Renouncing Expectations: Single Baul Women Renouncers and the Value of Being a Wife

  • Lisa I. Knight
Part of the Religion/Culture/Critique book series (RCCR)


Baul renouncers of West Bengal and Bangladesh pose a number of challenges to South Asian paradigms of renunciation where one expects to see an individual severing ties for a life characterized by celibacy, itinerancy, and worldly detachments. Bauls follow none of these accepted notions of renunciation, yet they use terms like sannyasi, tyagi and bairagi to describe themselves as renouncers.1 In stark contrast to more standard expectations of celibacy, the hallmark of Baul renunciation is ritual sexual practices, and Bauls who become renouncers are expected to do so as a couple. Furthermore, renunciation does not necessarily indicate a dramatic transformation from householder status to solitary ascetic, as is encouraged by many other renunciant traditions, and Bauls frequently maintain their ties with family and community. Although many Bauls travel to perform Baul songs or to beg for alms, their lives are not necessarily defined by itinerancy as many remain householders or reside long term in ashrams. Further confounding the meaning of this act is the fact that renunciation is not upheld as a necessary step on the Baul path at all; Bauls maintain they can reach the same goals whether remaining within or stepping outside householder roles. Yet despite these ambiguities around the practices and expectations of Baul renunciation, it is not uncommon for Bauls to take a formal rite of renunciation with a guru after which many uphold such vows as to have no more children or to live off alms (see also Hanssen, this volume).


Single Woman Life Story Worldly Affair Dramatic Transformation Hindu Woman 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Abbas, Shemeem Burney. 2002. The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices of Pakistan and India. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  2. Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1990. The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women. American Ethnologist 17: 41–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Ahearn, Laura M. 2001. Language and Agency. Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 109–137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Burghart, Richard. 1978. The Founding of the Ramanandi Sect. Ethnohistory 25 (2): 121–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Burghart, Richard. 1983. Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia. Man 18: 635–653.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Caudhuri, Abul Ahsan. 1997. Bangladesher baulder calacitra. In Dhruvapad: Banglar baul phakic. S. Cakrabarti, ed., pp. 131–137. Nadiya, West Bengal: Krishnanagar.Google Scholar
  7. Dasgupta, Shashibhusan. 1962[1946]. Obscure Religious Cults. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay Publishers.Google Scholar
  8. De, Sushil Kumar. 1942. Early History of the Vaisnava Faith and Movement in Bengal. Calcutta: General Printers and Publishers.Google Scholar
  9. Denton, Lynn Teskey. 1991. Varieties of Hindu Female Asceticism. In Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. J. Leslie, ed., pp. 211–231. London: Pinton Publishers.Google Scholar
  10. Ernst, Carl W. 1999. Teachings of Sufism. Boston: Shambhala Publications.Google Scholar
  11. Ewing, Katherine P. 1998. A majzub and his Mother: The Place of Sainthood in a Family’s Emotional Memory. In Embodying Charisma: Modernity, Locality and the Performance of Emotion in Sufi Cults. P. Werbner and H. Basu, eds., pp. 160–183. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Frembgen, Jurgen Wasim. 1998. The majzub Mama Ji Sarkar: ‘A Friend of God Moves from One House to Another.’ In Embodying Charisma: Modernity, Locality and the Performance of Emotion in Sufi Cults. P. Werbner and H. Basu, eds., pp. 140–159. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. Gal, Susan. 1992. Between Speech and Silence: The Problematics of Research on Language and Gender. In Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era. M.D. Leonardo, ed., pp. 175–203. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  14. Ghurye, G.S. 1953. Indian Sadhus. Bombay: Popular Book Depot.Google Scholar
  15. Gold, Ann Grodzins. 1992. A Carnival of Parting: The Tales of King Bhartari and King Gopi Chand as Sung and Told by Madhu Natisar Nath of Ghatiyali, Rajasthan. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  16. Hayes, Glen Alexander. 2000. The Churning of Controversy: Vaisnava Sahajiya Appropriations of Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Journal of Vaisnava Studies 8 (1): 77–90.Google Scholar
  17. Khandelwal, Meena. 1996. Walking a Tightrope: Saintliness, Gender, and Power in an Ethnographic Encounter. Anthropology and Humanism 21 (2): 111–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Khandelwal, Meena. 1997. Ungendered Atma, Masculine Virility and Feminine Compassion: Ambiguities in Renunciant Discourses on Gender. Contributions to Indian Sociology 13 (1): 79–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Khandelwal, Meena. 2004. Women in Ochre Robes: Gendering Hindu Renunciation. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  20. Knight, Lisa I. 2005. Negotiated Identities, Engendered Lives: Baul Women in West Bengal and Bangladesh. PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Syracuse University.Google Scholar
  21. Lamb, Sarah. 2000. White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender, and Body in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  22. Lamb, Sarah. 2001. Being a Widow and Other Life Stories: The Interplay between Lives and Words. Anthropology and Humanism 26 (1): 16–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. McDaniel, June. 1989. The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  24. O’Connell, Joseph T. 1982. Jati-Vaisnavas of Bengal: “Subcaste” (Jati) without “Caste” (Varna). Journal of Asian and African Studies 17: 189–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. O’Connell, Joseph T. 1990. Do Bhakti Movements Change Hindu Social Structures? The Case of Caitanya’s Vaisnavas in Bengal. In Boeings and Bullock-Carts: Studies in Change and Continuity in Indian Civilization. B.L. Smith, ed., pp. 39–63. Delhi: Chanalcya Publications.Google Scholar
  26. Ojha, Catherine. 1981. Feminine Asceticism in Hinduism: Its Tradition and Present Condition. Man in India 61: 254–285.Google Scholar
  27. Ojha, Catherine. 1988. Outside the Norms: Ascetics in Hindu Society. Economic and Political Weekly: WS 34–136.Google Scholar
  28. Openshaw, Jeanne. 1994. “Bauls” of West Bengal: With Special Reference to Raj Khyapa and His Followers. PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.Google Scholar
  29. Openshaw, Jeanne. 2002. Seeking Bauls of Benga L Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Ray, Benoy Gopal. 1965. Religious Movements in Modern Benga L Santiniketan: Visva-Bharati Research Publications.Google Scholar
  31. Salomon, Carol. 1991. The Cosmogonic Riddles of Lalan Fakir. In Gender, Genre and Power in South Asian Expressive Traditions. A. Appadurai, F.J. Korom, and M. Mills, eds., pp. 267–304. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  32. Salomon, Carol. 1995. Baul Songs. In Religions of India in Practice. J. Donald S. Lopez, ed., pp. 187–207. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Schimmel, Annemarie. 1996. My Soul Is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam. S.H. Ray, trans. New York: Continuum Publishing.Google Scholar
  34. Smith, Margaret. 1984[1928]. Rabia the Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Tripathi, B.D. 1978. Sadhus of India: The Sociological View. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.Google Scholar
  36. Urban, Hugh B. 1999. The Politics of Madness: The Construction and Manipulation of the “Baul” Image in Modern Bengal. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 27 (1): 13–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Vallely, Anne. 2002. Guardians of the Transcendent: An Ethnography of a Jain Ascetic Community. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  38. van der Veer, Peter. 1988. Gods on Earth: The Management of Religious Experience and Identity in a North Indian Pilgrimage Centre. London: Athlone Press.Google Scholar
  39. Wadley, Susan S. 1995. No Longer a Wife: Widows in Rural North India. In From the Margins of Hindu Marriage: Essay on gender, Religion, and Culture. Lindsey Harlan and Paul B. Courtright, eds., pp. 92–118. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Wilce, James M. 1998. Eloquence in Trouble: The Poetics and Politics of Complaint in Rural Bangladesh. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Wilce, Jim. 2002. Tunes Rising from the Soul and Other Narcissistic Prayers: Contested Realms in Bangladesh. In Everyday Life in South Asia. Diane P. Mines and Sarah Lamb, eds., pp. 289–302. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Meena Khandelwal, Sondra L. Hausner, and Ann Grodzins Gold 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lisa I. Knight

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations