“ Be the Change that you want to see in the world. ” ...is by Mahatma Gandhi...

17 febbraio 2010

Shaivas, the followers of Shiva

Thaks to Dolf Hartsuiker www.adolphus.nl/sadhus


Holiness is still common in India. In most Hindu households, shops and businesses are altars and shrines, and the day is routinely started with the worship of gods and gurus. Many mountains, rivers, stones and trees are sacred. Dozens of cities are holy and, of course, the millions of temples and idols. Quite a few animals are holy -- the cow, of course, but also the bull, the monkey, the elephant, the peacock, the snake, the rat....

So it may come as no surprise that people can be holy too, though they have to become holy. The Indian concept of holiness is quite different from that in the West. It is not necessarily (though often) associated with the "good."

Naga babas at the 1989 Kumbha Mela 
In fact, some all-India saints, such as Ramakrishna or Chaitanya, would probably be considered lunatics in the West. There is a long tradition of 'divine madness' in Hinduism. To Hindus, spiritual enlightenment has always represented the highest goal in life, the one thing that gives it meaning and purpose.

Moreover, enlightenment is a state of being that is in principle attainable by everybody. The average individual, however, would need many incarnations to become enlightened, to see God, to become one with the Absolute, to merge one's mind with Cosmic Consciousness -- in short, to become holy.

But since time immemorial shortcuts have been available for people wanting to become enlightened in this life rather than the next. Those who follow the fast track, mostly men, are the sadhus, the 'holy men' of India.

For thousands of years they have been around. Once they must have been more numerous, but even today there are still four to five million sadhus, constituting about half a percent of the total population.

Organised in various sects, they passed on the wisdom of old, the method of yoga, that is 'yoking' soul and Soul together.Usually they live by themselves, on the fringes of society, and spend their days in devotion to their chosen deity. 

Sunmarpan Das and disciples


Some perform magical rituals to make contact with the gods, others practise intense forms of yoga and meditation to increase their spiritual powers and acquire mystical knowledge. Certainly, not all sadhus are enlightened. But believers regard them all as holy anyway, if only because of their radical commitment. And successful sadhus are even worshipped as 'gods on earth'.

Believers only have to 'behold' a sadhu -- as a kind of living idol -- to receive a spark of his spiritual energy. They give donations to the sadhus -- regarded as offerings to the gods -- and get their blessing in return. Thus, since time immemorial, has Indian society been organised to support the holy men, for they are not supposed to work.

But in India too, the times they are a'changing.

Janaki Jivan Sharan
Janaki Jivan Sharan a sadhu who was regarded as a jivanmukta, i.e. a 'soul liberated while still alive.'

Shiva is the god of Destruction as well as Creation, which in a perpetual cyclical movement follow one another. His body is covered with ashes, symbolic of death and regeneration.

Shiva is always n‰ked, which symbolizes his primal condition, his non-attachment to the world.
His body shows feminine characteristics, like soft rounded contours and no beard, which is symbolic of his transcendence of opposites, the primal unity of polarities. With half-closed eyes he is immersed in meditation, in divine bliss.

The Ganges springs from his long hair, his jata, as a fountain, splashing in the Himalayan mountains in the distance. The crescent -- the new moon, 'Shiva's moon' -- on his forehead, the cobra around his neck, the white bull Nandi, the river Ganges, and the full moon form a symbolic cluster which indicates Shiva's function as a fertility deity, a moon god.

Lord Shiva
Shiva is often shown sitting in the cremation ground (shmashana), which symbolizes the correct attitude of a yogi to life. Shmashana is the end of the pysical phase of life. This is a prerequisite for every new creation.

On his forehead are three horizontal lines, painted with ashes, representing the three main gods, the three 'worlds', etc. Around his neck is a garland of 108 beads, the 108 elements of material creation, and in his hand a rosary of 50 beads, the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.

The two large rings through his ears are indicative of his extra-sensory perception. He is seated on a tiger skin, a symbol of power, showing his mastery over the animal world.

Naga babas Hari Giri and Ramnath Giri 
In appearance sadhus try to resemble the gods as they are known through ancient myths and popular legends, especially Shiva; for sadhus he is the Master of Yogis.Following his example, quite a few sadhus walk about naked, symbolising their renunciation of the world of mortals, and rub their body with ashes of their holy fires, symbolic of death and rebirth.Many sadhus wear extremely long hair (jata), again in emulation of Lord Shiva, whose long strands of hair are regarded as the 'seat' of his supernatural powers.

The Naga babas

One large and prominent Shaiva sect consists of the 'warrior ascetics', or Nagas (the 'n‰ked'), who have existed since the prehistoric past.

Darshan Giri 
Though sadhus in general can de characterized as peace-loving, the Nagas used to be extremely militant, fighting with rivalling sects, the Muslims and later even the British.

They were excellent fighters for they had no fear of death.Traces of this 'macho' attitude are still discernible today. The Naga sect is subdivided into Akharas, i.e. 'regiments', like an army.

Bhola Giri Naga baba
High up in the icy Himalayas, but naked all the same, Bhola Giri Naga baba blows the serpentine horn, called nagphani, that is, 'cobra-hood', producing one piercing note. This instrument is related to the cobra (naga), the intimate companion of Lord Shiva, always coiled around his neck. Their bellicose past is visible in their display of weaponry -- sticks, spears, swords and especially the trident -- but nowadays these have a mostly symbolic function. Among the Nagas -- as this name would lead us to expect -- there are still many sadhus who walk about naked.

In other respects as well they represent the ideal image of the sadhu as it was created thousands of years ago.

The Gorakhnathis

Pagal Mauni Baba.belongs
 to the Aghori section of the Gorakhnathis. 
As his name reveals, this baba is 'mad, divinely intoxicated' (pagal) and 'non-speaking' (mauni). The Gorakhnathis are commonly referred to as Yogis or Jogis

Although in outlook very similar to the sannyasis, the Jogis do not follow the Vedantic teachings of Shankara, but adhere to the Tantric way taught by their Guru-founder Gorakhnath. Still, they are devotees of Shiva, albeit in his manifestation as Bhairava, and they worship Hanuman and Dattatreya.

Gorakhnath, being an incarnation of Shiva, is worshipped as a deity by the Jogis, and has a number of temples dedicated to him. The Jogis are therefore often designated as 'Gorakhnathis', or more simply 'Nath babas'.
Some Gorakhnathis are known as Kanphata. This names refers to the huge earrings which are one of their distinctive marks, and to their unique practice of having the cartilage of their ears split for the insertion of the earrings.

It is said that the practice of splitting the ears originated with Gorakhnath and that the designation Kanphata (litt. ‘split-eared’) was a term of disrespect applied to these Yogis by Musalmans.

In the initiation ceremony, a special Guru splits the central hollows of both ears with a two-edged Bhairavi knife. The slits are plugged with nim-wood sticks ; and after the wounds have healed, large rings (mudra) are inserted. These are a symbol of the Yogi’s faith. Some explain that in splitting the ear anari (mystic channel) in the cartilage is cut, thus assisting in the acquirement of yogic power. The Yogi, wearing the mudra, becomes immortal.

Ambai Nath 
The Udasin

The major sect of Udasin ascetics was originally not Shaiva -- nor even Hindu -- but belonged to the Sikh religion. It was founded in the sixteenth century by a son of Guru Nanak -- himself the founder of Sikhism -- called Shrichandra.

The Udasin are therefore also known as Nanakputras, the 'sons of Nanak', and they revere the Grantha Saheb, the sacred book of the Sikhs.

They were excommunicated by the successor of Guru Nanak and gradually turned to Hinduism.

A quiet morning scene around the dhuni of Udasin Babas, 
who have gathered for the annual celebration of Shivaratri. 

The Udasin worship panchayatana, a combination of five deities, namely Shiva, Vishnu, the Sun, goddess Durga, and Ganesh. Moreover they worship their founder-Guru Shrichandra.

Their philosophy is basically the monistic Vedanta as set forth by Shankara, and in other respects as well they closely resemble the Shaiva sannyasis.

Like all Shaiva sannyasis, the Udasin usually wear red or black cloth, apply ashes, have long hair in jata, and so on, but differ in details such as their woollen knitted caps and a small silver crescent ring in the right ear.
Furthermore, whenever they had to choose sides in fights with rivalling sects, they were on the side of the Shaivas. 

Vital Das, an Udasin baba, 
his body covered with ash.
The Aghoris

Drinking out of a human skull is only one of the striking peculiarities that differentiates Gauri Shankar Mishra from the average ascetic. He drinks liquor (forbidden to caste Hindus and certainly ascetics), eats the flesh of dead animals found in the street and abuses people with foul obscenities.

Holiness cannot only be macho, but even 'crazy', god-possessed, as it is shown by the members of a rather obscure and small sect, the Aghoris.

They emulate the most extreme characteristics of Lord Shiva as the Conqueror of Death: his favourite haunt is the cremation-grounds; he bathes in cremation-ashes; he wears a garland of skulls and bones; he keeps spirits and ghosts for company; he is continuously intoxicated; and he acts like a madman.

The Aghoris willingly transgress all ascetic (and Hindu) taboos, convinced as they are that by 'reversing all values' they will speed up enlightenment. While all sadhus are supposed to be vegetarian and teetotallers (like all ordinary Hindus for that matter), Aghoris eat meat and drink alcohol.

Even more horrid habits are attributed to Aghoris: they eat the putrid flesh of corpses; they eat excrement and drink urine, even of a dog; they have ritual intercourse with menstruating prostitutes on the cremation-grounds, where they usually hang out; and they meditate while sitting on a corpse.

It is questionable whether all this is regularly done, but it seems quite certain that at least occasionally, and then in a ritual context, as a kind of 'eucharist', these cannibalistic and other 'inhuman' acts are still taking place.Aghoris preferably live on cremationgrounds and surround themselves with artifacts of death, like human skulls out of which they drink and with which they perform magical rituals.

Nonetheless, the Aghoris represent a tradition that is thousands of years old, and there have been times that the sect was quite numerous. 


Vishnu is hardly worhipped as a god in his own right nowadays. It's his incarnations who are worshipped, especially Rama and Krishna. But as far as Vaishnava sadhus are concerned it's mainly Rama who serves as their inspiration.


On the poster below Rama and Sita are surrounded by the main characters of the Ramayana and the main gods of the Hindu pantheon.

Kneeling before them is Rama's faithful servant Hanuman, the monkey-god and general of the monkey army. The epic Ramayana, with its many exemplary adventures of Rama, is the primary source of inspiration for shaping the attitude of exclusive, one-pointed devotion to Rama which is the hallmark of a Rama devotee.

Rama plays an important part in contemporary Hinduism. He lives in the hearts of the common people. He rules the lives of sadhus devoted to him. For many sadhus, memorizing, analyzing, and absorbing the Ramayana is a life-time pursuit, and some become professional exegetes, reciting and interpreting the texts to the public.

As it is chanted by the mourners in funeral processions:
“Rama nama satya hai!”, “the name of Rama is Truth.” 
It is believed that just hearing the sacred words of the Ramayana is in itself liberating and will confer the grace of Rama. And in an even simpler way, continuous recitation of the name of Rama from the heart will enlighten the soul. In fact, in this Dark Age, Rama's devotees regard it as the only way to reach the Absolute.

And if enligtenment does not happen in one’s life, it may happen at the moment of death, that is, if one dies thinking of Rama and with his name on one’s lips.

The Ramanandis

In the beginning of the fourteenth century, a very successful ascetic sect was founded by Ramananda: the Ramananda Sampradaya, popularly known as the Ramanandis.

Nowadays, because of its dominant position, it is regarded as a separate organization, but officially it is still part of the Shri Sampradaya, for Ramananda started his ascetic career as a member of this sect. He remained loyal to the philosophy of its founder Ramanuja, but he choose Rama and Sita as personal gods, and made devotion to them the central feature of the sect's religious practices. Generally speaking, almost all Vaishnava sadhus are Ramanandis.

Bhagwan Das' 
elaborate facial painting marks 
him as a devotee of Lord Rama.

There are quite a few different Vaishnava sects and they can be distinguished by the symbols painted on the forehead, but within a sect the marks are seldom entirely identical. Most sadhus give it a personal touch. And some make more extreme variations on the fundamental theme.

The result can be quite impressive, as is shown by Hanuman Hari Das, but it does not necessarily imply a higher status. Nor does it, by itself, reflect a higher degree of spirituality.


The Tyagis

An important subdivision of the Ramanandi bairagis(those whose practice 'dispassion', 'non-attachment') is known as the tyagis ('renunciants, hermits'). This section is also referred to as tapasi shakha, or ‘penance branch’, since they perform extreme tapas. They often reside separately from other Ramanandis in (or near) khak-chowks, an open square reserved for the ash-covered (khaki) tyagis. 

The mahatyagis or ‘great renunciants’ are the most extreme. They live without shelter and wear no clothing except a banana-bark loincloth; many keep silence, do prolonged fasts and practise hatha-yoga. Most tyagis keep a dhuni.

On the surface the difference between tyagis and nagas is negligible. 

Baldeo Das (right), the founder of the Mahatyagi Kalsa, standing in front of his little hermitage, his hands in thetyaga mudra.

On both sides of the door hang potted tulsi plants. Evil spirits never come to place where a tulsi is planted; it is regarded as the meeting point of heaven and earth. Its tasty leaves—it is a kind of basil—form part of offerings and prasad, and out of its wood the beads of Vaishnava ‘rosaries’ (malas) are fashioned.

As a mahatyagi, or ‘great renouncer’, Seva Das has taken a vow never to live indoors. In his temporary ‘home’ at the Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, he is fully exposed to the heat of the day and the cold of the night.

The Sakhis

A sakhi, who regards Lord Rama as her Lover. 
Vaishnavas, i.e. sadhus who have chosen Rama or Krishna as their deity, are characterized by a strong, sentimental devotion and total self-surrender to one of his earthly 'incarnations' as the god-king Rama or the divine cowherd Krishna.

The deity is regarded as a 'person' with whom the devotee can establish an intimate bond, which usually takes the form of a Master-slave relationship.

Some sadhus, however, dare to regard him as their Lover, and since the deity is a male, it follows quite logically that they have to play the part of 'mistress' of the Lord. They are designated assakhis. They imagine having an erotic 'love' relationship with him. Some sakhis even go to the extreme of pretending to have regular se+ual intercourse with their Lord -- except on the days when they're having their 'period'.

Obviously, the se+ual overtones of their behaviour make them rather suspect in the eyes of other ascetics, since repression of se+uality is the norm, not its projection. Even if this projection is aimed at a deity. Nevertheless, it is a recognized way of expressing devotion to a deity -- and devotion is a characteristic of all sadhus.

These transvestite sadhus are to be distinguished from another group of transvestites, or rather eunuchs, who practise prostitution and obnoxious forms of begging.

The hijras, as they are known, are completely castrated upon initiation into their order. They are regarded as 'neither man nor woman', but they dress like women and affect exaggerated female mannerisms. As in almost all things Indian, there is a religious meaning to their voluntary mutilation and subsequent behaviour.

During Rama-festivals hijras may masquerade as sakhis in order to collect money.

Sadhvis: the Holy Women of India

In contrast with the many young male sadhus, a beautiful young woman is but rarely seen in the brotherhood. About ten percent of sadhus are women, called sadhvis, but most of them are old, having become sadhvi after they were widowed.

This reflects the generally subordinate position of women in Indian society -- the popular belief is that women have to be born again as men before they can be spiritually liberated -- and the even more marginal position of widows.

Choosing the sadhu life was -- and still is -- about the only respectable way to escape from the 'living death' of widowhood.

Sobhna Giri belongs to the Juna Akhara. 
She entered sadhu life when still a child and thus committed herself to life-long celibacy and other ascetic practices.  

Sadhvis of the Juna Akhara
Nevertheless, since time immemorial there have been female sadhus. And quite a few have, like their male counterparts, chosen the sadhu life in their teens, convinced as they were of their spiritual predestination.

Quite a few sects do not allow women because the celibates fear their 'corrupting influences'; some sects are mixed, but then female sadhus usually have their separate quarters; some minor subsects are all-female.

Though generally speaking their position in the spiritual hierarchy is inferior to men, there have always been great woman-saints and female sadhus are treated with much respect -- being for instance addressed as 'Mataji,' that is 'Revered Mother'.

Mahadevi Akka Yakka. 
Because of all her hair it's impossible to see whether she is n‰ked. The same artistic trick (caused by prudery) can be seen in the depiction of Mary of Egypt. (In front are, incidentally, are the two deer first seen on the seal of the Horned God, 2500 BC!) Long ago, sadhvis also walked around naked.

One famous woman-saint – and poetess – who lived in the 12th century, wandered about just covered in her long tresses of hair. Mahadevi (‘great goddess’) as she was called, or Akka (‘elder sister’), fell in love with Shiva. 

Santosh Giri Nagaji, 
Santosh Giri Nagaji, a sadhvi belonging to the renowned sect of Naga-sadhus, smokes the chilam filled with tobacco and hashish. At the age of ten, she was initiated into the worship of Shiva, whom she called ‘the Lord White as Jasmine’. And she roamed the land, a wild-woman, god-intoxicated, searching for her divine lover.

Ritual nudity must already have been rare in Mahadevi’s days though, for it provoked unwelcome attentions from men, occasionally even attempts to molest her. But the practice didn’t die out completely, yet. A hundred years ago, John Oman met an almost n‰ked sadhvi.

A poem by Mahadevi Akka Yakka.

Riding the blue sapphire mountains
wearing moonstone for slippers
blowing long horns
O Shiva
when shall I
crush you on my pitcher breasts

O Lord White as Jasmine
when do I join you
stripped of body’s shame
and heart’s modesty?

Gayatri Muni Bapu, an Udasin sadhvi.

Holy Smoke
by Dolf Hartsuiker
Of all the sadhus whom I’ve met during previous trips through India, Mathura Das stands out most clearly in my mind. His long hair in twisted tresses — a kind of dreadlocks — falling over his shoulders. His pockmarked face that looks a bit like Jimi Hendrix’s. His boyish body, lean and lanky, while he must be at least thirty-five. His deep voice, sparkling eyes and booming laughter. His jocular wisdom, and sometimes serious counsel. At first he may appear somewhat macho, but in fact he is gentle, and very generous.
Everything he gets he gives away.
It is mainly to see Mathura Das again that I’ve just covered over a thousand kilometres by bus to arrive at Omkareshwar.
Omkarehswar is a small island in the Narmada river which, seen from the air, resembles the Sanskrit letters for “OM”, the sacred mantra. The river is holy too, so there are reasons enough for the sacredness of this place.

Hindu pilgrims take a bath in the Narmada for the cleansing of body and soul. And over a path that follows the contours of the island they circumambulate this magical ‘power-spot’, tracing the “OM” mantra with their feet — worshipping the divine and simultaneously absorbing spiritual energy. In passing, they also visit the sadhus, ‘behold’ them, make offerings and receive their blessings. 
The sun is just up when I arrive, but I don’t feel tired so I decide to check out Mathura Das right away. Especially for him I’ve kept some hash that I had gotten from another sadhu, a piece of black Manali of passable quality. In my hotel-room I cut it in two pieces — each sufficient for one chilam ( a hash-pipe, usually earthenware, in the shape of a bottleneck, that has to be held in two hands for smoking).

Bypassing the two, three streets of the village, I take the shortest route over a footpath through a rural area, a grassy field with some small houses here and there under big trees, to a centuries-old Shiva temple. Behind it stands a partly ruined temple-like structure that originally consisted of three rooms, but the roof of the middle one had once collapsed. 
In this space, surrounded by three walls and under the open sky is Mathura Das’ fireplace.
And a sadhu’s sacred fire, his dhuni, is his home. Mathura Das is not allowed to sleep under a roof according to the rules of his sadhu-order, but deities may. So he has turned the left room into a shrine with altar and idol of Rama.

I walk around the whitewashed building, under gigantic — and holy — trees, and go up the steps to a terrace in front of it. Nobody is to be seen, but the fire is smouldering, so he cannot be far away. 
As I stand there, wondering whether I should go to the river instead, a young half-n‰ked sadhu appears from the temple-room. His features are rather Asiatic, a very thin beard, and straight, black hair that comes down to his shoulders. Perhaps he’s a Nepali or Tibetan?

I ask him in my simple Hindi, “Mathura Das where is?” He points in the direction of the river and says, “snana,” Hindi for bathing. Then I ask him, “his disciple you?” He nods yes. His limited vocabulary makes me suspect that he isn’t Nepali, or Tibetan either, so I ask him in English, “where are you from?” And then he has to kind of confess — he’d probably have preferred to stay in his role of a native, I think — that he’s from Japan. 
As a real sadhu he invites me for a tea, so we sit by the dhuni. He puts a pan with water and milk on the smouldering logs and pokes the ashes till flames shoot up. Mumbling in a mixture of broken English and sadhu-slang he asks if I have any hash on me, for he has only inferior weed. He shows me a plastic bag with very green leaves. I lie and say that I don’t have any, so he starts to slowly clean the grass.
We smoke the chilam and I ask him some more typically Indian (intrusive) questions, like “what is your name,” and “what is your purpose,” to which he replies with shy smiles and hardly audible mumbles. But I catch his name, which is Mohan Das, and it appears that two years ago he was initiated as Mathura Das’ disciple. The weed has no effect. 
He is very slow in everything, perhaps deliberately, to show how stoned he is, or enlightened. Or is he just dim-witted? Finally the tea is ready and he sprinkles a few drops into the fire, an oblation to the fire-god, before filling the stainless steel beakers. He asks me for a cigarette and we smoke in silence, slurping the hot tea.

The rays of the sun peek through the rustling leaves of the giant tree forming a roof over our heads. Chirping birds flit from branch to branch. In the distance a troop of monkeys passes by, swinging through the trees, then again running through the field. In the foreground are the ancient walls and spires of the Shiva temple. A cow is calmly grazing. Time stands still. Sadhus may have little or no material comfort, but they often live in the most beautiful places, free and without a worry. Then I hear the deep, booming voice of Mathura Das in the distance. 
As he comes onto the terrace he recognizes me immediately, laughs and calls out loudly, “Sita Rama!” A greeting and invocation of the deity Rama and his divine wife Sita. I bow and touch his foot with my right hand. He puts his hand on my head, and then goes into his temple-room, singing and humming, continuously repeating the mantra, “Sita Rama, Sita Rama, Sita Rama...”

A young sadhu has come with him. He is dressed in red cloth and has a red dot painted in the middle of his forehead, distinct signs of a Shiva devotee. He sits next to me and immediately starts asking the usual questions, where I come from and so on.
But after a few minutes Mathura Das comes out of his shrine, now dressed in a light-rose silk shawl around his waist, and all attention focuses on him. In a gruff voice he calls out, “Mohan Das, make tea!”
Submissively Mohan Das goes about it, but he has become very clumsy suddenly, dropping everything. 
Mathura Das takes his seat near the dhuni and asks me for a cigarette. I assume he just wants to smoke it and want to give one to Mohan Das as well, but that is not allowed. “He only smoke hash!” Mathura Das cries out.

Then I give him the piece of hash too and his face lights up. Immediately he starts preparing a chilam. He heats the hash with a match and mixes it with the tobacco in a coconut cup. 
“Hash problem,” he says. It is hard to come by nowadays and expensive, two hundred rupees a tola (ten grams). And he needs at least a tola a day, for himself and for his guests. I wonder how he manages to obtain such a sum each day. It isn't much more than seven dollars, but nevertheless, that amounts to a week’s wages for an unskilled labourer and the usual donations he receives from pilgrims are at most a few rupees per head.
These price-increases are mainly caused by foreigners who buy hash for their own use in India or for export, since they can pay any price. Besides, there are arrests in the sadhus’ own supply-lines. Some sadhus are even imprisoned.
“Really?” I ask surprised. For hash may be illegal nowadays in all parts of India, but the smoking of it by sadhus is tolerated. It’s an ancient tradition and they need it for their worship of Shiva. Moreover, sadhus stand a bit outside — and above — the law.

I tell them about the coffeeshops in Holland. They have heard of it before but can hardly believe it. The prices neither, for that matter.Meanwhile, Mathura Das has prepared the chilam. With joined hands he lifts it heavenwards and calls out loud, “Sita Rama!” He inhales deeply, and blows out an enormous cloud of smoke. 
The chilam goes round, and hits; our spirits rise. Mohan Das is urged to take an extra puff and Mathura Das sees to it that he inhales deeply enough.

After that Mohan Das doesn’t have a moment’s rest. He has to distribute the tea and Mathura Das spurs him on with ever new commands and then criticizes everything he does. Mohan Das becomes totally confused, goes on strike, stares ahead senselessly, seemingly deaf and dumb. 
Laughing out loud, Mathura Das turns to me. “Cracked brain!” he sneers, twirling his index-finger next to his head, “screw loose!”
And then, with blazing eyes, he roars, “me, full sadhu life!” In his limited English, but very articulate all the same, he explains how he sees ‘The Reality’ beyond our everyday material world. Without eyes. Pointing at the backside of his head he says, “me inside out!” But for this knowledge he has to pay a price; he must lead a hard life, full of risks: “full sadhu-life, dangerous!”

He illustrates this with shaking and quaking of arms and body, as if he is falling apart, disintegrating, and roars once more, “dangerous!” After this illuminating performance he disappears into his shrine again. 
The Shiva sadhu turns to me again and asks rather bluntly, “You also give me some hash?” 
I shake my head, “That was my last piece, it’s all finished.”
“Money little problem,” he then says, “you give me hundred rupees?” I try to explain that I’m seeing far too many sadhus and that they all need money and that I’m not rich, but he doesn’t care.
“Fifty also good,” he says. 
Then I tell him not to be so money-minded, “sadhus have to be poor, and that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” Besides, I think, ‘good’ sadhus like Mathura Das don’t have to ask for anything: they are just given all they need. 
But he points at my bag — as if he were looking through it with x-ray glasses, seeing my expensive cameras, traveller-cheques and cash, all in all equalling some two years' wages for an average Indian labourer — and says, “you money automatic!”
This makes me laugh, but I’m fed up with his nagging, so I get up.
Mathura Das comes out of his shrine-room and tells me to smoke another chilam, but I am going.
“You come back tomorrow,” he says, “OK?”
The next morning I take the shortest route to the river, a path with rough, uneven stone steps leading over a low hill.

On top I stand still for a moment to have a look at the picturesque scenery. Below me, part of the village, large trees between houses and temples. 
And straight ahead, the island of Omkareshwar in the blue-green Narmada river: sparsely wooded hills, a cluster of small houses around a domineering sandstone palace and a whitewashed temple near the river. 
I’m thinking of the rather disappointing meeting with Mathura Das yesterday. Especially his relationship with Mohan Das had shocked me. Obedience, servitude, submissiveness and so on are expected of any disciple, but he treats Mohan Das as a slave and ridicules him for it to boot. 
But on the other hand, can I fairly judge it? Perhaps he gives Mohan Das exactly what he needs. From a Hindu perspective it may be necessary for the ‘burning’ of his karma, his fate, determined by good and bad deeds in his previous lives. Moreover, from the same perspective, is a sadhu, a holy man who perceives a Reality unknown to us ordinary mortals, not by definition infallible? 
I walk down the hill, through winding streets, down wide stone steps to a small beach on the bank of the Narmada. 
From the other side, near a tea-stall, a red-dressed sadhu is waving at me. It is the Shiva sadhu whom I met yesterday, beckoning me to come closer.
I hesitate, but then I see Mathura Das too, sitting on the wooden table of the tea-stall, under a brown tarpaulin awning. Mathura Das looks downcast and complains about pain in his arm. It is only with difficulty that he can bend it. He shows it to me and explains that this is caused by not having smoked any hash yet.
I had intended to keep my last piece of hash for later, but seeing his suffering (real or enacted) I give it to him anyway, and immediately his face lights up. But first he wants to take a bath in the river. A bit later, with holy water still dripping from his long hair, Mathura Das comes and sits next to me.

We smoke the chilam, drink a tea, and he is his ‘old self’ again, happy, expansive, full of laughter. Before I leave Omkareshwar I want to give some money to Mathura Das. At first I had thought I could make a generous gesture with a hundred rupees, but after all those stories about the high prices of hash, that doesn’t seem quite sufficient, so I have decided to give him two hundred. Surreptitiously I try to extract the banknotes from my bag, but Mathura Das notices it immediately. 
He points at his shrine and together we enter this dark, incense-filled room. I want to hand him the notes, but he points at a low altar where a statue of Rama is standing: it has to be an offering. I let the banknotes drift down on the altar while he loudly invokes the deity, “Sita Rama, Sita Rama!”
Austerities by Shaivas

The Vaishnavas and Shaivas have their own sect-specific preferences for various types of austerities, although there are austerities that are done by both.


A key concept underlying austerities is tapas, a Sanskrit word which means ‘inner heat’, that is potential magical and spiritual energy. Tapas also means the various techniques of augmenting it, thus asceticism, but in sadhu parlance the Hindi word tapasya is used, or in short tap. And an ascetic performing tapasya is designated as a tapasvi.

Sexual energy, kama, the fire of passion, is the main potential source of tapas -- and at the same time it is its opposite. This is expressed in the myth of Shiva killing Kama by the fire -- created by tapas -- of his third eye, when the cupid-god of desire tries to hit him with his arrow of lust -- the heat of kama -- in order to annul his yogic power.

In other words, the ascetic must sublimate and control his lust, for its enjoyment would diminish, even destroy his spiritual power.

(See also Mircea Eliade on tapas.)

Worshipping the phallus

As the Aryans infiltrated into India from the North West in around 1500 BC, they came across an ancient civilization, that we now call the Indus Valley Civilization because of the sites of the archeological finds in the Indus Valley,

This was an agricultural nation, that reached its peak in around 2500 BC, but at the time of the Aryan incursions, it already was in decline because of changing climate (long periods of droughts) and spreading desertification.

The Aryans easily conquered this people, and in their myths and legends (Vedas) expressed their contempt for these black slaves (dasyas), who, to their disgust worshipped the male and female organs of generation. Especially the worship of the phallus evoked their derision.

Stone artefacts of this worship were found during archeological excavations that began in the ‘40’s of the 20th century.


Among these Indus Valley peoples there was a special class of people, the ascetics and mystics, perhaps still shamanistic in character, the ‘proto-yogis’, and inventors of asceticism. They were models for, and were modeled on, a deity who later became known as Shiva, the yogi and ascetic among the other more king-like deities of the Hindu pantheon.

Archeological proof for this assertion can be seen in a number of stone tablets, or seals, depicting this yogi of deity, who has designated as the ‘Horned God’ because of his typical headdress reminiscent of the later Shiva.

On one of these seals (left), the most famous one, he is shown sitting n‰ked, in a yoga posture, surrounded by animals (as Pashupatinath, the Lord of the Beasts), but what is more important: with his phallus erect.
The "Horned God", found at Mohenjodaro, 2.500 BC; National Museum, Delhi.

This ‘urdhva-liñga’ is one of the characteristics of the later Shiva. He keeps his phallus. erect, but doesn’t shed his seed. He keeps his seed, to keep the inner fire going, as he is performing his tapas (heat inducing austerities). He can make love to his wife Sati for a thousand years, but still he doesn’t shed his seed, and they procreate through the sweat of their exertions.

This ‘urdhva-liñga’ is not only shown on the seal of the "Horned God", but also on many later sculptures — like those of Lakulisha  — and millions of Shiva-liñga’s, Shiva’s erect phallus, are still being worshipped all over India.

Lakulisha, 8th cent.,
Vaital Deul Temple, Bhubhaneshwar

Detail from Picart
These myths surrounding Shiva reflect certain ascetic practices of the yogis, who later also became known as sadhus. They also kept their phallus erect, without penetration or ejaculation, and used the se+ual energy thus aroused for spiritual purposes. Their real-life erect phallus were worshipped, just as Shiva’s liñga was worshipped, mostly it would seem by women, who would fondle and kiss them, as was still observed in the 17th century by the traveler Tavernier, and later depicted by Picart. The ascetics who are thus worshipped, do not show, to quote Tavernier: “... any sign of sensuality; but on the contrary, without regarding anyone, and rolling the eyes terribly, you would say they are absorbed in abstraction.”

Nowadays no traces of this practice can be observed — in public anyway — but it seems quite plausible that it actually happened in those days. But unfortunately, I've never come across any mention of this kissing of the phallus in Indian literature (scientific, historic, theological, mythic, etc.). This particular worship might have vanished from the collective memory, as it disappeared in practice, in the course of the increasingly puritanical times.

Ascetic in sens-al embrace, Konarak. 11th-12th century. Remnants of this real-life phallus. worship can still be observed with a few n‰ked sadhus (Nagas) who adorn their phallus with rings and little bells (see picture of Ram Giri on this page).

Another way in which this ‘friendly’ approach towards se+uality in relation to mysticism was shown, was the concept of tantra-yoga. In its practices penetration and fusion with the female partner was accepted, but ejaculation was not. And here it was also believed that the se+ual energy roused by this practice would translate into spiritual energy.

But this tantra-yoga in its pure form was probably never very widespread; it would almost always have degenerated into orgies, or at least the suspicion of the surrounding society would have been such, which would have made it almost impossible.

But practices such as these have also been done in Christianity, in Russia, in the 19th century, as is suggested in the biography of Rasputin (by Edward Radzinsky), who mentions the sect of the Chlysti, who practiced ‘sinful’ acts in groups in order to gain deliverance, and who of course were also accused of organizing orgies.

The Aryans, who were so disgusted by phallus worship of the Indus Valley people, as conquerors occupied the upper strata of society, and as such became known as the Brahmans (priestly class), and the Ksatryas (the warrior class of rulers). They had brought their own religion with them, the Vedic religion with their own pantheon. But gradually their religion and that of the conquered peoples merged, fused, and eventually became known as Hinduism.

The Brahman priests took over many of the aboriginal beliefs and practices, especially the ascetic practices (yoga) and mystical metaphysics.

Worshipping the liñga

As the aboriginal deity Shiva entered the Vedic-Hindu pantheon, he was accepted on condition that he sever his phallus, that subsequently in a very abstract form could be worshipped as the stone Shiva-liñga. Ever since that time the Brahman priests and theologians have been at pains to further separate the liñga from the original phallus  to the point where it has become the abstract notion of a linguistic ‘sign’.

Mathura, Kankali Tila,
free-standing liñga.
Pre-Kushana phase 2, ca. 1st cent. BC.
For the Brahmans, from a certain point in history on, contact with another human being has always been regarded as defiling, let alone contact with a being from an inferior class. Also sexual union, even with their own wife, was (and still is) regarded as extremely polluting, and would necessitate many purificatory rituals and practices. For them, the sexual organs themselves are of course filthy and disgusting.

This notion (and the prudery it involved) was subsequently reinforced by the Moguls and the British, both — Muslims and Christians — members of evangelistic religions and very prude nations themselves.

Subjugating the phallus

Gradually this puritanical belief invaded the world of sadhus and yogis, where at least some were seriously affected by it, though the majority still held on to the original notion from ‘before the fall’.

So we see, for instance, that ‘n‰kedness’ which was originally required of all sadhu sects, gradually begins to disappear, until nowadays only the Nagas are n‰ked, and that only or mostly on special occasions.
The yogic idea of building up and preserving se+ual energy by austerities, to be utilized as spiritual energy, is still adhered to, but the means of preservation have greatly changed.

Instead of employing mental methods for channeling this ‘friendly’ se+ual energy, se+ has become the enemy who has to be conquered and the organ that causes these disturbing feelings has to punished — and the females, who are behind it all, have to be avoided.

liñga So it came about — let’s say in about the 17th century — that on the one hand we find ascetics’ phallus being kissed, and on the other hand ascetics who chain their phallus to heavy metal chains, sometimes even to the ground. As it was observed by Abbé Dubois:
[pp. 519-520] There are penitents professing the principles of moksha-sadhaka even at the present day. Some of them go about quite n‰ked, the object of this indecent practice being to convince the admiring public that they are no longer susceptible to the temptations of lust. There is also a class of religious mendicants, called Bairagis, to be met with everywhere, who show themselves in public in a state of nature.
[footnote: This would now be punishable by law.—Ed.]
The people evince the greatest admiration for these unclothed devotees, and express the utmost wonder as to how they succeed in controlling a passion which is generally regarded as beyond control. Some say that the Bairagis owe this impotence to extreme sobriety in eating and drinking, while others assert that it is the result of the use of certain drugs. As to their alleged sobriety it is a mere fable. Generally speaking, they eat all kinds of meat and drink all kinds of intoxicating liquors without any shame, the practice of moksha-sadhaka and their status as Sannyasi acquitting them of all blame in this respect.
[footnote: This is only true of the lower types of Bairagis.—Ed.]

According to other authorities, the Bairagis attain this condition by purely mechanical means, that is, they attach to their generative organs a heavy weight which they drag about until the power of muscles and nerves is completely destroyed.

Another ‘purely mechanical means’ of achieving this is the wearing of wooden or metal chastity belts (see kathia babas and lohalangaris), which is a rather recent phenomenon, as I’ve been informed, that is, it having started about three hundred years ago. This is still being done, on quite a large scale, but chains have disappeared — apart from some small decorative items on or through the p-.-. which can still be seen today.

Other methods of punishing the phallus and ‘pushing’ the sexual energy into ‘higher channels’ — are the stunts with a stick or sword, that are used to twist the genitals in a most painful fashion (chabi, or ‘key turning’), and the lifting of heavy stones with the phallus (liñgasana). (See below) These exercises also serve demonstrative purposes — to show the sadhus’ power over nature — and to impress the faithful into giving money — and the latter is perhaps the most important motivation.


Going one step further with ‘purely mechanical means’, and actually making erection or sex impossible by 'breaking the phallus, so-called 'tanga-tora', is a rather mysterious subject.

The most extensive description I found in Gross:
[p. 470] ... tang-tora-diksha, a Naga initiation, performed by the bija-guru, the ‘semen-preceptor’ who ritually ma.turbates the initiate, offering the semen into the sacred fire as a sacrifice. He then jerks hard on the phallus  first to the left and then to the right, breaking muscles, blood vessels and nerves required for an erection. Some say that a knife is used to sever these tissues. The phallus becomes permanently limp. Then they stretch and lengthen the phallus, sometimes by hanging heavy rocks at the end of it, and wrap it around a pole. Putting a ring through the p-.-. and chaining it to the ground.
It is also mentioned by Ghurye:
[p. 94] In the second stage the ascetic is called a Tangatoda. The term carries a significance which has something to do with castration. Repeated inquiries for elucidation met only with shy reactions.
But as far as I've been able to ascertain, I really doubt if it ever took place. As Ghurye observed, sadhus either don't want to talk about it, or they start laughing, and pretend it's really a big affair. But since they hardly know anything about anatomy, they portray it as 'breaking a bone', and this makes it even harder to believe. I've never met a sadhu who had it done to him, or at any rate, confessed it had been done to him.

I also asked quite a few sadhus, and to demonstrate the confusion even among sadhus, I quote Shambhu Bharati, a Naga baba I met in Uttarkashi, who maintains that tanga-tora only occurs amongst the Udasin!
But according to another Naga, Vijendra Puri, who lived in Uttarkashi but now has gone to Kailash, it is typical for Nagas. He demonstrated the breaking of the phallus. by twisting his index-finger. This baba also performed the chabi (key), twisting his really long phallus. around a stick, and he was an ex-one-arm-baba, so if it was still happening in recent history he would have been the ideal candidate for tanga-tora. But he wasn't.

The ultimate punishment, of course, would be castration or dismemberment, but this is certainly not being done by Indian ascetics, since — as they'd all recognize — it would destroy one of the most important chakras (energy-centres) of the body. There have been some Christian sects, however, who made this a regular practice.

Liñgasana and chabi


Strangely enough, lifting weights with the phallus does not have a special name, but is generally designated as a kriya (yogic exercise). Lal Baba (left) uses the term liñgasana (p-.-.-posture), which he probably coined himself.

Lal Baba keeps a special triangular stone for his liñgasana on which is painted "30 kilos". He has developed this exercise into a regular show and even advertises himself as "liñgasana Naga Baba" on painted boards (in the background). He is a small man so he has to stand on two bricks to lift the stone a few centimetres off the ground. But still, no mean feat: thirty kilos must be more than half his own weight.

In a sense it is reminiscent of the now historic kara-lingi, the ball-and-chain with which the phallus. was continuously weighed down.

Lifting weights with the phallus as done here by Shyam Puri , is in essence the same exercise as the chabi. It is a 'miracle' that the phallus is not torn off. The scene recalls the chains used in the past to weigh down the phallus. continuously, but this exercise is now only occasionally done, and then for a minute or so. Just long enough to show the sadhu's power, his transcendence of sexuality.

With a certain degree of 'exhibitionism' these Babas are displaying their various phallus.-penances. But then, they are here to give darshan, to show themselves and the visible signs of their austerities to the faithful; and the erotic element is lacking of course.

In their n‰kedness they do not emanate sexuality. On the contrary, they control, inhibit the sexual 'vibrations', retaining its energy so it can be mystically transformed into psychic and spiritual power.


If these acrobatics, performed here by , seem at first glance to be devoid of any spiritual meaning, it must be recognized that in Hinduism all levels of religion — from gross materialism to sublime spirituality — can be experienced and expressed simultaneously.


The baba on the left wears a metal ring around his phallus, an ornamental remnant of the large chains some ascetics used to wear some time ago. The baba on the rightperforms a yogic exercise which goes by the name ofchabi, meaning 'key'. The aim of this exercise is not just retention of the sexual energy, but forcing it back, and 'up'. Put in simplistic yoga 'mechanics': keeping the phallus down so thekundalini may rise.

Mahant Rameshwar Giri

Urdhvabahu or 'raised arm' baba's

Guided by an accomplished Guru, ek-bahu babas gradually force the arm up and at first may support it with a crutch.

This mortification can be executed in various degrees of excellence: the straighter the arm and the closer to the head, the better. Obviously, it is quite a handicap, the more so since everything has to be done with the left hand, the ‘dirty’ hand.

Bhola Giri Amar Barati
has been an ek-bahu baba for over thirty years now. And he has decided never to bring his arm down, as is usually done after a period of twelve years.

Vasant Giri 

 has been anek bahu --“one-arm”-- baba for twelve years. Soon he may bring his arm down.


Formerly, as is shown in this detail of Picart's 17th cent. engraving (right), it was done with two arms, rendering the baba's totally helpless, so they had to be fed by their women devotees.The tapasya of keeping the right arm up -- for twelve years or more -- may lead to permanent physical damage.

The muscles atrophy, the bones calcify, and the arm withers away, it becomes a useless stick. Ascetics who practise this tapasya are called urdhva-bahu babas (‘vertical-arm babas’) orek-bahu babas (‘one-arm’ babas). This tapasya has to be completed by bringing the arm down. If this is not done properly, it may result in insanity, or death.

Onve upon a time the ek-bahu babas were quite numerous, but nowadays, as far as I know, it is being practised by only these three sadhus shown here.On this monolithic 7th cent. relief in Mahabalipuram, called "Arjuna's Penance", we see the tapasya of urdhvabahu combined with khareshwari (top left and bottom left).

In the lower right corner, we can also see a cat and a rat performing the same tapasya.


Being n‰ked all the time (which is seldom practised nowadays), wearing ashes and jata are considered mild forms of tapas. As a typical feature of ascetics jata is already mentioned in the ancient Vedas, as in the 'Hymn of the longhaired sage'.

Nakedness, ashes and jata (long hair)

Shyam Giri and Ram Giri, two Naga babas of the Juna Akhara. Their naked bodies are rubbed with ash from the holy fire.

The sacredness of jata is exemplified by Shiva's powerful hair, with which he captures and controls the river Ganges, whose torrential descent from the heavens would otherwise have deluged the world. His jata are the foliage and the roots of the Himalayan trees. The tangled roots hanging down from the branches of the sacred Banyan tree are also called jata; it is his tree, with his jata. For most of the time, jata is worn in a twisted knot or bundle on top of the head.

Ram Sharan Puri

It is 'opened' for special moments and rituals, like performing puja or taking a bath. Jata is treated with reverence: the strands are rubbed with ashes and cowdung, both sacred and purifying; it is scented and adorned with flowers. Formerly Ramanadis also had their digambar (n‰ked) section, but nowadays it is only the Shaiva Nagas who practise ascetic nudity. But Ramandis do wear ashes and jata. As do Nath babas and Udasin.

Smoking hashish

Many sadhus smoke hash or grass as an everyday ritual. In their ascetic way of life as well as in their use of hash they follow god Shiva. They worship Shiva as the Lord of Yogis and as the hash smoking god, the Lord of Hash, forever intoxicated, forever High.

In fact, for many sadhus their main 'self-mortification' seems to be the smoking of hashish.

In all sadhu-sects smokers are to be found - and nonsmokers. Some sadhus even condemn smoking as a bad habit of the lower castes, and as counterproductive.

Although nowadays hash is illegal in India, the smoking by sadhus - as an age-old tradition - is still tolerated.
But once more, in India too the times they are 'a changing. And nowadays babas sometimes get arrested for possession of hash.

Hari Giri

Hari Giri, a Naga baba, covered in ash, is smoking a chilam filled with hashish and tobacco.


An ancient tapasya, bur rarely performed nowadays, is samadhi, usually meaning enlightenment, but in this case referring to a state of suspended animation, a virtual death which may last for a period of days or weeks, during which the spirit leaves the body and travels on the astral plane. The body stays behind, under the ground – in a ‘grave’– or in a casket under water.

I made this photo in 1980. It was in fact the first picture I took of a sadhu, though only his hand sticking out of the sand is visible. The hand was slowly moving the mala through its fingers. No way could be seen that this person buried in the sand could breath.

The sitting boy is keeping watch over the donations. Combined with other 'miraculous' events that day (a partial solar eclipse), it would eventually impel me to start my "camera yoga."

 Mata Keiko Aikawa
A Japanese female sadhu, Mata Keiko Aikawa, is about to descend the ladder into her 'grave', where she would stay, under the ground for five days (at the Kumbha Mela in Ujjain in 1992).
On the right is her Guru, Pilot Baba, who has performed this 'miracle' twenty-seven times.

More recently Pilot Baba stayed under water – without casket – for four days. Reported in the Times of India, 9 November 1992, he said: ‘I have mastered the way to survive in conditions akin to that in the womb.’ It is also reported that the Indian Rationalist Association accused him of fraud. At the Allahabad Kumbha in 2001 Mela Mata Keiko Aikawa also stayed underground for five days.

The body stays in an airtight chamber under the ground -- a ‘grave’ -- but quite dissimilar from the sarcophagus depicted by Picart

Another type of samadhi: death of a sadhu.
Sadhus are not cremated as the common Hindus are, but either buried sitting in padmasana, or tied to a chair, loaded with a stone and thrown into a holy river, like the Ganges, shown here.

Usually then they are seen no more, eaten by the creatures in the water, but this unfortunate baba was washed to a shallow part of the river. Of a dead Shaiva sadhu it is said: "He has gone to Kailas."Vaishnavas go to Vaikunth. All supposedly are in samadhi.


Austerities by Vaishnavas

The Vaishnavas and Shaivas have their own sect-specific preferences for various types of austerities, although there are austerities that are done by both.

Hatha Yoga

Though one might expect the Yogis (or Gorakhnathis) to be the experts in hatha yoga, since their founder Gorakhnath is credited with the 'invention' of hatha yoga (though it is much older, see below), but nowadays anyway it is mostly Ramandis who practise it, as far as I have been able to ascertain. In fact, there are very few sadhus wo practise hatha yoga, except maybe early in their career.

Standing the world on its head, this baba practices yoga everyday, concluding his panch agni tapasya. 
This posture is emblematic for the life of a sadhu, for by 'reversing all values', by acting contrary to human nature, they intend to speed up enlightenment.  Thisbaba also wears a rope arbandh. 

The basic treatise on hatha yoga is the Yoga-sutras of Patanjali, which is dated between two hundred BC and three hundred AD. He was not the inventor of the method, but he systematized earlier doctrinal and technical traditions. The techniques of hatha yoga may have been discovered by the ancient shamans and medicine-men in the pre-historic times of the ‘Horned God’. 

In the course of many centuries, these techniques were further developed and to a certain extent spiritualized by Tantrics who, besides their occult rituals, did breath and body exercises to acquire supernatural powers, which were then the main desired effects. In hatha yoga practice, the body, the breath and the mind are viewed as a functional whole, in which the action of one affects the others.

Restraint of the body through the practice of various postures lowers the rate of respiration; control of the breath diminishes the ‘waves’ of the mind, eventually leading to a state of pure, undisturbed consciousness.
Although all yoga exercises have to be practiced in combination, the body, being the gross vehicle for the other functions and easiest to manipulate, is the primary object of attention.


Another aspect of breathing, necessitating its exercise and control, is prana. This is the ‘life-force’, the ‘vital air’, which is not the air itself but an imperceptible -- to the gross senses -- part of it. Prana enters the body with the breath, and circulates through a likewise imperceptible network of subtle 
energy channels, the nadis.

Ramatma Das
The intake of prana can be augmented by breathing exercises, that is pranayama, and it can be directed to various parts of the body by yogic postures and mental concentration.

Ramnath Giri in padmasana 


The various postures, known as asanas, cleanse the nadis and stimulate the flow of prana, and they lead to a perfectpadmasana, or lotus-posture, which can be maintained for a long time without discomfort.  The padmasana is the basic posture for all mental exercises and meditation, since it aligns the nadis, ‘centres’ the body, and renders it immobile. Phalahari, dudhadhari, fasting With the exception of the Aghoris, all sadhus are vegetarian.

But there are quite a few babas, especially amongst Ramanandis who are known as phalaharis. They eat only fruit, 'wild' rice and a few other 'jungle' vegetables.

And there are a few, all Ramanandi, who restrict their diet even further and live on only milk, the dudhadharis.
Milk is more than just physical nourishment; as one of the five products of the sacred cow it is a spiritualizing substance. All sadhus fast on ekadashi, the eleventh day after every full and new moon, when vegetarians eat phalahari food, phalaharis drink only milk, and dudhadharis drink only water. Furthermore, some follow a jungle-diet, eating only uncultivated foodstuff, or a mono-diet.

Some sadhus maintain that it would even be possible to live on only water, and that is was done in the old days, or more incredibly still, to live only on air. This rumour even reached Europe in the 14th century, in theLivre des Merveilles, that had it that there were people in India who 'lived on air' or the 'smell of flowers'.

Narayana Das
Narayana Das, the saintly head of a large ashram, is a renowned ‘milk-drinker’. For over forty years, his only food has consisted of two glasses of milk per day.

Kathia baba's and lohalangari baba's

Celibacy is no doubt the most important austerity practised by sadhus. According to Yoga-metaphysics, se+ual energy, the fire of passion, is the main potential source of spiritual energy.

But as an aid to mental control of se+uality, physical restraint must sometimes be employed and one method is the continuous wearing of 'chastity belts'.

It is a rather 'recent' austerity, not more than 300 years old, and it is only done by Vaishnavas of the Nimbarki Sampradaya. This austerity, like most, is usually undertaken for a minimum of twelve years.

A dhoti usually, modestly, covers this wooden underwear, but as these Baba's are about to take a bath, they have a valid reason for taking it off.

Jaganath Das 
He has worn the belt for thirteen years and has vowed to remain doing so for life.

Kathia baba This wooden arbandh ( with its woodenlangoti attached, may quite rightly be called a 'chastity-belt'; only this one is self-imposed.

Lohalangari baba 

Kailas Das has worn this steel chastity-belt for fifty years.He is also known as Mauni Baba, for he did not speak for twelve years. The langoti can be unhooked for cleaning, but the arbandh of course stays on all the time.

Panch agni, or 'five-fire-austerity'

Shrisitaleshvaradeva Temple, Naresar, MP.

In this seventh-century relief, Parvati is depicted surrounded by the fires of the four directions, staring at the sun (panchagni tapas).

Only sadhus belonging to the Ramanandi sect perform the five-fire-austerity, panch agni tapas, as it is called or, more commonly, dhuni tap.As one of the oldest forms of ascetic penance panch agni tapas is mentioned in ancient Hindu mythology. Originally it involved surrounding oneself with four fires, sitting in the bright and hot midday sun which would be the fifth fire.

Nowadays is executed with varying numbers of fires, starting with five, and progressively increasing in number in the course of eighteen years, until the fires form a circle and the tapasvi carries a pot with fire on the head.

I must remark here that dhuni tap is executed in various degrees of seriousness and corresponding length of time per session. Some babas go through the motions and are finished in 15 minutes, others take 45 minutes to an hour.

There is some ostentatiousness involved too (as with most extreme austerities), for dhuni tap is usually done by the roadside, where pilgrims will certainly notice it. Awed, the pilgrims might be more willing to part with some donation. Dhuni tap confers status in the sadhu community.

At the Ujjain Kumbha Mela of 1992, I noticed offerings of dung-cakes to dhuni tap babas just as it is portrayed on the 1729 engraving published in Tavernier.


An integral part of the exercise is the ritual offering of foodstuffs to the smouldering heaps of cowdung, the holy fire, under the acompaniment of muttering mantras.

In this ascetic ritual the sadhu symbolically sacrifices himself to the fire, he has become the offering.
Having made offerings to his fires, the baba blows the shankh, or conch-shell, to invoke the deity. It is the musical instrument with which Vishnu produces the primordial sound of Creation, and it is only used by Vaishnavas. This concludes the preliminary rituals, and now the Baba can sit in meditation.

Panch-agni-tapasya must be done for eighteen consecutive years, going through various stages.
The first stage involves surrounding oneself with five fires.

During the next stages there are seven, twelve, and eighty-four fires, culminating in ‘innumerable’, i.e. a circle of fires, and in the final stage a pot with fire is balanced on the head. Each stage is performed for three consecutive summers. Each session of the fire-austerity is usually concluded with the performance of some hatha-yoga exercises.

Panch-agni is quite popular nowadays.

Preparing for his fire-austerity, a baba purifies the place with fresh cow-dung, arranges the heaps of fuel and the ritual paraphernalia, and takes a bath. Many babas smoke a chilam or two, to get in the right mood.
Then they sanctify their body by applying tilak. 

When a group of ascetics is assembled, as for instance at a festival, they will perform dhuni-tap at the same spot, but each will do it more or less in his own time. Since the meditation and the repetition of the Lord’s name is a private affair, the Babas may cover the head with a cloth. It serves an even more practical purpose as well, for often the cloth is made wet, and so offers some insulation against the intense heat. 

Performing a hatha yoga posture, 
the headstand, after the 'five-fire-austerity'.
Mahamandaleshwar Madhvacharge
The final stage of the fire-austerity is calledkapar-dhuni, that is the fire (dhuni) in the bowl (kapal) on the skull (kapal). The circle of ‘innumerable’ fires around the Baba is never completely closed, so the spirit may enter. Besides, a full circle would presume perfection, which only the Lord may claim.

Khareshwari, or 'standing baba'

A ‘standing’ Baba, who is called khareshwari, has taken the vow not to sit or lie down for twelve years. He may rest one leg by hanging it in the sling under his swing. It is a painful austerity: the swollen legs and feet tend to develop persistent ulcers. Khareshwaris may walk about, but usually just hang in their swing in their corner -- and stand.

Detail from Picart's 17th cent. engraving.

He sleeps standing too, hanging over this swing. A metal chastity belt covers his genitals. Some, at a mela for instance, may turn this austerity into quite a performance. The lay pilgrims are always much awed by khareshwaris and consequently very generous with their donations, in money or in kind.

Bajrang Das, 
a 'standing' baba, who never sits down, day and night.

A tree is the traditional place for the austerity of standing, not only because the swing can be attached to one of the branches, but also because of the baba’s identification with a tree, for it is also termed vrik-asana (orvrikshasana), meaning ‘tree-posture’. And indeed, the khareshwari starts resembling a tree, his swollen feet look like roots, with a firm grip on the ground.

The austerity of ‘standing’ is performed by Ramanandis, Nagas, Naths and Udasin.


Parikrama means circumambulating, clockwise around a sacred object or space, for instance a deity in a temple, a temple or a mountain. This a normal practice for every Hindu as a means of communing with the sacred. But it may be turned into a real austerity and then it goes by the name of dandavat parikrama, meaning ‘circumambulation like-a-stick’.

The pilgrim (or baba) stretches out on the ground, places a stone (or something) in front of him, stands up, makes a few paces to the stone, stretches out again, etc. This would be the ‘fast’ method, and as such is also performed by lay pilgrims.


But sadhus, as Rama Kishan Das portrayed here, usually stand up and stretch out on one spot 108 times, simultaneously reciting mantras. And then he will move one body-length. At the end of the day, when he has progressed some twenty body-lengths, the baba will mark the spot and continue the next day.
This way it will take him two years to go around the holy mountain.