By Yoginder Sikand, New AgeIslam
18 August, 2012
You must, I’m sure, have felt that way at some time or the other. The sudden impulse overtakes you and you think that the only thing you now want to do is to completely abandon the world and flee to some remote Himalayan cave or peak, there to spend the rest of your life all by yourself and on your own terms. And, then, just as suddenly as that urge hits you, it dies out. The temptations of the world, the responsibilities and relationships you are burdened with, the expectations that others have of you and which you feel compelled to meet, and, then, the enormity of the challenge of living on your own, with no security of family or bank balance, all act to drag you back to the ‘real world’ and you quickly abandon your dreams of giving up everything for a life of total freedom. But not so a man I recently met, who quit a jet-setting lifestyle to become a sanyasi.
I’ll call the man X—I don’t know what he was named at birth by his parents. On becoming a sanyasi he was given a new, sanyasi-sounding name. He doesn’t want publicity, and so it’s best he remains anonymous here. He’s probably now used to being called by his new name, which denotes his new sanyasi role, but I could hardly think of him as a sanyasi even as I spoke to him—he seemed so familiar, like some long-lost college-mate—and I just can’t get myself to refer to him as ‘Swami so-and-so’, and so 'X' will, I suppose, do.
I met X at an ashram recently. I noted him the very day I arrived. There was something special about him, which set him apart from the dozens of other mendicants in the ashram. I first spotted him in the dining hall and as soon as my eyes fell on him I was awe-struck. He walked in with his neatly-shaven head slightly bent, his eyes downcast, a faint smile dancing on his lips. He carefully held the folds of his ochre-coloured robes with the tips of his fingers. He stood patiently in the queue, and, after he had been served, he held out his hand in a gentle, Buddha-like, way to indicate to the server his thanks. I didn’t see him talking to anyone at all. He seemed perfectly happy with his own company.
The moment I saw X I felt an irresistible urge to speak to him. Although I had visited the ashram before and had met several wandering sadhus there, never before had I felt quite that way.
Four days passed till I mustered enough courage to speak to X, and when I did, he burst into a child-like smile. In just a few minutes we were chatting like long-separated friends. ‘Who knows, maybe this isn’t just an ordinary meeting, but a reunion of souls after many births!’ he said to me when I mentioned how familiar he seemed and how I felt so closely drawn to him.
I spent the next two days with X. There was much to learn from him. Unlike with many of the other sadhus in the ashram, I felt completely disarmed and perfectly at ease in his presence. I didn't at all think that I was in the company of a 'god-man' or someone who thought himself to be so. And, unlike the other sadhus I had met, X spoke excellent English. Moreover, there was nothing grave about him, none of that moroseness that some religious folks exude.
X had led a really unusual life, it so transpired. Now, sadhus are supposed to ‘burn’ their past completely, and are expected not to even think about it at all. But X wasn’t all that doctrinaire about this rule, and he willingly answered my queries about his life before he took the momentous decision of renouncing the world. I didn’t, however, have the heart to explore the subject too deeply (though I was most curious!), for I was conscious that, at least in theory, sadhus are meant to live only in the present and to have no concern whatsoever for the past and the future.
X was born in a middle-class South Indian family. He studied in one of the ‘best’ colleges in the city where he lived, and then went to the USA for higher studies. Then, he took up a job in a foreign airline company. It was literally a ‘high-flying’, ‘jetting-setting’ job, and it took X across the world. He made a lot of money, of course, but, then, one day the urge to abandon everything suddenly hit him. It proved so intense that he did precisely that. ‘All I can say is that it was an irresistible urge, something deep inside me, perhaps left over from my previous birth, which I just could not resist accomplishing in this life,’ X explained.
When X’s parents heard of his plans, they were, quite understandably, aghast. Not only would X be giving up a lucrative job for a penniless life but, as a sanyasi, he would have to severe his relations as a son with them. They tried everything they could to dissuade him, but in vain. X had made up his mind.
Reluctantly, X’s parents accompanied him to a temple town, where, in a mutt, they performed the elaborate rituals normally done on the death of a relative. X was, for all practical purposes, now dead to them and to the world. No longer was anyone his father or mother or sibling, for he had now to consider every person, irrespective of caste, class, creed and gender, in exactly the same way, as a manifestation of God. X’s head was shaved off, and his Brahminical thread removed, for on becoming a sanyasi X had lost his caste for good. X gave away all the wealth he had—and this was considerable—because as a sanyasi he was to possess almost nothing at all. Two pairs of ochre-coloured robes and a begging bowl were about the only worldly possessions that X was now to have.
X stayed for a while in the mutt, but it soon dawned on him that it was not the place for him. The murky politics and financial scandals in the mutt drove him away. He now became a wandering sadhu, spending the next two years travelling, mainly on foot, all the way to the Himalayas. He survived on bhiksha, begging for food, spending the nights at temples and in village shrines. Begging for survival, he explained, was a means to subdue the ego so as to realize it as an illusion and to thereby know the One or Brahman as the only reality. This was, ideally, the fundamental purpose of a sadhu’s life.
Once he reached north India, X spent several months visiting several pilgrimage towns. Things there were not quite what he had expected. It is true that he met a few men who were genuine seekers, and even some whom he thinks were truly ‘realized’ beings. But many so-called sadhus whom he met, he discovered, weren’t at all on any spiritual quest. Some of them had donned the ochre robe simply in order to escape from their homes or from failed marriages and nagging wives. Others were unemployed and found begging an easy way to make money. Some even had wives whom they occasionally visited or other sexual partners—this being completely against the norms for sadhus. Yet others were hopelessly addicted to drugs. In some ashrams he visited he met men who had supposedly renounced the world but who actually led a life of considerable luxury, living off the donations of their credulous followers. Some of them zipped about in fancy cars, went every now and then on foreign jaunts, and reveled in having their followers, who thought their masters were divinely-realised souls, bow and scrape before them. He heard of some tantriks who engaged in horrendous practices, such as child sacrifice. X also met men who had spent years not uttering a single word or who engaged in severely difficult practices in the hope of acquiring various powers. Few of the folks X came across had actually subdued their egos, which was what people were supposed to become sadhus for. On the contrary, many were bloated with pride as supposed ‘god-men’, their main concern being to build up a large following and to live off the largesse of those who were made to believe that they were spiritually exalted beings.
It was thus understandable that occasionally X would think that in renouncing the world he had made a terrible mistake. Sometimes, he would be haunted by the urge to go back to his parents, but one thing held him back: the ochre-hued robe that he wore. ‘It constantly reminds me that there’s no going back at all’, he explained. At the same time, he was aware that attachment even to his robe was a hindrance to his spiritual quest, for in that journey all attachments and desires were to be finally transcended.
X went further up into the Himalayas, where he practised severe austerities. But this, too, didn’t get him the ‘realization’ for which he had staked his life. On the contrary, subjecting the body to extreme difficulties had an adverse impact on his mind, and so he quickly gave it up.
X found his way, then, to a small pilgrimage town, but he still had no idea whatsoever as to what sadhana or meditational practice he needed to adopt. Then, one day, as he was sitting on the roadside, he noticed an elderly sadhu embracing a man afflicted with leprosy. As he looked on in amazement—he had probably not seen anything like that before—the sadhu beckoned to him. ‘Make service of leprosy patients your sadhana’, he told him.
And that is what X began doing—and he still does this even fourteen years after that encounter. His guru gave him a small plot of land, where, with the help of donations from well-wishers, he set up a little ashram, which is now home to some two dozen leprosy patients. Being without limbs, they can’t do much by themselves, and so it is X, along with two men, sadhaks on the same spiritual path, who bathes and feeds them and even washes them after they’ve been to the toilet. Supporters supply the ashram with rations, and someone pays for a doctor to regularly visit the patients.
‘I don’t have any idols in the ashram—the men and women who live in the ashram are my living gods,’ X says. Serving these people, who’ve all been abandoned by their families, is for X his way of serving God, for God, he says, resides as much in them as in anyone or anything else.
Ideally, X explained, a sanyasi’s quest is to completely efface the ego, which is based on the consciousness of the body. Body-consciousness, in turn, underlines the illusion of an individual as separate from the rest of the cosmos or Brahman, and so stands as the major hurdle to enlightenment. Serving leprosy patients is X’s way of overcoming body-consciousness. Conquering the ego is a long process, X added, and it can only happen when one grows to look at everyone as oneself, expanding one’s ‘love circle’ so that it embraces every creature and thing in the cosmos, looking upon all of them as manifestations of the Self or God or the One. And that is what X’s amazing sadhana is all about. It’s a sadhana based on an expansive understanding of God, far beyond narrow communal understandings of religion, and one that has completely transcended all obsessions with rituals and dogmas and all desires for heavenly rewards and the fear of hell-fire.
Amazed at the fascinating life X had chosen for himself and the wealth of experience and wisdom that he had acquired over the years, I told him that he simply had to write a book documenting it all. After all, his English was excellent and a book recounting what he had been through would be just the right thing to do to convey the message that his life embodied to the world that he had abandoned. It would definitely be a best-seller, I thought. That was worldly-wise middle-class me speaking, for X quickly shrugged the point off and replied that he had no desire of doing any such thing. He didn’t seek fame or want to make money, he said.
X takes his sadhana seriously. That really is what he lives for, and he hopes to continue in this till he reaches his goal of ‘realization’, after which no sadhana is any longer necessary, though even then it may continue. Once he started his ashram and began serving leprosy patients, he vowed to himself not to leave the town for the next fourteen years. That vow, too, was part of his sadhana. For a man who had worked in a foreign airline company, and whose job took him to cities across the globe, remaining confined in a small town for more than a decade must obviously had been a major challenge, or so I suppose. ‘The body must be stilled, just as the mind must, too,’ he explained, and that was probably one reason why he had taken that difficult vow of remaining in one place after years of wandering.
Fourteen years had now passed, and so he had recently set off on a tour to ashrams and temples in various parts of India, which is how I had been able to meet him. There were shrines he had desired to visit, and that desire, like all others, he said, had to be transcended or fulfilled in this life-time if he was not to have to fulfill them in his next birth.
I looked about the room in which X was staying. He had minimum luggage—just a small bag with a change of ochre robes, a torch, an umbrella, a couple of books and some basic toiletries. He was travelling, as a sadhu should, by placing complete trust in God to guide him on his way. He had only sixty-five rupees on him—given to him by some kind person he had met on the way—and he had a long journey, traversing various places, ahead of him till he got back to his ashram. But X was not the least worried about how he would survive, where he would get food and shelter from and how he would pay for the train and bus fare. ‘God will certainly provide, through some kind souls,’ he said to me. ‘That’s how a sadhu should live—on total reliance on God and complete surrender to His will.’