By Madeleine Meyjes
Lalon Sai was a Bengali poet and singer whose work advocated for interfaith harmony in his work. Lalon’s songs have inspired many and his words can be returned to in order when promoting interfaith harmony. Many of Lalon’s teachings were not written but passed down orally. However, some verses have been preserved and from these, we can see Lalon’s rejection of caste and religious differences.
The details of Lalon’s life are widely known: he was born into a Hindu family around 1775. In his youth, he went on a pilgrimage and, after falling ill with smallpox, he was left to die by his companions (Capwell 1974, 129). However, Lalon was found by a Muslim family and nursed back to health. Lalon could no longer return to his Hindu family due to his time spent with Muslims, therefore, he followed the ‘non-conformist’ ways of the Bauls (Capwell 1974, 129).
The Bauls are a Bengali sect who “reject case and religious dogma” and are celebrated for their songs (Capwell 1974, 124). The oppression of lower castes by upper-caste Hindu and Islamic society encouraged the creation of “nonconformist sects” such as the Bauls. Bauls consider themselves “outsiders” of “organized religion” (Dutta 2019, 2). Lalon’s approach is typical of the Bauls with his criticism of the “caste system’ and forms of inequality perpetuated by the social order ( Dutta 2019, 3).
Lalon is an interesting figure because he is considered an advocate for what is now known as syncretism. One of the first definitions of syncretism given in 1971 by Michael Pye as the temporary ambiguous coexistence of elements from diverse religions and other contexts within a coherent religious pattern (Dutta 2019, 29) Although Lalon did not explicitly advocate for the combination of Hinduism and Islam, he did reject the differences between religions and caste. The best description of Lalon’s approach is the “pursuit of the universality of religions” (Togawa 2008, 28). His focus was on the transcendence of differences and the human experience of the divine rather than the institutions of religion.
One of Lalon’s most famous songs questions and rejects caste and religious identity: “If you circumcise the boy, he becomes Muslim…what’s the rule for women?…. Tell me what does caste look like? I’ve never seen it with the eyes of my brother!”
This text is interesting because Lalon questions the divisions used to separate followers of different religions and notes their arbitrary nature. In his work Lalon appears to apply a practical element to the apparently inherent differences in people in different faiths and castes: he questions the differences that he cannot see and feel between people and questions why there should be divisions between people of different castes and religions. Furthermore, Lalon recognizes that the “multiplicities in religion are created by men for their own interest” (Iseni and Hossain 2017,17)
His expressions of syncretism in his song and the example of his life can serve as inspiration and guidance to communities experiencing interfaith conflict. Lalon lived his life and voiced the teachings of the Baul in a humanistic manner, He adopted the Baul ways in the attempt to “transcend the boundaries of ego, sense of achievement, social hierarchy and unearned privileges” (Dutta 2019, 14). His teachings can be revisited and applied today in order to solve issues of religious discrimination.
In researching Lalon, it becomes evident that his teaching continues to have a universal value. Internationally scholars continue to refer to his work, despite the sparsity of translations, and use his words in their study of the religious history of the region of his birth, syncretism, mysticism, and reconciliation in interfaith conflict.