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On Fakir Lalon Shah

(Based on an interview by Prof Maria Mies with Farhad Mazhar in Dhaka


on January 28, 2004)

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Lalons 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 tributary of Ganga, that flowed through Kushtia, but has
since dried out; he was a fifteen to sixteen year old boy 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 material being but as non-being, arouses very
deep symbolic meaning among Lalons followers. Thats the
reason why the symbolic narrative about the origin of Lalon
became integral to Lalons philosophy as well: his birth is both
known and unknown. It is known because he came from water,
from Kaliganga river, but he is still unknown since he was
practically dead and what Malam received is a being hanging in
between the river mud and splash 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 then affected 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 the rest of his life the couple
was his family. Matijan and Malams 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
motherly care Lalon did instruct that Matijan be buried next to
him. In fact, and it is important to note, Lalons shrine should be
named as Matijan-Lalon shrine and that was the wish of Lalon;
but this wish remained unfulfilled because of 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 and Malam is also buried along with Lalons other close
disciples.

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
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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. You have 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 emblem.

He lived a very healthy life, taking care of health very
meticulously and developed 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 is also a
symbol and element of language. One should avoid meat if animal
in any culture is metaphorically seen as devoid of control of
emotion and 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 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 joyful lifestyles,
although, bodily, he disappeared. Lalon appeared as an idea in
flesh and blood and such appearance 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 Lalons followers, it is the appearance
of the wisdom in the biological forms and our capacity to
transcend the naturally given biological being, 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 Lalon appeared as the
symbol of wisdom, we instantly realise that an event had been born
in time, place and in specific being. This event could never be
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erased by death or time. This event is known in Lalons philosophy
as Shahaj Manush, literally means simple appearing 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
anticipated in his life time and that is the reason he never revealed
his identity. His followers were humble people and their protests
went unheard because of intense communal claims by two
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 search contact with the middle and upper
class. He did not even want to come near Rabindranath Tagore,
because Tagore came from a Zamindar family. 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 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 fomenting 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. It is a hindrance to resolve human 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 obvious that he knew about his family, his
village and his community. Nevertheless, he never revealed his
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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
woman-man relationships 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 said the world originated from
women, implying her, she will be a sinner for being a bad wife,
since patriarchal rules were dominant. On the other hand, if she
said it is from the masculine principle, implying Shiva, she will
become a liar. So her silence became her words, or her words are
constructed by her silence. Silence is the the feminine punctuation
in the masculine discourse and it must be rewritten as a
methodology known in Lalons philosophy as the nigam bichar.
It is the task of the sadhus or the saints to read the silence and
break the dominant structure of the existing discourse.

Most importantly, Lalon 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 of patriarchal hierarchies
between women and men. The famous song, mayere bhajile hoy
tar baper thikana is a brilliant example. 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 into other languages. Mayere bhajile
literally means worshipping mothers but Lalon was meaning
completely opposite of deifying the women as Devi, but inviting
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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. 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 Lalons 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 Lalons 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 a unique formation
where Islam in the Eastern part of India grounded itself,
encountered and mingled with Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism 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 philosophy 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.

It is said that Lalon belonged to the Nadiaschool of
Vaishnavism retaining all the legacies of Bengals 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: 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
Bengals tantric, bhakti and socio-political movement of the most
oppressed. He was one of the trinity, 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
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Nadia school, but the movement took specific character under the
leadership of Nityananda, 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 articulated the voice of the subalterns, invariably refers to
Nityanada as the Guru of all Gurus of wisdom. 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 Chaitanyas 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
returning 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 complain of the school
developed after Nityananda in Nadia and culminated in the figure
we now know as Fakir Lalon Shah. The Brindavan school is
popular among middle and upper classes and castes and accepted
to Brahmanism. Nadia rejected Brahmanism all along. And so did
Brindabon and 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 of, lets 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
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Lalons poetico-philosophical statements, that could also be sung,
one must have some basic readings in Chaitanya teachings, an
understanding of the difference between the Shakta and
Vaishanava bhakti movements, Navya Naya (or Bengals logical
systems), Shankhya philosophy and good command over Islamic
philosophy and others.

It is very difficult to talk about Tantra because of its vulgar
representation and understanding in the west: a sexual art of
maximizing pleasure, which is completely opposite what Lalon
would mean by it. In this exotic subcontinent there have been
utterly perverse Tantric traditions that attracted the 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 packaged them as
commodities to sell in the market. Nevertheless, Tantra is a generic
term and there are many Tantras. So, responding to the enquiry Is
Lalon a Tantric? the reply should depend what you mean 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 meaning
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 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 his 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.

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 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,
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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 being also has the capacity to transform
kam into prem that is love, love for others. In human bodies
Kam and Prem is mixed together like poison and nectar. It is the
task of the wise person to extract the nectar from the poison. One
cannot taste love without the material impulse of the body, but love
transcends the body and it 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 as 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 words and Islamic metaphors. However, careful readings
reveal that he not only criticised and distanced himself from Sufis,
but offered a quite original interpretation of the meaning of
prophethood 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
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deciphering Gourtattya. Similarly, he interpreted in Nabitattya
the meaning of the arrival of the last prophet, explained the
significance of the prophethood 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. Let me
try to make this point clearer.
Lets 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.
Chaitnayas 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 taste Krishna? How did Radha
feel 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 Bangla 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 a woman does? Chaitanya claimed yes 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
sense. Chaitanya said, when you do not see your lover and
physically 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.

Imagination is real, and human beings can transcend the body by
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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 is the great philosophical revolution in
Bengal. Chaitanyas 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. 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 realised 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, e.g. incarnation of Krishna.

So he metaphorically raised the first brilliant question. If
Chaitanya is the incarnation of
Krishna, why is he not black? Why is he fair? In Bangla
Krishna means black. Well because Chaitanya is both Krishna and
Radha in one body, he is both male and female. If so, why did
Krishna re-incarnate again in Bengal? The reply from Lalon is that
he had three incomplete tasks. What were these tasks? One could
decipher the tasks from the activities of Chaitanya.
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 affairs, 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 a self conscious slave to the community (all non-
Brahmanical desires).
I am interpreting his famous song, moner katha bolbo kare ami
moner katha bolbo kare / mon jane ar jane maram mojechi mon
diye jare'