Sadhus are known to take spirituality to extremes, as Prediction’s Deputy Editor Gemma Birss finds out…
Like our team here at Prediction, you may have galloped through Gregory David Roberts’ fast-paced adventure novel Shantaram (and if you haven’t, do!), in which there is frequent mention of the standing babas. This troupe of holy men spend a whopping 12 years of their lives standing up, without the merest hint of putting their feet up. They practice with such determination that the effects of time and gravity gradually disfigure their legs so they start to resemble tree trunks, gnarled and swollen. If you’ve ventured beyond the pages of Shantaram and into India itself, you’ll know that the standing babas are far from fictional, and they are joined by hundreds of other individuals with equally bizarre ideas of how to be holy.
For Hindus, spiritual enlightenment or liberation from the trappings of human suffering, is the ultimate goal in life. It’s the one thing that gives our existence meaning and it’s the only way to sidestep the endless cycle of Karma and rebirth. This state of blissful freedom is attainable by everybody, regardless of class or caste. Whether you reach enlightenment in this lifetime depends on your Karma. In other words, how you choose to live your life will dictate the level of spiritual attainment that you can reach.
A fast track to enlightenment is to become a sadhu, or holy man, whose existence is solely dedicated to meditation and the contemplation of Brahman, or God. A sadhu is a mystic, yogi or wandering monk. For thousands of years, certain spiritually diligent individuals in India have renounced their daily lives to follow the path of a sadhu, skirting the edge of society to live without family, home or possessions. There are around four to five million sadhus in India, organised into various sects with increasingly strange ideas on how to slough off their Karma and ascend into higher states of consciousness. Their lives are absolutely dedicated to achieving the fourth and final Hindu goal of life, which is moksha, or liberation.
Not all sadhus are enlightened, but they are all considered by the general populace to be holy, mainly because of their radical commitment to the eradication of their Karma. No matter what caste the sadhu belonged to before they opted for the ascetic life, they are now revered. Some sadhus perform magic rituals, others practice impressively pretzelish yoga while yet others adhere to prescribed meditation techniques to increase their siddhis, or superhuman powers (including a command over the elements which allows them to call in rain on a whim). Some of the more sinister saddhus are feared for their curses, however more often they are highly appreciated by the village communities. The sadhus’ austere practices not only singe off their own Karmic retribution, but also tackle the Karma of the community at large. Needless to say, sadhus are well looked after. Public transport is free and food is donated freely, so sadhus can focus on the all important task of being holy. Of course, there are some charlatans who jump on the sadhu bandwagon and masquerade as holy men. It’s an easy way to acquire a relatively comfy life and is certainly an easy (or not!) way to sidestep the rigourous Hindu caste system and shrug off responsibilities. There is not one single route to God. The paths to holiness are infinite, and the kaleidoscope of different sadhu sects across India accentuates this. While each sect has its own specific austerities and guidelines, they all fall into two main categories, the Vaishnavas and the Shaivas. Vaishnavas devote themselves to the Hindu god Vishnu who is the preserver, while the Shaivas are devoted to the destroyer god, Shiva.
Although defined by these two categories, and an infinite number of sects, one thing that most sadhus have in common, is that they smoke cannabis (or charras) with religious dedication from rustic clay pipes called chillums (see front cover). Just as tribes in South America drink hallucinogenic plant medicines, or Rastafarians smoke spliffs, sadhus use the marijuana plant resin to journey to a higher plane of consciousness. While the Vaishnavas aren’t shy of indulging in a puff or two, it’s the Shaivas who really have an excuse. Being Shiva’s devotees, they smoke to assimilate their lord, who is also the god of charras and is permanently stoned. As well as their penchant for hash, generally all sadhus follow a strictly vegetarian diet. Others live on milk alone. Being a product of the sacred cow, milk is a sacred substance that offers more than mere physical sustenance and is the nectar of the gods. A famous sadhu, Narayana Das, followed a fast of only two glasses of milk a day for 40 years. Some sadhus still hold fast to the idea that it’s possible to live on water alone, and in more extreme cases, on air.
By signing up for a life of sadhudom, they’re also expected to take an oath of celibacy. In yogic traditions, the fire of sexual energy is a potent force that can be used as a springboard to access higher levels of consciousness. In order to help them conquer their earthly desires, some sadhus wear a physical restraint to prevent any mishaps. This is in the form of a chastity belt made from either wood or metal, which must be worn for a minimum of 12 years.
Some sadhus twist their penis around a stick, demonstrating their commitment to their cause as well as their superhuman power over nature (although this could well be construed by the cynic as a means of impressing onlookers and, therefore, attracting more donations!). Venturing one step further, the tanga-tora is a ritual to actually ‘break’ the penis. In this initiation, a sadhu pulls the penis of the initiate with such force that it breaks the muscles, blood vessels and nerves required for an erection, making it permanently limp. They then stretch it to lengthen it, sometimes hanging heavy rocks on it and then tie it into a knot or wrap it around a pole. The standing babas mentioned in Shantaram are the Khareshwari sadhus who have taken a vow not to sit or lie down for 12 years. They may walk about, but generally they choose to stand while resting on a swing that they can hang from a tree branch wherever they want to stop. Their only only respite is to rest one leg in the sling under the swing. They identify most with the tree posture in yoga, as their swollen, ulcerated legs begin to look as if they are rooted to the floor.
Some sadhus practice parikrama, which means circumnambulating around a sacred object or space, like a temple or holy mountain. This is a normal practice for Hindus as it represents a connection with the sacred. However, the sadhus take it a step further. The sadhu stretches out face down on the ground, placing a stone in front of his head. He then stands up, takes a few paces to reach the stone, picks it up and repeats the procedure, progressing in caterpillar movements around the sacred place. A further development of this is to stay on one spot and practice the routine 108 times and then move one body-length. At the end of the day, when he has progressed around 20 body lengths, the sadhu will mark the spot and continue the next day.
As well as chuffing on their chillums, Shaiva sadhus grow their hair into extremely long, thick, dreadlocks in an effort to emulate their beloved lord Shiva who was also known to have dreadlocks. This is perhaps one of the less extreme lengths that a Shaiva will go to resemble the Hindu god of destruction. Aghori sadhus are perhaps the most extreme of the Shaivas. They emulate Shiva as conqueror of death by living among the dead in the cremation grounds. One of their only possessions is a human skull which they have harvested from a corpse for use as a drinking bowl.
The Aghoris transgress all social and religious codes and taboos, convinced that by reversing these values, they will speed up the process of enlightenment. While sadhus are generally vegetarian, celibate and abstain from alcohol, Aghoris eat meat and drink booze. They have a reputation for eating excrement as well as the putrid fl esh of corpses. They are said to drink urine, meditate while seated on a corpse and engage in sexual intercourse with menstruating prostitutes in the cremation grounds.
They may not be the most popular, but the majority of sadhus steer clear of such practices. We may well balk at the lengths India’s holy men will go to, but their commitment carves a path for all of us to reach the ultimate goal of moksha.
Around 10 per cent of sadhus are women, or sadhvis, who have chosen the ascetic way of life following the death of their husband. Choosing a holy life as a sadhvi is the only respectable way of escaping the living death of widowhood. Although most sadhvis come from widowhood, some have chosen it as their destiny. Many sadhu sects reject women as they may well corrupt the intentions of those striving for celibacy. Back in the day, sadhvis walked around naked, covered only by their long tresses