Awakin Talks » Parvathy Baul » Transcript
Parvathy Baul: To be a Praner Manush (A person of the Heart)
Guest: Parvathy Baul
Host: Rahul Mehta
Moderator: Gayathri Ramachandran
Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer-run offering of ServiceSpace, a global platform founded on the simple principle that by changing ourselves, we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us!
Rahul: Good morning, everyone. I warmly welcome you to ‘Awakin Talks’ today. The purpose of these Awakin Talks is to plant seeds for a compassionate society. And while we are all on our inner and outer journeys, these calls help us to hold space for our guests, who come from diverse backgrounds, and who inspire us to offer ourselves in service. Behind each such talk, there is a whole team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows for this space to manifest.
Today, our guest speaker is Parvathy Baul, currently based in the interiors of Bengal at Sanatan Siddhashram, that she is setting up as a tribute to her Guru. Today's ‘Awakin Talk’ will be moderated by Gayathri Ramachandran. Thank you all again for joining today's call. We would like to start the conversation with silence, to anchor ourselves in the space of the present moment. I invite you all to join in for a minute of silence.
Welcome back, everyone. Welcome again to our fortnightly ‘Awakin Talks’, today in conversation with Parvathy Baul, with Gayathri Ramachandran as our moderator. In a few minutes, I'll be handing it over to Gayathri who will introduce today's theme and will also introduce Parvathy Baul, and then dive into the interview, which is titled ‘To be a person of the heart: a Praner Manush’, as Tagore described the Bauls. By the top of the hour, Gayathri will also include audience questions and reflections. So anytime during this talk, you may want to share your questions and reflections for Parvathy by typing it in the chat window of our live-stream page. Or alternatively, you could also send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll repeat that -- email@example.com.
Just as a friendly reminder, we're operating in virtual space, with the usual constraints of technology, poor audio, video, bandwidth and so on. So please know that if there is a technological glitch, or any other issue, due to which we may lose either Gayathri or Parvathy momentarily, we will allow for some time while they join back. This is just asking for your understanding. Thank you very much!
I would quickly and briefly introduce Gayathri, who is the moderator for today's call. Gayathri Ramachandran spent the first three decades of her life being at the top of her class at every stage and acquiring a PhD in biology from NCBS-TIFR, which is the National Center for Biological Sciences, of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. She has spent the last few years balancing her head with her heart and engaging with a self-design alternative curriculum for life. This has included learning and sharing non-violent communication, working in her organic garden, with more than a hundred species of native trees, shrubs, and herbs, designing methods to move her family household toward zero waste, meditating and volunteering extensively with ServiceSpace, a global organization that runs several projects based on gift ecology principles. So welcome, Gayathri and thank you so much for moderating this conversation with Parvathy. Over to you, Gayathri.
Gayathri: Thank you, Rahul. Welcome everyone. And, it's a real privilege and a deep honor to be in conversation today with Parvathy Baul, a sadhaka or practitioner of the ancient Baul spiritual and musical tradition from the lands of undivided Bengal in the Indian subcontinent. Parvathy is also an instrumentalist, an accomplished painter, story-teller and performer, who has spent close to three decades now as a Baul sadhaka. Although she has performed in over 40 countries and in many acclaimed venues and music festivals, Parvathy’s life as a performer is unique because she does not perform for personal fame, prestige or money – she performs in service to a mission, and a vision she was given by one of her Gurus, Shri Sanatan Das Baul, who asked her to go forth and spread the spirit and message of the Bauls around the world
The energies channeled her way, whether money or other forms of capital, through these performances have been used to dream, birth, build and sustain an ashram for Baul minstrels, practitioners, and seekers who come in search of a taste of the Baul Truth, the Sanatan Siddhashram in rural West Bengal, near Santiniketan. The ashram broke ground in 2017 and is slowly coming into being. Parvathy sees the ashram to be a space for an archive of the Baul musical tradition, a space to see and serve the land as sacred by the practise of organic farming and by stewarding a collection of local native Bengali medicinal plants and other food plants. We witnessed this commitment in action when a rare white cobra decided to grant Parvathy and us darshan (a sacred appearance), when we touched base with her on a call last week, and Parvathy was overcome with joy at meeting the cobra -- she described the snake as a great yogic being and an exemplar of great restraint!
For my part, although I have never met Parvathy in person, probably like many of you, I have been fascinated and deeply inspired by her wisdom, her radiance and vitality visible even through the medium of online conversations and performances, her impish sense of humour and her carefree innocence and the freedom she embodies through her being and songs. Welcome, Parvathy. Joy Guru! Would you please bless this space with a song that you sense is appropriate to this conversation and this particular moment?
Parvathy: Joyguru, Gayathri. Joyguru, everyone. I'm really delighted. With great delight, I will be with you this morning, remembering the truth, the beautiful, inspiring lives of the masters and the teachings. And to start with, I would like to offer a song that was composed by Radheshyam Das Baul, who was a great master of the Baul parampara (tradition). And it says ‘Anitya bashona, chado na chado na’. Leave these temporary desires and sing the praise of Hari (the God Vishnu). Whatever is supposed to happen will happen. Why are you worried about it? Why are you thinking and wasting your time? The worship and ritual -- everything is useless in the modern time. It is only the name, the chanting of the name that will stay. So make essence, make the name of Hari as essence, and always chant, always sing the name. There is no way out, except this name. You were in the mother's womb. You went through all the sufferings of the process of being born. Don't you remember it? Time is passing. What is there in front we don't know. Why not serve yourself, surrender yourself to the true master?
Parvathy sings Anitya Bashona with Ektara as accompaniment.
Gayathri: Thank you, Parvathy! Maybe we could ground the speaking portion of the conversation by having you tell us a little about the spiritual and musical traditions and background of Baul. So I've heard you describe it in other interviews as ‘nirvaan naatak’ or the ‘theatre of freedom’, as Nirgrantha, that is as something that stands outside the confines of Ved and Vidhi (the traditional Sanskritic ritual ways), as ‘sahaj’ or effortless. I am also aware that Baul is in some ways unique amongst the Bhakti traditions, the devotional traditions of India, because it blends seamlessly so many influences -- Fakiri Sufism/Sufi mysticism, Vedanta, Bhakti Vaishnava traditions, the Shakta traditions, Tantric Buddhism, and it still stands outside the confines of any of these containers, in some sense. So maybe you could just tell us a little about, there's so much, but I would offer that you tell us about whatever you are drawn to explain about Baul -- maybe the yogic aspects and some of the musical richness in your traditional repertoire?
Could you hear me, Parvathy? (we lose Parvathy for a brief moment) Can you hear me?
Parvathy:I can't hear you very well. One second. I have to do something. Gayathri, can you speak now?
Gayathri: Yes. So shall I repeat…
Parvathy: I understood only the last sentence.
Gayathri: Okay, that last sentence. So I was just asking if you could maybe open the conversation by sharing some of the richness of the spiritual and musical traditions of Baul, because that might help everybody -- those who are very much connected to Baul and those who are maybe hearing about it more for the first time, to come to the same page. They heard you perform, but maybe you could give us a little bit of a background about the music and the spiritual traditions. Maybe focusing a little on the yoga sadhana? I leave you to choose how best to…
Parvathy: Yeah. I mean, it's talking about Baul! It's almost like trying to explain what the sky is, you know? Everybody sees different colours and different forms and it changes all the time! So, it's so vast, but the only thing I can start by saying that if we want to understand ‘Bharatiya parampara’ which is the essence of Indian traditions -- everything that we look into is starting from Shiva, because Shiva is the Adiguru (earliest/foremost Guru), the Acharya. So all the streams started from Shiva, and including Baul, has started from Shiva.
There are two streams that are coming -- one is a methodical way of practice, that is with scriptures and a lot of intellect. You know, jnana marga is used. It's like vidya -- knowledge that one is incorporating inside. First, getting the knowledge, absorbing it, and then coming into the realization, or the upalabdhi.
And there is another school, which is mystical, which has, which is, there is no method for it. And you just have to -- I cannot say really learning, but absorb it through transmission from the teacher. Every stream needs an acharya (teacher). Everybody needs a Guru, whether it is with scriptures or without scriptures.
But in this, one has to open up to this cosmic library, you know? That which is written without ink, without an alphabet. Well, I need to open up to that cosmic library, and then it will flow through. And there is a process for that. So in the old time, the acharya or the Guru chose their students, according to that.
For example, Naropa, have you heard of Naropa? So Naropa was a great scholar and he studied so much. Even he was in Nalanda studying so much scripture, but later he found that he had to turn to mysticism. Whatever he learned, he got it. Then he closed himself in the cave and he let the wisdom flow through him. So see -- there is also, when we say two streams, it is also not different. They are, you know, combined with each other, and according to the vessel -- the vessel means your aadhara, your nature, what is the most suitable for you, how best you can serve the world -- that's how you receive it. So Baul has taken both the ways. I mean, when you learn songs, it means that is knowledge. There is vidya because you have to memorize the poem. And you have to understand the tatva, the element or the gyaan, or the wisdom that is in the song. So this tatva, you must realize and have upalabdhi inside. So that means you have to really study about it. And not only studying -- I mean, it's not really scripture studying, but absorbing, listening from the Guru because this is an oral tradition.
And then practicing it, because Bauls are practitioners. They are yogis and they manifest it in their body. And there is also vidya -- you have to learn dancing. It has a clear way of dancing. It has a clear way of playing the instrument. So all of that is necessary. But at the same time, you know, my Guruji used to say -- learn everything and then unlearn it.
When you go to give what you have gathered through the years, when you stand in front of the devotees and offer them the prasaad of your knowledge, you must be absolutely like a clean slate. And let that, what I was talking about (gestures above her head), the cosmic library flow through you. So when you are not predetermining what you're going to say, then it becomes sahaj, spontaneous, but it is already in you. You have become the knowledge, you have become the book. You have become that wisdom. So it flows through you. So to come to the sahajata, that spontaneity...
When we usually come to know that they are a Baul, it is, you know, talking about heart, talking about, abundance, you know, it sounds very fantastic. It sounds like, “Oh, it is so effortless.” Yes, it is effortless. When you arrive there, it becomes effortless. But to arrive there, you have to cross all the stones and thorns and rocks and you have to climb with difficulty. With a lot of difficulty, you have to climb out there.
So to come to this sense of one being, you know, it's like, in a way, taking away the layers that we put on, on ourselves, through our mind, our ideas of the world and our egoic nature of thinking that we know everything. So all of that, we have to slowly let go. And something...When the lake of the heart is completely silent, then only the flower will bloom. Then only the lotus will come up and bloom. So in the same way, wisdom comes only in a silent lake. It appears in that motionlessness, in that calmness and peacefulness. So Baul talks about that.
And, we can always think about other things like how Baul has been. If we look really into the history, sometime as a practitioner, when you absorb the practice, it is not very essential to know all this historical story, but it is good to know. From where you come? Who is your father and mother? Which house do you belong to? What is your color? What is your language? It is good to know.
So the Baul came from Natha siddha yogis. And slowly they mingled into different, they moved into different streams of tantra, bodha siddha charyas, fakirs and finally the Bhakti parampara. That is the contribution of Sri Chaitanya's disciple Nityananda and his son Virabhadra. So he integrated all these yogis and gave them Harinam mahamantra.
So Baul is a unique practice of all yoga actually. And I always feel that Baul starts from the essence, from very inside, deep inside, with the heart of all wisdom. I think, I feel that way . And most of the practitioners from other parampara also will feel the same about their parampara, but I feel this way. And the songs are the ones which holds the knowledge or the transmission. The masters, they didn't write books or big scriptures or anything like that, but they have given songs. The songs are written in very simple Bengali language. Sometimes they have metaphors of daily life activities. For example, husking paddy or boiling milk or using the handloom. So they have all these images and connect it with the inner process, how it happens inside.
And this language is so simple, but if you look at the teaching and the wisdom, it is exactly the essence, sometimes you can find in upanishad or you can find it even in the Jaina scriptures, or in Bhagavad Gita or in the poems of great Sufi masters. It is talking about that essence. So yes, I can say this way .
Gayathri: Thank you. I think that was quite a beautiful arc you've traced for us. One of the things I'm a little curious about, and maybe you could speak to this, is how, I've heard you say often that Baul sadhana is so rooted in the body. Because there is nothing other than the body. That is your portal to awakening. That's your portal to enlightenment. And so I was just wondering if you could tell us something about how, what are the first times this truth came alive for you -- where your body is your road, your map to awakening, and to transcend in some sense, this sense of being limited by it or being only it?
Parvathy: Yes, both are right. Being limited by it or being only it. So a body is a precious vessel given to us. When we are born, we are given this vessel. It's for a lifetime only and it has a time of how it will change, just like the seasons. And, but each season has its own quality. It has its own flowers to bloom. And we practitioners must observe that with a very quiet mind.
And, if we know ourselves very well, our body -- when I say body, it has all the layers. The layers of food that is made of five elements, the layer of intellect, the layer of mind, layer of emotion and then this cosmic consciousness or this place of bliss or place of joy that connects us to our true nature, to the summit we come from and we return without this body. That also exists in this body. So to realize all this, all these levels and become a master, is like becoming master of your body.
Parvathy: We say 'prakrito deho', which means the material body and 'aprakrito deho' the light body. 'Prakrito Deho' means that which is just functioning with its daily activities, like eating, going to the toilet, giving birth and all kinds of things. And the other one is transforming the element using every cell of your body to connect to that 'Anandamaya Kosha' to that subtle body, to the subtle layer of joy, subtle layer of that place where you realize that you are this universe, the universe is within you.
So if we can orient ourselves, orient all these aspects in us towards 'that', then the body transforms. When you see a very normal person who is -- the ordinary person I'm talking about, who is so engrossed in the daily activities, the presence of that person; and if you see a person who has detached, detached in the sense of he/she has detached from his/her own desires, and has found this lightness inside, the presence of that person is very different. Because along with the mind, the body also has transformed. Either you can change your mind -- transform! not change, transform your mind through your body; or through your mind, you can transform your body. Both ways are possible. It goes both ways.
So, this is so wonderful! It's magic! The body is magic! And, there is a beautiful Baul song. Should I sing that?
Gayathri: Yes, please.
Parvathy: Yeah. I cannot stop singing when it comes to body This is the vessel given to us. We must love it and take care of it and nurture it and nourish it, more and more. It's not about placing a fairness cream. That's not nurturing the body . It's not about how beautiful you look with makeup. That's not your body. Your body is a vessel that holds the truth. And when you nurture that, that essence in you, you become beautiful . So, it's not about color, not about looks. Loving the body means loving the divine, divine inside you. 'Moner Manush', the man of the heart is within.
Like Vasavanna said, "my body is a temple and my legs are the pillars, which is holding the body" So here is a song from 'Charya Geeti', which is a very old text written at the time of the 8th to 13th century. And it's written by Dombipad, who has one of the 84 siddhas. And you can still find this poem, a very important text for Buddhist people, in Nepal and Tibet. And these songs are also considered as one of the oldest first versions of Baul songs.
So, 'Ganga Jamuna majhe re bahayi nayi' . I am rowing my boat. Boat means this body. I am rowing my boat through the middle of Ganga and Jamuna. So then I said, how can you row a boat between Ganga and Jamuna? You have to either row the boat through Ganga or through Jamuna. But you are rowing in the middle. How is it possible? Here it means, the Ida and Pingala.
Parvathy: The Ida nadi has a function. The Pingala nadi has a function. And when it's neither this nor that, 'it flows through the middle' is the one which is taking us to that 'Anandamaya kosha'. So that is where Dombipad is rowing his boat.
[Parvathy is quoting a sentence of the song in Pali, then translates:]. «The one who is rowing the boat is a Yogi and he is matangi.» Matangi means that he is completely intoxicated with love. Intoxicated with yoga. He is Khepa. Khepa means a madman. He is mad, in love with the Divine. «He rows effortlessly»; effortlessly he rows his boat. [speaking in Pali] «Dombi, go on rowing your boat, don't stop. Don't stop here. And you will get back to the cheena ura.» Cheena ura means the place of truth, the abode of the Beloved. So I row my boat in order to arrive at that place of joy.
[speaking in Pali] «There are five disturbing pirates who come and try to loot» [speaking in Pali or Hindi] ...it means they have to steal everything away from the boat. It's all our senses and desires. And, you know, when you start doing your yoga, something will come, or the other -- it keeps on coming. Even if you don't want it, it will show up. For example, you want to do your yoga in the morning, you wake up, and then suddenly a telephone call comes and then you take the telephone. Why?! Just stop it. Don't take the telephone. First you finish your work and then you do. But even if we don't want, something else will come, that is the magic of the universe: to elude us! Otherwise what the Maya Devi will do? Maya, she has to do her work, right? [laughing] She is very sincere at her work, but we should not let her work. So that's what he's talking about.
«The sail of this boat is made of sun and moon and there is no darkness. Wherever this boat is going, it is carrying its own light. There is no money needed to go on this boat. The boatman, the Yogi, will take you there.» He means the guru. «He will take you without any price.» Price means coin, but another price will be there [laughing] - that I'm not talking about now. [laughing] So they have their own account, the Gurus, but it is not the material money that you need. «Those who could go in that boat, they can really go to that place», that abode of the Beloved and «those who are hesitant, doubtful, whether to go or not to go there, they just spend all their life by the river. And they keep on sitting in the same place.» So that is the story of Dombipad. I will sing this song to you. [Parvathy sings Ganga Yamuna majhe re with tambura as accompaniment]
Gayathri: Beautiful. Thank you so much. I have so many questions I'd love to ask you, but because we've heard you, we've heard you play with the ektara and then -- were both of them the ektara?
Parvathy: Well, no, this is the ektara which is Baul ektara which is from Bengal. And this is called Tambura. This is used in Abhang also in Maharashtra, and also you have seen in the hands of Mirabai. So in the Western part of India, there is also this Gyana padavali, that is sung through this and the Bhakti padavali. And I'm very fond of this! I mean, it is not part of the Baul instrument, but I have incorporated it because I love the sound of Tambura. It is so beautiful. Yeah…
Gayathri: It is beautiful. Yeah! So, you know the question, one question I have for you, so connected to that, because I think in one another conversation, I heard you say that -- you talk about the animacy, the aliveness of the Ektara. And you said, “These are not simple things, they decide what comes next.” And for me, that really feels very resonant because I remember how, again, for example, Prahlad Tipanya-ji talks about how he heard the sound of the tanpura and it pulled him, again, into the whole, singing Kabir bhajans circuit. And similarly for you, you were on a train ride to SantiNiketan with your brother and that blind Baul strumming the ektara, it was like a chord, right? I think you said, pulling you from your past, almost towards what was to be your life's mission in this current life.
So I'm so struck by this, you know, because we live with this kind of (notion), predominantly in this world, where we think of material objects as material, as though they're not vibrating with energy and aliveness of their own. And that's not true for Bhakti singers, for whom there's a very intimate relationship with the tambura and the ektara. So, I was wondering if you could tell us about your ektara and your duggi, and how you first formed a relationship with these instruments, and how they came into your life, in some sense?
Parvathy: So, the ektara that I have, this one, it's been I think it's been already 23 years that this is with me. And this is the only ektara that I'm going to carry till the end of my life, because it's not that you change your deity -- she's my deity. And she manifests all the time. And so it is the yantra that is your worship, and you need to carry this all your life, till the death. And then you will pass it on to someone who is capable of keeping it. So when I met my master, he gave this to me.
This ektara is made by Ravi Gopalan Nair, and he's a great puppeteer and woodcarver, and so he lovingly made me two ektaras. I have two ektaras which I always carry. And my master, Sanatana Baba, when he gave me for the first time the ektara, he said that now you are Bina Das -- Bina Das means the servant of the veena, which is 'ekatantra veena', this is one-string veena. So you are a servant of that. So let your master take you wherever she takes you. And the ekatara symbolizes the human body. It is the sun and the moon, which is the Ganga and Yamuna -- what I was singing, and 'majhe' (middle chord) is this anahat naad or this sound of AUM (chants Ohm).
So, a yogi is always meditating through the middle, this middle chord. So this is the symbol. This is, you see the sun and the moon, I have painted it, in case nobody understands!
So, (laughs) and this duggi is something -- it's made of clay. And, it symbolizes the 'prakrit sharir' or ‘sthula sharir’(gross body), which is the material body, because we come from the Earth and we return to the Earth. And, so, this (ektara) is held up because this is connecting you to the Other, and this (the duggi) is tied to your waist because this is the body which will fall away. And, also we wear nupur (anklets) -- the sound we have, that is the 'asht satikh', that is the eight unstruck sounds, and among that, there is a sound, which is the sound of bells. So for that, the Bauls have now incorporated the sound of the bells. So, this is in brief what it means.
When the Baul performer is standing with duggi, ektara and nupur, it's a complete yantra (a contemplation and meditation tool). That form is complete. Everything has a form. For example, in a very simple example, when you think of Shri Krishna, you think of the flute, you think of the blue body, you think of his peacock feather. You think of a Baul -- you think he will have an ektara and a duggi and this crazy dreadlock or no dreadlock and standing with the nupur and dancing. So that's the form of Baul.
Gayathri: You know, something else I want to ask you about is -- and I feel like it runs like a thread through your life, it is such a powerful thread through your life, because a lot of the work you do is trying to be, what one of our common friends, Brinda, describes as being a living bridge between what is an ancient way of life and in some ways anchoring it in the modern world. Your mission from your guru is to build this Sanatan Siddhashram for Baul minstrels and other ashramis. But the Baul way of life is that of a wandering mystic. It is beyond dualities and you know, there's never really been a sense of having one kind of gathering place or ashram.
So I feel there are many things that you do in your life that is holding, what I think of as apparent paradoxes, or holding complexities. And you're one of the few prominent women Baul singers! Baul women have always been in the Baul ashrams as dasis (helpers/servants), as you say, but they've not received prominence or they've not run ashrams. But this is a tradition that asks you to move beyond dualities and dissolve all these dualities. I wonder how you see this? Why is it that there were not more women running Baul ashrams and how have you experienced this, in some ways, this paradox and how do you live with this? You still are very comfortable doing this because you're called to do it...
Parvathy: Yeah, Gayathri, I just want to tell you that it's not all black and white!
Parvathy: Because you know, when we think about women involved in Baul tradition, we immediately think, 'Oh, how tortured we are or how difficult life is'. Well, let me talk to you with all perspective to it, because we need to understand our tradition very well. So it's not all one sided, we can't put it in boxes. So, you see, the women held ashrams 400 years back.
Gayathri: Hmm. Oh, okay.
Parvathy: From this ashram where I'm sitting, 23 kilometers away there is an ashram, which was led by Khepi Maa. And, she was one of the sadhikas (practitioners) who was chosen by Virabhadra, the son of Nityananda (closest associate of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism). She was a Nath Yogi, she had dreadlocks and she was given the Hari Nama Mahamantra. She's the one of the first masters of Baul who were given that, and she led the entire Baul community. Her ashram was, they used to say, the high court of the Bauls in the old times. If they were the true yogis, if they're doing their practice... if they had done something, which is not in sync with their practice, Khepi Maa would take away their vesh (attire/dress), I mean, the gerua (orange robe of a yogi) or their kamandalu (reliquary) or whatever -- what is the symbol of their practice, she would take it away. She was one of the masters and she was devoted to her Guru and she made the whole ashram in memory of her Guru.
And there have been, you know, sometimes, great female practitioners like that, if we look into the history. There have also been other stories. There have been also -- women if they want to learn the Baul path, if they want to find their way to stand, they have to put extraordinary effort, because it is a difficult path for both, for men and women, but women have to put extra effort because they also have a place in the society, which is not sometimes very respectful.
So that is also there. We have both the sides, and, so it is a process that one needs to go through. For example, for me, I know the love and the acceptance I got from my Gurus, I never felt whether I was a woman or a man. I mean, they were, like, "Okay, come here". I was equally treated, like a man. You know, between a man student and me, there was no difference. But at the same time when I was going to another place to sing, or to have an exchange, or satsang (discourse), the other men Bauls thought that I was useless. So, there is all of this contrast. I think it is there in all levels of life, in all the communities. This is there.
So this we have to know because the tradition where it is coming from, when you hold to the truth of the tradition, in the tradition, they do not say that women are inferior. Actually women are said as the svayam siddha, which means that they are sahaj siddha -- they are born perfected because they have the capacity to grow a life inside them, so their body is specially made. It is like the whole creation is within them so they're considered as the divine and placed on the Matr Sthan (equivalent to one's mother's place) or Guru Sthan (the Teacher's place). But at the same time, you can see the opposite stories too.
So it's something that we need to work through differently according to our experience of life and help others too, to give confidence because sometimes women, what story they hear and what is told to them, that they're weak or they cannot do this -- they will not be able to. Something which I don't understand very well! But, if they realize that they have that capacity, then they go through that internal process and arrive in that Swayam Siddha space because they're born with it, they can definitely do magic in their life. They can do great things and women can absolutely wear gerua, hold ashram, can be the acharya (leader/teacher), can teach and can do anything. So, we have to process it and make awareness.
Gayathri: Yeah! Beautiful. Thank you. You know, the other question that comes up naturally is how you have this one other initiative that you're engaged in called ‘tantidhatri’, which is a collective of women performers from all around the world and as you've said that it's a word from Pali (an ancient Indian language) that translates to ‘women holding the thread’. I'm so struck by this, there's something also about the times we are living in, I think, that requires, in some sense, the divine feminine to surface and to be visible and to hold space; almost I think like it requires women to come together in sisterhood visibly and share those energies with the world. So I'm just curious if you can say a little about that initiative and, what do you feel about this need for the feminine to stand in solidarity and to take a stand in the times we are living in?
Parvathy: ‘Tantidhatri’ was something that was created, after I visited one festival in Denmark, it's called the Transit Festival and it is directed by Julia Varley. She's a great actress and a writer and theatre director. She is basically from the UK, but she lives in Denmark. And she's now the co-director in the Odin Teatret, which is a very well known theatre, many theatre people will know that.
When I went there, I met these incredible women from all over the world. This was my first time I met so many women in a place that everybody had a unique story to tell and they moved me deeply. Even though I come from tradition, my practice is spirituality, the rigorous continuous process of transformation that you have to bring from within, through the life happenings, continuously working with yourself -- I have seen that in those women! They were artists, writers, social thinkers and many other different aspects they came for, but they also went through the transformational process in them, in whatever they were doing.
I felt that was fairly inspiring for everyone, especially for Indian women and I wanted to bring this to India. It took me five years to manifest this festival and it first happened in Pondicherry. It was Auoville, Pondicherry Ashram, and of course, Aurodhan Art Gallery (https://aurodhan.com/) led by Lelita Verma and Sheraz Verma that supported me and helped me to hold the whole thing and I'm really grateful to Aurovillians as well. After that it happened in Bangalore within the space of Ranga Shankara, and the third one in Kolkata at the performance space Rabindra Teertha created by the West Bengal Government. The fourth one is coming -- it’s on the way, since once in every three years, it happens.
We have also a book published on the first festival where every woman who came to perform, the women masters I call them, the women masters have written beautiful reflections about their part and their practice. It's very enriching to be in that space, to be inspired -- there is also a sweetness that everyone carries, a feminine quality that is there in them. It's almost like a group of Saraswatis are sitting there and you receive so much just by interaction of talking to them and being with them. You receive and keep on receiving and for me, it is a space that I like to keep growing. And also to broaden the boundary to let many other aspects also to come in, including spirituality, spiritual practitioners. Basically it is an inner transformation we a're talking about.
Gayathri: Something else that I'm often struck by is how, when you perform on stage, what you're performing is actually an intimate meditative process. It’s your sadhana, as opposed to a play or music piece that is curated with the audience in mind. Here, you would do the same, even if you were meditating by yourself, in your ashram. How do you manage to do that, because it would be so much easier to just meditate by yourself? But by doing this, you share the sweetness with us and the world benefits.
I don't think it's an easy path for you, or an easy cost, for lack of a better word, to take something that's an intimate, meditative personal sadhana and do it on stage repeatedly because you were given the mission to spread this. So just reflections on that -- I would love to hear it?
Parvathy: Well, it is really precious -- your intimate practice -- if you can really do it by yourself, be completely at peace, be in the cave and just enjoy it for yourself. But there are so many that need to be touched and to wake up because they have that essence in them. It's my own reflection.
I feel so grateful that my master chose me to do this. If I'm of any service, my body, my voice to the world -- it's such a great blessing that I can serve. I can't say anything more... (Parvathy is overcome with tears of gratitude).
It is a great blessing to be the vehicle, to be the vessel, to hold and to share. It doesn’t matter. The body is here today, and tomorrow, it's not there. But when I'm breathing, if my breath is used for this, I am so grateful.
Gayathri: We're also so grateful (pause). We have some audience questions coming in and I'll pass over to Rahul to carry on this portion of the conversation.
Rahul: Thank you so much Parvathy-ji for these beautiful offerings, whether it is your response to our questions by Gayathri, or your soulful numbers that you offered to us. There is a lot of interest and a lot of questions that are coming our way and I would like to ask a few of these.
One of the questions came from Brinda as she joined us just before the call and her question was with respect to the ultimate question of death. What does death mean in the Baul tradition? She was asking in the immediate context of one Mahindra Mehta, whom you might have met in the United States. He passed on, and left his body from cancer. His caretaker, Kozo, is also going through the last stages of cancer and Brinda was moved to ask -- what is the significance of death and how do the Bauls look at death? Is it like a meeting, the ultimate meeting with the master, the end of duality, or what is it that comes to mind when you think of that?
Parvathy: It is a moment of pause -- to pass on to another layer, another journey is how the Bauls see it. (Parvathy quotes lines from a Baul song). This body is like a mud pot and if it drops, it will break into pieces and the breath that was held inside will become air of the entire universe. It was different as long as it was inside the pot, but when the pot is broken, it becomes part of the entire universe. To be born again and continue the journey, whether towards light or towards life again, that is according to their choice and karma, but it is just a moment of pause.
Rahul: Wow. Thank you so much. There is another question which is coming from Rachael, and she's asking, how are emotions understood in the Baul practice? Do emotions affect our senses or are they something that transcends the body and emotions lead us to unity with God?
Parvathy: The emotions triggered from our vasanas, all the wishes (tendencies) we have inside of us. For example, a lot of anger comes when expectations are not met. The expectation is something that we built inside of us and we are so occupied with our expectation that we forgot to see what was happening naturally out there. Everything has its own harmony and rhythm, and we can sink in that and let it happen and adjust ourselves towards that. It's an adjustment with your entire being. So the expectation will not arise at all. You will flow with what is going to happen. So then whatever you say, it happens (laughs).
So how do you work with emotions? There is a lot of emotion in the bhakti path. There is a complete sense of surrender-- love towards the beloved and continuously keeping alive the name of the presence of Krishna or presence of the Guru inside you, through chanting and through these beautiful words. So it invokes this emotion inside, but this emotion is not personal.
This emotion is a mature emotion, which flows only towards the divine. I was telling you that when every cell of the body meditates on the guru, the body will become "aprakrito" or the body of lightness. So all these layers of emotion also meditate only towards true surrender. Then it is not personal. It is not about likes or dislikes. It is an expression of joy. It is an expression of your being in the flow of living with the Divine.
Rahul: Brinda has a follow up question to that. While you spoke of death as being a pause, when you witness someone in this space, how do you ease the suffering of those loved ones who see death as an end, rather than as a transformation? Is there a poem or song about this transition?
Parvathy: We have many songs on death because we love death (laughs).
It is something that we need to grow inside us. If there is somebody in that family who is a practitioner and who knows this cycle of coming and going. They may not take even their own son or daughter, or wife or father, mother, anyone who is passing, they won't hold them back with that emotion.
They will think that everyone has a transition, and allow the transition to happen by not pulling the soul back with their emotions and expectations. The person who is dying actually loves us very much and that person doesn't want to see that we are crying or that we want him to live.
So he or she will also try to stay with us. It makes the suffering more prolonged for this person. But if we start praying, yes, we are so happy that you have been with us, you have given us so much, and now it is time that you need to transition. And we are very happy for you that you are transitioning into something else.
And we will always be here with your memory, fresh and waiting. Maybe we'll meet again. Can we pray in that way? Can we let things go and let things happen? It's like the waves of the sea. It comes, and it goes, and the sea never dries.
There's a beautiful poem of Kanhopad-- one of the 84 siddhas (mystics):
He says: “This whole consciousness, this being, this body-- It is complete and at the same time it is shunya (empty). Even if one is beheaded today and dies, don't be sad. Like the butter is hidden in the milk, but we cannot see it with our eyes. There is an invisible world, beyond this visible world. What we see, what we hear, what we touch, what we feel--we are always touched by it, but why don't you see that other world, which exists beyond what we can feel or see or touch? Nobody comes and nobody goes from this world, just like the ocean that never dries. The waves come and go back to the ocean and the ocean is always filled up to the brim.”
That is the song of death. No one comes and no one goes! (laughs)
Rahul: That's beautiful. There is one more question, a material question pertaining to your life. You've made very unconventional choices in your youth, for example, to dedicate your life to the Baul movement. How did your parents respond to this bold calling of their young daughter?
Looking at it from your perspective, what was your inspiration to take up this path? This path, per se, had no security. You had to just let go of yourself, your sense of security, your own identity.
Parvathy: The first thing is that my parents were very spiritual by nature and they were devotees who were initiated by a Swamiji from the Ramakrishna Mission. So they were very used to all these kinds of crazy things. They were worried for me because I'm their daughter. They thought that I will have so much trouble and so much hardship and people will misunderstand me and what will I eat if I fail in my sadhana?!
So they had their concerns because they love me, and were worried for me. I am their youngest daughter. It was from their concern that they were saying, no, no, no, you should not go for that. Especially my father.
But my mother said to me, I think you should go (laughs)! She said to me that true living is living with the Divine and finding the joy of living in experiencing the Divine in every moment. Otherwise this life is very short and whatever we think of as security and success is actually temporary, and it doesn't make any sense. So she was very happy for me! And she gave me a thousand rupees to go on my path! (laughs)
Rahul: You were 16, right? When you first heard this song? That's something. Padmaja and Misha are both asking, “Could I, as someone who lives a life of a regular city-dweller, find a way to practice the Baul way of living? Could I find the flow where I am? How does one traverse this path while still residing in the material world?”
Parvathy: Well, you know, I will not give you false hope. I will be truthful. If you really want to embrace the spiritual life, you have to let go of many things. If you want to be a practitioner, you have to transform everything in your life towards that.
You make every cell of your body flow towards that. For example, in the morning, if you get up and do all this practice, and then you engage in activity which distracts you and stresses you and kills you almost mentally -- then all that work that you have done with the meditation is gone. So basically what you're doing is a maintenance, maintenance of yourself. Then you cannot say exactly that you have taken a spiritual path. You can say: «I have taken the help of spirituality to maintain my life so that I don't break down.»
That is a good thing. But even as a grihastha, which is the householder, living in a city, you can incorporate the spiritual life inside you, if your orientation, the life orientation, moves towards that, including the objects that you keep in your house. I'm telling very simple things.
If you surround yourself with all kinds of distracting things, your mind will naturally flow towards those things. But if you only organize yourself to keep things around you which leads you to remember the spirituality within you or the Truth within you, that's how you can orient. The company you choose is very, very important. It is fundamental. What kind of people you are with is fundamental. You have to make shoter shonge ... [begins to sing], to make friendship with the Truth only. [laughing]. So find the company of devotees, find the company of people who are seekers, be in that company. It will enhance, it will feed you. Then there is no effort with your mind. But if you are constantly mingling with people who are constantly worried about things, then it will disturb you too, because you are deceiving your vibration.
So these are the small things that we can change. It is not about two hours of meditation. It is about changing the whole life circumstances surrounding you, even including the objects that you keep inside your house.
Rahul: Thank you. That's beautiful. I think that's the effort you were referring to in order to reach the ‘effortlessness’ earlier in the call: to surround ourselves with gems that aid our inner journey.
There was another question from one of our volunteers, and it is about the convergence of the Bhakti movement with the other two streams of Jnana and Karma. And how does service, karma yoga, which is kindness to human beings, to all sentient beings, where does that find a place in the central Bhakti Marg or even, where does Jnana find a way in the centrality of the Bhakti Marg, which is the so-called Baul Tradition. Where do these converge?
Parvathy: There are three main pillars for the Baul path: it is Jnana, Bhakti and Vairagya. Jnana yoga and bhakti are what you're talking about. Bhakti, when it comes from awareness... The awareness comes from jnana, clarity of your mind, clarity of thought, clarity of the being. And then the bhakti comes - it comes after that. When you realize, then the bhakti comes.
So, you need jnana to enhance your bhakti. Bhakti without awareness is fanaticism. It's not going to lead anywhere. You must know. You must know, not in the sense of 'knowing' here, but you must know with your being what you're doing -- every action of yours. You're conscious. You take a conscious action, conscious action in the thought.
One of the greatest examples of a bhakta is Hanuman. Hanuman has all the three: Jnana, Bhakti and Vairagya. Vairagya -- how does it come? It comes through karma, when you are continuously serving mankind, selflessly. Selflessly means that it is not for your benefit, your personal desires, what you expect, but you let all your actions bring harmony around you, wherever you go. All this work, offering the services, will slowly free you from your actions. Then the vairagya will come, and you will do all the service, effortlessly, with great joy. Hanuman has done so much for his beloved Ram. He has gone to the Gandhamadana (mountain) to get all the bisalyakarani (medicinal herb Sanjeevani needed to revive Lakshmana). He worked hard to cross the ocean and meet Sita. He is a great karma yogi.
All these three elements, when they work together, then one becomes a sthira chitta. I was talking about it in the beginning of my talk: a lake that is silent and still. And that is the time when the Lotus of Baul will bloom. There is no separate thing.
Our tradition never divided : This is karma yoga. This is bhakti yoga. This is jnana yoga. One cannot exist without the other. One cannot exist without the other. You need everything. The sun ray that comes from the sun that has seven colors. How can you separate them? Just because we don't see ? Because we don't see, we say that there's one ray. [laughing] There are seven colors in it because we see seven colours. Maybe there are more colours? Who knows. [laughing]
So. It's all about that. Everything is related to the other. You cannot do something specific, in the sense of being in a box. You cannot say: this is black. This is white. This is grey. They're all mingled. It's like the ray of the sun.
Rahul: Wow. Beautiful. That reminds me of the Dalai Lama who described ‘shunyata’ as perfect interdependence, not really a zero-ness, but the fact that there is not one thing, but everything is kind of a web, dependent on each other.
Parvathy: Yeah. So you are in it and you are free of it. Same time.
Parvathy: A yogi sees that freedom. He sees the harmony, how it moves and he moves along. He is never stuck. He's never blocked. That's how he finds his freedom.
Rahul: That's beautiful. This can go on and on. And yet we would never be at the end of it. We will want more and more. Thank you so much for this. I want to end with what you chose as your message for the world, which is a quote by your guru to you. I think during his final few days on this planet, he said: “make your life into a prayer!”
You shared with us that this quote is like a precious diamond, which you keep going back to and keep polishing. And that's a message for all of us. And if you want to close, we will be a bit overtime, but I'm sure no one minds that, if you want to close with something which comes to you -- a song offering or whatever that comes to your heart, we will be blessed to receive it.
Parvathy: I will sing a song of my master Sri Sanatan Das Baul. He talks about the true master and the true chela. [laughing] That was his favorite subject. And then he says : “Caitanya guru”, the guru who is completely awake, “those who are the chela of such a guru, they only will cross the darkness, the darkness of the night, to the dawn, into the newness. If they're given only the syrup with the fire of devotion, they can make it into the solid gur, the jaggery, and that gur never gets stale, never can go bad, never rots” He talks about the process of making gur, about making the true shishya. [laughing]
And at the same time he says, all the explanation I'm not giving, he says that “to become the true Baul, one must die. Die before death. His guru told him that: "die before death". Sanatan appeals: let this stupid mind wake up and see the Truth.”
[Parvathy is singing with duggi and ektara]
Rahul: We feel so privileged to be receiving these offerings. It just seems that the words guru and gur are also kind of linked. [Parvathy and Rahul laugh]. It is so beautiful. Thank you for these gifts, Parvathy-ji. And for us, as a community, Awakin Talks community, the ServiceSpace community, if there is anything that we could offer you as service, please allow us that opportunity and that privilege.
Parvathy: I’ll let you know, but don’t expect pani-puri for this time! [Both are laughing]
Rahul: Maybe the audience doesn't know that, but I was listening to Parvathy-ji at Somaiya College in Mumbai, and at the end of her offering and performance, one of the Bauls there asked her -- what is it that we can offer to you? It was twelve in the night, and she said, “I would like to have Pani Puri on the streets of Mumbai”. It was quite amazing to just witness that as a part of the audience. Thank you so much. This is a great privilege. I don't know how to follow this and therefore, the best is to slip into a minute of silence as we bring an end to this beautiful conversation with you. Thank you so much for your energies. Thank you for your vibes. Thank you for your life. Thank you for your prayers. Namaste.
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