Published in First City, July 2013
Whether we like it or not, the Kumbh Mela has become popular globally because of the naked sadhus, men with matted hair smeared with ash who dance hysterically and wash themselves in the Ganga. Their flamboyance, which is rarely public, gets the media to focus its attention on India, and with it comes the enquiry: Who are these people? Do they have access to wisdom that eludes the modern world? And so, people come to India seeking the great sage.
There are many words for sage in India: rishi, brahmin, yogi, sadhu, siddha, yati, kavi, sant, muni, shraman, tapasvi, guru, mahant, buddha, arhat, tirthankar, jina. But they really mean very different things. To appreciate it all, we have to perhaps appreciate the history of thought in the Indian subcontinent.
In the hymns that constitute the Veda, we find repeated mention of the word rishi. These are ‘seers’ – those who saw what others would not see, or could not see. They observed nature and they ‘heard’ the Veda that they then transmitted through hymns. They were also called ‘kavis’ or poets. They could see beyond the tangible, at the intangible – at the emotional and intellectual realm. They valued thoughts as much, or even more, than thoughts. We visualize them today as old men with grey beards, but the Veda is non-specific. We have rishis and kavis who are everything from housewives seeking the attention of their husbands to gamblers who are unable to give up their addiction.
One of the fundamental ideas that emerge from the Vedic period is the human mind can expand and be more inclusive and aware of the infinite cosmos. When, instead, it crumples, we stay trapped in fear. All rituals and symbols and stories are meant to cope with this fear and hopefully reverse the process so we are wise and liberated. He who knows this is the brahman. He who shows the path to this is the brahman.
The word brahman eventually gave way to the brahmin, the priest, who transmitted all the hymns, rituals and symbols that enabled this Vedic wisdom. Rituals of purification came into being to ensure the wisdom was not contaminated by thought or deed. This made the brahmins increasingly isolated from the rest of society and they became the elite in the social hierarchy with knowledge of esoteric wisdom. Later, when temple rituals became more popular than fire rituals, these brahmins became temple priests who lived in and around vast temple complexes, access to which was limited.
The yati opposed it. He was the hermit, who sat in the forest, and approached Vedic wisdom directly, without the intervention of hymns, rituals, symbols and deities. He, in fact, shunned, society itself. He was the sadhu, the one who is simple. He was the sadhak, the one who does sadhana, mental effort. He was the muni, the silent one. He was the sanyasi, the one who renounces society. He preferred yoga, for yagna. Yoga was more about the mind within while yagna was more about the world around. The yogi who valued yoga saw yagna as merely an external expression of inner turmoil; what mattered more was unknotting the mind.
While the brahmins got increasingly specialized, turning into hotrs (overseers), advaryus (performers), udgatirs (singers), a movement arose that valued meditation and contemplation over chanting and ritualism. This was the shraman movement, those who shun rituals and value their own mental effort. These opposed brahmins and their Veda and their notions of pollution.
Amongst these shramans came the Buddhist and Jain movements. The leader of the Buddhist movement was the Buddha, which means the one who is enlightened. He valued meditation and contemplation over all things. The leader of the Jain movement was the Jina, he who conquers the senses and the mind. He was called Tirthankara, because he led people on the pilgrimage (tirtha) across the ford (tirtha) to the other shore – beyond the world of things to the world of thoughts, beyond the world of acquisition to the world of renunciation. He who achieved his goal was called the arhat in Buddhism. In Jainism, an arhat or arihant was yet-to-achieve wisdom; the one who did was the siddha, the accomplished one.
On one hand, we had ritualists with knowledge of Veda in the city and then we had sages in the forest who were hermits, who renounced all things material.
But were the hermits celibate? Did they have family? With Buddhism and Jainism comes the idea of the monk, the one who gives up family and all forms of pleasure, especially sexual pleasure. For pleasure is to be found elsewhere. Happiness does not have do with someone or something – all joy springs internally from the mind.
But the rishis we find in the Purans are often married. So Agastya has a wife called Lopamudra, Vasishtha has Arundhati, Atri has Anasuya. But this trend of the married sage wanes. We have the rise of the tapasvi, who performs tapasya, and churns tapa, inner fire, through meditation and contemplation and ascetic practices called tapasya. Atri’s son, Datta, is one of them. Another is Vyasa’s son, Suka. With celibacy comes magical power, siddha, that enables the siddha-purush to manipulate space and time at will. Thus we have the nath-jogis who can create water from rocks and make barren women fertile. These wandering ascetic sages speak both of philosophy and magic and the two worlds become one.
In the post-Buddhist period there is increasing reference to celibate hermits, who are neither Jain nor Buddhist. For want of a better word, we shall call them Hindus, although this term was not used until 19th century, by the British, for administrative convenience.
In the Purans, we have stories of ascetic men being tempted and seduced by asparas, damsels of the gods. We see the tension of the hermit and the householder. We find attempts to compromise: with people being told to renounce the world and become sanyasis after completing worldly duties. Then we have the idea of achieving wisdom while being a member of society – the householder hermit. This idea gains ground in the Puranic tradition that is post-Buddhist. With this rises the need for a guru, the enabler, one who brings wisdom of the sage into the court of the king.
Like the brahmin of yore, who used his role as transmitter of lore to dominate society, the gurus and the hermits also saw themselves as better than the laity, the shravak, those who listen. Instead of enabling the masses, they enjoyed controlling the masses with directives. And the masses often loved it as it liberated them from the burden of taking decisions and being responsible for their lives. So we have images of the ‘cat-yogi’ in Mammalpuram, near Chennai, dated to the 10th century, who feeds on foolish ‘rat-followers’.
From this cynicism and satires rose the sant tradition of bhakti of emotional surrender to God. The idea of God evolved in India slowly. At first, it was expression of the inner perfection of all humans, one that we can strive for and realize. Later, God became an external idea, an outside force that sets things in order. The idea was popularized by poets known as Alvars, codified in the south by Vedic scholars like Ramanuja and spread to the north by thinkers like Ramanand. The arrival of Islam, with its notion of an external all powerful God, catalyzed this shift.
From the 14th century, inspired by Ramanand, came the songs of sants (saints, holy men) spreading across India. These were ordinary people – weavers, cobblers, potters, butchers, smiths, warriors – who through song and music spoke of communion with a formless God without intervention of priests and gurus and intellectuals. Others spoke of devotion to God with form, like Shiva or Vishnu or Ram or Krishna. These were the bhakts, devotees, who surrendered completely to an idea outside themselves and society and found peace there. A bhakta or sant was no muni or sanyasi or rishi. He approached things emotionally and that made him very popular. A different sage, most popular one at that, emerged.