©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.
In 1989 an angry ascetic tried to stab me with his trident, symbol of Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction. In 1998 myself and another journalist, Andrew Chilvers, happened upon a man who had held his arm in the air for 23 long years and I put him in the Guinness Book of Records… In 2000 a gentle devotee of Vishnu explained he would not eat or drink anything but milk (unless it was German). After many assignments in over a decade of working in India with a bunch of sometimes cantankerous fakirs…. by 2001, I was worn out….
One morning 21 years ago Thapan Puri arose from his bed in Bihar, India. He raised one foot in the air and from that day to this that foot has never touched the ground again. When he moves from place to place he uses a crutch. He never sits down. He never lies down. He remains standing on his one terrestrial leg leaning on a swing rigged up from a branch of a tree. When he wants to sleep he simply leans more heavily on the swing and lays his head on his forearms. Even on trains or buses he remains standing. On the day he raised his foot from the ground and vowed never to sit he also took a vow of silence and committed himself to never eating solid food again. Harsh as these self-imposed disciplines are, Thapan Puri is not a masochist nor is he insane. His decision to spend his whole life as a silent, hungry, one-legged man was one born of deep conviction that these acts would aid him in his meditations on the human condition. He is a Sadhu.
These naked, ash smeared, warrior priests have been wandering the length and breadth of India for at least five thousand years. Alexander the Great called them the ‘naked philosophers’. Empires have come and gone. India has evolved from a patchwork of warring principalities to a place where Internet, TV satellite dishes and mobile phones dominate the cityscape. But this has always been a country of many worlds. Whilst college kids are at the forefront of software technology in Bangalore and Bombay, in the villages life has remained unchanged for thousands of years. The rice is still threshed by the feet of slow moving oxon. Water is still drawn from a single communal well. Sari clad women still carry the village produce to market on their heads whilst cradling small children with their one free arm. A drive from one Indian city to another is a journey traversing a thousand years of change.
Thapan Puri is part of the unchanged world.
For a man who needs neither food nor clothes, progress is a word without meaning. The only progress he values is in the journey towards ‘moksha’ – a state of absolute bliss free from the fetters of bodily desire or earthly gain. Like all Sadhus, Thapan Puri has declared himself dead in his earthly life and been reborn to a spiritual quest that will free him from the cycle of rebirth and pain. He is looking for a shortcut to paradise. He abstains from sex. He has cut all ties with his family and his former life. He has no possessions; he wears little or no clothing and lives on a diet of mashed lentils and milk. He makes his way from village to village living on the charity of the devout who act as his spiritual cheerleaders. Thapan Puri is not alone in taking the short, sharp shock approach to achieving enlightenment.
Until the early seventies, Amar Bharti was a senior shipping clerk in New Delhi. He had the comfortable trappings of the relatively well off Indian middle class. Married, with three children already grown, Amar Bharti made a decision. He handed in his notice at the office. He tied up all the loose ends of his life. He paid off the higher purchase agreements on his furniture and gave his car to his eldest son. Then he left his house. He left his wife and his children forever. He walked away from everything he had spent his life building with nothing to his name but a bowl, two pieces of orange cloth and a metal trident. Amar Bharti had decided to devote the rest of his life to Shiva.
In time his beard grew long and his hair became matted into thick dreadlocks. Despite the harshness of his existence Amar Bharti felt that his spiritual quest was still weighed down by earthly comforts and pleasure. Three years after leaving his whole life behind, Amar Bharti made a second decision. He decided to raise his arm vertically in the air as if he was a small child begging to answer a call of nature. Once his arm was raised it was never to come down again. That was in 1973. In the UK Slade were topping the charts with ‘Skweeze me Pleeze Me’. The Six Million Dollar Man was the king of TV. In the US America had not yet lost the Vietnam war.
Twenty-seven years on Amar Bharti’s arm is still raised. It is now atrophied and the joints are locked. His nails grow in long curls seemingly in random directions, partially piercing his hand. Amar Bharti will never be able to lower his arm. Not even in death. Bizarre magazine had one burning question to put to this holiest of holy men. “Does it hurt?” An old friend of Bizarre, Amar Bharti shifts slightly on his cushion and adjusts his naked tackle with his free left hand. “It hurt for the first year and a half, but its fine now thanks,” he tells me through a translator. The only other question I can think of is “Why?”
By this time Bharti’s eyes are becoming glazed. Maybe from smoking repeated chillums of potent ganja. Maybe because of our repeated questions. He looks at us as if we are pesky children begging for scraps. We wait for his answer, hoping that a man who has deliberately inflicted such suffering upon himself in the name of enlightenment might be able to put a little deep wisdom our way. The translator paraphrases. “Baba ji says he felt like it.”
Amar Bharti is one of the Naga sect of Sadhus. It is the fearsome Nagas who engage in the most extreme acts of self-mutilation. They are inventively brutal in the suppression of their own physical desires. Centuries ago many would hang heavy weights from the penis in order to conquer the libido. Now it is more likely to be a padlock or a piece of heavy jewelry. One or two, the lingasana babas, still lift rocks weighing very nearly as much as they do.
Tapeshwar Saraswati gives Bizarre Magazine a demonstration. Semi squatting he loops a piece of cloth around his penis and loops the other end around a rock that I can hardly lift with my hands, let alone my tackle. Then, using his groin muscles and intense concentration he rises to his full height raising the rock from the ground, leaving it dangling for at least ten seconds. This agonising exercise tears apart the nerves of the penis, intentionally rendering Tapeshwar impotent and ruining any chances he may have of fulfilling any sexual urge.
Other Nagas will wrap their penis round a stick and then invite their friends to stand on it, rising up like some band of demented S&M acrobats. The Nagas are also warlike in their attitude towards others. The elite of the elite, they pursue a warrior tradition that makes them fierce in defence of their religion and their comrade warrior monks. Devoted to Shiva, the God of destruction, they carry his symbol, a trident. When provoked they will do battle. In 1998 at the huge Hindu Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar two sects of Nagas fought it out over who would have the right to bathe first in the Ganges on the most auspicious day of the festival. Naked, ash smeared men on horse back hacked at each other with swords and stabbed at each other with tridents. 40 were seriously injured in the melee. The terrified police were helpless to act and when they tried the Nagas tossed them into the swift flowing Ganges. One policeman was drowned.
Historically the Nagas have been enlisted to fight in battles against both Muslim and British invaders terrifying their enemies with acts of Kamikaze like bravery. The Naga sees himself as already being dead, therefore he has no fear of dying in battle. They organise themselves into regiments or ‘Akharas’.
In an attempt to monitor the fiercely independent Nagas, the British issued them with Sadhu passports. Some Sadhus still carry these passports to this day although now they are little more than a licence to smoke unending amounts of ganja and ride the trains for free.
The Sadhu’s quest is a purely personal one. No one forces him to keep his arm in the air into eternity or hang huge weights from his dick, light a coal fire on his head, sleep on nails or bury himself in gravel. Once he has undertaken the task he can stop any time he likes. Many will once they have achieved their spiritual purpose or no longer feel the need to carry on with whatever task they have set themselves. Nor is there any vetting or admission process for a sadhu. Anyone can grow their hair into matted dreads, put on the orange robes and wander the villages of India. This means that for every truly holy man there will also be a charlatan and a con man. It is never easy to tell one from another.
Ramesh Giri was a standing Baba for eight years. Then one day he sat down. “ I stood for many years, but I decided to stop when I knew that rocks can float.” At first we thought this was some kind of arcane spiritual metaphor, but Ramesh was to show us otherwise. Leading us down a small tented path, with twinkling eyes he takes us into a small compound in the centre of which is a small cauldron full of water. In the cauldron, bobbing about like an apple is what appears to be a large rock. I touch it. It is a rock. It is floating. “I carve the name of Lord Ram on the rock. Then the rock will float,” says Ramesh. I must be looking goggle eyed because Ramesh then breaks into peels of demented laughter. The laughter doesn’t stop. It follows me as I make my exit and tread wearily back to my motorbike. It feels like an escape from the brink of insanity.
Not all Sadhus follow the exhibitionist path of the Nagas. Other Sadhus see them as nothing more than the football hooligans of Hindu mythology. Stripped to the waist, fighting and showing off in a way that has more to do with worldly fame than spiritual progress. Ram Krishna Das is a follower of Vishnu. A gentle man dressed all in white he has neither eaten nor drunk anything but milk for 28 years. He is known as the ‘Milk Baba’.
When Bizarre tracked him down to his tiny spartan cell in the hills of Nepal, he tells us simply, “milk is all I need.” Famous for his quiet wisdom and great learning the Milk Baba is often flown abroad at the expense of devotees besotted with his depth of understanding. He has tasted the milk of fifteen different countries. “Milk tastes the same everywhere,” he ponders “except Germany,” he adds “where it tastes like urine.”
When I tell the Milk Baba about Ramesh Giri and his amazing floating rock he reacts with indifference. “Lord ram does not need to make rocks float. Lord Ram does not need to impress mortal man with silly tricks.”
Holiness may sometimes be macho. Sometimes it is plain crazy. If the Nagas seem extreme in their variations on human agony and dark magic, there is another sect that outshines even them in the realms of weird perversity. The Aghoris. They take Shiva in his incarnation as conqueror of death as their lead. Like a band of medieval, crack fuelled, anarchists they turn every taboo of Hinduism on its head and go out of their way to be shocking and obscene. They will eat the meat of the holy cow. They will get horrendously drunk on forbidden liquor. They abuse passers by with foul obscenities and go out of their way to terrify small children. It is reputed that their rituals can be truly terrible. They will revel in the putrid flesh of rotting corpses and feast on rotting dogshit. They have ritual sex with menstruating prostitutes on the cremation grounds of the holy River Ganges and meditate while sitting on the dismembered remains of the dead. They are truly scary and bad. When Bizarre approached an Aghori for an interview he simply spat at me and retorted that he would “rather wash his face in the pus of a syphilitic leper.” Aghoris, like Millwall supporters, do not welcome photo calls.
Sadhus, like India itself, present a contradictory face to the world. Some are pure and dedicated in their quest for an eternal truth. Others are little more than beggars, con men or thugs. But whether saints or charlatans they represent an ancient and parallel reality. Like human crocodiles, their existence has remained unchanged for millennia. While the rest of us chase our tales in a confusing welter of fast moving and barely understood technology, fragile economics and uncertain relationships, the Sadhu continues on a path that is the same now as it was in the time of the pharaohs. When we look at him we see a naked, filthy, long haired man perversely spurning five centuries of human progress. When he looks back at us all he sees are hordes of inquisitive, pointless children.