Sadhus: India's Wandering Monks

Writing in 1905 about The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India, John Campbell Oman's observation about "sadhus" (wandering monks) in India is still relevant, a hundred years later. The existence of sadhus, Oman said, were "no recent importation, no modern excrescence, but has been flourishing in India, a veritable indigenous growth, from a time which dates many centuries before the advent of Christ, or even the preaching by Buddha of the eightfold path leading to enlightenment and deliverance . . ." Indeed sadhus have been a fixture of India from time immemorial, and Indian epics as well as the vast storehouse of Indian literature are rife with allusions to the exotic and the mundane aspects of the life of these men. (There was the rare woman "sadhvi," now estimated to be about 10 percent of ascetics.) Oman wrote that these men "command the respect and even the superstitious veneration of the vast multitude of their countrymen, who believe that they are often, if not always, possessed of almost unlimited supernatural power for good or evil."

No other people in the world can boast the number of ascetics in their midst than Indians do, and sadhus, estimated in the millions, wander around the country in all their habilatory or dishabilatory glory without getting more than a second glance from the ordinary Indian. Most Indians are used to the idea of "letting go" in the latter phases of his/her life, because as the great Adi Shankara promised, "through disciplined senses and controlled mind one shall come to experience the indwelling Lord of one's heart." Despite what some disenchanted Indians might think about these disheveled and semi-naked men or their more urbane versions who dole out soothing advice to their metropolitan audiences, India continues to be unmatched in quenching humanity's thirst for understanding what makes life and what troubles us. Not for them the cynical conclusion, "life is a bitch, and then you die," and but for them the lure of India would surely diminish.

Of course, not everyone in India thinks so, and it has become the habit of those who label themselves "progressive" to write mockingly about whom and what Hindus think of as sacred. Thus, taking pot shots at Indian gurus and godmen, sadhus and monks, Manu Joseph, the author of Serious Men, baits the reader saying, ". . . the branding of Indian spirituality is so powerful that the young and the old from the West continue to come here in search of the 'truth,'" and that if indeed anyone so searching came across "truth" to inform him first.

It is a strange challenge because Manu Joseph should know that men and women have traveled to India not just since the Beatles made the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi famous but for millennia past, in search of the exotic, the esoteric, and the enlightening. A story is told of Alexander the Great meeting a naked sadhu who declined all the riches offered by the world conqueror. Recounting this story in 1902 Swami Rama Thirtha told an audience in San Francisco that the enlightened ascetic gave a vision of the cosmic wonder to an emperor who thought he had conquered the world.

Sure, a surfeit of books and DVDs by well-known and little known gurus have turned this wisdom into treacly clichés, especially as some of the modern teachers and gurus try to reach out to the world through their Facebook pages. That is no reason, however, to dismiss those who travel to India in serious search of the truth as mistaken or naïve, and to mock either the naked or the partially clad sadhus as mere camera-fodder for tourists.

We know that Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass, the psychology professor who famously turned Harvard into a LSD lab, was kicked out of Harvard, went to India, and found Neem Karoli Baba. Ram Dass, now venerable, continues to hold his followers enthralled in Hawaii. Of more recent vintage is Baba Rampuri, who went to India in the 1970s and has stayed there (and is now one of my Facebook friends!), becoming part of the Naga Sadhu clan. His book, Autobiography of a Sadhu: A Journey into Mystic India, could very easily be Hollywood material as he recounts his life journey in India and his transformation into a Naga Sadhu.