I think at least 95% of sadhus (wandering ascetics who have renounced to worldly life to work towards liberation) are “fake” in India. They may look impressive, especially to the western eye, in the cloths wrapped round their bodies and with their long hair or dreadlocks and beards. Some of them are even completely smeared with ashes. But many of them are just beggars, ordinary men in disguise, manipulators, or philosophers. By philosophers I mean those ones who try to seduce the naïve mind, often westerners, by exposing how much they know about Hindu and yogic philosophy to get something out of them, but who don't necessarily lead the life they preach. When I first came to India, like most western newcomers, I was very impressed by sadhus. I had read stories about great yogis and was very intrigued by enlightened or powerful ascetics, and sadhus looked exotic, as though they had come from another century or from another world altogether. In the very beginning they made me feel like I was an adventurer in an Indiana Jones movie...
Actually, writing this makes me realise I have come across two kinds of sadhus or babas or holy (or not!) men: There is the wandering sadhu, and there is the sedentary baba who lives in a temple. I trust the latter category more easily. I know a sedentary baba who lives in a temple one hour away from Khajuraho, in Chhatarpur. My friend's family visit him from time to time, for advice or for the comfort of sitting in his presence. I went to see him a couple of times too. His attire is nothing comparable to that of most sadhus; he just wears simple white clothes, his hair is short and his beard well-kept. He looks ordinary because he wants to be discreet; my friend tells me. Most of all, his eyes shine and he speaks only a little.
Yesterday I met another saint. I had gone out to a concert with a friend, because her new vocal teacher was playing and I had wanted to hear him. The concert took place in a temple on the other side of town. We rode our bicycles up to Chowk, one of the main crossing in Varanasi where traffic gets really dense, noisy and smelly. We were relieved to be engulfed into the narrow labyrinth-like lanes of old town away from traffic, but it wasn't easy with our bicycles because even the lanes were crowded with people and we often had to squeeze through to let motorbikes and passers-by go in the opposite direction. The walk was quite long and we had to check for direction with passers-by every few meters. Once we reached the temple, we parked out bicycles and got in. A tabla solo was going on far too loud, so we decided to go for a chai. We asked a man where the nearest chai shop was and he pointed to an even thinner lane just by the temple. There was a power-cut, it was dark all around, and the chai shop lane was pitch black, except for the flame underneath the teapot. We plunged into the darkness when a man suggested that we carry on one meter and take a seat. We hadn't seen the stone bench covered with blankets; we sat down with the man, who was kind and helpful. Actually, every passer-by had been very friendly to us; not the pestering westerner-obsessed kind which can be so irritating. Our thin lane was actually giving way to a small courtyard and then the entrance of another temple. There was a small gathering of men sitting down in the yard, and our new friend told me in Hindi that the baba was a great saint whom people came to see from all over India. “He has been here since childhood, and he feeds himself only on tobacco, chai and water.” I hadn't seen the baba because he was sitting behind a pillar. I looked more carefully and indeed, I could see a lock of white hair sticking out. The man was sitting on a wooden bed over which hung various devotional-looking items such as tree leaves and rudraksha bead necklaces. I am very skeptical with sadhus generally but I do know holy men still exist in India, so I was intrigued and curious. I liked the place's dark, mysterious yet friendly and inviting atmosphere. After we had drank our chai our passer-by told us we could go and look at the temple. It was a Muslim temple; he told us. I was a bit confused because the temple was Muslim but from what I understood the baba was a Shiva devotee.
We stepped in through the temple's entrance and into a courtyard, in the middle of which stood what we were told was a pomegranate tree. This surprised me because I have eaten tons of pomegranates in India but I had never seen a pomegranate tree before. This one looked old and dry, somewhat scary in the darkness; it reminded me a bit of the kind of old and dry tree you see in Tim Burton's movies. It was nice and quiet there, such a relief from the noisy, smelly traffic! Through all the shit we had reached a blissful place. Onto the right there was a spacious, open room, which contained four big tombs! The tombs of four saints, we were told. Saints are not cremated like the common people in India, but buried in tombs which are called “samadhi”. I love Hindi for the insight it gives into yogic philosophy. I was thrilled three years ago to discover that “eternity” and “bliss” are combined into one single word, “anand”. Yesterday I realised that “enlightenment” and “death” are both included in the one term “samadhi”, as to suggest that enlightenment is death; enlightenment implies death! This is true and I love it! After we got out of the temple we went to sit near the saint. One of the men sitting near him told us that he had “died” six years ago. I was puzzled, refusing to believe that the man in front of me had literally died and resuscitated! I thought I hadn't understood right and asked the man to repeat, but then he talked about “samadhi six years ago” and he added that the saint's work on Earth was now complete. Of course, what he had meant was that the saint was a fully-realised man, and resuscitation is precisely that: life after liberation, self-realisation!
And so we were sitting in front of the saint with his followers. It was dark so we could not see his face well, but his long, flowing hair and beard were completely snow-white, and his cheeks were very hollow. I didn't really know what to say and didn't say much, but all men were happy that I spoke Hindi. The saint was smiling to us heartily. Although I didn't know what to say I was feeling very comfortable sitting there; my friend and I too couldn't stop smiling. Soon the saint offered us some laddus (sweets), and he ordered some more chai. We said we just had drank one but he insisted. He also offered us some water, which wasn't filtered, and he would have ordered a bottle of mineral water if I hadn't told him we both carried a water bottle in our bags. From my experience with the Chhatarpur baba I think it is very special to be offered food by a holy man, and I was very moved. I told we were both Indian classical music students and my friend sang one Dhrupad composition to the men. Then suddenly the power came back and the area was well-lit. The power-cut clearly had contributed to making the place more obscure and exciting, but at least now we could see the saint's face clearly, and we both had a shock. The light in his eyes was so stunning and his smile so incredibly warm and loving that we couldn't take our eyes off him. He hardly spoke, really, and I loved that he didn't speak much because I've heard too many philosopher kind of sadhus before! He was here, in a smiling, loving presence, and that was all. The tea was late to arrive because the pot was empty and the chai-wallah had had to order some more from another place. My friend was getting concerned about missing her teacher's concert, but I could have stayed sitting there forever. At last after we had drank our chai we gave a donation to the saint, touched his feet out of respect, and left for the concert. My friend's guru gave a very beautiful and moving performance, from his silk-soft, heartbreaking voice, in front of an entirely feminine audience. Tonight had been a rare evening indeed, a real blessing.
On my way back home I recalled the main reason why I love India so much: Beyond all the noise, the stench, the pollution, the general mess, the corruption, as well as the growing westernised modernity that is endangering the stunning beauty of Her ancient traditional heritage, India still holds some of Her timeless, immortal gems. They are not easy to get to, but if you diligently learn and dig through all the shit with patience, faith and unconditional love, She will lead you all the way to them - like to pure moments in the presence of a saint...
A note on my three blogs
A note on my blogs
(1) vio; in love with india - this one is the main blog about my Indian adventures, which started in 2005. I don't write much on this blog these days because I prefer to write privately in the confidential blog. But check out the categories and the index to figure out your way. I have kept some older posts not about India but which I still find interesting or relevant in Old words. Also check out my new, fun category Only in India in which I post photos of funny, unique, Indian situations...
(2) sounds of india - this is my blog of sounds, because India wouldn't be as incredible if it was not so vibrant and just so full of incredible sounds!
(3) vio; confidential - this an extension of my main blog in which I post entries I do not want to reveal to the entire webspace for privacy or sensitivity reasons. You must receive an invitation from me and then accept the invitation to be able to read it. You may email me if you are interested in receiving an invitation.