The sadhus are something like India’s answer to the social security system. They are renunciates who have left behind all material and sexual attachments and live in caves, forests and temples all over India. The word comes from the Sanskrit ‘to practice’ and the practice of meditation is supposed to be what they’re about, more or less.
There are around 4 or 5 million sadhus in India today and they are still widely respected, revered and even feared. No one wants the curse of a sadhu upon them. It is also thought that the austere practices of the sadhus helps to burn off their karma and that of the community at large. Thus society donates money and food to feed them.
There are so many kinds of sadhus it’s hard to get a grip on the whole subject. Some live in the mountains alone for years at a time, eating only a few bananas. Others walk around with one hand in the air for decades until the fingers withdraw into a stump. And some just smoke plenty of charas and look for god in the smoke.
There are naked Naga sadhus with thick dreadlocks who carry swords and there are Agora babas who may eat dog shit and keep company with ghosts in their holy path. Everything has a place in India and there are thought to be infinite paths to God.
(Check out the naked Nagas at the Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering on earth – here, despite the slightly annoying laughter of the tourists you can see the babas coming back from their ritual bath.
Becoming a sadhu is not for everyone. It is supposed to be the fourth phase of a Hindu’s life, after studies, being a father and a pilgrim but for most it’s not a practical option. There are some who fake holy status to gain respect but they are soon found out by any real baba.
Becoming a sadhu is no easy option either. You have to die onto yourself and may be required to attend your own funeral before following a guru for many years. You carry his stuff, you make the fire, you bring the water and so on until you have enough experience under your belt to strike out on your own.
It’s been suggested that the obligatory 4am early bath is enough deterrent for many would-be renunciates – especially in the mountains where the water is freezing. Then sadhus will gather around the dhuni, the holy fireplace and begin with their prayers and meditation for the day.
Some sadhus may go in for black magic or herbalism and will dispense cures to the local community, remove evil eyes or bless a marriage. They’re a walking reminder to the average Hindu of Divinity. They’re generally allowed free passage on the trains and are a closely-knit organisation. Some were even military in the old days and even now the Naga babas carry their swords with them. 40 years ago the Naga babas found their path to the River Ganges blocked by other devotees so they chopped off around a dozen heads and hundreds more died in the panicked stampedes.
The big gathering of the sadhus is the kumba mela and it takes place every four years at various points along the holy River Ganges. Here every kind of sadhu in India comes out of the woodwork to meet up with old friends and put on a few shows. There are yogis who bury themselves underground, men who have held their hands in a fist for so long their nails now grow out the other side. One friend told me how proud he was to see his guru pull a bus along with a rope attached to his penis.