Bloodshot eyes peering past swirling clouds of potent smoke and matted dread locks, a flash of vermilion streaking through ash smeared limbs, scraggy beards and sinewy limbs crashing into the cold currents at the break of dawn – these are the vignettes that mark the Maha Kumbh Mela, one of the greatest shows on earth.
But the stars of the show, the sadhus, as naked as the day, and yet as mysterious as the night, are still as enigmatic today, as they were centuries ago. To the throngs of believers, these holy renunciates are living gods whose ‘darshan’ alone can do everything short of bringing back the dead. But to others, especially from the cities, singed by tales of con artistes masquerading as sadhus, these naked or saffron clad ascetics are just looking for a holy fig leaf to cover their addictions and sloth.
So who are these men who live on the fringes of society, appearing like apparitions on our streets and temples during festivals, and then disappearing, perhaps in a monastery or a cave on a faraway mountain or a dark forbidding forest? Under the glare of camera flashbulbs and television cameras and the pressure of rival clans and adoring devotees, it is difficult to separate the mask from the man, whether holy or not. So let me take you away from the spiritual cornucopia of the Kumbh for a little walk along the banks of the Ganges…
There you see them now, sadhus, young and old, outside their little thatched huts and tents, practicing austerities. Smoke from the cannabis laced chillums dances with the bold blaze of the sacrificial fires. With wiry vigour, the sadhus coax their bodies, forged by heat and hunger, into demanding hatha yoga postures that they hold for twenty minutes or more, as against the few seconds that you hold your headstands for on your mats. Others are doing tapasya that they need to undertake for twelve years – keeping an arm stretched overhead or standing on one leg, the unused limb withers into a useless stick while the leg on which they stand develops sores and wounds. Still others sit in a ring of fire with a flaming earthen pot balanced on their heads while they meditate. These austerities are all methods to purify and sublimate the spirit often at the cost of the body. But these river banks don’t have all the answers. Where do these sadhus go after the two month long festival? And even more significantly, where do they come from? What do they do through the rest of the year?
Well, I can’t speak for all of them but I could tell you about the ones I have met. Contrary to what you might have been led to believe, the ones I met weren’t rustic simpletons, social outcasts, debt burdened runaways or religious fanatics but urbane, educated professionals who just gave it all up and set off in pursuit of the spirit, within and without…
Baba Budhnath was a small man. Bronzed skin stretched thin over high cheek bones and a broad forehead gave way to bushy eyebrows that tried but couldn’t hide the fire in those flinty gray eyes and a thick white beard. But he moved like a man far taller, with a grace and presence that would have done a taller man proud.
Baba Budhnath had been in the naval officer in his younger days. He claimed he spoke seven languages fluently, including English, Bengali, Russian and Japanese. I didn’t believe him and so I asked him questions in all I knew of those languages. Baba Budhnath’s replies weren’t short on grammar or colour.
But Baba Budhnath had left his sea faring days long behind. He had earned his spiritual spurs while meditating in the ghost town of Bhangarh (legend has it that all the citizens of Bhangarh were killed in a great war with a neighbouring kingdom and the deserted ruins are haunted to this day by the ghosts of those who died) in Rajasthan. The locals say that the Archaeological Survey of India tried to evict him from the ruins, but they failed because, in his own words “…how can the government succeed in removing me from Bhangarh when those who live in it want me to stay?” Baba Budhnath claimed that he controlled the spirits that lived in the haunted city of Bhangarh.
Baba Budhnath `isn’t easy to find but if the night is right and you happen wander around the forests of Kalighati near Sariska, and run into a small man with gray eyes, greet him with a cheery ‘Preevyet!’ or ‘Konnichiwa!’, and if he replies in kind, you’ve found your man.
The other sadhu I met was in the forests of Rukhad, in the wild heart of Madhya Pradesh, quite by chance. While tumbling along the rocky, dusty forest trail, the car’s radiator gave up the last of its smoky overheated ghost and I had to get down and look for water. Just so you know, these are forbidding forests that are home to leopards, tigers, bears and wolves. And so it was with a lot of trepidation and caution that I set out for the lazy river deep in the valley as it wound its way along the boulders.
This is a thick forest teeming with wild beasts, far away from all signs of human habitation, hardly the kind of place you’d expect to find a solar panel. But here I was by the river where deer come to drink and tigers come to hunt, and what do stumble on… no, not an old carcass or a new born fawn but a solar panel, right next to the mouth of a cave. On the river bank fluttered a little red flag on a tall pole. I hung around, looked around and soon enough, from a beyond the slope of the bank rose a lumbering figure swathed in black…
Tall and heavy set, with curly hair worn long, a black cloth mask covering his nose and mouth and a rather incongruous pair of sunglasses, this sadhu was a tantric. He had studied engineering and was working with the government when a Gond princess from long ago showed up in his dream and called him to this forest. Without a thought or a backward glance, he gave up his job and his family and found his way to this cave by the river.
This tantric baba claimed he could interact with and had the blessings of the ‘devas’ of the river and the forest, which gave him the power to keep me rooted to the ground for as long as he chose, and he controlled the animals of the forest with the same powers. And then he added, in these very words “…these powers are not mine to keep. There are a few places in this country where geographic forces, mountains, rivers, underground streams etc. all come together to create a vortex of tantric energy. If you meditate here, even you could find yourself blessed. If you don’t believe me, stay with me for a while and you’ll see for youself…” I was tempted, but I had to pass. So with a promise that I would return, I left the valley and the ascetic who kept his face and eyes covered because “…you’ll go blind in 15 minutes if you were to look at my face and eyes”, he’d said.
I have encountered more of these holy men, in spiritual hotspots like Rishikesh, Haridwar and Varanasi, during festivals and melas, and at times I have bumped into them in forested valleys and quaint desert towns. Somehow I have always come back feeling more fulfilled from these chance encounters than at these great confluences.
Perhaps sadhus, like the rivers of this great land, spring unheralded from the mountains, forests, valleys and plains, and as they flow, so they grow. And both rivers and sadhus are perhaps closest to their true, even pristine self, when far away from the temples and dykes that dam(n) their course and leave them open to pollution. So go to the Kumbh for a human experience if you will, but for a spiritual one, you’ll be better off swimming upstream, and against the current… Go where you will, and may you find what you seek…