Sadhu In Haridwar
“Sadhus” are wandering ascetics affiliated with a wide range of Hindu religious orders and schools. Found throughout India and Nepal, they are seen in towns and cities and walking along roads with begging pots and staffs. They are respected by Hindus and given food in return for their blessings and prayers. They are also known as babas. A fakir is a holy man who lives by begging.

Sadhu have been around for at least 2000 years . They were called "the silent ones" or the "the long haired ones" in ancient Vedic verses. In ancient times sadhuism was regarded as the highest form of religious life and the power of sadhu penance was such, it was said, that the gods unsuccessfully set down cosmic beauties to try to seduce them and generals laid down their arms rather than wage war against a city protects by a “sadhus” . Originally only Brahmins were allowed to become sadhus. Now members of any caste can become one. They take vows of chastity and poverty, adopt ascetic practices, observe certain religious regulations, survive on charities, and provide religious services to those in need. They are expected to severe ties with family or home and wear markings and clothes associated with the sect they belong too.

There are believed to be around five million sadhus belonging to several thousand schools or sects in India. Most sadhus are males. The few females ones are called “sadvin” (the feminine of sadhu). The most conservative sadhus, the “nagas”, wear only a loin cloth and have long stringy locks of hair that resemble dreadlocks. Some have nicknames like "Long Haired Man" in honor of locks that if uncoiled would reach the ground.

Sadhus are revered by Hindus as representatives of the gods. Being a sadhu is one of the stages of life a person is expected to pass through. Even so in the caste system sadhus often occupy a position roughly equal to that of domestic servants.

Sacred charas
There are several types and groups of Sadhus. Thirteen akharas (group/ school/institution of sadhus) — including Juna, Nimrohi, Digambar, and Nirvani — participated at the month-long Maha Kumbh Mela held in Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh in April and May, 2016, Of these akharas, seven followed Shavism (a Shiva sect), three followed Panchayati and three were Vaishnavite (Vishnu followers). The main types of sadhus at Simhastha were: 1) Naga sadhus, naked sadhus who smear their bodies with ash and have long matted hair; 2) Shirshasinse, who remain standing, sleeping with their heads resting on a vertical poles, and meditating standing on their heads; 3) Kalpvasis, who remain by the river banks and devote their time to meditating, performing rituals, and bathing numerous times a day; 4) Urdhwavahurs, who have emaciated bodies from rigid spiritual practices; and 5) Parivajakas, who who have taken a vow of silence. Constant exposure to the weather makes the Naga sadhus resistant to temperature extremes. Their eyes are bloodshot from constantly smoking charas (marijuana), which they believe aids enlightenment. [Source: Debobrat Ghose, First Post, Apr, 23 2016]

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today ; India Divine ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ; Hindu Website ; Hindu Gallery ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press

Sadhu Customs and Duties

In India of the 1990s, several hundred thousand Hindu and Jain sadhus and a few thousand holy women (sadhvis ) live an ascetic life. They have chosen to wear ocher robes, or perhaps no clothing at all, to daub their skin with holy ash, to pray and meditate, and to wander from place to place, depending on the charity of others. Most have given up affiliation with their caste and kin and have undergone a funeral ceremony for themselves, followed by a ritual rebirth into their new ascetic life. They come from all walks of life, and range from illiterate villagers to well-educated professionals. In their new lives as renunciants, they are devoted to spiritual concerns, yet each is affiliated with an ascetic order or subsect demanding strict adherence to rules of dress, itinerancy, diet, worship, and ritual pollution. Within each order, hierarchical concerns are exhibited in the subservience novitiates display to revered gurus. Further, at pilgrimage sites, different orders take precedence in accordance with an accepted hierarchy. Thus, although sadhus have foresworn many of the trappings of ordinary life, they have not given up the hierarchy and interdependence so pervasive in Indian society. [Source: Library of Congress]

Hindus Sadhus and Buddhist monks have some similar customs. Both wander from place to place, surviving off alms and the goodness of others. In India it is a tradition for old men to leave their families and seek salvation. This is rooted in the Hindu belief in four stages of life: 1) studentship; 2) becoming a householder; 3) retiring to the forest to meditate; and 4) becoming a mendicant ("sannyasi").

During the third stage a man is expected to move into a hut in the forest with his wife and perform religious exercises. During the forth stage a man is expected to renounced all his worldly possession and become a beggar and devote himself totally to religion. According to the Laws of Manu:

Juna Akhada initiation

He should not wish to die.
nor hope to live.
but await the time appointed
as a servant awaits his wages...
Rejoicing in the things of the spirit.
caring in for nothing.
abstaining from sexual pleasure.
himself his only helper.
he lives in the world.
In hope of eternal bliss”

Some sadhus wander and travel a great deal. Others are more sedentary. Their religion duties include acts of self purification, worship, participation in religious discourses, making pilgrimages and studying religious texts. They also preach, teach religious doctrine, help the poor and troubled, and open schools and hospitals.

Many sadhus are Shaivaites. See Sects

A shaved head is a sign of penance. Many devotees have shaved heads this when they first become sadhus. The offering of water is considered a sign of respect. A water pot in some sects is the only possession a sadhu is allowed to own. It is the equivalent of the begging bowl of a Buddhist monk.

Sadhu Clothes and Markings

Sadhus generally identify which sect they belong to by clothing color, symbols on specific parts of their body and possessions such as a rosary, water pot or staff. Sometimes body adornments are expressions of sadhus individuality and artisanship rather than symbols of a sect.

Some Hindu holy men wear saffron robes, holy beads and have a vermillion and ash spot on their forehead. Others wear only a loin cloth. Some wear only a loin cloth and a gold chain or a gold bracelet. Some wear nothing at all. Nagas are known for walking around completely naked.

Many sadhus follow rules in which they are allowed to grow hair in five areas: their head, their upper jaw, their chin, their armpits and their pubic areas. Some sadhus shave their entire bodies. Brahmin sadhus are identified by a sacred thread that runs diagonally from their left shoulder to their waist under their right arm.

During important festival sadhus cover their bodies with paint, sandalwood ash, and even sequins. On holy days some loin-cloth-clad sadhus wrap flowers around the top-knot in the their hair and smear their bodies with ashes. Sometimes their outfits can be quite elaborate. One mendicant was observed in a Mysore village with more than 100 different items on his body. It took him a couple of hours to dress and put on all his religious markers.

Some sadhus cover themselves with the ash of cremated bodies. Some tikkas are made from the ash of incense. Others place the mark of Vishnu on their brow or tattoo their forehead with mantras of Lord Rama and his wife Sita. In Pushkar, one journalist saw holyman with no arms or legs.

Sadhu Lifestyle

Sadhus generally are not part of any distinct community. They either live in monasteries (called “ashrams” , “matha” or “mandira” ), if they have chosen a sedentary lifestyle, or take up temporary residence in pilgrimage shrines, if they are on a pilgrimage. Each sects has its own monasteries and pilgrimage shrines. Many monasteries and shrines are supported by lay people who receive spiritual counseling in return for their support. Many sadhus camp out at night when they are wandering around or are put up by almsgivers.

The sadhu lifestyle places a premium on austerity, discipline and self-control. A sadhu’s daily routine includes exercise intended to purify the physical body and elevate the mind, reading sacred verses, and attempting to reach levels of ecstacy through prayer. Generally, the only possessions owned by holy men are a wooden staff, an aluminum begging pot and a cloth bag slung around the neck with a few possessions, such as maybe a spoon, some scriptures and religious mementos. Holy men are supposed to beg only for food, discarding items given to them, saying "I never touch money. It buys only trouble. I would have to fight off thieves. Please, all I want is world peace."

Sadhus are almost totally dependant on the generosity of others for their subsistence. Some supplement what they receive in alms from begging by serving as spiritual mentors, manufacturing amulets, tickling people with feather dusters, fortunetelling, performing exorcisms, singing, juggling, selling medicinal herbs, tattooing, interpreting dreams, reading palms, casting spells and making potions. Many make and sell talisman known as “kavacga” which are supposed to attract good spirits and repel evil ones.

Many sadhus smoke marijuana and hashish. Some sadhus sit in their huts and smoke hashish all day in water pipes. Others smoke chillums and joints full of hashish.

Some sadhus have never been married. Other remain married while functioning as sadhus. Many leave their families. It has been suggested that unhappy family lives and marital collapse is the reason that many men decide to become sadhus. Some are orphans or runaways that were adopted by a sadhu order. These generally receive some kind of training that can last months or years before they begin wandering the countryside. Some become sadhus by following the Vedic progression of life stages. They often go through an initiation process and change their names when they become sadhus. Many sadhus have university degrees and families that miss them.

Sadhu Religious Activities

It is difficult to generalize about the religious activities of sadhus because they are a diverse group and the sects they belong to have many different traditions, customs, practices and beliefs. Their activities are directed at different gods. Many sadhus light sacred fires when they camp in the monasteries and pilgrimage shrines they stay in. Before sadhus are initiated into a higher level they are symbolically cleansed by clay oil lamps.

Some sadhus spend their entire lives on pilgrimages or even a single pilgrimage. Indra, the god of travelers, once said: "All his sins are destroyed by his fatigues and wanderings.” Others sit in the lotus position on a pair of stacked stones in a cave. As an act of devotion some sadhus put a lime at the end of a spear and then dip the spear in the Ganges. Others chant the name of the monkey god Hanuman a thousand times before a holy fire. After giving advise many sadhus give a banana, a sweetmeat, and a spoonful of Ganges water.

When asked why he spent the winter in a cave at 13,000-foot-high source of the Ganges with two meters of snow around him a sadhu told National Geographic, “God wanted me to do this spiritual work, to meditate and introspect on the spiritual truths of the scriptures. Why, for instance, is it written, and what does it mean, that the Ganges washes away sin? Can I give any scientific interpretation? Only by committing my own body and mind to this research can I hope to find the answer. Often when I sit by the Ganges I slowly open my heart and pour one after another my doubts. Mother Ganges always answers." [Source: John Putman, National Geographic October 1971]

Some sadhus are fierce Hindu nationalists involved in anti-Muslim activities (See Ayoda Temple). Others are involved in environmental activities. Sadhus have demonstrated in Allahabad, for example, demanding that the Ganges be cleaned up.

Sadhu Feats and Acts of Penitence

Hindu acetic do things like spend years with their left hand raised into the air, standing on one leg or lying on a bed of cactuses. Often have a blanket next to them to collect coins or food. Some bury themselves neck-deep in sand, pierce their tongues with spikes, stare at the sun, sleep standing up, mediate for hours while suspended from a rope, lay between fires, live in trees and refuse to talk for years. Hindus believed that severe penance will liberate them from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Many of sadhus smoke marijuana or hashish to ease their suffering.

Sadhu with long hair in 1920

Sadhus sometimes bury their head, a feat of breath control that requires mastery of yoga techniques. In 1837, a yogi named Hari Das war buried alive without air, food, liquid or any attention, After being excavated he was easily revived and went on to live a long life.

One sadhu at the Pushkar Fair became famous for lifting a 35-kilogram brick with his penis. Some sadhus are said to have the ability to talk with monkeys. Sometimes they are sought out by people for help keeping monkeys from raiding their gardens.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the silent Indian “fakir” Mastram Bapu stayed in the same spot by a road in the village of Chitra for 22 years, from 1960 to 1982. Swami Maujgiri Maharaja stood for 17 years (from 1955 to November 1973) performing “Tapasya” (penance) in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh. When sleeping, he leaned against a plank

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Radhey Shyam Prajapati stood motionless for world record of 18 hours, 5 minutes and 5 seconds in January 1996. Rajikumar Chakraborty did the static wall sit (Samson'c chair) for 11 hours and 5 minutes at the Panposh Sports Hostel in April 1994.

In the old days, some a Hindu mystics wore sandals with rows of nails pointed upwards into the feet meant to prove the wearer’s piety. On a fire walker that wore such shows, Melville Chater wrote in National Geographic in 1931: “Indian mystics will tell you that by self-inflicted tortures the soul reaches through flesh-numbing ecstacy toward higher states of being that lie between it and the Absolute.” The nails may have also toughened up the feet for firewalking through embers so hot “spectators must shelter their faces from it.” A look at the soles of the feet of the firewalkers revealed “ash, dust, but no burns.”

Rolling Baba

To gain merit Hindus sometime roll sideways through the dirty, cobblestone streets of Kathmandu while in a praying position. Followed by a procession of saffroned-robed devotees the rollers sometimes keep it up for hours.♀

Mohan Das, the Ludkan Baba (“Rolling Baba”), drew international attention in 2004 when he rolled over 1,300 kilometers between Agra and Lahore to promote good relations between India and Pakistan. He wore bandages on his legs and sweat bands on his arms and was able can move at a fast walking pace and cover 30 kilometers a day. On a typical day he rolled from 7:00am to noon and 3:00pm to 7:00pm, stopping occasionally for a rest or to give blessings. On some down hill sections he said he reached speeds of 15mph. Devotees swept glass and other obstacles out his way but he rolled through cow dung and garbage. One of his biggest obstacles was pavement that melted in the 50 degree C heat. At night he slept in camps with his devotees.

rolling Babas
Nick Meo wrote in the Times, “Rolling Baba’s matted dreadlocks slap against the sweltering tarmac of National Highway No. 2 as incredulous drivers beep and swerve to avoid him. Every few miles traffic comes to a complete stop when villagers swarm on to the road to seek the holy man’s blessing, forming a chaotic scrum with an entourage of hymn-chanting pilgrims trailing in his wake.” Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “He lies flat on the ground, turning himself over and over like a runaway log, limbs flailing as he bumps across potholes, splashes through mud puddles and falls deeper into a spiritual trance.”

Rolling Baba said he became a sadhu at the age of 12 after he touched a drying boy and saved his life. He said he lived for several years in a cave and ate nothing but grass and spent seven years standing up, leaning against a swing when he slept. He began rolling in 1983 as a way to earn more merit by making his journeys from one pilgrimage site to another more demanding. n 1994, he rolled 2,500 miles across India. By 2004, he figured he had rolled more than 320,000 kilometers.

On his trip to Lahore, Das often rolled with cigarette in his mouth. He smoked five packs of cigarettes a day and got energy from drinking countless cups of tea. He told the Los Angeles Times, “I move during cyclones, during blazing summers and cold winters. I think of God. I think of Mother Earth and then I roll and roll and roll. I don’t get dizzy. I don’t consume any food just tea and cigarettes. At night I eat fruits, roti, whatever I can lay my hands on.”

Aghoris: Extreme Sadhus That Eat the Dead

The most extreme sadhus, the aghoris , turn normal rules of conduct completely upside down. Rajesh and Ramesh Bedi, who have studied sadhus for decades, estimate that there may be fewer than fifteen aghoris in contemporary India. In the quest for great spiritual attainment, the aghori lives alone, like Lord Shiva, at cremation grounds, supping from a human skull bowl. He eats food provided only by low-ranking Sweepers and prostitutes, and in moments of religious fervor devours his own bodily wastes and pieces of human flesh torn from burning corpses. In violating the most basic taboos of the ordinary Hindu householder, the aghori sadhu graphically reminds himself and others of the correct rules of social behavior. [Source: Library of Congress]

Holy men of the 1,000-year-old Aghor sect of Shiva worshipers in Varanasi drink whiskey from human skulls, have sex with corpses and eat the charred remains of the dead from funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges. They eat corpses in the belief that ingesting dead flesh will make them ageless and give them supernatural powers. By breaking humanity's strict taboos they claim to transcend society and come closer to enlightenment. They say human meat tastes good and identify the brains as the best part. [Source: Richard Grant, Washington Post, July 30, 2008]

an Aghori sadhu, smoking a chillum

In a story on “Feeding on the Dead,” a 10-minute documentary about the Aghori sect by director Sandeep Singh, Associated Press reported: There are about 70 Aghori sadhus at a given time, and they remain with the sect for 12 years before returning to their families. Unlike other Hindu holy men, most of whom are vegetarian teetotalers, the Aghoris consume alcohol and meat. But it is their consumption of human flesh — a practice whose origins remain a mystery — which has earned them the condemnation of other Hindus and relegated most Aghori sadhus to living around crematoriums in the hills around the holy city of Varanasi. [Source: Associated Press, October 27, 2005]

Singh and three cameramen waited with an Aghori sadhu — whose name is not mentioned in the film — for 10 days in June before finding a floating corpse. Hindus generally cremate the dead, but bodies are sometimes ceremonially disposed of in the Ganges. “The body was decomposed and bluish in color, but the sadhu was not afraid about falling sick,” Singh told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. “He sat on the corpse, prayed to a goddess of crematoriums and offered some flesh to the goddess before eating it.” Singh said the sadhu ate part of the corpse’s elbow, believing the flesh would stop him from aging and give him special powers, like the ability to levitate or control the weather. Singh did not see any of those powers on display.

Book: “Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual” by Paul Raffaele (Smithsonian, 2008).

Laws of Manu on the Indian Ascetic

'The Laws of Manu,' VI, 33-65 reads: 33)But having thus passed the third part of (a man's natural term of) life in the forest, he may live as an ascetic during the fourth part of his existence, after abandoning all attachments to worldly objects. [1 Reference here is to the ideal four stages (ashramas) of the Brahman's life: student (brahmacarin), householder (grihastha), hermit or forest-dweller (vanaprastha), and finally, ascetic or mendicant (yati, bhikshu, parivrajaka, samnyasin)]
34) He who after passing from order to order, after offering sacrifices and subduing his senses, becomes, tired with (giving) alms and offerings of food, an ascetic, gains bliss after death.
35) When he has paid the three debts, let him apply his mind to, (the attainment of) final liberation; he who seeks it without having paid (his debts) sinks downwards.
36) Having studied the Vedas in accordance with the rule, having begat sons according to the sacred law, and having offered sacrifices according to his ability, he may direct his mind to (the attainment of) final liberation. . . .

41) Departing from his house fully provided with the means of purification (Pavitra), let him wander about absolutely silent, and caring nothing for enjoyments that may be offered (to him).
42) Let him always wander alone, without any companion, in order to attain (final liberation), fully understanding that the solitary (man, who) neither forsakes nor is forsaken, gains his end.
43) He shall neither possess a fire, nor a dwelling, he may go to a village for his food, (he shall be) indifferent to everything, firm of purpose, mediating (and) concentrating his mind on Brahman. . . .
45) Let him not desire to die, let him not desire to live; let him wait for (his appointed) time, as a servant (waits) for the payment of his wages.

19th-century long-haired sadhu

46) Let him put down his foot purified by his sight (Lest he injure any small animal, or step on something impure), let him drink water purified by (straining with) a cloth, let him utter speech purified by truth, let him keep his heart pure.
47) Let him patiently bear hard words, let him not insult anybody, and let him not become anybody's enemy for the sake of this (perishable) body.
48) Against an angry man let him not in return show anger, let him bless when he is cursed, and let him not utter speech, devoid of truth, scattered at the seven gates ( seven bodily orifices?).
49) Delighting in what refers to the Soul (atman), sitting (in the postures prescribed by the Yoga), independent (of external help), entirely abstaining from sensual enjoyments, with himself for his only companion, he shall live in this world, desiring the bliss (of final liberation). . . .

  1. By the restraint of his senses, by the destruction of love (Or, affection, passion, raga), and hatred, and by the abstention from injuring the creatures (Ahimsa, non-injury), he becomes fit for immortality.
    61. Let him reflect on the transmigrations of men, caused by their sinful deeds, on their falling into hell, and on the torments in the world of Yama,
    62 On the separation from their dear ones, on their union with hated men, on their being overpowered by age and being tormented with diseases,
    63. On the departure of the individual soul from this body and its new birth in (another) womb, and on its wanderings through ten thousand millions of existences,
    64. On the infliction of pain on embodied (Limits), which is caused by demerit, and the gain of eternal bliss, which is caused by the attainment of their highest aim, (gained through) spiritual merit.
    65. By deep meditations, let him recognize the subtle nature of the supreme Soul, [Source: Translation by G. Buhler in Sacred Books of the East, xxv (Oxford, 1886), pp. 204-10], Mircea Eliade website]

Kumbh Mela Sadhus

Sadhus (Hindu holy men) dominate the melas. They arrive from all over India and set up camps near the Ganges, where they pray, meditate, give blessings, do yoga, chant mantras and engage in discourses on various matters. Not all the sadhus fit the image of stereotypical holy men. Some arrive in fancy, air-conditioned cars. According to Indian newspapers many are fakes who just trying to make a fast buck.

In a 1991 book on sadhus, Rajesh Bedi wrote, "When the stars were in a particular position, the sadhus simply followed the great river to their confluences and stayed there until others from all directions, joined them. Then they discussed the state of the body politic , the economic condition of the people and the philosophical an theological questions."

The sadhus are organized into monastic orders called akharas , which are led supreme leaders called shankarachrayas . Describing their procession to the Ganges, Burns wrote, they "marched across pontoon bridges to the bath ghats...The crowds tossed garlands of marigolds and shouted, 'We bow to you, oh holy men!' 'We kiss your feet!' and 'Long live Lord Ram!”

Leading the procession into the Ganges are hundreds of naked, ash-covered sadhus with tridents, the symbol of Siva. After them come followers on camels, horses and elephants and millions of pilgrims who approach the sacred site from boats as well as on land by foot. The ashes that cover the naked sadhus comes from dung fires.

"The sadhus and their leaders, many of them carried to the ghats in gaily-colored palanquins shaded from the sun by gold and crimson parasols, waved back regally," Burns wrote. The sadhus "marched to the river in triumph, headed by hundreds of stark naked Nagas sadhus, the warrior-like holy men who constitute a kind of commando force."

at the Kumbh Mela in 1998

Sadhu Organization and Guru Infrastructure at the Kumbh Mela

Tom Downey wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “I traveled to the central sector where the 16 major akharas were located. The Juna akhara is the most powerful and influential of these. Inside a large compound, consisting of orange tents arrayed around a massive orange flag hoisted high above the encampment on a pole, the sadhus sat next to fires that their disciples helped keep burning day and night. [Source: Tom Downey, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2013]

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In a country with a reputation for poor infrastructure and checkered garbage collection, the management of this spiritual smorgasbord is impressive. The festival site, administered by the government here in the north-central state of Uttar Pradesh, boasts temporary water pipes, power lines, police stations and 90 miles of makeshift road. "I can't find my guru's place," said Subhash Barot, a physician from Indore. "It's overwhelming." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2013 ++]

“At the control center, administrator Mani Prasad Mishra is ringed by supplicants seeking better locations, more electricity, new neighbors. Sadhus are allocated specific sites and pay no rent; the limited number of shops allowed into the area pay for the privilege. "It's nothing but complaints," he said with a sigh. "This is definitely the most challenging job of my career." ++

“As the sun ascends, Sri Amar Bharti Baba attracts curiosity-seekers and supplicants eager to see his right arm, held aloft for three decades in a supreme act of denial and willpower. The sadhu's fingers have fused, their curled, blackened nails resembling talons. His left hand reaches for the hashish he chain-smokes to open his spiritual channels. "There's only five or six doing this in the world," said Horst Brutsche, 57, a German devotee of 18 years known as Datta Bharti. "It's definitely not for me." ++

“Tolerance hangs over the fair like the midmorning haze, the best of a Hindu tradition that finds spiritual truth in Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha as well as its own 330 million gods. "All people are God's children, our brothers," said Naga Baba Bodhi Giri Maharaj, wearing mutton-chop sideburns and little else. "Even Pakistanis." Hindu sects gently elbow for recruits in a nation with a declining interest in asceticism and the growing lure of worldly pleasures, seeking to attract pilgrims through posters, tutorials and food. Naresh, the farmer, has learned when various ashrams ring their dinner bells. "The free food is great," he said. ++

“A late-morning crowd heads for Sri Panchayti Akhara Nirmala's chandelier-adorned compound in search of free tea as Sikh sadhu Nihang Singh voices reservations about all the talk of peace and love. "I'm open to war," he said, dressed in purple robes, a spear and flip-flops. "Sometimes you must beat back evil." Outside, pilgrims in sandals and bare feet sidestep stray dogs scrounging for samosas past a line of naked ascetics known as nagas, many of them sitting cross-legged tending log and cow-dung fires.

Sadhus in Rajasthan

Kumbh Mela Holy Men in 2013

Frank Jack Daniel of Reuters wrote: “More than 2,000 years old, the festival is a meeting point for the Hindu sadhus, some who live in forests or Himalayan caves, and who belong to dozens of inter-related congregations. The sects have their own administration and elect leaders, but are also known for violent clashes with each other. Some naked, some wrapped in saffron or leopard-print cloth and smoking cannabis pipes, the holy men hold court by fire pits in sprawling camps decorated with coloured neon lights, where they are visited by pilgrims who proffer alms and get blessings. [Source: Frank Jack Daniel, Reuters, January 14, 2013 /*]

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “One naga, Radhey Puri Naga Baba, hasn't sat down for 10 years, even to sleep. He leaned on a pole to protect an infected right foot as he blessed people's foreheads between hits on a hash pipe. "I'm not looking for enlightenment," he said, advising tourists on their best camera angle. "There's no particular reason I'm doing this." Another naga walked past, his penis adorned with a fake diamond ring and beads. "These are ornaments in worship of the lord," explained the Shiva devotee, known as Lightning Baba.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2013 ++]

Tom Downey wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “I traveled to the central sector where the 16 major akharas were located....The first sadhu I saw was a peculiar sight: a bearded, dreadlocked white guy smoking a stone chillum filled with hashish who, after he exhaled, began speaking with a distinctively American accent. Baba Rampuri, a 63-year-old U.S. native raised in California who joined the Juna akhara over 40 years ago and has since ascended its ranks, gestured to me to sit down before him. One of his followers, also clad in the orange robes of the akhara, prepped and passed Rampuri another chillum of hashish, which sadhus smoke as part of a holy ritual to improve their focus while meditating. He carefully wrapped a piece of white cloth around the bottom hole and proceeded to inhale deeply before passing it along to another follower. [Source: Tom Downey, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2013]

Daniel wrote: “Despite their asceticism, the sects, known as akharas, are moving with the times. Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji, who leads one of the main groups, has a Facebook page. Some gurus advertise on billboards and posters to attract followers, others drive trucks and chat on cellphones. At the riverbank, men with dreadlocked beards to their feet vied for media attention with yogis supporting heavy weights with their genitals, while others holding golden brellas, flags and swords rubbed sand on their bodies after the dip. ”I feel pleasure,“ grinned Digambar Navraman Giri,” who said he had not sat down for a year, even sleeping on foot. “This is why I became a sadhu,” he said, steam rising from his body in the cold air and wearing nothing but two rings on his fingers. /*\

“Baba Ram Puri was given to his guru by his parents when he was barely one year old. At 31, he is now a young spiritual leader himself and says Indians with disposable income want to support traditional holy men. “They earn a lot of money but they don’t get peace, so they turn to spirituality,” he said, sitting on cushions by a smoking fire. “That’s why we continue to grow in strength.” /*\

Jim Mallinson, a Sanskrit scholar and expert on sadhus, says that, while exact numbers are hard to come by, it appears the sects are growing in strength and size, and the fair is becoming more religious. “I suspect it is because the emerging middle classes are more than happy to spend their surplus cash on sustaining the sadhu tradition,” he said.” /*\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia “ edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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