Bob Dylan and the Bauls

Letters / Opinions

Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan turns eighty today – a moment to remember that Osho once mentioned one of his albums – by Radhika.

John Wesley Harding

Osho has spoken very little on western popular music, which was probably one of the major cultural phenomena of the 20th century. I always considered the rise and assertive expansion of pop music a significant healing force after the two world wars.

To me it explains its astonishing success and demand of this mass phenomenon. Coming alive while dancing at a concert with thousands of others and singing along in a festive atmosphere seems to make people happy!

I heard Osho say that he disliked the noise of modern western music, calling it “Jazz”. How can it be otherwise in the light of his extraordinary sensitivity as an enlightened mystic? There may be one small exception though: Bob Dylan. Osho refers to ‘John Wesley Harding’, one of Dylan’s albums, in his discourse series The Beloved.

The songwriter, Bob Dylan, gives us a modern parable that expresses quite well what I wish to say to you. On the backside of his album, ‘John Wesley Harding’, we read of three kings who visit a man named Frank. The first king explains their mission to Frank:

“Mr. Dylan has come out with a new record. This record, of course, features none but his own songs, and we understand that you are the key.”

“That’s right,” said Frank, “I am.”

“Well then,” said the king in a bit of excitement, “could you please open it up for us?”

Frank, who all this time had been reclining with his eyes closed, suddenly opened them both as wide as a tiger. “And just how far would you like to go in?” he asked.

The chief of the kings replied, “Not too far, but just enough so we can say that we have been there.”

Even when people are seeking God, they want only to go this far – so that they can say to the world that they have seen him. But they don’t want to go far enough – because if you go far enough into God, you never come back. They don’t want to take another step – because if you go deep, then there comes a point of no return. They only want to go a little bit, so that they can come back into the world and say to people that, “We have seen God also.” But their whole interest is in the world and the respectability that the world can give to them. They have a big bank balance, they have a big palace today; now they even possess God in their homes.

Interestingly enough the photograph on the album cover shows Dylan standing in front of bare trees with hands in his pockets, smiling into the camera and framed by two rather wild-looking Baul musicians from Bengal. Is this the reason the album made its way to Osho?

And Osho continues …

This parable is beautiful.

Replies the chief of the kings, “Not too far, but just enough so we can say that we have been there.”

When you go to the temple you are still not going; your face is towards the marketplace. Have you seen it sometimes in you or in others? – if you are alone in the temple, you don’t enjoy your prayer very much. If there are many people watching, then there is great enthusiasm. Then you are so full of spirit. Then your prayer is great, you feel very high – not because of the prayer, but because the whole town is watching you. And they will think how religious, how virtuous, how close to God you are. You would like them to feel jealous. It is a performance. But your performance is before the people; God is out of it. You are not contacting him.

Contact him alone, because it is not a performance. You are not to prove anything to anybody, you are just to open your heart.

The Bauls say,

As you wonder, sitting alone,
the time approaches for death.
Heedless of all, O my insane heart,
you have traveled eight million times
the painful ways of life to death,
to find the measured land,
the body of the man.

Why did you let such human
earth turn to wasteland?
Cultivated, it could have yielded
a harvest of gold.
Take up, my heart, the spade of devotion,
wrench out the weeds of sin;
the seed of faith will grow.

Dylan began his musical career in New York City as a chubby-faced 20-year-old, singing with the gravelly voice of an old man who has seen it all. The one big theme of his first album: Death! At first he composed impressive material in the North American folk tradition and soon turned to writing authentic personal songs with lyrics of extraordinary quality, often in ‘protest‘ style that made him promptly world-famous.

During this period he composed many songs that would be some of the finest popular music of the  century, making him a giant in the music industry. Back then he was sensational, and while touring the UK in 1966, he played at the Royal Albert Hall in London in front of the Beatles and royalty. During that concert tour something of significance happened that would become the constant theme of his career: whenever the world press and his fans had established a certain image of him, before long he would demolish it with thorough efficiency.

During this tour we saw the first one of these transformations; after having played an acoustic set, he plugged in an e-guitar and went ‘electric‘. While the audience booed and shouted he was a traitor, Dylan told the band to play louder. These are moments that went into the annals of rock ‘n‘ roll history. And while at the same time a majority of bands turned electric and orchestral, the following year Bob Dylan made a simple, almost austere album: ‘John Wesley Harding’.

The album could not have been more removed from the psychedelic atmosphere of 1967 as he turns to sparse and casual musical arrangements. Apart from a few sweet love songs, he narrates archaic stories while laying the finger on the pains of the human condition by using Wild West themes merged with apocalyptic scenes. The message seems to be that while hippies celebrate love and freedom one should keep in sight other, and unpleasant, themes of life that have to be reflected upon. Including the prospect of death, once again.

Bob Dylan‘s life and career took many turns, ups and downs. Until it was interrupted by the pandemic-related measures, he gave more than 3000 concerts on his ‘Never Ending Tour’, touring the world each year for three decades, playing set lists based on a body of work with more than 600 songs. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” and published an enthusiastically acclaimed studio album last year.

By looking through his lyrics one can find a streak of a spiritual search which has led him onto many paths and searchings that appear to have resulted in very personal final conclusions. There seems to be an approach and longing for the divine. May it lead to its fulfillment.


Radhika is a writer, poet and designer.

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