Saturday, 2 February 2019

Beyond The Frame : The Sādhanā Way

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
It was in 2006 when I traveled to the sacred city of Varanasi for the third or fourth time; this time in search of real sadhus rather than those I encountered on the ghats of the river Ganges. The more photogenically flamboyant of those would "earn" a few rupees from tourists and photographers who sought to augment their inventory of exotic portraits of these characters; perhaps paying them a tidy sum if they agreed to be photographed in a rowing boat or next to a temple.

Though they made compelling portraits, I wasn't interested in them at all this time. I was interested in those who adopted the way of the 
sādhanā. The term means spiritual exertion towards an intended goal, and those who undertake to practice it are sadhus. These are essentially religious ascetics, who renounce worldly life.

Becoming a sadhu is supposed to be the fourth phase in a Hindu's life, after studies, being a father and a pilgrim, but for most people it is an impractical option as it requires severing familial, societal and earthly attachments.

My personal opinion -after having met many such characters- in India; either in Varanasi, Rishikesh, Vrindavan et al, as well as at the Kumbh Mela, is that the majority of them are fake in the sense that they're not dedicated ascetics, but individuals who are adopted a vagabondage lifestyle, begging for alms and food...under the guise of being holy and religious.

Hence my quest to meet with real ascetics who had embraced Vairāgya; the Sanskrit term used in Hindu philosophy that translates as detachment or renunciation from the pains and pleasures in the temporary material world.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
At some distance from the ghats of the Varanasi, my fixer and I entered an ashram which consisted of a spacious open courtyard encircled by small rooms where the sadhus spent most of their days studying the scriptures and socializing.

With one exception (top photograph), none of the sadhus expressed any interest in sharing their life-stories with me...although some were very willing to be photographed. Most ignored my cameras, and seldom raised their eyes from their readings. Others just retreated into their cell-like rooms until we left.

The patrician-looking (and rather taciturn) sadhu in the top photograph did tell me that he had a family, had held a managerial position in the Indian Railway from which he earned a pension (now paid to his wife), but had decided to detach himself from temporal life and was currently studying the Vedas. These are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. He was the embodiment of a real sadhu who had really espoused the Vairāgya, and was far different from the "sadhus" I encountered on the ghats of Varanasi (below) almost 8 years later.

Photo ˙ Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved