You are here

Lalitha Interview:

On the Baul Tradition and the Guru & Disciple Relationship

Lalitha is a teacher in the Western Baul (bah-ul) Tantric tradition and has been a disciple of the American master, Khepa Lee Lozowick, since the early 1980's. Lalitha has trained intensively in the science of body chemistry and its impact on advanced spiritual practice and has authored several very accessible books on the topic. Her book Waking to Ordinary Life was published in 2011 and supports building a healthy foundation for spiritual practice on any path. She heads Kripa Mandir ashram, located in the north Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, and has recently returned from pilgrimage to India where she and her students visited the ashrams of her lineage, including that of Yogi Ramsuratkumar and Swami Papa Ramdas, as well as the ashram of venerated Bengali Baul master, Khepa Sanatan Das Thakur, whom she has known since 1991.

Banyen: Many people have never heard of the Bauls. Would it be possible to give us a quick introduction?

Lalitha: Bauls have a seven hundred year tradition in the Bengal region of India, but the real roots of the tradition go back much further, tying into ancient Buddhist and Siddha paths. These fierce, loving, visionary, individualistic, lusty and devotional people use breath, sex and song to awaken the spiritual heart where the Divine Beloved dwells within each being. The Bauls often challenge conventional world views, rejecting caste division, religious prejudice and even gender inequality. Gender inequality is probably the hardest social habit to kick in any culture, but the Bauls are at least giving it a good try!

It's a tantric tradition with both left and right handed elements. For instance, physical sexuality plays a role, but our practice also includes celibacy. For those who choose it, we pursue monogamous sexual relationships as a means of establishing intimacy with the Divine through our physical beloved (our mate). Casual sex and promiscuity are not indulged. We also use ecstatic poetry, sacred art and music to develop intimacy with and longing for the Divine.

Obviously, that's quite a lot to communicate in a short interview and I won't go into detail here. For those really wanting to investigate the tradition more deeply I'd recommend picking up a copy of The Baul Tradition: Sahaj vision East & West, by M. Young. It takes the reader from ancient roots to contemporary Bauls, both in India and in the West. The author is an accomplished practitioner herself and she manages to be both scholarly and  juicy in her presentation. People could also visit the website of Parvathy Baul to learn more about a contemporary practitioner from Bengal. Parvathy visits our ashram in BC quite frequently, so Canadians do have the opportunity to experience both the Eastern Baul tradition and the Western right here at home.

Banyen: The guru/devotee relationship plays an important role in the Baul tradition. Can you speak a little about that?

Lalitha: Let's get right to the meat of the matter. Spiritual schools that are organized around a central leader—one who is often, but not necessarily, charismatic—can be very problematic, Baul "schools" included. Egomaniacs and charlatans are a dime a dozen and their spiritual communities can appear very attractive to those of us who are looking for an environment in which to pursue our aim of practice, service, devotion, insight and clarity. And such communities are not limited to those modeled after eastern cultural traditions. There are plenty of Christian, Jewish, Sufi and pseudo-tribal communities out there, as well as communities focused entirely on such social structures as sustainable farming, pot smoking and free sex, though I would hope that most readers would know by now that sex is very rarely "free."

Despite the dangers, I feel that spiritual communities with a qualified, accountable teacher are perhaps the most potent arenas in which to pursue a serious spiritual practice. Clearly this creates a bit of a dilemma. If the idea of such an environment attracts our attention, how do we go about finding, assessing and choosing an authentic school—one in which the teacher has some integrity and accountability—that's right for us?

Banyen: And once we feel that we've found a teacher or path we can work with, what role does surrender play? What are we responsible for and how much does the teacher do for us, so to speak?

: Of course there's always transmission in a teacher-student relationship—non-linear help that bypasses the mind and enters the student's spiritual bloodstream directly—but a great deal depends on the student handling their end of the student-teacher relationship. And this takes commitment. If we've chosen a path, or even if we feel that somehow a path has chosen us, does our behavior reflect commitment and an aspiration to realize the fruit of whatever that path is? Or are we conflicted and splitting our attention in ways that dilute our efforts, yielding only milquetoast results?

Can we commit to our practice? Can we commit to whatever it is we're doing, whether outwardly spiritual or mundane? If we say we want  to find a serious spiritual path to commit to, and yet we can't commit to the "path" we've already found—career, mate, children… pet dog or cat—what makes us think we're suddenly going to discover an ability to commit to practices that promise to pull the rug out from under everything we think we are? Can we walk our talk right now, where we find ourselves? Our jobs and responsibilities, whether or not they're directly related to what we call our spiritual work, deserve our integrity, commitment and enthusiasm. Perhaps we have jobs that we don't particularly love, or we're a musician and our muse seems to have gone missing. Or maybe we're doing tasks within a spiritual community, working on a book or leading a study group, and we've grown a little bored. If we're alive, then we're busy doing something with our time and attention. What is it, and what do we bring to the table?

If we see ourselves as being seriously interested in pursuing a spiritual practice, then we need to observe our level of commitment to the practices and activities of whatever path we've chosen. This self-examination is not from the point of view of judging or shaming ourselves, but from the point of view of valuing what's being offered and rejecting the habits which undermine our intentions. Being shaken up by my own teacher's fuming demand that I practice with diligence was a wonderful gift, making it clear to me what I already knew and allowing no room for compromise.

Banyen: So, we begin by practicing integrity and commitment in our current situation. But how can we focus on full commitment to what we are doing and keep an eye on what may be next…on the possibility of a teacher or path showing up for us?

: In my view, it's more useful to think in terms of preparing for opportunities rather than creating opportunities. Our inner character, whether it be radiant and loving or stingy and insecure, will define the nature of the opportunities presented at our door. We don't need to try and plan everything out, as though selecting our life story from a catalog. Life as it is will take care of that quite well. Although it may seem counter intuitive, behaving with absolute integrity and humility in our current circumstance does not mean we're going to end up stuck there forever. If we made poor choices in the past and find ourselves in unhealthy relationships or jobs, our best chance for healthy change lies in our clarity of mind, integrity of speech and action, uncompromising self-honesty; in other words, our insistence on taking responsibility for the choices we've made rather than blaming our suffering on the circumstances that our choices created. Integrity does not discourage Life from bringing us into contact with our heart's true desire. On the contrary, our integrity attracts such opportunity. But we must be alert, always watchful and alert.

There is a lawful, reasonable responsibility on the part of potential students to be alert and educated about what we may or may not be willing to be involved in. At the same time we would be wise to closely observe our own package of prejudices and arbitrary preferences so that opportunities are not dismissed out of hand, based solely on something learned from Aunt Lulu when we were three years old. I’ve met women, for example, who are only looking for a woman teacher because they can’t stand men. If the only women teachers they find have questionable skill and integrity, they still insist on a woman teacher because they have an unspoken rule operating in the back of their mind. As you can probably imagine, some men are only looking for a woman teacher, but for different reasons. And sometimes we’re looking for a teacher based purely on cultural background; e.g. everyone knows you have to have dark skin and speak with an accent to be a real spiritual teacher!

Students must mature through these various stages. If we build integrity and an ability to clearly see ourselves—our motives and hidden agendas as well as our sincere longing for truth—then over time we mature and become more sophisticated, more vigilant. I’m using the word vigilant in a very particular way. Vigilant is an inner state. Vigilant is a condition where the mind, our attention, is stronger than average and can hold attention on something for longer than fifteen seconds. The producers of modern TV commercials are only counting on a fifteen second attention span, tops. They’ve been testing the markets and have found that the average human being cannot hold their attention on one thing longer than fifteen seconds.

In order to develop the skill of vigilance, a prospective student must—it’s not negotiable, we can’t make a bargain—develop a quality of attention that can remain alert long enough to accurately recognize what it is that we are coming into contact with. We must be able to recognize—not necessarily understand, but recognize—when we have come into contact with a serious school, or teacher or teaching. In order to know this, our attention must possess the quality of vigilance. When it comes to spiritual teachers and communities, you get what you pay for, and the currency we use in this domain is vigilance.


Lalitha is the author of Waking to Ordinary Life. She heads Kripa Mandir ashram, located in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia.

Interview © February 1, 2016 Banyen Books & Sound