In 1982-83 the number rose to 905; in 2000, they numbered about 5,000.
Those who choose family life live with their wives, children and relations in a secluded part of a village.
Bauls are an extension of the Sahajiya philosophy, which in turn derives from the Nath tradition.
They believe in living the world as a half-sanyasi. Some modern scholars, like Shashibhusan Das Gupta have suggested that it may be derived either from Sanskrit word vatula, which means "enlightened, lashed by the wind to the point of losing one's sanity, god's madcap, detached from the world, and seeker of truth", or from vyakula, which means "restless, agitated" and both of these derivations are consistent with the modern sense of the word, which denotes the inspired people with an ecstatic eagerness for a spiritual life, where a person can realise his union with the eternal beloved – the Moner Manush (the person of the heart).
Like the ba'al who rejects family life and all ties and roams the desert, singing in search of his beloved, the Baul too wanders about searching for his maner manus (the ideal being).
The madness of the Baul may be compared to the frenzy or intoxication of the Sufi diwana.
They can often be identified by their distinctive clothes and musical instruments. Lalon Fokir is regarded as the most important poet-practitioner of the Baul tradition.
Although Bauls comprise only a small fraction of the Bengali population, their influence on the culture of Bengal is considerable.
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Votaries of this sect of Sufism in Iran, dating back to the 8th-9th centuries, were fond of music and participated in secret devotional practices. Like other Sufis, they also entered the South Asian subcontinent and spread out in various directions.
It is also suggested that the term derives from the Sanskrit words vatul (mad, devoid of senses) and vyakul (wild, bewildered) which Bauls are often considered.
Some scholars maintain that it is not clear when the word took its sectarian significance, as opposed to being a synonym for the word madcap, agitated.
The beginning of the Baul movement was attributed to Birbhadra, the son of the Vaishnavite saint Nityananda, or to the 8th century Persian minstrels called Ba'al. Whatever their origin, Baul thought has mixed elements of Tantra, Sufi Islam, Vaishnavism and Buddhism.