Sadhus & Yogis of India
Intro Shiva & Shaivas Vishnu & Vaishnavas Sadhvis Tapas Shaiva
Tapas Vaishnava Kumbha Mela Foreign sadhus Notes & Biblio Old photos
There are some words (concerning se+) I cannot write in full or in the normal way anymore, because these generate unwanted interest via search engines on the internet.
NOTES
Sadhus, Holy Men of India

Of the first edition of my book an English version (upper left) Sadhus, Holy Men of India, and an American (under left) Sadhus, India's Mystic Holy Men, were publishe. The contents are exactly the same, only the title, cover and publisher are different.
Sadhus, Holy Men of India was published by Thames & Hudson, UK.
Sadhus, India's Mystic Holy Men was published by Inner Traditions, USA.


Since 2014 there is a second edition, by the same publishers, now both titled Sadhus, Holy Men of India, with small adjustments in the text.
If the book is not available in the local bookstore:
Barnes & Noble
(First edition antiquarian) en Amazon (First edition antiquarian).
I donated some 1500 of my slides of sadhus to the Britisch Museum as the Hartsuiker Archive. Scans of these slides will be gradually published on their website.
Sacred fire
Many sadhus maintain a sacred fire, the dhuni, which is the centre around which their daily rituals and ascetic exercises are performed. In fact, it should be regarded as the sadhu's 'home' and his 'temple'. As an object of worship, offerings are made to the fire.
The sacred fire and its ashes are obviously related to Shiva, the fiery god and ash-covered Yogi, and is thus a prime symbol of ascetic status, indicating self-sacrifice, transformation in the 'fire of wisdom', and rebirth from the ashes.

Agni or 'Fire'; or the 'god of fire'.
Fire and its relation to the sacrifice was the dominating feature of the fire-cult in Vedic times. The sacrifice was a rite of sympathetic magic in which an offering was made to the gods, the celestial controllers of the mysterious and potent forces of nature, to ensure the continuance of conditions favourable to mankind. To be effective it was essential that the oblation should reach these all-powerful beings. None was more suitable to act as messenger than Agni, whose flames on the altar tended always to rise, as did the aroma of the 'burnt offerings', symbolizing the ascent of the oblation itself.

Important functions are attributed to Agni. He is inherent in every god; he is the priest of the gods, as well as the god of the priests; the honoured guest in every home, who by his magical power drives away the demons of darkness. Because he is born anew with every kindling, he is forever young and is thus the bestower of life and of children, and places seed in women. Being immortal he is able to confer immortality on his devotees. His chariot is drawn by red horses, who leave behind them a blackened trail. He clears a way through the impenetrable jungle and consumes the unwanted forest, so providing 'space' for his followers.

The funeral pyre is the altar of the dead, the last oblation to Agni.
Shmashana (cremation grounds)
Shiva’s abode was the burning ground, which was “covered with hair and bones, full of skulls and heads, thick with vultures and jackals, covered with a hundred funeral pyres, an unclean place covered with flesh, a mire of marrow and blood, scattered piles of flesh, resounding with the cries of jackals” “There is nothing purer than a cremation ground,” Shiva declared.
The hosts of ghostly beings that are his companions loved to dwell there, and Shiva did not like to stay anywhere without them (MBh.13.128.13-16, 18).
Revulsion as a means of detachment had its form in the imagery of the cremation ground. It dwelt not on the cessation of life and the purgation of the body through the consuming fire, but on the byproducts of physical integration. Though gruesome, they were less terrifying than disgusting. Revulsion in its last degree of sublimation reaches up to holiness.

Shiva had turned away from procreation and dwelled in the cemeteries where he liked to stay. His ‘necrophilia’ complemented his aversion to procreation.
The explanation that the dreadful ghosts concentrated there around him would not harm people who thus could live free from fear was only part of his entire statement – which meant that those who feared the awful ghosts were destined to remain outsiders. Only heroes could be near him in the cremation ground, heroes who had defied death and liberated themselves from passions and fear. These were the true devotees of Rudra in his form of dread.
The metaphor of the cemetery is on the same level of intensity of realization with the myths of Shiva dancing while he carried Sati’s dead body. These extreme situations are symbols of Shiva’s power that defies death. Shiva liked his ghostly entourage. It attracted to his presence those who had nothing to fear, who had mastered the onslaught of the multiple categories of threatening powers that were fatal to those who were less than heroes, and who could not control the frightening phantoms because they had not controlled themselves.

The rite of cremation, well known in many countries of the ancient world, has a special justification in the case of the Hindu because of his belief in the reincarnation of the soul in a new body, human or other, a belief which excludes the idea of the resurrection of the body as held by Christians and Muslims, who ordinarily look forward to the miraculous reanimation of the corpse by divine decree at the Day of Judgment. [Therefore their elaborate tombs] From the Hindu point of view, it is evident that when the soul quits its mortal tenement, that tenement is of no further use or value, and its destruction by the purifying element of fire is for him a reasonable and convenient mode of disposing of the dead.
Vaikunth & Kailas
The Hindus recognize several Abodes of Bliss for the souls of those who have expiated their sins by repeated transmigrations and by the practice of virtue.
There are four principal abodes:
  • The first is Swarga, where Indra the divinity presides, and where all virtuous souls, without distinction of caste or se+ are to be found.
  • The second is Vaikunth, the paradise of Vishnu, where dwell his particular followers, Brahmins and others.
  • The third is Kailas, the paradise of Siva, which is reserved for the devout worshippers of the li–gam.
  • The fourth is Sattya-loka (the Place of Truth), the paradise of Brahma, where only virtuous Brahmins have the right to enter.

The pleasures enjoyed in these several abodes are all corporal and sens-al.

Kailas: Shiva's Himalayan mountain residence, located in the Tibetan part of the Himalayas. The name means crystalline or icy. In mythology Kailasa is the name of a single peak (situated south of Mount Meru) and is regarded as the paradise of the gods, especially of Shiva and Kubera. The latter was consecrated here as ‘giver of wealth’. On its summit is the great jujujbe tree from whose roots the Ganges rises.

Enlightenment, spirituality

When you'd go to India and happened to encounter some sadhus you might be disappointed.
First you'd have to discriminate between impostors and real sadhus, those that belong for instance to a respectable line of gurus, or are members of a definite sadhu sect. Among the real sadhus you'd have to differentiate between the good, those that follow the ascetic and religious rules, and the bad, those that just have made a superficial adaptation to the rules. Once you've found a good sadhu, you'd have to realize that their 'spirituality' is of a different kind than what we generally mean with this word. Finally, true sages are rare, not to mention the really enlightened ones (if they exist, if enlightenment exists).
Those sadhus that are indifferent to spirituality (even if they perform the prescribed rituals and look their part), are usually involved in some kind of powerplay, all ego and ostentatiousness. This is nothing new. I'll quote a verse, attributed to Kabir, the fifteenth-century poet and mystic, about the Nagas, both Shaiva and Vaishnava (I found this quote in an excellent article by William Pinch on warrior-ascetics.):


"Never have I seen such yogis, brother. They wander mindless and negligent, proclaiming the way of Mahadeva. For this they are called great mahants. To markets and bazaars they peddle their meditation — false siddhas, lovers of maya. When did Dattatreya attack a fort? When did Sukadeva join with gunners'? When did Narada fire a musket? When did Vyasadeva sound a battle cry? These numbskulls make war. Are they ascetics or archers? They profess detachment, but greed is their mind's resolve. They shame their profession by wearing gold. They collect stallions and mares, acquire villages, and go about as millionaires."

Especially at Kumbha Melas, one meets a lot of the greedy, gold-wearing numbskulls. Contemporary Nagas don't fight much anymore (only occasionally at Kumbha Melas, such as the one in Haridwar 1998), but the majority don't meditate much either. They just smoke chilams and drink tea.
One more quote, from Ghurye's Indian Sadhus, p. 237, where he mentions:

"an observation by a modern Sadhu Ram Tirtha in about A.D. 1902: 'The Sadhus of India are a unique phenomenon peculiar to this country. As green mantel gathers over standing water, so have Sadhus collected over India ... Some of them are indeed beautiful lotuses — the glory of the lake! But the vast majority are unhealthy scum.'"

But as things stand now in India, all sadhus are still considered holy men (though holy in varying degrees, I should add) by a large part of the population, no matter how unspiritual the behaviour and attitude of many babas. That's the mystery, the paradox.

Performers
With their costumes, their make-up, their 'props' and their public appearances, the sadhus in a sense resemble 'performance artists'. Many sadhus show great artistry in painting their face, adorning their body, decorating their stage and performing their act.
As emulators — as artists — of the divine, the sadhus endeavour to express the unearthly beauty of divinities. The sadhus' performances are both for the spiritual benefit of the public and for their own good, since their primary 'audience' is formed by the deities themselves.
Ganga
All water, be it the sea, rivers, lakes or rain, is for the Hindus a symbol of life and is considered to be of divine character. Outstanding in this respect are three sacred rivers, the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mythical Sarasvati, of which the first is the most important. As the Ganga is feminine, it is often pictured as a woman, possessing long, flowing hair. As a goddess, Ganga washes away the sins of those fortunate enough to have their ashes thrown into her holy waters. In a hymn to the Ganga included in the Brahmavaivarta Purana, Shiva himself says:

'Mountains of sins accumulated by a sinner in the course of his millions of transmigrations on earth disappear at a mere touch of the sacred Ganga water. Cleansed will he be also, who even breathes some of the air moistened by the holy waters.'

The touch of the divine body of Ganga is believed to change anyone who comes in contact with it into a sanctified being.
One of the most colourful stories in Indian mythology is that relating to the circumstances of the coming down of the Ganga from heaven:
Once upon a time there was a group of demons who used to tease Brahmin hermits and upset their prayers. When chased away, they would hide in the ocean, but return at night to resume their teasing. The ascetics then asked the sage Agastya to free them from the torture of temptation. Wishing to help, Agastya chose the easiest course, and swallowed the whole ocean, including the devils. The temptations thus came to an end but the earth was left without water. Men then had to appeal to another sage, Bhagiratha, to deliver them from the scourge of drought. In order to be worthy of a godly boon of such magnitude, Bhagiratha spent a thousand years in ascetic practices and then went before Brahma and asked him to let the heavenly river Ganga—one of the milky ways in the firmament—fall upon the earth.
Brahma, satisfied with the tapasya (ascetic performances) of Bhagiratha, promised to try his best, adding that he would first have to persuade Shiva to help him. He explained that if the great heavenly river fell upon the earth with all the force and immeasurable weight of its waters, earthquakes and unheard of destruction would result. Consequently, someone should interpose himself to absorb the shock of the falling water, and nobody else could do so save the almighty Shiva.
Bhagiratha continued his fastings and his prayers, and the time came when Shiva was moved. He allowed the Ganga to let her waters flow upon the earth and interposed his own head between the sky and the earth to lessen its impact. The heavenly waters then flowed smoothly through his divine hair into the Himalayas, and from there into the Indian plains, bringing prosperity, blessings from heaven, and the remission of sins.

More on Ganga:
Ganga: 'Swift-goer.' Name of the river Ganges and its personification as a goddess. The river rises from an ice-bed, 13,800 feet above sea-level, beyond Gangotri, i.e. ‘the sacred manifestation of the Ganges', at Gaumukh..
The Indus, Yamuna, Narmada and other rivers have similarly become local objects of worship. But to the early Aryan intruders, temporarily halted in the Panjab, the Indus and Sarasvati were the only great Indian rivers known to them. Thus Ganga is mentioned in two passages only of the Rig Veda. and is invoked in hymns to rivers (X.75,5), simply as one of a number of river-goddesses.
With the Aryan occupation of the Gangetic basin, Ganga gradually became the chief river-goddess of a vast area, the subject of numerous legends, and endowed with fabulous virtues. Along the banks temples were erected, each the centre of pilgrimage at which priests could officiate and expect a multiplicity of sacrificial and other 'gifts'. Legend was piled on legend, some of them obviously priestly fictions invented to sustain the role of the priests as intermediaries between the goddess and her devotees.
A celestial Ganga called Abhraganga or Akasaganga was invented, who bore the epithet Devabhuti (flowing from heaven). It was also called Mandakini (the Milky Way), which issued from Vishnu’s left foot; hence Ganga's epithet Visnupadi.

Not only will those who bathe in the Ganga obtain Svarga ('heaven'), but also those whose bones, hair, etc., are left on the banks. All the country through which the Ganges flows should be regarded as hallowed ground. Seeing, touching, or drinking the water or addressing the goddess as 'O mother Ganges', will remove all sin.

Future
My observations at the last Kumbha Melas (Haridwar 1998, Allahabad 2001) have reinforced my opinion that purity of sadhana and "spirituality" (perhaps some more categories), are in accelerating decline. One important factor here is the gradual disappearance of the old generation of sadhus. These are replaced by young Mahants and Shri Mahants, more interested in temporal than "spiritual" power.

So far the number of sadhus seems to remain steady. Even their prosperity seems to be increasing; perhaps the result of support from the growing middle class in India. Perhaps also because nowadays quite a few turn to a new clientele: the foreigners.
But this kind of modernization also involves, on the part of sadhus, a seduction by western gadgets and statussymbols (car, motorcyle, tv, radio, cassetteplayer, watch, etc.), exposure to gullible western tourists of the occult (easily intimidated into donating large sums of money) and temptation by its female contingent (no social control, sexually liberated, easily intimidated). This may lead to a weakening or even disappearing of the limits imposed by a proper sadhana, which in turn leads to loss of respect, and loss of power (in a "spiritual", not materialistic, sense). In another way, however, part of this (the use of mobile phones, email, and websites by sadhus nowadays) can only be seen as a pragmatic adaptation to the 21st century.

See also what Oman, a hundred years ago, has to say about the future of sadhuism.

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[For (partial) excerpts of some works, click the links.]

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