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Holy Smoke
by Dolf Hartsuiker
Of all the sadhus whom I’ve met during previous trips through India, Mathura Das stands out most clearly in my mind. His long hair in twisted tresses — a kind of dreadlocks — falling over his shoulders. His pockmarked face that looks a bit like Jimi Hendrix’s. His boyish body, lean and lanky, while he must be at least thirty-five. His deep voice, sparkling eyes and booming laughter. His jocular wisdom, and sometimes serious counsel. At first he may appear somewhat macho, but in fact he is gentle, and very generous. Everything he gets he gives away.

It is mainly to see Mathura Das again that I’ve just covered over a thousand kilometres by bus to arrive at Omkareshwar.
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Omkarehswar is a small island in the Narmada river which, seen from the air, resembles the Sanskrit letters for “OM”, the sacred mantra. The river is holy too, so there are reasons enough for the sacredness of this place.
Hindu pilgrims take a bath in the Narmada for the cleansing of body and soul. And over a path that follows the contours of the island they circumambulate this magical ‘power-spot’, tracing the “OM” mantra with their feet — worshipping the divine and simultaneously absorbing spiritual energy. In passing, they also visit the sadhus, ‘behold’ them, make offerings and receive their blessings.

The sun is just up when I arrive, but I don’t feel tired so I decide to check out Mathura Das right away. Especially for him I’ve kept some hash that I had gotten from another sadhu, a piece of black Manali of passable quality. In my hotel-room I cut it in two pieces — each sufficient for one chilam ( a hash-pipe, usually earthenware, in the shape of a bottleneck, that has to be held in two hands for smoking).
Bypassing the two, three streets of the village, I take the shortest route over a footpath through a rural area, a grassy field with some small houses here and there under big trees, to a centuries-old Shiva temple. Behind it stands a partly ruined temple-like structure that originally consisted of three rooms, but the roof of the middle one had once collapsed.
In this space, surrounded by three walls and under the open sky is Mathura Das’ fireplace.
And a sadhu’s sacred fire, his dhuni, is his home. Mathura Das is not allowed to sleep under a roof according to the rules of his sadhu-order, but deities may. So he has turned the left room into a shrine with altar and idol of Rama.
I walk around the whitewashed building, under gigantic — and holy — trees, and go up the steps to a terrace in front of it. Nobody is to be seen, but the fire is smouldering, so he cannot be far away.
As I stand there, wondering whether I should go to the river instead, a young half-nČked sadhu appears from the temple-room. His features are rather Asiatic, a very thin beard, and straight, black hair that comes down to his shoulders. Perhaps he’s a Nepali or Tibetan?
I ask him in my simple Hindi, “Mathura Das where is?” He points in the direction of the river and says, “snana,” Hindi for bathing. Then I ask him, “his disciple you?” He nods yes. His limited vocabulary makes me suspect that he isn’t Nepali, or Tibetan either, so I ask him in English, “where are you from?” And then he has to kind of confess — he’d probably have preferred to stay in his role of a native, I think — that he’s from Japan.

As a real sadhu he invites me for a tea, so we sit by the dhuni. He puts a pan with water and milk on the smouldering logs and pokes the ashes till flames shoot up. Mumbling in a mixture of broken English and sadhu-slang he asks if I have any hash on me, for he has only inferior weed. He shows me a plastic bag with very green leaves. I lie and say that I don’t have any, so he starts to slowly clean the grass.
We smoke the chilam and I ask him some more typically Indian (intrusive) questions, like “what is your name,” and “what is your purpose,” to which he replies with shy smiles and hardly audible mumbles. But I catch his name, which is Mohan Das, and it appears that two years ago he was initiated as Mathura Das’ disciple. The weed has no effect.

He is very slow in everything, perhaps deliberately, to show how stoned he is, or enlightened. Or is he just dim-witted? Finally the tea is ready and he sprinkles a few drops into the fire, an oblation to the fire-god, before filling the stainless steel beakers. He asks me for a cigarette and we smoke in silence, slurping the hot tea.
The rays of the sun peek through the rustling leaves of the giant tree forming a roof over our heads. Chirping birds flit from branch to branch. In the distance a troop of monkeys passes by, swinging through the trees, then again running through the field. In the foreground are the ancient walls and spires of the Shiva temple. A cow is calmly grazing. Time stands still. Sadhus may have little or no material comfort, but they often live in the most beautiful places, free and without a worry.
Then I hear the deep, booming voice of Mathura Das in the distance.
As he comes onto the terrace he recognizes me immediately, laughs and calls out loudly, “Sita Rama!” A greeting and invocation of the deity Rama and his divine wife Sita. I bow and touch his foot with my right hand. He puts his hand on my head, and then goes into his temple-room, singing and humming, continuously repeating the mantra, “Sita Rama, Sita Rama, Sita Rama...”
A young sadhu has come with him. He is dressed in red cloth and has a red dot painted in the middle of his forehead, distinct signs of a Shiva devotee. He sits next to me and immediately starts asking the usual questions, where I come from and so on.
But after a few minutes Mathura Das comes out of his shrine, now dressed in a light-rose silk shawl around his waist, and all attention focuses on him. In a gruff voice he calls out, “Mohan Das, make tea!”
Submissively Mohan Das goes about it, but he has become very clumsy suddenly, dropping everything.
Mathura Das takes his seat near the dhuni and asks me for a cigarette. I assume he just wants to smoke it and want to give one to Mohan Das as well, but that is not allowed. “He only smoke hash!” Mathura Das cries out.
Then I give him the piece of hash too and his face lights up. Immediately he starts preparing a chilam. He heats the hash with a match and mixes it with the tobacco in a coconut cup.
“Hash problem,” he says. It is hard to come by nowadays and expensive, two hundred rupees a tola (ten grams). And he needs at least a tola a day, for himself and for his guests. I wonder how he manages to obtain such a sum each day. It isn't much more than seven dollars, but nevertheless, that amounts to a week’s wages for an unskilled labourer and the usual donations he receives from pilgrims are at most a few rupees per head.
These price-increases are mainly caused by foreigners who buy hash for their own use in India or for export, since they can pay any price. Besides, there are arrests in the sadhus’ own supply-lines. Some sadhus are even imprisoned.
“Really?” I ask surprised. For hash may be illegal nowadays in all parts of India, but the smoking of it by sadhus is tolerated. It’s an ancient tradition and they need it for their worship of Shiva. Moreover, sadhus stand a bit outside — and above — the law.
I tell them about the coffeeshops in Holland. They have heard of it before but can hardly believe it. The prices neither, for that matter.
Meanwhile, Mathura Das has prepared the chilam. With joined hands he lifts it heavenwards and calls out loud, “Sita Rama!” He inhales deeply, and blows out an enormous cloud of smoke.
The chilam goes round, and hits; our spirits rise. Mohan Das is urged to take an extra puff and Mathura Das sees to it that he inhales deeply enough.
After that Mohan Das doesn’t have a moment’s rest. He has to distribute the tea and Mathura Das spurs him on with ever new commands and then criticizes everything he does. Mohan Das becomes totally confused, goes on strike, stares ahead senselessly, seemingly deaf and dumb.
Laughing out loud, Mathura Das turns to me. “Cracked brain!” he sneers, twirling his index-finger next to his head, “screw loose!”
And then, with blazing eyes, he roars, “me, full sadhu life!” In his limited English, but very articulate all the same, he explains how he sees ‘The Reality’ beyond our everyday material world. Without eyes. Pointing at the backside of his head he says, “me inside out!” But for this knowledge he has to pay a price; he must lead a hard life, full of risks: “full sadhu-life, dangerous!”
He illustrates this with shaking and quaking of arms and body, as if he is falling apart, disintegrating, and roars once more, “dangerous!”
After this illuminating performance he disappears into his shrine again.
The Shiva sadhu turns to me again and asks rather bluntly, “You also give me some hash?”
I shake my head, “That was my last piece, it’s all finished.”
“Money little problem,” he then says, “you give me hundred rupees?”
I try to explain that I’m seeing far too many sadhus and that they all need money and that I’m not rich, but he doesn’t care.
“Fifty also good,” he says.
Then I tell him not to be so money-minded, “sadhus have to be poor, and that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” Besides, I think, ‘good’ sadhus like Mathura Das don’t have to ask for anything: they are just given all they need.
But he points at my bag — as if he were looking through it with x-ray glasses, seeing my expensive cameras, traveller-cheques and cash, all in all equalling some two years' wages for an average Indian labourer — and says, “you money automatic!”
This makes me laugh, but I’m fed up with his nagging, so I get up.
Mathura Das comes out of his shrine-room and tells me to smoke another chilam, but I am going.
“You come back tomorrow,” he says, “OK?”
The next morning I take the shortest route to the river, a path with rough, uneven stone steps leading over a low hill.
On top I stand still for a moment to have a look at the picturesque scenery. Below me, part of the village, large trees between houses and temples.
And straight ahead, the island of Omkareshwar in the blue-green Narmada river: sparsely wooded hills, a cluster of small houses around a domineering sandstone palace and a whitewashed temple near the river.
I’m thinking of the rather disappointing meeting with Mathura Das yesterday. Especially his relationship with Mohan Das had shocked me. Obedience, servitude, submissiveness and so on are expected of any disciple, but he treats Mohan Das as a slave and ridicules him for it to boot.
But on the other hand, can I fairly judge it? Perhaps he gives Mohan Das exactly what he needs. From a Hindu perspective it may be necessary for the ‘burning’ of his karma, his fate, determined by good and bad deeds in his previous lives. Moreover, from the same perspective, is a sadhu, a holy man who perceives a Reality unknown to us ordinary mortals, not by definition infallible?
I walk down the hill, through winding streets, down wide stone steps to a small beach on the bank of the Narmada.
From the other side, near a tea-stall, a red-dressed sadhu is waving at me. It is the Shiva sadhu whom I met yesterday, beckoning me to come closer.
I hesitate, but then I see Mathura Das too, sitting on the wooden table of the tea-stall, under a brown tarpaulin awning.
Mathura Das looks downcast and complains about pain in his arm. It is only with difficulty that he can bend it. He shows it to me and explains that this is caused by not having smoked any hash yet.
I had intended to keep my last piece of hash for later, but seeing his suffering (real or enacted) I give it to him anyway, and immediately his face lights up.
But first he wants to take a bath in the river.
A bit later, with holy water still dripping from his long hair, Mathura Das comes and sits next to me.
We smoke the chilam, drink a tea, and he is his ‘old self’ again, happy, expansive, full of laughter.
Before I leave Omkareshwar I want to give some money to Mathura Das. At first I had thought I could make a generous gesture with a hundred rupees, but after all those stories about the high prices of hash, that doesn’t seem quite sufficient, so I have decided to give him two hundred. Surreptitiously I try to extract the banknotes from my bag, but Mathura Das notices it immediately. He points at his shrine and together we enter this dark, incense-filled room. I want to hand him the notes, but he points at a low altar where a statue of Rama is standing: it has to be an offering. I let the banknotes drift down on the altar while he loudly invokes the deity, “Sita Rama, Sita Rama!”

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