Monday, February 20, 2012


Plastic Pujas and Sadhus with Attitude

Yesterday, I met a female sadhu while going to fill up a bottle with Ganga water. They are quite rare. Most sadhus are men wearing an assortment of ochre robes and head gear, with staffs, tridents, dreaded hair,  prayer beads and a begging bowl. Some are almsot naked. This sadhu was dressed fashionably with a fleece pullover, jogging pants, waist belt with important things like her national ID card, her IPod and cigarettes. Her hair was salt and pepper colored, and cut fashionably short and practical. Her running shoes were a little weathered, but otherwise she looked ready to attend a feminist rally in Vancouver. There were no beads or orange robes. She said her name was Amrita and she was from Assam. She looked a little butch. She lived on the banks of the river, just above the sand line, under a cement overhang which was the floor of a temple or hotel. The cement pillars delineated her space. Her walls consisted of old election banners, rigged to create some privacy and block the wind a bit. She had a mattress, some blankets and a small firepit. The local pizza place gave her dinner once a day, and a local pay-to-use toilet served her quite well. She was clean and well presented.

Amrita spoke English very well, and explained that when she was small she lost her parents, and had had a very hard life, until she got a Swiss godfather, who took good care of her and sent her to school. After he died, she retired from her government job, gave away all her possessions and hit the road. She was never going to back to Assam, since a sadhu could not go home once the vows were taken. They could move on, but they could not go home. Amrita was a bit restless, almost anxious at times, and looked around her a lot as if someone might creep up on her. She laughed a lot as she explained that all the Rishikesh aartis (nightly riverside public devotional singing by priestly types, broadcast on loudspeakers) were just cheap drama, and they were all money minded scoundrels. The sadhu babas were mostly fake, eating meat, drinking whiskey and sleeping with young blond women whenever they got a chance. And they begged, which she didn't do. She laughed loudly. She said the yoga teachers and ashrams were just businesses, and they were not interested in God. She said you didn't need an intermediary if you had Ma Ganga. God was everywhere. I asked about Prem Baba, as he was the only guru I had gone to listen to. She said he was not so good, but that ShantiMay was okay. ShantiMay, an American female guru, and Prem Baba, a Brazilian male guru, had daily satsangs at an ashram across the river from where we were sitting, with a steady stream of adoring disciples listening intently every day, singing bhajans, and prostrating themselves at their feet. I asked her if she goes swimming in Ma Ganga. She said sure, every morning at 4 am she gets up to bathe in the river, do her ablutions and then meditate until the sun rose. Then she spends the day talking with people, especially tourists and sometimes listening to mantras on her IPod. She said God was fine with her smoking cigarettes, that it didn't really interfere with her devotion. It was a bit cold in the winter, but with God at her side, she didn't feel it much. I filled my bottle with the holy water of Ma Ganga. Someone's tightly sealed plastic bag full of flowers and offerings for Ma Ganga was floating on top of the water, making its way slowly past us. She pointed and shrugged and laughed that no one had any sense or respect for Ma Ganga.

Amrita joined me as I walked to the public toilet, but suddenly she ran into hiding, behind the front desk guy and motioned me to not talk to her, to not bring attention to her. She was trying to avoid a particular older Western tourist gentleman walking down the street. It was funny to see a sadhu hiding from someone. Once the old man had passed, I said my goodbyes and walked slowly back over Lakshman Jhula towards my room.


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