Wednesday, 23 October 2013

POV: Sadhus, Charlatans or Not?

Photos © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Yesterday's post prompts me to elaborate a bit more on the question whether the sadhus in India (and Nepal) are charlatans or a genuine aesthetics.

From my numerous travels in India over the past 10+ years, and from having met innumerable sadhus during my assignments and photographic expeditions, I'm reasonably comfortable in asserting that most of them are a cross between homeless charlatans and spiritual ascetics. The more difficult question is whether they became ascetics because of poverty or because of some form of inherent spirituality. Charlatanism is an integral part of many of them, but they may have resorted to this activity because of need.

With their tilak markings, and their orange cloths, they are certainly photogenic and some of them exploit their appearance to coax money from gullible (and sometimes, not-so-gullible) tourists. Others are more imaginative, and develop an aura of spirituality to generate religious respect and alms from lay people.

Naturally, there are a large number of sadhus who are authentic. For instance, the Naga Babas, whose ceremonial bathing at the Kumbh Melas is a sought after ceremony, belong to the Shaiva sect and are known as 'warrior ascetics'.

In 2006, I've come across authentic sadhus during an assignment in Varanasi. My fixer was from this ancient city, and knew it inside out. Upon learning that I was interested in sadhus, and seeing my disinterest in photographing the "tourist" sadhus basking in the sun on the ghats of Varanasi, he took me to a number of out-of-the-way ashrams for sadhus.

It's there that I met elderly sadhus, living in nothing more than cubicle-like tiny rooms and subsisting on small bowls of dahl and rice. These were true ascetics, who spent their days reading Hindu sacred scriptures, meditating and avoiding contact with lay people as much as possible.

I recall one of them had come to Varanasi because it was where he'd be eventually cremated and cast in the Ganges, thus achieving moksha. That in itself is not unusual, but what was unusual was his background.

He had spent his whole career with the Indian Railways (the largest employer in India), and upon his retirement he chose to become an ascetic, and left his family with their full consent, leaving all his worldly possession and his pension. He came to his ashram, and started to study herbal medicinal plants. Eventually, patients came to seek his advice, and the word spread amongst the poor in Varanasi that he was a healer. He dispensed his advice for free, and occasionally accepted some food as payment for his services.

During my visits to these ashrams, I was never asked for money...no one offered me ganja...and no one asked to pose for my cameras...and certainly no one spoke English. One of the sadhus (the one reading a scripture) never even looked up to acknowledge me as I was photographing him.