India is on the brink of modernity. The oxcart and the tractor, water at the well and microwave ovens, clay cups and plastic bags, oil lamps, private generators and nuclear plants, blacksmiths and the world´s leading manufacturer of steel, rickshaws and cable TV, snake charmers and electronic component plants, corruption and samnyasa (renunciation) all coexist here. Twenty million beggars and five hundred thousand newly qualified engineers a year, of whom a great number went to pray in a temple or received a blessing from sadhu before taking exams. Apparently sadhus represent half of percent of the male population, which is not a small number at all.
There are millions of sadhus – these wandering Indian renunciants, homeless begging monks, mystical walkers, roaming philosophers, hashish smokers, followers of non-action, worshippers of Shiva, holy man… but little is known about them. They are often photographed yet their words are seldom heard.
Some began this way of life from childhood, others were civil servants, real estate agents and thieves… they left their families and jobs to become renunciants, so called sadhus. They refuse to work, to vow not to accept any wages. They pursue the path of liberation.
The sadhu order has a history that dates back more than 5000 years. They are direct descendants, from master to disciples, of the rishis – the original seers whose stories are told in the most ancient legends and in the first book – Rig Veda. They declare themselves to be Brahma´s first born, who emerged from his creative breath. They conceived the Gods and told their myths. The ancient hymns of Rig Veda, which they authored, sing their praises: “They carry the sky and the earth, ride the wind, and know the connection of being and non-being…” They gave teachings to the Gods, were advisers to the Princes and cursed those who, they decided, were going to die. Alexander the Great called them gymnosophists. Buddha practised terrible mortifications with five of them before leaving their practises to start “middle way”. Sankaracharya, Indian philosopher and spiritual master of Hinduism that lived in 8th century, classified their thought into schools.
Well, sadhus gather on so called Khumb Mela which is the largest religious congregation in the world. According to astrologers, the Khumb Mela takes place when the planet Jupiter enters Aquarius and the Sun enters Aries. The origin of the Khumb dates back in the time of Amrita Kalasha (pot of nectar of immortality) was recovered from Sumudramanthan (during the churning of primordial sea), for which a tense war between Devas (Gods) and Asuras (Demons) ensued. To prevent the Amrita Kalasha being forcibly taken into possession of Asuras, who were more powerful than Devas, its safety was entrusted to the Devas: Brahaspati, Surya, Chandra, Shani. Four Devas ran away with the Amrita Kalasha to hide it from the Asuras. Learning the conspiracy of Devas, Asuras turned ferocious and chased four Devas running with Amrita Kalasha. The chase lasted 12 days and nights during which the Devas and Asuras went around the earth and during this chase, Devas put Amrita Kalasha at Haridwar, Prayag (today Allahabad), Ujjain and Nasik. To commemorate this holy event of the Amrita Kalasha being put into 4 places, Khumb (pot of immortality) Mela (fest) is celebrated every 12 years. On this special occasion all devotees and especially sadhus of all sects join in this reunion. Millions of non-sadhu pilgrims also attend the festivals, and the Khumb Mela is the largest gathering of human beings for a single religious purpose on the planet! At the festival, sadhus are the “biggest crowd pullers“, with many of them “completely naked with ash-smeared bodies, sprint into the chilly waters for a dip at the crack of dawn“.
The lives of sadhus in contemporary India vary tremendously. Sadhus live in ashrams and temples in the midst of major urban centers, in huts on the edges of villages, in caves in the remote mountains. Others live lives of perpetual pilgrimage, moving without ceasing from one town, one holy place, to another. Some gurus live with one or two disciples; some ascetics are solitary, while others live in large, communal institutions. For some sadhus the brotherhood or sisterhood of ascetics is very important.
The rigor of the spiritual practices in which contemporary sadhus engage also varies a great deal. Apart from the very few that engage in the most dramatic, striking austerities—for example, standing on one leg for years on end or remaining silent for a dozen years—most sadhus engage in some form of religious practice: devotional worship, hatha yoga, fasting, etc. For many sadhus,consumption of certain forms of hashish is accorded a religious significance. Sadhus occupy a unique and important place in Hindu society, particularly in villages and small towns more closely tied to tradition. In addition to bestowing religious instruction and blessings to lay people, sadhus are often called upon to adjudicate disputes between individuals or to intervene in conflicts within families. Sadhus are also living embodiments of the divine, images of what human life, in the Hindu view, is truly about — religious illumination and liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
A few holy men accomplish rigorous austerities, but most of them dedicate themselves to non-action. In a world of verging on its short term ecological doom demographic tsunami, the sadhus are the messengers of a kind of freedom and moderation that our commercial civilization has forgotten, with its preaching of labour, consumption, economical growth and competition.
Here are some photos from Khumb mela at Prayag /2013: