Living in India’s Spirit World

Magnum Photos
Ascetics, or sadhus, at Varanasi Ghat, India, 2001; photographs by Raghu Rai

The most voluble person I ever met was a somewhat chubby, middle-aged Indian ascetic, or sadhu, who had taken a strict vow of silence. I found him—well, to be honest, he was the one who adopted me—in the famous pilgrimage site of Dwaraka, on the northwest coast of India. When he discovered, by asking me through an intricate and lengthy process of gestures, rather like a game of charades, that I spoke his language, Telugu, there was truly no limit to his joy. He sat me down on the beach outside the temple and for many hours kept up his part of the conversation by tracing letters with a stick in the sand. At the time I met him, he had been “silent” for some fifteen years; no syllable had exited his throat, not even a hum or a moan. But his yearning to communicate was intense. I asked him why he had taken his vow, and he wrote in Telugu on the sand: “To free myself from the bonds of this world.”

So does this nameless, chatty figure qualify for the title of “holy man,” the standard tag for the hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of peripatetic, sun-baked, often sickly figures whom one sees, in their faded ochre robes, all over the subcontinent, in railway stations, at tea stalls, or winding their way barefoot over village paths? Indian sadhus are even said to have their own labor union, which fights to improve their often rather negative image among ordinary householders. Are any of them “holy” in any definable way? But what do we mean by the term? The very concept of holiness belongs to the Mediterranean religions and may not be well suited to Hindu forms of religious experience; indeed, until very recently, no Indian language had a term for what we call “religion,” which is not a distinct, autonomous domain within the culture as a whole.

Mediterranean holiness depends upon separation (the root meaning of the Hebrew word kadosh, “holy,” is “separate”) and an implicit opposition to other, profane spheres. But in India, it is hard to think of anything that is devoid of a potential godliness. As Basavanna, an iconoclastic poet from twelfth-century South India, complained in one of his vacana verses:

The pot is a god. The winnowing
fan is a god. The stone in the
street is a god. The comb is a
god. The bowstring is also a
god. The bushel is a god and the
spouted cup is a god.

Gods, gods, there are so many
there’s no place left
for a foot.1

We could rephrase Basavanna’s insight in a somewhat more abstract manner. It is possible to…

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