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’Middle-class India ignores holy men’

Friday 1 July 2005

Sadhus have been around for thousands of years in India with an estimated four to five million now, according to Dolf Hartsuiker, author of "Sadhus, Holy Men of India".

They can be called naga babas (naked holy men), yogis (a term of reverence) or the more generic sadhu .

Hartsuiker says the number of sadhus has declined from a century ago when Indian society was more organized to support the holy men who are not supposed to work.

A central feature of sadhu existence is the dhuni or sacred fire which is regarded as a home and temple for daily rituals and ascetic exercises.

Sadhus, who normally wear just a string around the waist tied to the penis, regularly smear the ashes from the dhuni on their bodies to indicate rebirth.

But as India liberalised its economy to imports and became a hub for outsourcing, Rampuri says he noticed that people chasing the new affluence increasingly ignored the holy men and found their practices out of touch.

"I’ve seen it as devastating. We used to walk into a village trailed by kids waiting to hear our stories. Now there’s...

... no one waiting," Rampuri says.

"They are not listening to the stories. TV now replaces the living babas. The smarter ones are now running businesses. They have learned to buy and sell. The ones who have understood all this change are the ones that have prospered. The ones that did not understand have been impoverished and their ancient knowledge is on the decline."

Sadhus are organized into various sects to pass on wisdom such as yoga and usually live in small groups or by themselves on the fringes of society in devotion to a deity — such as Shaivas who follow the Hindu god Shiva and Vaishnavas who who worship Vishnu or incarnations such as Rama Krishna.

Foreigners like Rampuri are rare among sadhus but not unknown, Hartsuiker notes, and can be found at festivals that take place every three years at alternate sites such as Allahabad, Ujjain, Hardwar and Nasik.

Known as kumbh melas , the festivals draw millions of sadhus who gather to take a dip in sacred river waters. Rampuri says the melas used to be sacred events but the last few have witnessed billboards for soft drinks and seen luxury tents erected for curious onlookers including newly affluent Indians.

"The perception of India has changed in the last few years - many Indians don’t understand what’s happened," Rampuri says.

"But they embrace Coke and Pepsi. The idiot box has replaced word of mouth. It’s a pivotal moment. People have money now. It was never really needed before - a little income was enough. I see myself now as a witness to this."

See online : The Times of India

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