Many of India’s famous holy men have renounced nine-to-five society, but the Sadhus also offer surprising wisdom for the office.
In September the largest gathering of humanity in the world congregated for the Kumbh Mela festival in India, where around 100 million pilgrims gathered to bathe in the holy Godavari river.
One of the biggest attractions at the Kumbh Mela are the Sadhus, wandering holy men with painted faces, ash-smeared bodies and dreadlocks stacked atop their heads like piles of rope. It is understandable why they are top of the bill, whether clad in their bright orange robes, just a loin cloth or completely naked, smoking copious quantities of hash or even pulling cars with their penises – Sadhus make good viewing.
But although you wouldn’t think it from the Kumbh Mela, there is more to being a Sadhu than just being gawped at. These holy men have renounced all ties with society and left their friends and family to pursue an ascetic life of yoga, celibacy and devotion to finding moksa or liberation. Living in retreats or wandering the country surviving off alms, Sadhus do not own any possessions except the clothes they’re standing in and perhaps a begging bowl.
“It’s not about changing clothes or being naked. You can be right in the centre of it all. You can do your duty and still be a Sadhu if you are mentally and emotionally unattached with everything around.”
Despite the rigorous nature of the life there are thought to be several million Sadhus in India. They are highly respected by the people and allowed free passage on the subcontinent’s vast railway network. The most extreme Sadhus, and the ones that draw the crowds at the Kumbh Mela Festival, are the Naga Babas. These are the men who go around naked and practice extreme physical hardships such as holding one arm in the air for years on end, sleeping standing up and doing weird feats of strength with their penises. Nagas have been known to bury themselves neck-deep in sand, pierce their tongues with spikes, stare at the sun or meditate suspended from ropes – acts of penance which are thought to alleviate their bad karma and that of others. According to the Guinness Book of Records one Naga, Mastram Bapu, stayed in the same spot by a road for 22 years, and the famous ‘rolling baba’, Mohan Das, rolled 1,300 kilometres in 2004 to promote peace between India and Pakistan.
However, not everyone sees the life of a Sadhu as being so extreme. Some, like Pujyashree Bhupendrabhai Pandya, a famous Indian guru and holy man in his own right, believe that being a Sadhu needn’t involve renunciation, asceticism or extreme practices. “In Sanskrit Sadhu literally means ‘straightforward’, a simple person,” says Pandya over the very non-ascetic medium of a Skype call to his mobile phone in Mumbai. “Unfortunately nowadays people associate Sadhus with the ones who have left the world and are just wearing orange clothes, but actually it is not that.”
Sadhus in suits
According to Pandya, Sadhu isn’t even the correct name for the people who renounce society, who are more properly called Sanyasi, and he dismisses the extreme feats of the Naga Babas as “gimmicks”. For Pandya being a Sadhu is not about renunciation but about accepting life in all its totality. So much so, in fact, that he believes a Sadhu can have a nine-to-five job. “You can do it in the west,” says Pandya, “because it’s not running away from life. It’s not about changing clothes or being naked.You can be right in the centre of it all.You can do your duty and still be a Sadhu if you are mentally and emotionally unattached with everything around.”
Such a Sadhu-in-a-suit is Dhruv Chhatralia, a 30-year-old mergers and acquisitions lawyer for London legal firm, Squire Patton Boggs. “It doesn’t have to be about wearing certain clothes,” says Chhatralia. “A Sadhu can be a person in a three-piece suit as long as within they’ve purified themselves.” Chhatralia performs all of the rituals of a Sadhu – practising yoga, meditating and studying the Hindu scriptures, whilst balancing it with his office job and family life.
He first discovered spirituality after seeing Pandya on a spiritual TV channel that his parents watched. The experience made him break down in tears but he went back to his normal life, studying for his law exams then travelling around the world before beginning his legal training at a law firm in the City.
One day he remembered his experience of seeing Pandya on TV and decided to look him up. By coincidence the guru was visiting the UK. Chhatralia went to see him and was again blown away. He studied everything he could get his hands on about Hindu spirituality and when Pandya visited again the following year, he asked if he would become his guru.
Now Chhatralia is an accomplished teacher of Hindu spirituality with over 19 books on Hinduism, 200 hours of public speaking and the longest commentary on the Bhagavid Gita in history (3,321 pages) under his belt. Somehow he fits all this in with his own spiritual practice and his nine-to-five job in the City. But for Chhatralia, the spiritual life has helped rather than hindered his working one. “I work better with people,” he says. “I accept things better. It’s improved my relationships. It’s improved how efficiently I perform work. I always leave work with all my emails answered.”
Chhatralia is quite clearly committed to his spiritual path but he doesn’t believe you have to be an ascetic to balance a modern lifestyle with being a Sadhu. Bhupendrabhai Pandya agrees. “Why do people have stress in modern life?” he asks, his voice slightly distorted by its 7,000-mile journey from a phone in India to a laptop in England. “Because they have a lot of expectations, they’re unhappy about things. None of this exists in the life of a Sadhu. As a Sadhu you don’t have any grudges, any expectations so you just go with the flow of existence. A Sadhu is one who has accepted that whatever happens is for good.”
“It is understandable why they are top of the bill, whether clad in their bright orange robes, just a loin cloth or completely naked, smoking copious quantities of hash or even pulling cars with their penises – sadhus make good viewing.”
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Photo Credit: Eric Montfort from flickr