. The meaning of the Father isrevealed only through the naming the name of the Mother and that is indeed the task of the realwisdom, he claimed. The philosophical twist of the Bengali word ‘bhajana’ is almost impossible totranslate into other languages. ‘Mayere bhajile’ literally means ‘worshipping mothers’ but Lalon wasmeaning completely opposite of deifying the women as Devi, but inviting intellectual and meditativeengagement 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. Father orShiva 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 youwant to know the father you have to worship mother’ – an unconditional submission to the feminineprinciple 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 inhis talks and songs. Thus, the Hindu god Krishna played a great role in his songs.About Lalon’s philosophical and mystic schoolChaitanya Mohaprabhu or Lord Sri Chaitanya was born at Nabadwip, a small village in undividedBengal and the district it belonged was known as ‘Nadia’. The present district of Kushtia where wehave Lalon’s shrine was indeed part of Nadia. Nabadwip means New Island that rose from the riverGanga. Lalon carried the philosophical legacies of Nadia. It is not merely a geography, anadministrative district, but the history of a unique formation where Islam in the Eastern part of Indiagrounded itself, encountered and mingled with Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions andcultural practices and generated great literary, philosophical and the cultural movement Bengalisare proud of. Nadia was the center of learning, the great place for Indian Logic, Sankhya andBaisheshik philosophy and a strong oral tradition of dissemination of knowledge. The theoretical andthe philosophical sophistication of Lalon was not surprising at all, if we remain aware of the glory of Nadia.It is said that 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 the Nadia school.Broadly speaking, there were two paradigms in Vaishnavism recognised by Lalon followers: theBrindavan school and the Nadia school. They would argue that after Chaitanya, the great spiritualleader of Vaishnavism left Nadia for Brindabon leaving Nadia in charge of Nityananda, the struggleagainst 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 trinity, in Bengalknown as ‘tin pagol’, or three mad men of Bengal, the other was Aidaitacharya. Needless to mentionthat they infused different elements in the Nadia school, but the movement took specific characterunder the leadership of Nityananda, followed by his son Birbhadra and a Muslim woman known asMadhab bibi. This is the reason why all the spiritual movements of Bengal that grew from the grassroot and articulated the voice of the subalterns, invariably refers to Nityanada as the Guru of allGurus of wisdom. Because, they claim, it is Nityananda and not Chaitanya, the great logician andmaster in linguistic and rhetoric or the great Brahmin scholar Aidaityacharya – both coming from thehigher caste Brahmin family, was central to the great philosophical revolution in Bengal that startedwith Chaitanya’s appearance in Nadia. Even until today any subaltern socio-spiritual movementarticulating in songs, known in Bengal as ‘bauls’ or ‘bayatis’ will first offer his or her song toNityananda.In contrast to Nadia, the Brindabon school appropriated the glory of Chaitanya to turn histeachings into a canonical ‘shastra’ (religious discipline) of Vaishanavism. Two types of transformations took place: (a) oral to the textual – the oral tradition of knowledge productionthrough 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 popularknowledge practice and were written in Sanskrit. Brindabon is therefore a returning back to thecaste ridden Hindu tradition to become an integral part of Hinduism. Chaitanya was uplifted again tothe upper caste, this has always remained the complain of the school developed after Nityananda inNadia and culminated in the figure we now know as Fakir Lalon Shah. The Brindavan school ispopular among middle and upper classes and castes and accepted to Brahmanism. Nadia rejectedBrahmanism all along. And so did Brindabon and the profound philosophical turns in Nadia has beensystematically ignored and silenced by the educated elite of Bengal by simply referring them as ‘LokSangeet’ – folk songs. Fakir Lalon and others are simply known as ‘bauls’ — a misused and abusiveterm by the upper caste and upper class elite implying that these philosophical utterances renderedin songs should simply be treated as musical performances by some lowly rural minstrel whoresigned on life and has nothing to do in the real material world. Their musicals are overly sadovertures 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 of,let’s say, Jalaluddin Rumi as 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-philosophicalstatements, that could also be sung, one must have some basic readings in Chaitanya teachings, anunderstanding of the difference between the Shakta and Vaishanava bhakti movements, NavyaNaya (or Bengal’s logical systems), Shankhya philosophy and good command over Islamicphilosophy and others.It is very difficult to talk about Tantra because of its vulgar representation and understanding inthe west: a sexual art of maximizing pleasure, which is completely opposite what Lalon would meanby it. In this ‘exotic’ subcontinent there have been utterly perverse Tantric traditions that attractedthe tourists and the Orientalists, of course. The consumer capitalist society has also discovered in Tantra a ‘spiritual’ or ‘new age’ justification to practice all kinds of sexual perversion and packagedthem as commodities to sell in the market. Nevertheless, Tantra is a generic term and there aremany Tantras. So, responding to the enquiry ‘Is Lalon a Tantric?’ the reply should depend what youmean by Tantra or Tantric? Yes Lalon is a Tantric but he is also not a Tantric as we understand Tantra. He was bitterly critical of Tantra as well, as named his practices as ‘Karan’ – literally

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