Sacred Journey
David Howard

Howard’s ego-trip as an in-your-face photojournalist
exploiting the natives of India and Nepal

would be a better title.

A review

A curious collection of bizarre religious artifacts and faces of Hindu holy men, but without any real meaning, let alone any ‘sacred’ significance.

Ignorance
Howard doesn’t know anything about the sadhus whose photos he has taken. He doesn’t know them on a personal basis (their names for instance), or on an institutional level.
The caption with the photo on page 84 reads: “The baba with the Shiva trident tilaka”. In actual fact the sadhu shown here, belongs to a totally different sect: the Ramanandis. And this tilak is certainly not a trident, but it represents the footsteps of god Rama (in white) and in the middle the bindu of goddess Sita (in red). Also the mala around the baba’s neck, with the tulsi bead just visible below his beard, and the banana-leaf rope around his waist identify him as a Ramanandi.
If this sadhu would ever see this book he would be gravely insulted by this mis-identification. The Ramanandis and Shiva babas have been ‘competitors’, even ‘enemies’, for centuries. This mistake, in Christian terms, would compare to identifying a Catholic as a Protestant.
On page 83, part of the caption reads: “The trident design ignifies [sic] reverence and worship of Lord Shiva, he [the holy man] explained …” Here Howard is putting untruths in this holy man's mouth, thus telling a blatant lie! Every Hindu knows the Ramanandi tilak, let alone a holy man.
And again on page 12: “A Sadhu exhibits a ‘Tilaka’ symbol on his forehead indicating devotion to Shiva” He is a Ramanandi too.
In fact, most of the sadhus in this book are Ramanandis, of course because they have such interesting facial paintings.
The tilak of Shiva babas is horizontal, as shown on page 167, or just plain ash, as shown on page 80, 83, 87. Also the priest on pages 102-105 has a Shiva tilak.

A strange phenomenon in this book is the alleged presence of so many Ramanandis at a Shiva festival, Shivaratri, in Pashupatinath, Nepal. It would be like Protestants celebrating Easter with the Pope in Rome! So I find this hard to believe, the more so since any photos of the festival itself (huge congregations of sadhus and pilgrims), that would be very colorful, are missing. I therefore surmise that Howard hasn’t been at the Shivaratri festival (though he pretends to have been there), and photographed these Ramanandis who were on their way to India to celebrate the festival of their God, Rama, i.e. Ramanomi. It seems to me that Howard missed this festival, as he also missed the Kumbha Mela (in 2001), but heard about these while in Benares, and was lucky enough to capture these Ramanandis while in Nepal.

The Jangamas on page 110-111 are not sadhus, but ‘descendants’ from men who were sannyasis a few hundred years ago.

Sensationalism
Cow-dung is one of the five sacred products of the holy cow. It is considered to be a purifying substance and used as such on floors of mud houses. It keeps away insects. It is also used, in dried form, as fuel. When used by sadhus for their five-fire austerities, when they surround themselves with heaps of cow-dung, this substance acquires extra sacredness. It also provides fine ashes to cover their bodies with. So when Howard calls this holy circle of cow-dung fires (on page 116), “circles of burning excrement,” he is purposely giving a sensationalist twist to the facts.
In this paragraph (pages 114-116) Howard is talking about sadhus performing the five-fire austerities, and about ‘standing’ sadhus, khareshwaris, who perform the austerity of not sitting down for twelve years but standing night and day, resting by hanging over a swing traditionally suspended from a tree.
Some quotes from this paragraph: “Hanging male and female sadhus…” “Two other babas from the same lot hung on swings from a large tree…” “I questioned the hanging baba …” “Why are you sitting in those swings?” “I wondered if they sat down when no one was looking, but eventually concluded that there are babas who have not sat down for twelve years, and others who sit in circles of burning excrement for even longer.” This last sentence contains the exaggeration of continuously sitting in “circles of burning excrement” for more than twelve years, whereas this is done only for about 20 to 40 minutes a day, during three months. This three-month ordeal is repeated over 18 years, increasing the number of cow-dung heaps, until a circle is formed and eventually a pot of burning cow-dung is placed on the head.

What is this African-American from New York (page 107) doing in this book? He is no baba, no priest, no Indian or Nepali. Obviously he is only included because of his sensational facial ornaments. I’ve met him myself; he’s a nice guy, but there is nothing sacred or holy about this man, though Indian country bumpkins might regard him as a holy man.

Sensationalism becomes funny in this sentence on page 13: “Some holy men have even been known to walk from southern India to the hights [sic] of the Himalayan mountains in Nepal.” Unbelievable, isn’t it!!??

On page 83: “He [the sadhu] explained that a ghat is a sacred place along the river where the bodies of the dead are brought, ritually dressed, blessed, and the cremated.” This is pure sensationalistic nonsense: a ghat is any place along a river with stone steps leading into it. So it’s a lie too, because no sadhu would never make this explanation.
He makes the same mistake again on page 157: “…the ghats, the cremation platforms suspended over the Bagmati river.” Of course, “suspended over” sounds more sensational, but it isn’t the truth, for these cremation platforms are, very quotidian, just on the banks of the river, as part of the ghats, the stone steps leading into it.

On page 13, there is mention of Hindu Holy Men who are “walking on glass and sleeping on beds of nails.” The latter is very much a thing of the past and the last baba who seriously performed this austerity was spotted at the 1986 Kumbha Mela in Hardwar. The former, “walking on glass” is not done by sadhus, and was never done by sadhus.

Insensitivity
The close-up of the burning face of a dead young man on a cremation pyre is no doubt a bit shocking especially for those readers who haven’t been to India of Nepal to witness these events in real life. So it certainly has publicity value (in dollars, that is). But it is in no way sacred, nor does it reflect the sacredness of the cremation ritual.
Is this the dead person that is talked about in the caption on page 160?: “As I photographed one of the cadavers being consumed in the flames, I was approached by a distraught family member aggressively wailing, ‘Why, why, why do you take pictures of my dead brother?’” According to Howard (p.161): “Following a lengthy discussion, my intrusion was deemed acceptable…” But this I find hard to believe. The “distraught family member” didn’t really ask a question, but made a statement (brought as a rhetorical question): I don’t want you to photograph my dead brother! And I’m sure he wouldn’t be in the mood to have a “lengthy discussion”, while his brother was burning on the pyre.
Also the reasoning (p.161): “…and because the confrontation was remembered by the babas and sadhus who lived in Pashupatinath, each time I returned they graciously gave me total access to photograph and document the sacred cremation fires,” sounds like a pack of lies to me. First, the sadhus do not control the cremation ghats; but the doms, a special caste whose duty it is to burn the bodies are in total control, and they have to be bribed for permission to take photographs. Second, very few sadhus actually live in Pashupatinath and not in close proximity to the ghats, so the few sadhus that do live there are not in a position to keep an eye on the comings and goings of in-your-face photographers. Third, it should always be the family that has to decide whether their dead members are being photographed or not. Not the attendants, nor any sadhus!
So did the “distraught family member” give permission to Howard to photograph his dead brother?
I don’t think so, but there was nothing he could do about it, apart from quarreling (the so-called “lengthy discussion”), so Howard just went ahead and having made this photo, published it.
Howard knew he could sell it.

Indifference
The text in this book has been written by several people. Apart from the travelogue written by Howard himself, there are some parts of the book containing background information, lifted — it seems — from some old-fashioned texts and adapted for this book. I have reached this conclusion because in these parts there is suddenly mention of “saddhus”, a strange spelling that is used in some old dictionaries.
This text also contains a lot of misinformation, half truths and untruths, and exaggerations, and was probably adapted by a non-native English speaker. For instance a sentence (page 10) like: “Buddhism and Hinduism are related in so far as they cover the same geographical area [this is already nonsense], but a principal distinction is Buddhism was built around the teachings of a single historical figure, whereas Hinduism does not venerate any single avatar, seeing as the founder is unknown.” Apart from the terrible language, there is too much nonsense in this one sentence to even start discussing it.
Indifference as to text and meaning also shows in the enormous number of typos.
It starts already with the very first sentence of the whole book, on page 2: “This book is respectfully dedicated to all Indian and Nepali people, weather Hindu...”
More funny typos: p. 22: “Hinduism (or Indiana Vedanta religion) …”; p. 24: “..in what is now Nepa, during …”; p. 49: “Statues, Shrines, Alters”; p. 57: “Kathnamdu, Nepal”; p. 114: “…the noise brought the sadhu out of his trace.”
And so it goes on and on.

In my criticism I’ve confined myself to those areas I know about: sadhus, Hinduism, Indian customs, and places I’ve extensively visited myself. But it was painful reading and browsing, so I couldn’t bring myself to check the other parts of the book, e.g. dealing with Buddhism, as well. But I’m sure the results there would have been the same.
Since it is such an unworthy book, I’ve not taken the trouble of exposing all the misinformation, half truths and untruths.

This book was made to make money.
It’s a waste of the trees that had to be cut for it.
It’s insulting to the people portrayed in it.

That’s why I felt compelled to write this review.

Dolf Hartsuiker.


For comments: dolfhart@ziggo.nl