Shaivas Shaivas Vaishnavas Vaishnavas Sadhvis Sadhvis Austerities Tapas Shaiva Austerities Tapas Vaishnava
Kumbha Mela Kumbha Mela Foreigners Foreigners Notes Notes Bibliography Biblio Intro Intro

An American Sadhu
by Dolf Hartsuiker
Standing in the cool shade of a tree, I watched the crowds pass by. Undeterred by the blistering sun, thousands of pilgrims shuffled, many of them barefooted, over the hot and dusty asphalt road. Mainly villagers and peasants, travelling in large clans or families, they were dressed in clothes typical of their region, the men in once-white cotton and the women in colourful sarees.
They came from many different parts of India to attend the Kumbha Mela in Ujjain (this was in 1992) where millions of Hindus would gather. In a few days from now, when the planets would be in the right position, they’d take a bath in the sacred river. This holy dip, forming the culmination of their pilgrimage, would cleanse them of age-old sins. Some might even hope to attain a vision of the divine, for at this sacred place the gods almost touch the earth.
Surely all would see, even meet and touch, the earthly representatives of the gods, the holy men.
For the sadhus are at the heart of this congregation. Like the pilgrims, they had come from all over India, where they usually live in remote places. The pilgrims would visit them in their camps and bow low to the ground, reverentially addressing these semi-divine human beings as baba, ‘old wise man’.
Among the pilgrims I noticed a few sadhus, clearly distinguished from the common people by the way they dressed and looked. Two sadhus had extremely long hair which they wore in a bundle on top of their head. Both carried a brass water-pot in their right hand and on their forehead they had painted a striking symbol. It looked like a white ‘tuning-fork’ with a red line in the middle. By this sign I recognized them as devotees of Rama, the divine king and legendary hero of the epic Ramayana.
Shri Mahant Siyaram Das
Another baba, with long hair and a brass pot as well, who wore nothing but a bright red loincloth, had a totally different symbol on his forehead: three horizontal stripes painted with grey ash. This marked him as a follower of Shiva, who is generally regarded as the ‘god of destruction’, but who to sadhus is first of all the Master of Yogis. For basically that’s what sadhus are, yogis. And monks and ascetics, mystics and even ‘magicians’ (if you believe in magic).
As a devotee of Shiva, this sadhu looked a bit out of place here, since this area of the festival grounds (which covered over fifteen square kilometres) was reserved for followers of Rama. Some camped out in the open, next to their smouldering fires, but most had settled in canvas tents on both sides of the road. It was in fact a virtual city of tents, stretching out over the undulating dusty plain of parched grass, between sparse trees and shrubs.

Suddenly I noticed a rather peculiar holy man crossing the road. On his forehead was the mark of Rama and he was almost n‰ked, except for a rope around his waist to which a tiny piece of cloth was attached covering his geñitals. This was nothing unusual, nor the fact that he had rubbed grey ashes all over his body, hair and beard. But through the ashes I could discern his skin, and a very light skin it was. Of course, the man could belong to one of the northern tribes of India, some of whom have very light complexion, but when he returned from filling his brass water-pot at a public tap across the road, I saw his eyes. Bright blue eyes. A white man? A foreigner baba?
He had disappeared between the tents and I decided to follow him, to check it out. Smaller, V-shaped tents were rather haphazardly clustered around a large square cubic tent where the leader of this subsect resided. This dignitary — tall, big, white-haired, in a long white robe — was standing in front of his tent as a young sadhu approached him. A disciple, I assumed, who bent down low and touched the feet of his guru. The master raised his right hand in a gesture of blessing, affectionately.

Construction of the camp was still in progress. Young sadhus were levelling the ground, hammering tent poles into the hard earth, stretching canvas over the poles, joking and laughing.
I greeted them by folding my hands and calling out, “Jay Shri Rama” (‘Hail Lord Rama’). And all within hearing range would echo this mantra.
“You go there,” one of the sadhus said and pointed to a tent a bit away from the cluster, under a solitary tree, sparsely leafed and throwing a faint shadow. Behind the tent the dry open plain stretched out in the shimmering distance, under the white light of the midday sun, and a hot, fragrant wind blew little dust devils around the bushes.
As I came closer I saw an older sadhu sitting cross-legged on a bed in the shade, half nČked, with long grey hair and beard. On some plaited mats on the ground, with his back towards me, sat a younger sadhu. The older man saw me and he shouted, “Jay Shri Rama!” while beckoning me to come closer. I heard the old man say, “Here’s a friend.” The younger sadhu turned around and, indeed, he was the one I was looking for — and he was white.
They both smiled at me as I saluted them with “Jay Shri Rama” and a mat was drawn into the shade for me to sit on. The older sadhu leaned over to me, his big belly touching his crossed legs, and asked, “Where you from?”
“Holland,” I said and, since many Indians have never heard of it, I added, “Europe.”
“Ah, good country,” he said and immediately went on, “so you come to India to find guru?” It was a statement, not a question.
“You must have guru,” he continued, “life with no guru is like travelling in train with no ticket!” We laughed. “If ticket-collector come ...” I would never know what would happen then, for apart from his broken English, he had no teeth, which made him slur his words. But we laughed anyway and I didn’t want to spoil the fun by some sort of interrogation.
“Guru mind is like elephant,” he then said and looked at me with penetrating eyes. I was still puzzled by this metaphor (did he mean strong like an elephant?, or agile like an elephant’s trunk, its ‘fifth hand’ as it is known in India?, or what?), while he made a more contemporary comparison, “Guru is direct telephone with God! You go your own country and think of guru and he makes connection. Guru always know what you do!”
I glanced at the white baba, and wondered if he believed all this and how he would feel being watched all the time. As a good disciple he had been sitting straight up in the lotus-posture, smiling in approval of his master’s words. He was well built and very slim, as a sadhu should be. From close-up the ashes couldn’t really conceal the whiteness of his skin or the blondness of his long hair and beard. His wrinkled face made him look older than he probably was. He caught my glance — his blue eyes shining with enthusiasm, eyelids wrinkled in smiles — and took the opportunity to break into the conversation.
“That’s right, man,” he said, “guru-ji has some kind of superconsciousness, you know, tremendous mind power!” He spoke in a rather shrill voice, but guru-ji, ‘revered teacher’, was pronounced softly, with much affection.
He went on, telling me how he had met his guru. It was seven years ago, while he was aimlessly drifting through India. At a religious festival he was wandering through the sadhu camps and had sort of bumped into him. Just by chance it seemed, but actually it was his karma, his ‘fate’.
Of course.

Soon he was initiated and guru-ji had given him his sadhu-name, Ramapriya Das, which means ‘Rama’s beloved servant’.
The guru commented, “Ramapriya Das is now seven year old boy!” We laughed, but Ramapriya Das was not to be interrupted. Initiation is a rebirth, the start of a new life, a divine life. He had changed enormously since that time, a real metamorphosis, but there was still so much to learn. His words came out so rapidly and so heavily accented — Mid Western American — that his guru soon lost track and hardly got a chance to do his bit.
He regularly had to go back to California. There he lived in a camper in the mountains, where he tried to keep up his sadhu-life. Of course, this caused problems with the authorities who treated him as just another homeless bum. Well, what else could you expect from this government, this conspiracy of big business, the mafia and the CIA. The American population was totally disillusioned, the rich got richer and the poorest, over twenty percent of the people, lived in the streets. This was a deliberate policy, a strategy to keep the dissidents down. “In the West,” he said with a sarcastic grin, “it is the survival of the meanest.” He went on and on, about pollution, crime, racism, trying to convince me.
I had heard it all before, so to bring us back to the here and now, I said, “tell me more about your guru.”
“Guru-ji’s name is Lakshman Das,” he said, looking up at the older sadhu with affection.
Lakshman Das — whose name would translate as ‘servant of Lakshman’, who is Rama’s half-brother — came to attention when he heard his name and beamed a happy, toothless cherubic smile.
“You smoke?” he asked me, meaning hash or weed.
”Yes.”
“Good.” He rummaged in his sadhu-bag and came up with a plastic bag filled with green marihuana.
“Patti,” I joked in Hindi with ridiculing emphasis. ‘Patti’ means ‘leaves’ and is slang for low quality stuff. “Let me give you some good charas.”
I gave him a piece of black Manali hash — that another sadhu had given to me — and a cigarette, and he started preparing the chilam, a clay hand-held pipe.
“I stopped smoking,” Ramapriya Das said, “it gave me ulcers all over my body.” He pointed to some scars on arms and legs, barely discernible through the ash.
“And I don’t need it anymore,” he continued. Now he practised yoga, and more importantly, japa. ‘Japa' is the endless repetition of a mantra, which in his case was the name of Rama. He showed me his mala, a ‘rosary’ of small wooden beads (made of the sacred tulsi plant). He did a thousand malas a day now, but he wanted to increase this number, until he would do it continuously, in the back of his mind, for twenty-four hours per day.
“Discipline is important,” he said. Then he laughed heartily, “my father should see me now!” His father had been an officer in the US army. A fascist bastard who tyrannized his family with military discipline. Everyone was scared of him. As a child, Ramapriya Das had hated his father, rebelled against all he stood for. There were endless arguments, there were fights. One day he ran away from home and he had never seen him since.
But now he had his guru, who was more than a father to him. Naturally, they had their differences, their quarrels, but ultimately it was based on love. He looked up to his guru.
“Hey, guru-ji!” he shouted cheerfully, “we fight a lot, he?”
With mock-seriousness Lakshman Das looked at me and commented, “this boy always think he know better, he must have some beatings.” He pretended to hit Ramapriya Das on the head who in defence held up his arms. Both were laughing out loud and their sham fight ended by Lakshman Das affectionately putting an arm around Ramapriya Das and kind of hugging him. All this display of affection overwhelmed me a bit. Was it genuine or were they trying to prove something?
We were joined by a sadhu from their camp. He had wandered by while Lakshman Das was heating and crumbling the hash and mixing it with the tobacco.
Now he held a match to the chilam while Lakshman Das sucked on it through his cupped hands and drew out large clouds of smoke. The chilam was passed around — and Ramapriya Das talked on.
It was fantastic to belong to the brotherhood of sadhus now, to have renounced the world. All those people who wasted their lives chasing after cheap material pleasures, all that greed, all that technology, all that corruption and stress — it was a disaster that could only end in a total catastrophe. As a sadhu he went in the opposite direction, to an increasingly simple life in harmony with nature, like in the stone age. He was going back to the roots, back in time, and finally, back to the womb, to the source of life. “Of course, sadhus aren’t perfect but at least they are doing something about it.”
Meanwhile, we had finished smoking the chilam. The other sadhu had gone and Lakshman Das stretched out on his bed. “Good charas,” he mumbled and closed his eyes.
“Speaking about the womb,” I said, “what about se+?” And I meant renunciation of se+uality, which is a fundamental feature of sadhu life. As, in fact, celibacy is a characteristic of most mystic doctrines, East or West. Lust, se+ual energy, must be converted into spiritual power, while love must be focussed exclusively on one’s god.
Repression of se+uality, however, makes it shameful to discuss. It’s a topic usually avoided in prudish India, and with sadhus as well, though they ought to be ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ se+uality. But Ramapriya Das had no such inhibitions. We, as sexually liberated Westerners — he perhaps even ‘postsexual’ — could talk about it in a straightforward manner.
“Control was difficult,” he said, “especially at first. Sex was an obsession. I was addicted to se+. That’s why I wear this arbandh.” He pointed at the tight rope around his waist and the even tighter piece of cloth over his genitals, as it is worn by most members of his sect. “This makes it easier to control. ‘Arbandh’ means ‘below closed’, physically as well as mentally.”
“Do you never dream about it?”
“Not anymore, very occasionally, but to prevent it I wear this arbandh during my sleep as well. It wakes me up when I get an ere+tion and then I’ll do some yoga exercises, you know, and japa. I also wear it when I go to the States, under my normal clothes”
He’d made some mistakes, while he was back in the States. He had to go back there regularly, to make money and because of visa regulations, and once he’d had an affair lasting several months. But that was many years ago now. If he could stay in India forever, continuously, things would be much easier, for here one wasn’t bombarded with se+ all the time, like in the West.
I remarked that his watch — a plastic green and rose Swatch — was identical to that of his guru.
“I gave it to him, I give him everything I have.” When he came back from the States this time he had brought a blender, for guru-ji had recently and suddenly lost all his teeth, so now he could cut, grind and mix all kinds of healthy things. He had done lots of repairs to their ashram, installed an electric water-pump and a tank. It had cost him a few thousand dollars. Around the ashram he wanted to plant a forest as part of an international development plan for reforestation. “It’s all an investment, you see, for it is my ashram too. I will inherit it, when guru-ji gives up the body.”
“You’ll inherit the ashram?” I was a bit sceptical.
“Yes. Guru-ji has made me a Mahant and he’s appointed me as his successor.”
I was really surprised. I had met foreign sadhus before, but never one with the rank of Mahant. It implies a certain recognition by one’s fellow sadhus, a definite function in the hierarchy, and moreover, it confers lots of status. Well, there had been some opposition in the Council of Mahants against elevating a foreigner to this position, but his guru had cited ancient scriptures which had made it clear that sadhu sects must be fully accessible to non-Indians.
When I heard that Mahants have to make financial contributions to the sect, I wondered a bit cynically if Ramapriya Das’s generosity towards his guru might have influenced the positive outcome. It also appeared that Ramapriya Das had to contribute to the sect’s expenditures for this camp, and that he had rented this tent here, the folding bed for guru-ji, the mats, the stove, some utensils, etc. A very costly undertaking, such a festival.
Seen positively, however, his generosity showed of course his total involvement, his unconditional surrender to the guru and the brotherhood. And he got something in return, a kind of refuge in the ‘tribe’ and a father-son relationship with his guru, his ‘dispeller of darkness’. And what is more, he got respect. Like all sadhus, he was treated with the utmost deference, especially by the peasants and the villagers (still the large majority in India). They bowed down into the dust for him, touched his feet, brought him food and drink, and asked for his blessing. Only the townspeople, the modern Indians, infected with the Western virus of consumerism, were often less sympathetic.
From afar we heard someone shouting.
Ramapriya Das put on his spectacles (darkened prescription-glasses), looked over to the cluster of tents and said, “Lunch is ready.” He woke up his guru by softly shaking his leg. Out of his brightly coloured backpack he got a large plastic bag filled with medicines and vitamins. While he was making a cocktail of at least five different drugs he explained to me what they were good for — his ulcers, his constipation, his liver, his energy.
Lakshman Das, laying on his side on the bed, commented, “Ramapriya Das very unhealthy boy.”


A day or so later I went to see them again. Ramapriya Das was happy to see me and he showed me his improvements of the site. He had dug a shallow fireplace in front of the tent, and around it he had smoothed the ground and plastered it with cow-dung.
On the other side of the tree, where it casts its shadow in the morning, he had arranged another sitting area. There his guru was, reposing on his bed. We joined him, and sat down on the mats, at his feet.
“You must have guru,” Lakshman Das said straightaway. “Give me your right hand.”
Around my wrist he fastened a bracelet of plaited red and white threads and one wooden bead (the sacred tulsi wood), a cheap trinket no doubt, but rich in symbolism.
“Your name is now Mangal Das,” he proclaimed.
To hide my astonishment over this rapid and unasked-for ordination, I enquired after the meaning of Mangal. Mangal Nath — this I knew already — was the name of a temple nearby. And, well, today happened to be mangal-day, Tuesday. Mangal is another name for Hanuman, the monkey-god and most devoted servant of Rama. And it’s the name for Mars.
“It’s a nice name,” Ramapriya Das said smiling, “it also means ‘pretty face’ or something.”
I had to agree (flattered?) that it was a beautiful name, but inwardly I was holding off these attempts to turn me into a disciple. None of the hundreds of sadhus I had met before had ever tried to do so, let alone so blatantly. It wasn’t just that, being a sceptic, I couldn’t belong to any sect. I also knew that a disciple has to fulfil too many obligations and duties; some are virtual slaves.
But in this case that didn’t really apply, for I realized that the initiation wasn’t complete. He had not given me a mantra, had not whispered that sacred sound into my ear — and for my ears only — had not effected that transfusion of mind which is the essence of the whole affair. So, as long as it didn’t interfere with my freedom, why not go along with it, see where it would lead? And I liked the little bracelet — it looked bright — and my new name — it sounded sweet and strong.
“Mangal Das,” guru-ji spoke, “if you have problems you think of me. I see you, then I help.”
Out of his bag he produced a piece of black hash the size of a tennis-ball and started to prepare a chilam. I had to light it, and we smoked, the chilam going back and forth between us.
A bunch of pilgrims, simple peasants dressed in once-white garments and bright yellow turbans, came squatting at the edge of our territory. Timidly they murmured their greetings and just sat there, watching the two holy men and the foreigner. Ramapriya Das held out a handful of grapes and one by one they came forward, bowed low, stretched out both hands and received a few grapes — as prasad. ‘Divine food’, made sacred by the touch of a holy man, it transfers spiritual energy to the believer. The pilgrims went back to their spot and reverentially ate the grapes.
Guru-ji, laying on his bed, had closed his eyes, so his disciples could relax too. Reclining on the mats, we ate the rest of the grapes, and I had a chance to survey the scenery. Right in front of us was a shallow dry ditch with some shrubs, and behind it the rolling terrain stretched out in all directions. Far away a city-bus moved across the land followed by a huge cloud of dust. Birds were chirping in the bushes and tiny fruits fell from the tree overhead, its leaves rustling in the warm breeze.
“It’s nice and quiet here,” I commented.
“Yeah, man, this is the life!” Ramapriya Das called out, making a sweeping motion with his arm, encompassing the entire vista, “free, no worries, no stress!”
(As long as you have money, I thought.)
Of course, he continued, things would get worse in India too, with increasing materialism and consumerism, as was inevitable, but for the time being there were still plenty of good places. Their ashram near Mount Abu was also in a beautiful location, and usually he stayed there all the time when he was in India. He didn’t go anywhere else, wanting to stay near his guru. He owed him everything, his total transformation as a human being, with only one goal now, liberation and enlightenment. Naturally, he wasn’t there yet, not by a large measure — the road is long and difficult — but he was making progress.
One year ago he had undergone the ash-initiation, and ever since he rubbed his body twice a day with ashes from the holy fire. Next year he’d start with the ‘penance of the five fires’, doing meditation and japa, surrounded by five smoldering fires, under the hot summer sun. But he wasn’t ready yet; now it would kill him. And he had lots of plans for the ashram. He wanted to build an annex for guests, start an international school of yoga, plant a forest, grow his own vegetables, rear some animals, like elephants.
“Elephants?”
“Yeah, man, don’t you think it’d be great to have your own elephant?” he dreamed on. “Tomorrow guru-ji and I will be riding on an elephant. There is a procession from the town to our camp. Won’t you come and make some photos of us, Mangal Das-ji?”
The following morning, after some asking around in the overcrowded, hot, filthy and noisy town, I found the place where the procession would start, an ancient pilgrim’s lodginghouse near the railway-station. The area was cordoned off by police-constables armed with long sticks, who leisurely restrained the hundreds of people waiting for the holy men to come out. With my camera held high at the ready as evidence of my special status as photographer, I pushed through the crowd. The police made an opening for me — the ‘international press’ — and I went through the gate into the outer courtyard.
Three elephants, their grey skin adorned with intricate colourful patterns, were standing there impassively, each with its own mahout. I had seen them before in another sadhu-parade, so obviously they were for hire.
Some hundred sadhus poured out of the building, rushed across the courtyard out of the gate and with much shouting and shoving started to line up in disorderly rows.
They were followed by more solemn dignitaries, all with elaborate facial painting and some with extremely long hair in a topknot shaped like a flat hat. Among them I discerned Lakshman Das and Ramapriya Das.
They went over to one of the elephants, who was made to kneel, and with some effort they climbed on its back and took their seat on the square dais.
The elephant got up with a jerk, tilting the dais and almost throwing them off. But they clung to the railing and the giant animal lumbered out of the courtyard.
Ramapriya Das waved at me triumphantly from up high. He had his glasses on, but took them off — and made a gesture of blessing — when he saw me pointing the camera at him.
After some initial confusion the cavalcade took off, headed by a ragtag marching band playing popular devotional songs. The barefooted sadhus walked over the hot tar road, hardly cooled by the water freshly sprayed by the local fire-brigade’s tank-truck a hundred metres in front. The holy men looked wild and unruly with their long matted hair and flowing beards. Quite a few were almost nČked, except for their tiny arbandhs, but some were more sedately dressed in pieces of white cloth. Orange flags and banners with the insignia of their sect, and staffs and spears were carried aloft.
The Mahants on their elephants looked like kings in an oriental fairytale making their triumphal entry into town. All wore garlands of yellow flowers, and flower-petals were rained down on them by the devoted populace standing on roofs and balconies. In their turn the sadhus threw back flowers and sweets — as prasad, food from the gods — which were eagerly grabbed by the public.
Ramapriya Das was visibly enjoying the adulation of the crowd and from time to time he would lift his right hand and bless the populace. I wondered how much he’d had to pay for it.
On one of my next visits I found guru-ji by himself, stretched out on his bed, half in the tent. I sat down in the shade of the tree.
“Ramapriya Das is taking bath,” he said, and after a long pause, “he is good chela, he care for me.”
Was he insinuating that I wasn’t a good chela, a good ‘disciple’? Our relationship had cooled a lot. My doubts about him had grown. At previous meetings, whenever we were alone, he had asked me for hash. When I said that I didn’t have any, he would complain about the costs of this festival, implying no doubt that I — his chela — should give a contribution. I pretended not to understand. I knew that Ramapriya Das payed for everything (he was almost broke now), and besides, a ‘real’ sadhu doesn’t have to ask for it. It comes to him ‘naturally’, or he does without.
But most devastating had been a cheap trick he once tried to play on me. When Ramapriya Das was away on an errand or so, I saw Lakshman Das rummaging in his bag, furtively glancing at me, surreptitiously arranging things there. Then he gave me an aluminum coin and told me to close my hand tightly around it. I knew what was going to happen, an Indian astrologer had tried to fool me like this before. He’d said that if I spoke a mantra (he’d just given me) over my closed fist, the coin would ‘by the power of the mantra’ produce ashes (which, of course, would be ‘sacred’). And indeed, the coin became hot and when I opened my hand, there was some blue-grey ash. I didn’t know how he did it, but this ‘miracle’ was obviously the result of oxidation.
So I told guru-ji, “I know this trick.” He laughed, a bit embarrassed. Wanting to cover up his attempted deception, he explained how it worked. A substance he called ‘white stone’, when mixed with water and rubbed on the coin, would oxidize the aluminum. Then he elaborated on the many other wonderful, medicinal, properties of this ‘white stone’. I had hidden my disappointment, my contempt. Later I’d spoken with Ramapriya Das about it, who justified it as an innocent prank. “He’s such a child,” he’d said, “he just likes to play.”
I still wore my ‘initiation’-bracelet, but, symbolically, the white threads had become soiled and the sacred bead had fallen off unnoticed.
“Hey Mangal Das, you bring me some good charas?”
“No guru-ji, there was nothing available.” I lied, for I hadn’t really tried to get some, and I looked away from him.
The view over the terrain was now partly obstructed by a brightly coloured patchwork screen, two metres high and running for tens of metres along the dry gully. Behind this cotton fence were the latrines, used by hundreds of pilgrims and sadhus on a daily basis. So much for the nice scenery. But then, this is India, where picturesque sites often turn out to be the communal shitting grounds.
In the distance Ramapriya Das was approaching, his brass water-pot in his right hand, nČked except for his arbandh, his white skin unprotected by the ashes. He greeted me, as usual, enthusiastically, “Jay Shri Rama! Mangal Das-ji!” A tattoo on his right upper arm was now plainly visible, an indelible reminder of his former life. He scooped dark ashes out of a plastic bag, mixed them with water from his brass pot, and rubbed himself from top to toe. As usual he didn’t stop talking. He didn’t know if he would stay long enough to participate in the ‘Emperor’s Bath’, the climax of the whole festival, when all sadhus would march to the sacred river and take their holy dip. “All this damn DDT here makes me sick,” he shouted, making a sweeping motion with his arm. “The birds are falling dead from the trees.”
Rama-priya Das poses in a yoga posture. His body is covered with ashes from holy sadhu-fires. A bead (made of sacred tulsi wood) hangs on a thread around his neck and over his left shoulder he wears a string which may only be worn by ‘twice-born’, high-caste Hindus and sadhus of this sect.
Indeed, overzealous authorities fearing for epidemics caused by this gathering of millions of pilgrims, were sprinkling white powder in thick lines along roads and paths. It mixed with the dry dust, was stirred up by the wind and blown all over the place. Disinfectants were put in the water supply, and at night a jeep with a giant fan would traverse the streets, spewing out large clouds of repulsive gases, fumigating the town. In the camps, every few days, men with copper tanks on their backs would come along and squirt foul smelling liquids on the tents.
“DDT was banned in the West a long time ago, and now they’re dumping it in the Third World,” Ramapriya Das called out. “It’s a plot to poison the sadhus and those crazy Indians don’t want to listen to me. They even call it ‘medicine’!”
Guru-ji, having lost interest in this conversation, was just about to close his eyes for a nap, when a group of young travellers arrived. Foreigners, three boys and three girls. Lakshman Das almost jumped up, his eyes shining, and called out, “Jay Shri Rama! Sit down, sit down!” Ramapriya Das zealously pulled some mats over to the sitting area and called out to their ‘attendant’ (an older pilgrim who had volunteered to serve guru-ji for the rest of the festival, thus gaining religious merit) to bring tea.
The foreigners were some sort of neo-hippies. The boys had long hair, and all wore a colourful mix of Western and Indian clothes, necklaces, bracelets and rings. They were European, except one, who came from Brazil. In the train, on their way to this festival, they had met a sadhu who had told them about Lakshman Das and who had written his name and approximate location on a piece of paper. Lakshman Das was highly pleased with this demonstration of his fame and wanted to know who this sadhu was and what else he’d told about him. Alas, they had forgotten his name, but he’d spoken of foreign disciples or something.
Almost immediately one of the boys got an enormous chilam and a chunk of hash out of his bag, and soon the chilam was going round.
“Do you smoke?” one of the girls asked, hesitantly offering the chilam to me.
Lakshman Das lost no time in expounding his wisdom, “Guru is direct telephone with God!”
The young travellers looked at him in surprise. They didn’t seem to understand, so Ramapriya Das explained. Rapid and shrill, as usual, he showered them with his flood of words. About how fantastic Lakshman Das was and how fantastic it was to be a sadhu. About the terrible conditions in the West, and so on. He invited them to stay in their camp so they could be close to guru-ji.
“Life with no guru is like travelling in train with no ticket,” guru-ji interjected, and they laughed. A bit later he proclaimed, “guru mind is like elephant.” And then — that was really quick — he began to give them new names. “Your name is now This-and-that Das, and your name is So-and-so Das, and your name, let me think, ...”
I watched it from the sidelines. The new ‘disciples’ apparently found it all very amusing, weren’t really impressed, were just playing along. So I saw no need to tell them about my experiences with Lakshman Das — supposing they would listen to me — or tell them about other, ‘better’ gurus — assuming they were looking for one. Besides, I still had some sympathy for guru-ji — a holy man after all is human too — and I didn’t begrudge him his new disciples, and the hash. And finally, as is well known in India, one gets the guru one deserves. When I came back to my hotel that night, I cut the bracelet from my wrist. It was worn and dirty, not g@y anymore.

Epilogue 1

At the Haridwar Kumbha Mela in 1998

At a Kumbha Mela it's not always easy to find one's friends and acquaintances, and after a lot of enquiries I had found Sukhdev Das, a kathiya baba (one who permanently wears a wooden "chastity belt"), whom I had met before in Ujjain, and who I greatly appreciated.
We were very happy to meet again, and exchanged some news about mutual friends — sadhus and civilians. After a while he started talking about reincarnation in which he firmly believes. If there has been no se+, no longing even for se+, then one is reborn again as a bairagi (a Ramanandi renouncer); sometimes in between bairagi births as a householder, but then in Brindavan, the holy city of Krishna. And if those householders perform the right kind of bhakti (devotional worship), they'll certainly be reborn as baraigis. The bairagis stand at the top; the sannyasins (Shaiva renouncers) are "animals"!
Tea was served by one of his foreign chelas (disciples), Jagannath Das, an American. There were also an uninitiated Italian and an uninitiated Israeli.
Sukhdev Das, kathiya baba.
And the chilam, filled with good hash, made its rounds.
A new visitor arrived, an older Ramandi with grey beard and greying jata. He was heartily welcomed by Sukhdev Das and invited to sit next to him on the wooden platform or bed. I had recognized him immediately, it was Lakshman Das!
When he looked at me, I said with glad surprise, "Lakshman Das ji!" And he said, "your name is Dolf." (Would he still remember me as Mangal Das?)
I enquired after Ramapriya Das and it appeared that he wasn't here.
Together with Lakshman Das, an older woman, a Westerner in a loose red dress, had entered and sat next to me. She wore her bleached jata in a ponytail, and she had a distinct moustache, blond hairs, that extended in two lines to her chin. To Indians she must appear as a holy woman, although after talking to her I found she had no such pretensions. She was British, her name was Nancy but Sukhdev Das, in whose camp she was staying, lovingly called her Kali-ma, "my Kali-ma."
Yesterday, she told me, she'd had an amazing experience with Lakshman Das. A miracle! He'd given her a 10-paisa coin, which he had first wetted, and which she had to hold in her hand. Then she had to repeat mantras over it, concentrating on her hand and the coin had become almost unbearably hot, had dissolved into ash, had almost burned a hole in her hand, but there was no scar. Lakshman Das had said that she "possessed great Kali-power!" She was very happy about the experience, about her Kali-power.
I hesitated. Should I take away that happiness? Erase the darkness of superstition (but comforting belief and illusion) with the cold light of reason?
But then I told her. How Lakshman Das had tried the same trick on me. And I explained the mechanics: the chemical that together with the water causes the aluminum coin to oxidize rapidly; the heat caused by the oxidation; the grey-white aliminum-oxide powder. At first she refused to believe me, because yesterday she had told the story to Sukhdev Das, and he had supported the "Kali-power" explanation. So I told her again, ending with, "why would I lie to you? Let's confront them with the facts."
We had been talking in low voices, but Lakshman Das and Sukhdev Das seated on their platform on the other side of the dhuni had no doubt realised what we were talking about, and Lakshman Das, knowing he was being exposed as a cheat and a liar, was giving me dirty looks.
Kali-ma, a bit indignant, then asked Lakshman Das, "Well, how about it, did you put something on that coin?"
He still tried to deny it, but then I said to him that he himself had told me in Ujjain what kind of substance he had rubbed on the coin. But he said that he couldn't remember what he had told me. A pretty lame excuse. Sukhdev Das tried to support him by remarking that the actual facts didn't matter so much, but that we should realize how much "joy" the event had caused her.
But Kali-ma and I, almost simultaneously and in unison, said, "we're here to find the truth!"
And then Lakshman Das gave in, a bit anyway, and said it was "magic" and in a still softer voice, "a trick."
It diminished him, and by implication Sukhdev Das too.
We smoked a chilam. Kali-ma took a long deep draught. The babas now talked about Lakshman Das' teeth, or rather the lack of them. His dentures (once given to him by Rampriya Das) were broken and he badly needed new ones. "Two thousand rupees," he said to Kali-ma. Hoping perhaps she would give him the money?
It appeared his dentures were broken during a "robbery" of his ashram in Abu. He had been beaten up, the ashram had been demolished, even the tops of the trees in the garden had been cut off. And, of course, he had no money for repairs.
"What about Rampriya Das?" I asked, "wasn't he there to help you?"
"No, he has not come for three years," he answered, "not since the ardha-kumbh [half-kumbh] in Allahabad. Even now he did not come. And he took diksha [initiation] here in Hardwar twelve years ago."
That was indeed remarkable; to miss such an important 'anniversary' could only mean that Rampriya Das had broken with his guru.
"But he is free," Lakshman Das sighed. "I have many problems, but I am happy."
Bad karma, I thought.


Epilogue 2

At the Allahabad Kumbha Mela in 2001

At the Allahabad Kumbha Mela in 2001 I met Lakshman Das again.
We smoked a few chilams together. He had no chelas and Rampriya Das had never come back.
Rumour had it that he was living in California, with a girlfriend.


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