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article imagePhoto Essay: Sadhus, the Wandering Holy Men of India Special

By J Ocean Dennie     Jan 13, 2011 in World
Ever thought of becoming a drifting holy dropout? For countless generations, dedicated individuals in India and Nepal have done just that, forsaking some of the shackles of society, adopting the robes of the renunciate and devoting their efforts to God.
The concept of the sadhu has its spiritual roots in Hindu Vedic texts where individuals are exhorted to proceed through four stages of life namely, as a student, a householder, a pilgrim and finally as a renunciate (sannyasin). It is this last stage that sadhus are involved with, often taking renunciation to an extreme. Although sadhus are quite distinguishable with dreaded hair and long beards and often wild looks in their eyes, there is no unifying code of conduct or set of rituals. Some sadhus worship Shiva, others are devotees of Vishnu. Some sadhus cover themselves in ashes to symbolize their egoic death to the world while some are content to merely exist as humble mendicants, continously on piligrimage, visiting ashrams and temples throughout India. (Some sects encourage sadhus to spend no more than three days in any one place in order to promote material detachment). Other sadhus perform various highly evolved yogic practices known as tapas in order to obtain some heavenly boon. Most, however, are content to remain in one sanctified location, often turning to begging and the smoking of hash or marijuana in pipes known as chillums. This practice is tolerated within the brotherhood as an acceptable method to contemplate upon and communicate with God.
It is estimated that there are well over 4 million sadhus in India and Nepal. They are generally found in holy cities, mountainous villages, sacred temples, outside ashrams. A good place for the curious to easily come in contact with sadhus is in Rishikesh, a few hours north of Delhi where the Ganges river exits the Himalayas and continues along the plains. This is a particularly sacred spot to Hindus and spiritual seekers alike. Tourists are often warned to exercise caution since there are some miscreants who don sadhu clothes but are nothing more than swindlers, thieves or drug pushers. Generally though, sadhus are quite approachable and harmless and if they speak English are a fantastic source of wisdom and insight.
Below are photos and commentary on a number of sadhus I encountered during two separate trips to India.
I met this sadhu, who went by the name of Prem Puri, by the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh and he told me of his life as a wandering ascetic, primarily in the more mountainous regions surrounding the Parvati Valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh. He was so soft-spoken and humble and his eyes radiated a true conscious presence that I have witnessed in very few individuals. As the river flowed by, he spoke of it lovingly as 'Mother' and as we soaked up a meditative evening vibe, he looked me in the eyes and said peacefully..."This is the only way to live..."
I found Prakash Giri in a small hovel of a temple located in a Himalayan town by the name of Sarahan. Prakash was a Shiva priest warrior. Even when answering my silly questions, I felt he was still grooving on God, very unassumingly. Prakash left his family as a teenager following a scooter accident that left him to languish for months in a hospital without a leg. After treatment and rehab, he left the world behind with a single thought of God commandeering his mind, leaving suddenly and decisively, hobbling out the door, informing no one but his grandmother who handed him a thousand rupees and blessed him and wished him well. For almost twenty years, he has had no contact with any of them. And so now he greets visitors both local and foreign, chants "om namah shiva" all day long for them, specifically prays for people when he receives such requests. His needs are provided for by the community...gifts of food and occasionally money.
He shares his meagre offerings with guests. "There is plenty for all of us," he says. And as ants crawl away with crumbs, he smiles and blesses me on my way out.
Definitely not your conventional sadhu, every day, this beautiful blind man would sit beneath a black umbrella, for the extent of the waking hours, upon a brick wall decorated with prayers in an exotic scrawl. A hand held out, chanting the ancient sri ram mantra, shouting it as if it was an admonishment, stopping once in awhile for a cigarette and a conversation. This renunciate with milky eyes, confident that God provides everything needed, impervious to the incessant stream of racket from screaming Indians and motorcycle horns and simian commandos poking him and dashing around him on their various pillaging missions through the town.
A large number of sadhus in Rishikesh simply laze around all day in the narrow laneways between ashrams, smoking hash and waiting for the evening river ceremony known as aarti when they would line up and receive donations from tourists, ashramites and locals. Many sadhus, given their complete renunciation from society and their disregard for their physical condition even refuse medical treatment, winding up very sick and near the verge of death. This bunch did not look so bad, thankfully.
Whenever I come this photo of mine, I cannot help but think he looks a bit like a benevolent Indian version of Charles Manson. This fellow was stationed at one of Bombay's most sacred temples, Babulnath, situated on a landing as one ascends the stairs to the sanctum. The landing was adorned with countless religious artefacts, paintings and paraphenalia and had become a makeshift shrine of which this man was now the caretaker. This photo belies his soft warm personality
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This sadhu was encountered in a marketplace just outside of a temple in the holy South Indian city of Thiruvannamalai. The beaded necklaces oppressing his throat are made from seeds known as rudrakash. Before I could take another shot of him, he disappeared into the frenetic throngs of people and I was left dumbfounded by the display without a chance to uncover the motivations behind this odd practice.
Typical sadus of the Rishikesh scene. About a year ago, I saw a photo of the one on the right in a glossy yoga magazine making him out to be some kind of godman. He always seemed to be in a smoky haze though begging for rupees. I always gave him chapatis instead.
Sometimes it's not enough just to stand out. You have to stand out from those standing out. This sadhu abandoned the saffron robes for a more rustic burlap look.
Sadhu meditating by a temple in Udaipur, Rajastan.
This sadhu was usually very crabby and didn't like to be approached or photographed but I found it quite strange he would always park himself on this busy thoroughfare in Rishikesh where passersby couldn't help but notice him. I think he was in a slightly happier mood after receiving a popsicle from some kind soul.
Smoking the chillum! Busted!
Very photogenic sadhu meditating at Pashputinath temple in Kathmandu Nepal.
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