The Wild Holy Men Of India, Caught Between Past and Present
Boom Boom Baba
Boom Boom Baba sits on a stone platform above the Benares ghats, the steps where millions of Hindu pilgrims come to bathe every year.
“I am Naga, I am very dangerous. But I will pray for you and make a good puja.”
Boom Boom Baba has all the vestiges of a Sadhu. Dressed in black, his face smeared in ash, his hair matted, his beard long and wild, he looks like a Jamaican Charles Manson.
A group of lesser Sadhus and a few foreigners sit around the holy man.
The tools of his trade lie on a black cloth in front of him – his danda, a stick topped by a trident in honor to Shiva, a kamandalu or water pot, his begging bowl, an Italian copy of the Maharabata and an enormous chillum, his stone pipe for the consumption of hashish or charas as hashish is known locally.
Boom Boom Baba also owns several animal skulls and a black cloth bag filled, he says, with the ash of the dead, from one of the near-by burning ghats.
This Sadhu is in the business of imparting wisdom, of sorts. He has picked a most auspicious place for his spiritual dispensations. The ghats in Varanasi are considered so holy that be burned here means instant freedom from the cycle of reincarnation. Hundreds of old men live in the shadows of the many temples on the riverside, waiting their turn.
Boom Boom Baba intones a bhajan, a prayer song, while unwrapping his chillum. Abruptly he breaks off from his half-hearted utterings and asks his audience, “You, someone give some charas.”
A couple of foreigners gladly oblige and pull out several lumps of oily hashish.
The Sadhu grabs the lot and passes it to a young Indian in saffron robes with a Bruce Lee haircut, who is quick to burn and crumble the charas before handing it back to Boom Boom Baba. The Sadhu duly stuffs his stone pipe, lights up and disappears in a cloud of smoke.
“Bom Bolinath,” he intones and coughs like a slack-backed mule on its last journey. Another drag and the half dead chillum passes on to one of the lesser Sadhus. By the time the foreigners get to the precious smoke it’s all but burnt out, their charas long gone. But they don’t care. For them, Boom Boom Baba represents the wisdom of the East. Or perhaps just entertainment?
Boom Boom Baba is showing off his yogic abilities. With great effort he manages to tuck his legs behind his ears and stand on his hands. His face goes bright red from the strain.
“Bom Bolinath. Boom Shiva,” he groans and falls exhausted on his back.
The tourists and lesser Sadhus look on in awe, while Boom Boom Baba is already cleaning his chillum for the next round.
I ask him whether he went to the Khumb Mela the previous year.
He spits on the ground and says, ”I have no time to go to Maha Khumb. Too many people come here to Varanasi to see me, no time.”
I ask him which Akhara he belongs to, but he just shakes his head, apparently put out by my question. The lesser Sadhus and the sycophantic foreigners throw worried and irritated glances at me.
“I am Naga Sadhu. I have yogic power. You will see, tomorrow morning, on the other side of Ganga. We go together.”
Boom Boom Baba opens his black cloth bag and is scooping out handfuls of ash. Now clearly agitated, he rubs the ash into his hair, amidst more intonations. “This special puja, you give me 50 Rupees, please.”
The foreigners comply with the Sadhu’s demand. The Indians all sit unmoving.
“Do you read your copy of the Maharabata?” I ask.
Boom Boom Baba stares at me. He’s trying to turn this encounter into a contest of wills. A second later he is back with his mumbled prayers. He dips his hand in the bag again, scoops out more ash and slaps it down hard on the head of the lesser Sadhu next to him, then the next and so on. Before his foreign devotees can move out of the way, they too get a handful of corpse ash slapped onto their heads. Hard.
“Boom Boom. I am Boom Boom Baba.”
As I get up to leave, both the firing line and the presence of this eminent ascetic, Boom Boom Baba quips at me, “Tomorrow you come, other side Ganga, I have yogic powers. You bring some charas, you bring some drink, whisky, this Baba like whisky.”
I fail to make any promises.
The life and times of a Sadhu
No one knows how many Sadhus roam India today. The only headcount takes place at the Maha Khumb Mela, the great gathering by the holy Ganga, held every twelve years in Allahabad, central India. The next Maha Khumb takes place in 2013.
Sadhus split into four distinct groups, the most visible and well known, the Sannyasis who follow Shiva, usually wear orange robes, have matted hair and indulge in smoking cannabis.
The Nagas are a subgroup of the Sannyasis, belonging mostly but not exclusively to the Juna Akhara, the monastic order that is said to have the greatest number of mendicant followers. In all there are six monastic orders or Akharas representing the Sannyasis.
Another seven Akharas represent Bairagi, Udasin and Nirmal Sadhus who do not follow Shiva.
Some Akharas claim to have hundreds of thousands of members.
All thirteen Akharas are based in Haridwar, northern India and wield considerable influence on a local as well as national level. All activities and property deals undertaken by Akharas are tax-free.
Akharas are low profile but some of its leaders are involved in the current nationalist struggle of the ruling BJP. Pilot Baba, an ex air-force pilot who had a divine vision in mid-air during a flight, is a vocal opponent of any compromise in the controversial Ayodhya impasse that has plagued northern India for years. In this small town in Uttar Pradesh, the birthplace of Rama, a fifteenth century mosque was torn down in 1992 by an armed mob of Hindu fundamentalists, connected with the ruling party. Riots and religious tensions erupted all over India, thousands of people died. Recent massacres of Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat occurred for similar reasons, predominantly due to the desire of fundamentalists to bring about a Hindustani state in which Muslims, Christians and Buddhists would all have to accept Hindu dominance. This vision, pushed by the government, aided along by various far right institutions and violent militants is threatening India’s culture of religious tolerance.
To become a Sannyasi, one has to renounce one’s worldly identity, let go of material and familial connections and embark on a life-long journey to find the self. Hindu faithful and other generous souls subsidize this life style with donations of food ad money.
Many holy men will take to the road, in which case they have to follow rules laid down at the time of their initiation on how long they can remain in any city or village. Others may stay in just one location, a cave or perhaps an ashram. Some Sadhus opt for a more hardcore path of asceticism, tapas. This includes self-mutilation and prolonged physical contortions.
At the Maha Khumb Mela, one of the most celebrated Sadhus presides, day in, day out, in front of his tent, in the vast, sprawling camp of the Juna Akhara. His chillum is filled by both Indian and Western devotees and he grants interviews to the press at 50$ a pop. Whatever his ability to give useful advice to the throngs of pilgrims that file patiently past this baba every day, his commitment is absolute – he has been holding one of his arms up in the air for the past 25 years. Other more dedicated Sannyasis pull jeeps through Allahabad, tied to their private parts.
Late afternoon, on the shores of the Ganga. About a thousand naked men cower on the edge of the water in a long neat row. They all have shaved heads, wisps of their hair still blows around the sandbank they sit on. Some look old and frail, others are still in their twenties. Orange clad Sadhus walk behind the rubble, armed with sticks, keeping the aspirant Nagas in line. Today is the most important day in the lives of these men – their funeral.
The barbers have gone and the hundreds of curious watchers have been pushed back up the slope of the sandbank. The men huddle silently in the sun. There are a couple of white men amongst them too, about to take leave from the world.
An obscure signal sets them off. The men rise as one. They step forward and into the cold stream as one. Here and there a man hesitates but it is too late. The rush of the crowd drags all stragglers into the swift cold water.
The men submerge and pray and offer their lives to the Naga cult. Their identities, their names, their connections to home, families and friends, dies in the floods of the Ganga.
As they reemerge, they are Naga. They will walk the country naked, smeared in ash, live in forests and hovels and beg for alms. They are dead in the worldly sense. They are free of responsibility. They are free.
Akharas started off in the 9 th century as militant regiments of Hindu mercenaries, founded to protect the faith against invaders. Orders of female Sadhus emerged later but remain few to this day.
A last gasp of antiquated culture or perhaps the dark renaissance of an ancient impulse has created a country, which is tolerant enough today, to accept people in its midst who give no visible material or social, artistic or even spiritual benefit to society.
Sadhus are not required, like Christian Priests, Buddhist monks, Jewish Rabbis or Islamic Mullahs, to be learned in any particular tome or teaching method.
But the tradition of the wandering holy man is not unique to India. Wandering minstrels were moving across Europe in the Middle Ages. Sufi philosophers also took to the road and spread music, poetry and faith throughout the Muslim world.
As modernity slowly seeps into Indian life and the old ways, family traditions and caste hierarchies begin to erode, as India is becoming a more competitive market, many younger men opt to be Sadhus, free from responsibilities, the pressure to get married and to conform.
Becoming a Sadhu offers a way out, in some cases even a business option. Until recently a Sadhu who went by the name of Tourist Baba operated around Durbar Square in Kathmandu. His saffron robe was spotless and he wore a leopard skin print sarong that made him stand out in the crowds. Tourist Baba could provide a whole range of services to visitors from guided tours around the temples to the procurement of illegal substances. He was almost a mobile travel agent.
Since the price of Charas has risen steeply in the last years, due to ever-increasing tourist consumption, many Sadhus opt for the company of westerners, especially around Manali, Pushkar and Varanasi. And some westerners turn Sadhu, throwing away passports and existences to live in caves, forests and tourist cafes.
‘Plastic Babas’ or the real deal?
Swami Satmitratnan presides over one of Haridwar’s largest temples, the Bharat Mata Mandir. He is a Sannyasi and a member of the Niranjani Akhara.
The Swami is an internationally renowned speaker on issues of Hindu faith and philosophy.
His ashram provides food services for the poor, a physiotherapy center, a service for the handicapped, help in cases of natural disasters, an old people’s home, hostel accommodation and finances various religious publications.
Swami Satmitratnan explains, “The Sannyasi is totally free. He has no responsibility and all the time to realize the self. About 1300 years ago Bhagwan Shankar Achar felt that without Sannyasis, people would not be able to give more attention to society. He founded these six Akharas, these six cults. It is the duty of the Sadhus to know his inner self, atma. Then, when he’s enlightened, he can give that energy to the society.
Sannyasis used to live in hermitages, in the shadows of trees. A thousand years ago Sanskrit schools were founded by Sannyasis. So you see, the Sannysasis take very few things from the society. And they remove all the evils from society. Wisdom you cannot value by money. If you have no wisdom or intellect you are useless for your society, for your family and for yourself too.”
But the Swami is also critical of his own ranks. “The Sannyasis should know the holy texts, the Brahmasutra, the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. But it is a real pity that 90% of Sannyasis are now illiterate and they use ganja and hashish. This is not advised by our great masters. It’s difficult to know how this started. But these Sadhus are not examples. People are not advised to follow them.”
The Swami sees very different preconditions to lead the life of a Sadhu, “If you realize that this world is mortal, that this world is an illusion, then you can become a Sannyasi. Then you should go out and preach the Hindu scriptures based on humanity, not on sectarianism. We are not fanatics. Sannyasi religion is vast like an ocean. Anybody can come and go deeper and deeper and get the pulse from the Sannyasi Ocean.”
About the Akharas, he is critical. “I have no day to day relations with my Akhara. The heads of these institutions should have a modern ideology, then we can modify the system. The duty of Akharas should be to start institutions, schools and help centers to teach the Sadhus. Now the Akharas are only managing their lands, collecting revenues and they do recitations of hymns. Some Akharas arrange blind schools and camps for the handicapped. That’s the limit of their activities.”
Swami Satmitratnan is confident about the future, “The times are changing fast. All the institutions are now thinking that they should have changed themselves. There are new camps all the time, meditation camps, yoga camps, for pilgrims. I am very optimistic that in ten to twelve years the Sannyasi will get a new shape, new shine and new brilliance.”
The Greatest Show On Earth
The police have cleared the Sangam area, the wide sandbank that marks the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers, one of the most holy and auspicious places in Hindu mythology. Behind wooden barricades, thirty million pilgrims, a seething, enormous mass of people rise out of the early morning fog as one, expectant, excited and full of hope for a better future.
The rivers’ waters are cold, no more than six degrees. The air temperature is around three degrees. The cops shiver into their jackets but it is not just the cold that has them shaking.
The greatest gathering of human beings the world has ever witnessed, the Maha Khumb Mela, is taking place in India.
Tannoys blast prayers and announcements in all directions. The crowd continues to swell, thousands spill into the shallow Ganga. The Sangam lies deserted. Dust-devils blow across the emptiness that seems to be barely holding up against the pressure of the pilgrims. Everyone present knows that the most important moment of his or her lives is imminent.
The Greatest Show on Earth is about to kick off on its main bathing day and the police have to be on their toes.
At the crest of the Sangam a lone horseman appears. He is beating two drums, but the sound does not carry as far as the water. The naked horseman is smeared in ash, his long matted hair falls across his bare shoulders. A long beard covers his emaciated face. The horse is doing a little dance, all by itself, oblivious to its rider and the people around. Two more horsemen, equally forbidding and ascetic in their attire, are riding over the top of the Sangam, long lances in hand. For a moment the three riders hug the crest, then spur their animals towards the water.
The crowd behind the barricades is pushing to get a better look. The police stalk up and down the Sangam area, lashing out here and there with their bamboo sticks.
Gray figures emerge out of the dawn light, first a few here and there, then more and more.
Hundreds, then thousands of ash smeared Naga Sadhus are pouring down the Sangam towards the holy floods. The naked ascetics, wielding huge swords, tridents, spears bows and arrows, look like a ferocious, seething, disorderly mob, bent on destroying the world. Their corpse-like gray skin removes them completely from all other human beings, even other Sadhus. The Nagas regard ash as a manifestation of primal matter, a constant reminder of death and eternity.
At the water’s edge the entire army of Naga Sadhus comes to a halt. The time for the holy bath has to be exactly right. The crowd behind the barricades is waiting anxiously. The police run about in near panic.
On top of the Sangam, thousands more Sadhus, clad in saffron robes, have arrived. Traditionally these ascetics arrive on elephants, but after one pachyderm went berserk and killed several thousand people in 1956, tractors, jeeps and trucks have replaced the animals.
The heads of the thirteen Akharas, the monastic organizations all Sadhus belong too, have formed a long disorderly motorized procession, protected by Black Cats, a special protection commando. The bodyguards wear black uniforms, have black bandanas wrapped around their heads and carry machine guns. Crowding around the vehicles, the ascetics are impatient to follow their warriors to the water’s edge. Special Sadhu foot soldiers, dressed in bright yellow uniforms, back up the police and use sticks to contain a modicum of order.
At the river’s edge the Nagas are lined up for the most important bath of their lives. Their faces in the gray dawn look grim. The young hold up the frail and infirm. These men, who have chosen to abandon everything but their faith and a few out-moded weapons, are freezing.
A signal from a saffron robed priest, the roar of a thousand voices and the Nagas take to the floods, running, jumping, falling into the fast moving, brown waters as the first rays of the sun bathe this scene of surreal pandemonium in an orange light. As the Nagas disappear into the floods, the Sadhus at the top of the hill begin to make for the rivers too. The pilgrims cannot hold back longer. The police give in, the Sangam is flooded from all sides, Sadhus, pilgrims, police, all are washed into the river as if gripped by a huge momentous tidal wave.
The Nagas, once in the water, rejoice like children. Their swords have become mere toys, reflecting brightly in the morning sun. The cold floods wash away the ash of twenty thousand men.
The younger Nagas race past me across the sandbank and begin to perform incredible feats of yoga and body contortions. The older men quietly pray, up to their waists in the floods or sit on the sand in the shadow of their tridents, facing the sun. The energy that these men have poured into the river has infected everyone present. The thirty million pilgrims take a dip, following the example of the holy men.
In the camp of the Juna Akhara a rumor does the rounds that a foreign girl has been sunbathing topless at a tourist camp miles away on the outskirts of the giant tent city. Quite rightly, this being their festival, a gathering of prayers and ablutions, the Sadhus are incensed. The irate holy men demand that the entire camp, the only luxury tourist accommodation at the festival, be closed down immediately.
It takes a visit from the state minister, the district commissioner, the chief inspector of police and an army of minor dignitaries to calm down the Sadhu representatives.
While tense negotiations are going on inside the camp, Casio Baba switches on his small clapped-out keyboard and cranks out a distorted melody, soon accompanied by his parched voice. Next to him a young Sannyasi leans on a swing. He’s been standing up for the past seven years. Another Sadhu, wearing large silver shades, is trying to tie his cock around an iron crowbar.
Against the background of the tense politicking, it’s a magical, unforgettable sight. These men do indeed contribute something extremely valuable to humanity.
To live the life of a Sadhu may not be all about wisdom but about the marginal experience, the step into the unknown, to be in the world and yet without it. Welcome to the 21 st century.
First published in Beyond the Pancake Trench – Road Tales from the Wild East by Orchid Press in 2004. Also published in the British anthology Strange Attractor Vol. 1 (2004) and Farang Magazine.