NAKED DISPLAYS OF SPIRITUALITY LIVEN INDIA'S RELIGIOU.S. LIFE
by Aman Singh
American Reporter India Correspondent
New Delhi, India
NEW DELHI -- Amid the blaring horns and crowds of people around Connaught Circle in central New Delhi, the tall, thin man crossing the street at a leisurely pace went nearly unnoticed. As he wandered into the park and passed Indians enjoying some ice cream or just lying in the sun, no one paid any attention. He finally sat down by the park's central fountain and began smoking bits of hashish in a stone chilam, a small pipe held in the palm of one hand. Still, no one took note except for one obviously Western tourist, who quickly snapped a picture. Meanwhile, the sadhu, or saint, smoked on, his sweating, completely naked body shining in the sun.
Their faces smile out from calendars, timetables and book covers adorn most homes here hold an indescribable fascination for Indians. And thousands of people from abroad visit India just to meet these "magical" men. Yet many of these very men - but by no means all - are behind scores of financial scams, even while creating fanatic followers and duping innocent people into believing they are saints.
A sadhu (a male mendicant) is a Hindu ascetic or a monk with a tradition that has a long history. It consists of renouncing worldly ties in pursuit of higher values of life. Ideally, a sadhu lives in society but is detached from its pleasures and pains. Sadhus typically survive on bhiksha (alms) provided by families, and on natural resources, and they spend most of their time in meditation. A large number of sadhus assemble for holy festivals such as the Kumbha Mela.
The most striking of the lot are the famous Naga sadhus who descend from the Himalayas during the even more popular Kumbh Mela that is held at a different holy river every year. This tribe of sadhus attracts photographers by the thousands every year with their wild behavior and open display of nakedness. However, they are not the same as those worshipped as deities. These sadhys are detached from life, although not necessarily "pleasures" like narcotics and sex.
The sadhus practice rituals involving fire, water, yoga, and meditation, and beg for a living, following the lifestyle of Lord Shiva, a Hindu god, whose matted hair holds the flowing Ganges river and a crescent moon, a serpent coiled around his neck, a trident (trishul) in his one hand and ashes all over his body.
His attributes represent his victory over the demonic activity, and calmness of human nature. He is known as the "giver" god. His vehicle is a bull, the symbol of happiness and strength, named Nandi.
These ascetics in their nakedness, however, do not emanate sexuality. On the contrary, they control, inhibit the sexual "vibrations," retaining its energy so it can be mystically transformed into psychic and spiritual power.
Abbe Dubois, a French missionary who lived in India from 1792 to 1823, observed in his book "Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies," "They attach to their generative organs a heavy weight which they drag about until the power of muscles and nerves is completely destroyed." These asanas, or holy postures, are still practiced today.
These sadhus radically renounce "the world" in order to focus entirely on the "Higher Reality" beyond. They abstain from sex, cut all family ties, have no possessions, no house, wear little or no clothing and eat little and simple food. Usually they live by themselves, on the fringes of society, and spend their days in devotion to their chosen deity.
Some perform magical rituals to make contact with the gods, which attracts hordes of disciples and sometimes their day's earnings. Others practice intense forms of yoga and meditation to increase their spiritual powers and acquire mystical knowledge.
For an ordinary human being these "basic" self-abnegations are anyway hard to comprehend. But almost unimaginable are the extreme self-mortifications by which a number of sadhus try to speed up their enlightenment. There are those who keep their right arm straight up until it degenerates into a kind of stick; some do not sit and instead lie down for years on end, or keep silence for many years, wear a "chastity belt," or fast for a long time.
Most sadhus, however, take life a lot easier, and they are often more commonly clad in bright saffrom robes. For many, the main "self-mortification" seems to be the smoking of hashish. The chilam, a clay pipe smoked by many sadhus through cupped hands, is filled with tobacco and hashish. These are something these sadhus persevere with till their last days.
In contrast with the many young male sadhus, are the beautiful young women who are but rarely seen in the brotherhood. About ten percent of sadhus are women, called sadhvis, but most of them are old, having taken this path after widowhood. This reflects the generally subordinate position of women in the Indian society, the popular belief being that women have to be born again as men before they can be spiritually liberated and the even more marginal position of widows.
Choosing a sadhu's life was, and still is, the only respectable way to escape from the "living death" of widowhood for these women. Nevertheless, since time immemorial there have been female sadhus. And quite a few have, like their male counterparts, chosen the sadhu life in their teens, convinced as they were of their spiritual predestination. Quite a few sects do not allow women because the celibates fear their "corrupting influences;" some sects are mixed, but then female sadhus usually have their separate quarters.
Though generally speaking their position in the spiritual hierarchy is inferior to men, there have always been great woman saints, and female sadhus are treated with much respect, sometimes also being addressed as the "Revered Mother."
Swami Agnivesh is a sadhu with a difference. A saffron-robed sanyasi, he is not one for performing magical rites but is an activist for social causes with the Arya Samaj, the Hindu reformist movement. Along with some other Arya Samaj activists, he initiated socio-political activities in the Indian state of Haryana, formed the Arya Sabha, got elected to the State Legislative Assembly and even became the Education Minister in the State Government.
But within four months he got disillusioned, resigned and decided to devote all his energy and time to social movements and waged many battles for social justice. Among his campaigns in the country have been ones against bonded labor, child labor, modern consumerist trends, ecological destruction of Third World in general and India in particular, religious fundamentalism, casteism, racial feelings and slavery of all kinds. He fought against these ills in courts and in streets and today enjoys a following and respect among the journalistic and diplomatic communities.
On the personal front, Swami Agnivesh is a straightforward man, drives his own car, doesn't allow any chauffeuring around, and a fact very few are ready to accept, is his roving eye. I had a chance to be part of an informal meeting that he attended not so long ago and in those two minutes he had practically undressed the emcee with his eyes and even exclaimed a cunning, "Arre wah! (Wow)" as he passed her and moved on and meet the other people.
Khushwant Singh, a celebrated Indian writer says that he finds the pravachans (sermons) by the dozen or more acharyas and sadhvis here more arresting.
"My top favorites remain the two Bapus - Murari and Asa Ram. Both have the gift of the gab. Murari Bapu has a very melodious voice and his chanting induces men and women in his audience to get up and start dancing. On the other hand, Asa Ram Bapu intersperses his sermons with humorous anecdotes which raise laughter and clapping," he says.
The two sadhus mentioned by Singh are a huge hit in the country, especially North India. His sermons draw crowds in lakhs with most of the audience dancing wildly as if in a trance by the end of his sermon that includes songs and hymns along with his morally correct sermons.
While Asa Ram Bapu is known as a "magical man," sporting a baldhead, saffron clothes and a loud voice, his followers have been known to go to absurd lengths to please him and "through his power" attain peace. One woman in New Delhi, India's capital, became his personal servant after meeting him and left her family that included two teenager daughters and an invalid husband to serve her "guru."
But what Singh says rings true where sadhvis are concerned. He has a poor opinion of them saying that they "come off poorly by contrast, no oratory, no jokes." One sadhvi I have had opportunity to hear and see is the popular sadhvi Preeti Hari, who dresses in pink and plays the piano, accompanying every line that she speaks with a lilt of song. She speaks like a politician, talking of how to become close to God through giving up everything. She talks of funny anecdotes about "my disciples who have left all they had because they have been influenced by me."
These ironically include mentions of a young girl who was in the sex trade and chanced to meet Hari, of pregnant unmarried women who have managed to live by taking Hari's sayings to heart, etc, etc, etc.
"But, what I find disappointing about these purveyors of religion and morality, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, is that they have nothing new to say because they do not tackle problems of our times. Have you ever heard any of them tell you of the perils of our exploding population or the denigration of our environment?" questions Singh.
What he says is true to a large extent, as all these "New Age gurus" of a different kind talk mostly about the power of "Him," how to attain purity of the soul and teach ways of living without materialistic desires. But when taken a peek in their personal lives, all these sermons attain a hollow tone. Asa Ram Bapu for example has the latest model of every car made in the country, lives with dozens of men and women tending to his needs and sleeps in a palace befitting a king.
Of course, officially these are all "part of donations by industrialists that are Guruji's disciples!" Then of course there is Acharya Sudhanshu who is enjoying the most flourishing following, with people across the country subscribing to his monthly magazine and traveling long distances to meet him. At first glance, he is average-looking, but the smile that is permanently fixed on his face seems to hold million secrets at the same time, an uncanny calm. This is what attracts people from all backgrounds and classes to him. Whether it is the housewife who devotedly reads his lessons or the industrialist who donates a part of his yearly income to the guru's numerous ashrams, Sudhanshu, known as a "Ji," or saint, is a man who is intent on showing "people who come to me, the right path."
These and thousands more comprise the "spiritual India" that is drawing Westerners by the hundreds to Indian shores in search of peace and spirituality. These sadhus enjoy huge fan followings throughout the country - and many have followers abroad, too. One of those, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, has opened meditation schools and centers in India and around the world, is being literally worshipped by some devotees.
Despite the fact that they comprise India's most highly-paid tourist attraction, the stories about their duping innocent believers do not have much impact on people who are devoted to them. It isn't unusual to find Britishers and Americans with shaved heads and dhotis (piece of cloth wrapped around the legs) attending to them, praising them and promoting them in the metropolises of the country.
Meanwhile, India's profile as the ultimate haven for soul searchers and spirituality continues to rocket as more and more stressed-out people flood the country searching for these "God men," encouraging them to flourish and in return expecting fulfillment.