Hinduism: Sanyasis

The Sanyasis are devotees of the god Shiva, and much of their dress, behavior and style of life is supposedly modeled on that of Shiva himself.  Thus many sanyasis, wear their hair in matted locks, consume hash and other drugs, and attempt to live detached from all things.  As with all ascetics, there is considerable variation in individual ascetic practice.  Here we see a group of three Sanyasis who were out for a stroll together. 


This is Digambar Naga Toofan Giri, who was wandering the Kumbha Mela grounds resplendant in his nakedness (actually he's wearing a silver ring on his penis, so I think there was a little exhibitionsim going on). Some ascetics still  give up all clothing, as a sign of renouncing everything, including shame.  His surname Giri indicates that he was a Naga sanyasi of the Giri suborder (and the Giri Nagas sanyasis have far greater numbers than any of the others). 


This sanyasi had built a hut (kuti) on the path leading to Kedarnath, a pilgrimage spot at 11,000 feet in the Himalayas (there's a picture of the temple in the section titled "Temples and Sacred Sites"). The ten mile from the end of the paved road at Gaurikund climbs 5,000 feet--an arduous journey, but exhilirating. During the summer pilgrimage season many ascetics set up huts alongside the path, and gain their livelihood by begging from the pilgrims passing by. For the pilgrims, giving money (or supplies) to the sadhus is an act of religious merit, to support men who devote their lives to religious practice. For many sadhus smoking intoxicating drugs is an integral part of their daily religious practice; this sadhu is holding a chillum, a baked clay cylinder used to smoke a mixture of tobacco and hashish. Ganja grows wild all through the Himalayas, and thus the sadhus can manufacture enough hashish for their own needs. This picture was taken in April 1986; and this sadhu was a very gentle and soft-spoken man.  The markings on his forehead and on his temples at the corners of his eyes identify him as belonging to one of the Sanyasi Naga Akharas, which in earlier times were groups of ascetics who made their living as traders and mercenary soldiers.


Here is a picture of another sadhu, taken on my way back down the mountain from the Kedarnath temple. This ascetic is wearing the matted locks characteristic of the god Shiva's devotees, in emulation of their patron deity himself. This matted hair is one marker of how sadhus reject the settled and conformist values of mainstream Hindu society. He is also carrying a trident, which is another symbol of Shiva. This picture was taken in April 1986, and I was very careful to ask for permission, since many sadhus do not like to have their pictures taken. 


Most ascetics live fairly simple lives, and for many of the poorer ones life can often be very difficult.  One of the ways that ascetics can survive is by helping each other--and many ascetics are very willing to share what little they have, from the conviction that God will send more to them.  Hindu culture also stresses the religious merit generated by giving to ascetics, either through direct gifts, or through supporting charitable institutions that house and feed them.  Through such support ascetics can live a subsistence life, and for those who are genuinely spiritually inclined, this allows them to devote themselves to religious life. 

Many ascetics survive is by forming small communities of their own, often comprised of a guru and his disciples.  Such small groups may travel and live together for decades, and these connections provide mutual support.  This group of sanyasis (photographed in 1990 in Benares)  has built a hut (kuti) as a place to live. Locals claim that the ruined temple behind it was cursed to be ruined by an angry ascetic.  Since genuine ascetics are often believed to have magic powers (and in any case are unpredictable), most people treat them with great respect.

Sanyasis: 1998 Kumbha Mela


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