The Sadhus Devotees of Shiva
Apart from their participation in the Kumbh Mela, Sadhus usually live rather solitary lives, renouncing society and leading a monk-like existence, with basic food provisions and few possessions. Most Sadhus wear distinctly coloured clothes, to set them apart from the civilian population, while a number of Sadhus decline to wear clothes altogether, as they all used to do traditionally. Their distinct clothing, or nakedness, symbolises their renunciation of the mortal world and their dedication to a new spiritual existence. In a similar vein, on becoming a Sadhu, the holy man renounces his old name and receives a new one, indicative of his affiliation. Most often, however, they are referred to by the term Baba, which means, old wise man.
The Sadhus spend their time in devotion to their chosen deity, the most popular of which is Lord Shiva, the Destroyer (Shaivite devotees). Vishnu, the Preserver, or rather his incarnations (Avatars) like Rama or Krishna, are the other most followed deities (Vaishnavite devotees).
Followers of Lord Shiva, as well as of Lord Rama, may adopt Shiva's long dreadlocks. Lord Shiva is the longhaired god, who uses his long matted strands of hair, his powerful jata, to temper the potentially catastrophic force of the river Ganges - the goddess Ganga descending from heaven.
Apart from their differences in clothes, almost all Sadhus have distinctive markings painted on their forehead to demonstrate their allegiance to their sect and chosen deity.
Most Sadhus lead a life of austerity (tapasya) and a number wear heavy wooden and metal chastity belts to highlight their chastity. Some will go to extremes in self-inflicted suffering to speed up their way to enlightenment. The most unbelievable to watch are those who remain standing for twenty-four hours a day for years on end or who hold one arm aloft until all feeling is lost and the muscles atrophy, leaving the Sadhus permanently disabled.
Others believe in easier routes to enlightenment; viewing Shiva as the Lord of Hash, some strive to be permanently intoxicated. This results in a number of rather red-eyed Sadhus spending their days smoking marijuana, which is admittedly a little easier than standing for twelve years, and would explain why smoking Sadhus are in abundance.
Sadhus are at the heart of the Kumbh Mela. Apart from taking a holy dip in the Ganges, the aim of the Hindu pilgrims is to have the Darshan ("vision") of a Sadhu in order to receive their spiritual energy. Believers regard them as holy because of their radical commitment, and the most devout Sadhus are worshipped as Gods on Earth. Followers and disciples hope to gain spiritual merit or perhaps even enlightenment by touching the Sadhus' feet or listening to them - the ones not under vows of silence that is. Sadhus are also thought to transmit spiritual energy through Prasad. Pilgrims offer items such as food and flowers to Sadhus, and the ones not kept or sacrificed are distributed as Prasad, which literally means food from the Gods.
Tens of thousands of Sadhus will gather at the Kumbh Mela where the different Sadhu Akharas (orders) will maintain their own camping areas. In the past there was intense rivalry between the Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects, mostly about the order of precedence in the bathing processions, which sometimes resulted in bloodshed, and even today some of that competitive spirit still lingers.
One of the most obscure and radical sects of the Sadhus are the Aghoris. Though one of the smaller sects, they are noted for their extreme behaviour. The Aghori philosophy is that by acting contrary to all Sadhu and general Hindu taboos they will actually speed up enlightenment.
This includes reversing even the most important of practices such as vegetarianism and abstinence from alcohol.
As followers of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, they express a morbid fascination with death, and many spend their time surrounded by corpses, and drinking from human skulls. It is said that some take their devotion to the even greater extremities of eating excrement and having sexual intercourse with menstruating Although numbers of the sect have dwindled there are still many that carry out these age-old traditions.
One of the most prominent Sadhu sects, the Juna Akhara, consists of the warrior-ascetics or Nagas (the naked). They smear their bodies with holy ash and sport long matted hair, symbolic of their devotion to Lord Shiva, generally known as the God of destruction, but to Sadhus better known as the Lord of Yoga.
The Nagas importance is emphasised at the Mela as they lead the millions of pilgrims in a procession to the sandy banks of the Ganges on the main bathing day.
There is a long history of militant asceticism and the Nagas were recruited and organised into militant armed bands to defend the Hindus against the onslaught of the invading Muslims. Their performances at the Kumbh Mela recall their martial heritage with weapon and wrestling displays.
There are also militant ascetics who follow Vishnu, rather than Shiva, and these are called Bairagis. The regiments of militant Bairagis are similar to the Akhara organisations of the Nagas. Even though all bairagis wear clothing nowadays, some sections are also called Nagas, as they used to be naked in the past.
Though bairagis are well respected, the more important are the Shaivite Akharas, especially the Juna Akhara, this is illustrated by their leading role in the Kumbh processions.
Many Hindus believe that women must be reincarnated as men before they can reach spiritual enlightenment, but nevertheless there are a number of Goddesses, such as Kali, that Sadhus are devoted to. And there are also a number of female Sadhus, Sadhvis. These holy women are as respected as men, and often referred to as Mataji, Revered Mother.
Sadhvis are committed to celibacy and other ascetic practices, and so as not to complicate matters many have their own sub-sects and living quarters. However, some Sadhvis become disciples of the male gurus and perform Sadhanas (hardships that bring one closer to God) such as standing on one leg for an entire year.
The common thread of thought in the religious beliefs of the Indian subcontinent upholds a single Reality (as in absolute monism) and holds in reverence each of the several manifestation of the Ultimate Reality in the forms of Gods. Bhrama, Vishnu and Shiva are revered as the Supreme Trinity of multitude of manifestations of Divinity. It is said that all that is true, all that is good and all that is beautiful is God (Satyam Shivam Sundaram).
Among Sadhus too, Shiva is referred to as 'the good one' or the 'auspicious one'. Shiva - Rudra is considered to be the destroyer of evil and sorrow. Shiva - Shankara is the doer of good. Shiva is 'tri netra' or three eyed, and is 'neela kantha' - blue necked (having consumed poison to save the world from destruction. Shiva - Nataraja is the Divine Cosmic Dancer. Shiva - Ardhanareeswara is both man and woman.
He is both static and dynamic and is both creator and destroyer. He is the oldest and the youngest, he is the eternal youth as well as the infant. He is the source of fertility in all living beings. He has gentle as well as fierce forms. Shiva is the greatest of renouncers as well as the ideal lover. He destroyes evil and protects good. He bestows prosperity on worshipers although he is austere. He is omnipresent and resides in everyone as pure consciousness.
Shiva is inseparable from Shakti - Parvati the daughter of Himavaan - Haimavati. There is no Shiva without Shakti and no Shakti without Shiva, the two are one - or the absolute state of being - consciousness and bliss.
The five mantras that constitute Shiva's body are Sadyojaata, Vaamadeva, Aghora, Tatpurusha and Eesaana. Eesaana is Shiva not visible to the human eye, Sadyojaata is Shiva realized in his basic reality (as in the element earth, in the sense of smell, in the power of procreation and in the mind). The Vishnudharmottara Purana of the 6th century CE assigns a face and an element to each of the above mantras. (Sadyojaata - earth, Vaamadeva - water, Aghora - fire, Tatpurusha - air and Eesaana - space).
The names of the deified faces with their elements are Mahadeva (earth), Bhairava (fire), Nandi (air), Uma (water) and SadaShiva (space). Panchamukha lingams have been seen from the 2nd century onwards. The Trimurthi SadaShiva image of Shiva in the Elephanta Caves near Mumbai is a portrayal in stone, of the five faces of Shiva. The fourth and the fifth heads are not seen in this image here.
The works of sages Vyasa, Vasishta, Patanjali, the poet Kalidasa, the tamil saint poets Nayanmars - Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar, the poet Manikkavachakar, the mystic tamil siddhas, tantric philosophers, the spiritual leader Adi Sankaracharya and others such as Basavanna and Appayya Deekshitar speak of the attributes of Shiva.