Hindu Ascetics: Bairagis

Bairagis ("dispassionate") are Vaishnava ascetics who are mainly devotees of Rama, and are also known as Ramanandis, after their founder, Ramanand. This Bairagi, Balak Das, shows a very characteristic tilak (forehead marking)--three vertical lines, with a red one in the center; the outer marks represent Rama's footprints, and in the inner mark stands for Sita (the Shaiva sanyasis, on the other hand, wear three horizontal lines). 

Vaishnava tilaks show great diversity, and actually indicate which sub-group an ascetic belongs to--somewhat like insignia on a uniform. Another common Bairagi practice is to take the surname "Das" ("servant" or "slave") as part of their ascetic name given at initiation.  Names, of course, are a label for one's identity, and being given a new name upon initiation is a sign of leaving one's old self behind.  Here Balak Das is wearing a yellow shawl imprinted with the name of Rama, and this too is a common item among Bairagis. 

Photo taken in April 1998.

In their lifestyle, Bairagi ascetics are emulating Rama's ascetic life during his 14 years of exile in the forest.  One of the things that he did was to refrain from cutting his hair, which was matted into the dreadlocks known as jatas.  This particular Bairagi has a magnificent set, coiled up (as they often are) into a crown on top of the head.  He was also wearing minimal clothing, but although the day was a little chilly, he seemed perfectly at ease (perhaps showing indifference to physical discomfort, another ascetic virtue). Haridwar, April 1998. 


Some Bairagi ascetics take very strict ascetic vows, such as never dwelling under a roof, and in some cases never wearing a woven garment.  Here a group of renunciants--camped in an out-of-the way section of the the Kumbha Mela grounds--sits around their sacred hearth (dhuna), which is the center of their ascetic life.


Even though ascetics generally devote far greater attention to religious practices than normal people, there is still time for rest and social life.  Here three very friendly Bairagis were sitting on a bench by the Ganges, eating peanuts, and watching the world go by. 

The opening ceremonies for the Kumbha Mela include welcoming processions known as peshvais for the various ascetic groups.  These processions make liberal use of royal imagery, such as the umbrella and the silver throne (actually, silver plates over wood) clearly show.   In their ascetic world, some of these men function like kings, and the population at large gives them considerable respect.  Aside from welcoming the groups, the other purpose of these processions is to give ordinary people the darshan of these renunciants. 


Here the participants are riding on horses, and carrying the standards associated with their particular Bairagi subgroup (these standards came from the era when the Bairagis were mercenary soldiers and traders, which makes these standards comparable to regimental insignia).  The Kumbha Mela involves considerable jockeying for status between ascetics and ascetic groups, and so these processions are all part of confirming and reinforcing a particular group's status, as well as reinforcing status within a particular group.

Bairagis: The 1998 Kumbha Mela

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