Indian sadhus are wandering ascetics who have renounced to worldly life to work towards liberation. I think at least 95% of them 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 I 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. The first time I saw a sadhu I felt like I was an adventurer in an Indiana Jones movie…

Indian sadhus : Real or fake?

Kisigiri, sadhu in Orccha (2005 - photo by Nicolas Claisse)

Kisigiri, sadhu in Orccha (2005 – photo by Nicolas Claisse)

Today I think perhaps a good way to tell whether a baba (sadhu) is ‘real’ or not is to look at the people he is surrounded with. If he hangs around with foreigners, I rarely trust him. Many foreigners know little to nothing about their philosophy, so of course they can easily impress them. Most Indians just don’t care about ‘fake’ sadhus. If, however, the baba is surrounded by Indians, there is a great chance that he may be a wise man, whom they come to see for comfort and advice. Thinking back, I believe the first sadhu I ever met was a ‘real’ one, which is quite amazing. It was on my first trip in India, his name was Kisigiri and I met him in a palace in Orchha. My friend and I had spent a whole afternoon in his delicious company. He was a stunningly beautiful man and his beard was an impressive one-meter long dreadlock. And he was surrounded by Indians. I didn’t understand Hindi at the time, but a small group of Indian men and women had come to him and were asking him questions to which he would answer lengthily. I can’t remember what we actually managed to communicate to one another except his trying to teach me a few words of Hindi and our constant smiling and laughing. He simply liked our company without asking for anything, and we loved being with him too. In the evening he took us out of the palace to see a temple and sit with him for a chanting gathering, and on our way Indians were coming after him to touch his feet.

Wandering & sedentary sadhus

Indian sadhus : sadhu in Varanasi; 2010

Indian sadhus : sadhu in Varanasi; 2010

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. Kishan’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. Most of all, his eyes shine and he speaks only a little.

Through the narrow lanes of Banaras : a chai & a saint

Varanasi 'gali' (lane)

Varanasi ‘gali’ (lane)

Yesterday evening I met another saint. I had gone out to a concert with my friend Lila, 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 crossings 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 directions with passers-by every few meters. Once we reached the temple, we parked our bicycles and got in. A tabla solo was going on far too loud, so we decided to go for a chai.

Chai-making in Banaras

Chai-making in Banaras

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,” he exclaimed. 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 sceptical 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.

A mysterious atmosphere & insight into spiritual Hindi

Sadhu in Varanasi, 2008

Sadhu in Varanasi, 2008

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, and 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 before. 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 to say was that the saint was a fully-realised man, and resuscitation is precisely that: life after liberation, self-realisation!

Indian sadhus : Meeting the saint

Sadhu in Vashisht (Himachal Pradesh) 2005

Sadhu in Vashisht (Himachal Pradesh) 2005

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; both Lila and I couldn’t stop smiling. Soon the saint offered us some laddus (sweets), and he ordered some more chai. We said we’d just had 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 Lila 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 just 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. Lila 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.

Lila’s guru Pt. Devashish Dey 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.

Indian sadhus: Why India is incredible ♥

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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 and the growing Westernised modernity that is endangering the stunning beauty of its ancient traditional heritage, India still holds some of its timeless, immortal gems. They are not easy to get to, but if you diligently learn and dig through all the crap with patience, faith and unconditional love, India will lead you all the way to them – like to such pure moments in the presence of a saint…

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