Close Encounters With Men Of God

by Ramesh Mahadevan
The very first time I encountered a Sadhu in my life was when I was almost finishing up high school. One day, as I got back from school and carelessly tossed my schoolbag and was biting into some junk food, demanding my evening 'chai', my mother turned into a motherly, aggressive, non-sequitur mood.

"You are always procrastinating. Take your horoscope this instant and show it to Swamiji. Consult him on your higher education and make sure you pay attention to whatever he says" She urged me. "We are very fortunate that Swamiji has condescended to stay in Madras for an extra week. Remember to first fall at his feet and get his blessings. And drink your tea before you go."

The Swamiji was an urban godman, who one day renounced his job and worldly connections. He happened to be camping at some rich guy's place. The place was overflowing with devotees. I was the only kid in the crowd, clutching a sheet of paper with unintelligible tic-tac-toes, my horoscope, my passport to a vague future. The Swamiji was doing his evening pooja. The devotees were singing bhajans in a chorus, reaching a crescendo every five minutes. There was a mesmerizing stupor in the atmosphere. Finally, the pooja was over, the arti was taken, devotees finished mobbing the Swamiji and I got my chance. The Swamiji spoke very little. He examined my horoscope and told an anxious me, " Take Mechanical Engineering. And according to your horoscope, you won't study past age twenty two."

ASIDE: I don't know how horoscope-makers function these days rife with modern concepts of childbirthing. A friend of mine told me last weekend that she was expecting a baby boy named Anand on March 20 th ! Almost like planning a vacation. Even in India, I was told that many doctors accelerate labor and childbirths so that children are not born on unholy days. In a few years, everyone will have a great horoscope. As for me, the Swamiji's words didn't come true. I never became a Mechanical Engineer. In fact, I barely survived my mechanical courses. I was even summarily banished from the mechanical workshop for wearing such un-engineering footwear as rubber slippers. Reluctantly I bought a pair of shoes, which served me for several faithful years after that semester - as ashtrays. And yes, I 'stopped studying' a few years into college, although I was in college for years and years.

The summer between high school and college was interminably long. Egged on by some really inspirational lectures by people like Chinmayananda and Mahesh Yogi, I tried to read some Hindu scriptures. But I understood nothing. I tried to search for my soul by first trying to figure out what a soul is. I made a trip to the Aurobindo Ashram, where I hobnobbed with a thousand other soul searchers. A kind gentleman made me squat beside Sri Aurobindo's samadhi and taught me to meditate. "Meditation is quite different from daydreaming" He told me. "And don't fall asleep !" I even felt mildly spiritual. That was also my first sojourn at an ashram and I caught a glimpse of the religious subculture. On the fourth day, my father's friend caught me and sent me home.

A Brahmin's Valentine's day poem
My Love, Roses are red
Violets are blue
Only three strands in my Thread
Make it six, will you ?

I have walked over four hundred kilometers in U. P Himalayas. It is little wonder why I love U. P and feel I am half an Uttar Pradeshi. Rishikesh is one of the most beautiful towns I have been to. (There used to be even a dhabha run entirely by women !) It is declared a 'holy city' and I think meat is prohibited in the holy quarters even now. The government gives land at subsidized rates to Ashrams and the entire river bank is awash with Ashrams. The multi-storied ones, the centuries-old establishments and the modern, airconditioned Mahesh Yogi huts etc.

Despite the serene religious undercurrents, the ashram world is a very competitive one. Patrons have to be attracted. Almost all of them provide simple, but wholesome food for free for the pilgrims and offer a variety of religious services. Mostly the services are devotional and only occassionally did we encounter discussions on controversial topics.

Initially we were falling at the feet of any man in a saffron robe. Then we figured we were falling at feet too often. We quickly realized that even the Sadhus have their own hierarchy and power structure, even though they were still a mysterious social group to us. We had to invent thumbrules to deal with them. For example, the ones with 'chelas' (disciples) were higher in the pecking order than the singletons. The Sadhu who supervised the dining was more influential than the one who was checking how clean we washed our dishes. Some of the South Indian Sadhus were in contradistinction to the North Indian Sadhus and so forth. We perceived enough local politics.

But, by and large they were simply wonderful people. Yes, not all of them oozed spirituality. But they were all embodiments of religion and seemed to have a tremendous job satisfaction. (including the 'foreign born' ones) They were all over the hiking route. They would ask us for cigarettes, money and give us milk or prasad in return. One of them made us take a dip in the bitter cold of Gaumukh (the origin of Ganga) and lent his only worldly possession, another saffron robe for us to dry. (He was even walking barefooted in the snow) Any ashram we went to made us feel absolutely welcome and be a part of their group for that period. (By the way, the same can be said of all the Gurudwaras we stayed in) You can pick up some very interesting religious discussions with some very scholarly holy men, two miles above sea level.

Some others were simply mendicant, and for them, being Sadhus is just a way of life, like being a graduate student. Like in any social group, some were unfriendly, one of them even stole some money from us. When we respectfully admired one of them and told him that even death won't matter to men like him, he got very angry and rattled off a spate of sanskrit slokas. "Even we love our lives" he told us emphatically "You watch your words, young man. Nothing is more dangerous than a Sadhu's cursewords."

One of the most unforgettable episodes of my UP stay was my going to the MahaKumbh. Allahabad was spic and span. The state government had done a superb job of organizing the event and preventing deadly stampedes. There were millions of Sadhus of all denominations. The nude ones, the conventional ones, the ones who had sharp needles piercing their bodies, the ones who had intentionally disfigured their genitalia and some meditating in weird postures amidst the crowd. Almost all of them were quite dirty (obviously cleanliness is only next to godliness) and it was quite intimidating.

Alongside the river, there was a market of 'Sadhu' oriented merchandise. Becoming a Sadhu isn't very cheap. A decent saffron robe will cost you a few hundred rupees. Throw in a hundred rupees for a kamandal and slippers. If you are an expert, you can spot a genuine 'rudraksh' from a fake one and pay through your nose for it. Once your 'habit' is complete, all you have to do next is watch your beard grow.

Several ashrams put up temporary stalls along the river bank and were having 'open house's, offering food and prayer for their patrons. The loudspeakers were blasting the bhajans, competing with each other and confusing an already frenzied crore of people.

At the auspicious moment, millions of us jumped into the river and took a holy dip at the Sangam. I remember an unkind friend commenting "Yaar, there is an easy way to reduce India's population. Just open the floodgates of all the dams at the exact moment and a crore people will be wiped out - in fact, they might even think that God destined it that way".

After the dip, I felt sanitized and even light, to have shed a lifelong accumulation of sins. Barely had I gotten out of the water, I was already committing a brand new sin. An old lady next to me was warning me "Can't you see, women are bathing here. Get the hell out of this zone, son."

After I was bored with my superficial forays into the practice of Hinduism, I even tried to figure out some other religions in the same superficial manner. I have visited numerous Gurudwaras and many, many churches (including tamil churches and some very Westernized churches in India), attended Bible studies and talked about 'Waahe Guru'. Despite everyone's best efforts in all religions, I am still an infidel, no matter how you measure it.

EPILOG Just about a week ago, one sunday morning, three cars stopped right in front of my apartment. Some very well dressed men and women got out of them, cheery faced and with children. In a jiffy, there was a knock on my door and there was this gentleman with his six year or so old son, holding a Bible. He said a very friendly hello.

"I see that I am disturbing you - ah, I see that you have even 'No soliciting' sign on your door. However, would you be interested in God's gospels today ?"

"Sir, thanks for stopping by, but I really do not believe in any religion. I am beyond hope. Have a good day."

"Is that so, that is interesting. Maybe you haven't given it much thought. Do you then practice any Eastern religion ?"

"No, I don't discriminate. I practice nothing. I am just a nonbeliever. Would you please excuse me."

"See, maybe your parents practiced a religion that put you off so much, and maybe you ought to look at the whole thing in a different light."

"Sir, I am not interested" I told them one last time.

"But you may want to browse through some literature we have ..."

It was a war of wills ! I had to act fast. I said, "Say, I am having a religious sacrifice this evening. Would you mind lending your little son for the ritual ?"

They left in a hurry.