In 1930, a sadhu named Dhoortanand had come to a wealthy household of one Lalaji, promising him to double his wealth by conducting a three-day tapasya (penance, ritual). The next morning, Lalaji had to go to the police station to report on the absconding sadhu and the missing wealth. Apparently, Lalaji was not the only one to have fallen prey to the promise of becoming richer; such a tapasya, according to the police, was conducted in at least twenty-five households. Published under the title Gerua Daaku (Ochre-Robe Robber) under a Kahkaha series (joke-stories), the story and the name itself – Dhoortanand, meaning deceitful – symbolised the extent to which the figure of the sadhu had become the stock of social mocking in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Cutting across layers of time, perhaps there is no other Indian figure that comes close to sadhus in being seen as the bearer of disguise and artiste of deceit. From the times of the Ramayana when Ravana disguised as a sadhu abducted Sita to that of the initial reports on the Palghar lynching, the element of disguise – bad men in ochre coloured cloth – has been part of the social consciousness with which sadhus are revered, respected, ridiculed, abused, and politicised.
This is obviously not a new social phenomenon of the last twenty or thirty years, during which we have seen very popular holy-men ending up in jails on various charges of treason, murder, rape, sexual assault, running sex rackets, hoarding arms, and indulging in financial mis-regulation. In 2017, the apex body of Hindu sadhus – Akhil Bhartiya Akhara Parishad – issued a list of 14 ‘charlatans’ who, they claimed, brought disrepute to the name of sadhus. In the age of fake news, the organisation felt the need to release a list of ‘fake babas’ that also included one woman.
The little pondered point in all this is: how does the element of disguise, deeply entrenched in Indian psyche (as a child I was often reminded of not tip-toeing in the darkness of the outside alone lest a sadhu or a ‘budha baba’, an old man, will lure me away), disrupts our cosmos of faith and politics. While it is apt to call out the politicisation and communalisation of two recent crimes against the sadhus, the answer to the larger question of why this violence in the first place becomes possible is most likely hidden in the power of disguise and mystery of reverence through which sadhus and sadhvis themselves act, and through which the society venerates them.
The history of disguise, known through epics and tales, is as old as the history of reverence. In the everyday practice of social engagement related to events of lifecycle such as birth, job, promotion, marriage, property, progeny, and illness, respect and disenchantment follow the specific context of the interaction between devotees/believers/clients and their babas and gurus. For some, their intervention yields positive results, for others, they become ‘useless’ or ‘powerless’. The belief in charisma mixes with the fear of a stranger – clothed in ochre robe – that produces a volatile situation, allowing mistrust to be no longer directed against an individual but towards the generic figure – sadhu – itself. So, for those who ingenuously believe that Indian society had an unbroken unquestionable faith in good deeds of sadhus, the account below will serve as an example of both ‘fact-check’ and ‘history-check’.
Nationalism as a ‘reforming’ project
In the first three decades of the twentieth century, the Hindi speaking belt fumed over the ‘social ills’ of the sadhu samaj (community of sadhus). Their change became the project of national reform. To some surprise to our belief, which is built upon the current understanding of ‘secular polity’, the ways proposed to reform them was through the route of direct politicisation based upon the ideology of anti-colonial nationalism. It was a time when disguise was both feared and applauded; when sadhus were both seen as Bolshevik agents and a committed army of Gandhian emissaries spreading the messages of swaraj and dharma.
In the Indian subcontinent, politics and religion have a long secret affair with each other. The disguise of the sadhu, from time to time, makes this affair theatrical and scandalous (remember Chandraswami from P. V. Narasimha Rao days or rape-accused Nithyananda who fled India to set up a new nation of Kailasa in an island in Ecuador). In the new habitat of mediatised life and polarised politics, the older element of disguise intermittently manifests in violent ways, as happened tragically with two sadhus and their driver in Palghar.
In the new age of modernity of the early twentieth century, the Hindi literate world was exposed to the deeds of ‘Kalyugi Sadhu’, not in a dissimilar way from the contemporary exposé of the ‘fake babas’. For instance, in an imaginary letter written by a worried Shakuntala to her aunt on the declining importance of pilgrim sites, (published in the famous Hindi magazine of Chaand in May 1928), the aunt held the samrajya of pakhandiyon (the empire of deceits) responsible for it. In another, written two years ago in the same magazine, sadhus were said to have become slaves to their senses ruled by taamas (corruption and aggression), avidhya (ignorance), and artha-sanchaar (greed). Numerous letters, editorials, poems, essays, and satires published in leading magazines such as Chaand, Stree Darpan, Lakshmi, and Ganga mocked and lamented the decline in the moral certitude of sadhus. The ‘real’ ones of the old times had disappeared; the modern sadhus were the new age ‘thugs’.
Concerned with the return of Kaliyug as an age of moral and social degeneration, the early twentieth century literate world grieved on the loss of those who were to provide the spiritual guidance. Exploitative colonialism, half-baked capitalism, new regime of clock-discipline, and modern sensibilities of consumption triggered the sense of lament. But the resolution of sadhus’ depravity was not found in rediscovering the path of individual self-purity but in assigning them a role in national politics. The contrast between moral depravity of this group and their neglect towards the nation was clearly laid out, for example, in this poem from 1926:
कंचन और कामिनियों पर, रहती इनकी दृष्टि सदा,
बात बात में ये करते हैं, स्वर्ग नर्क की सृष्टि सदा,
रहे राष्ट्र कंगाल, यहाँ तो, होती धन की वृष्टि सदा,
जनता भूखों मरे, यहाँ तो, रहती भोग समस्ती सदा,
अड्डे और अखाड़े तीर्थ, लमपटियों के बने हुवे,
क्या देंगे उठ्ठान हमें जो, स्वयं पाप में सने हुवे.
On beautiful and young women are their gaze fixed,
On every occasion they invoke heaven and abyss,
The nation remains poor, but here, the wealth rains,
People die of hunger, but here, excess and indulgence prevails,
The goons are ruling the centres of pilgrimage,
What reawakening will those teach us, who are soiled in sins.
The work of collective national regeneration arguably required sadhus to direct their wealth of wisdom acquired through penance towards national freedom and progress. An editorial went to the extent of claiming that a few organised sadhu groups could produce incredible national awareness which even thousands of non-cooperation movements couldn’t.
Various calls made in pamphlets and essays titled Bharatvarsha ke Sadhu (Sadhus of India), Sadhuwon ka Sangathan (The Organisation of Sadhus), Rashtra ka Uththaan aur Sadhu-Samaj (The National Awakening and the sadhu-Community), Sadhuwon ki Shiksha (The Education of Sadhus), Bharat ki Bhaavi Unnati (The Future Progress of India) and many more of this variety, which all pondered over their depravity, lust, and greed, suggested that on reform they could become efficient ‘dharm sainiks’ (religious soldiers) and political emissaries.
It was so because they were itinerant, generally revered but currently debauched, and domestically unattached. And this was precisely the dilemma: on the one hand, the itinerant strangeness was seen as a benefit for deploying them in the cause of the nation, on the other, the deceits of the likes of Dhoortanand also and only became possible through the surfeit of disguise. Modernity and reformist nationalism both amplified their problem and attracted them to a direct political involvement. While sadhus were imagined to strengthen the messaging of nationalism, it was the ‘purity of nationalism’ itself which was thought to reform them.
Who were they?
है नहीं जिनको ज़रा भी ध्यान अपने देश का,
जिनके दिल कुछ भी असर होता नही उपदेश का,
एक अक्षर भी पढ़े लिक्खे नहीं होते हैं जो,
आजकल घरबार तज कर साधु बन जाते हैं वो,
रंग लिए कपड़े कमंडल भी लिया एक हाथ में,
बांध लगोंटी जटा सिर भस्म सारे गाट में.
With no feeling towards our nation,
On whom, is no effect of any sermon,
Those, who are completely illiterate and ignorant,
These days, renounce their homes and become sadhus,
They have their cloth coloured, and also sport a kamandal (a brass pot),
Wrapped in loin-cloth, the head and hair all ash-smeared.
In a tract named Nakli Sadhu (Fake Sadhu, published from Benares, 1916), which featured the above poem, a vigilant Shastriji exposed the truth of the ‘new age’ sadhus. Besides alleging that they rejoiced in reciting ‘ganja mantra’ and seeking sex with widows in Kashi, Shastriji exposed the truth that anyone who could don an ochre rob, including a fourteen-year-old, could become a sadhu. In an encounter at a railway platform, signifying itinerancy, a sadhu ‘accepted’ this truth: he never had a guru (in fact, he himself claimed to be one) and while being at Kashi, he opened some patras (folios of texts) to every pundit inquiring what these ‘black letters’ meant. These men, nonetheless, acquire high sounding titles such as Virjanand, Dharmanand, and Asteyanand.
Other tracts pointed to different reasons behind someone turning into a sadhu that included famines and agrarian distress, but a majority of them referred to domestic feud, sloth and laziness, illiteracy, and indifference towards work. One author compared their unproductivity with pigeons in Germany, who according to him, were more productive.
The unemployed and the unwilling turned to begging under the disguise of the sadhu. In some cases, true repentance for greed turned a wealthy man into a sadhu; in others, such as Premchand’s Karmabhoomi, Amarkant became a wanderer-sadhu not only because of the appeal of Gandhian nationalism (which he drifted from, only to return to it later) but also because of his father’s reproach and wife’s dominance.
These literary examples actually corresponded to real life incidents. In Calcutta, in 1916, the C.I.D nabbed a Rajput who had become a sadhu and had enrolled chelas (disciples) to commit shop and motor car robberies. In Amarkot, in 1913, a C.I.D detective who was on the tail of a sadhu – whose past was not known – himself got exposed as a police spy and finally became the sadhu’s disciple. The stories only get fascinatingly colourful as one digs deeper into literature, police records, and newspaper reports.
Disguise, however, eventually met its obverse: the technique that recorded identities. The burst in publications on sadhus followed the colonial technology of enumeration. Literature represents social reality and governance constitutes and inflects it. The sense of numbers, newly introduced by Census, made the problem look ‘acute’. The porous boundary of social locations from which sadhus came was accentuated by the knowledge derived from quantified numbers. Reportedly, according to these tracts published after the 1911 Census, India had 50-70 lakhs of sadhus who were not only a drain on the economy because they were dependent on others for their food and shelter, but also a waste of resource who ought to be better utilised. The chosen pious service was in spreading the message of nationalism.
The fear of disguise
The year was 1920 and the month December. Two things made the Congress Nagpur Session historical. One, the unanimous resolution on non-cooperation movement and second the Congress’ official sanction to take up the cause of workers. Post-First World War, the industrial strikes had spiked up. The Rowlatt Satyagraha had started a year ago. The first mass phase of the national movement was swelling to expand.
A little known fact from the Nagpur session is the attendance of 106 sadhus whom Gandhi thanked for becoming messengers of the non-cooperation movement. The hitherto dispersed efforts to unite the sadhus finally took shape in the Congress’ forum as a Sadhu Sangha was formed with the aim to establish provincial branches for disseminating the idea of swaraj. Soon, next year in April, an All India Political Sadhu Sabha was established with headquarters in Hardwar. A committee of 15 was formed to draft rules and draw up a programme. These institutional and locational affiliations did not make identification easier though.
The inexplicable of Indian society, in colonial minds, was often made intelligible through religion and religious figures as they captured and explained the fear and fascination of the ‘mysterious east’. As historian Kim Wagner has shown, religious mendicants, ascetics, yogis, faqirs, and sadhus were thought to be behind the 1830s peak in ‘thuggee’, in conspiring the 1857 ‘mutiny’, and in fanning the unrest of the 1890s. As during these previous episodes, the period of the 1910s-20s also caught the colonial state unaware but then, the endemic lack of information could only be filled by an increased surveillance. But when a gang of 40 sadhus from Gujarat finally arrived in north Bihar via Allahabad, Benares, Ghazipur, and Ballia in 1918, the superintendent of police in Saran noted down in his personal diary: “mission unknown”.
Various sadhus pop up in the diaries, character chargesheets, confidential reports, and demi-official letters of the colonial officials who tried to track their movements and past records. The sadhus, in turn, attained greater but predictable circuits of mobility as they used railways to visit industrial centres such as Jharia and Jamalpur, Asansol and Lilooah in Bihar and Bengal. They gave speeches, claimed charisma, encouraged strikes, distributed pamphlets, and preached on cow-slaughter and Hindu-Muslim unity. A pamphlet, Swaraj ka Gola (Fireball of Freedom, early 1920s) exhorted people to “listen to Gandhi and become ready now”, to “be a mendicant if you want to maintain the prestige of India in the world”.
For these emissaries, Gandhi became the template of political activism. But on the ground, many of them overturned the message of Gandhi when talking about race, labour unrest, and social boycott. It were not only Russian films, showing the achievements of Bolshevik revolution that the colonial state wanted to control, the itinerant sadhus had also become Bolshevik agents in their eyes. The element of disguise kept the colonial state anxious about their motives and intentions. When it able to find, the police character ‘chargesheets’ described a few of them as men of ‘low character’, without livelihood, and visiting prostitutes.
The newness of the 90s
One thing seems pretty clear in all this: the disguise of the sadhus has disguised them as the subjects of this colourful past. They inhabited the unspecified cracks of not belonging to any of the neatly defined blocks of conservativism, nationalism, and radicalism. For the state, they became the perpetrator of mischief and bearer of Bolshevik radicalism, and therefore treated as an object of surveillance. For the society, ideally, they remained the figure of respect but practically of contempt; for nationalist organisations, they were seen as an army of unproductive lot who needed reform through nationalism. For the historian, they remain a usually untouched subject of research because their ambiguous pasts of consolidating workers and at the same time professing to ‘save’ religion unsettles certain definite notions about the present.
A day before sadhus were lynched to death in Palghar, two doctors were also caught and beaten by the locals. Rumours of child kidnappers and raiders coming to the villages had reportedly circulated. A premeditated judgement was arrived at that sadhus were in disguise. The selective media politicisation over the lynching added a new meaning to the ‘aura’ of disguise by stripping it off of all historical complexity and reducing it to communal identity. But the culture and politics since the 1980s have slowly brewed this concoction.
With the inception of the Indian variety of tele-evangelism since the early 90s, a renewed importance of the figure of ‘holy-men and women’ in our social, cultural, and commercial life has taken place. Nearly all aspects of our everyday life – from deciding the colour of the cloth to be worn on a particular day to that of the position of the toilet in the house – have been stirred by 24/7 sermons on the benefits of things such as Vaastu, stone rings, ‘nationalised’ yoga, daily horoscope, and not least, the art of living. The tension between an ideal venerable figure and a charlatan has simply multiplied. The pervasive mediatised faith in things that are quotidian in nature but are deemed governed by cosmic energy and planetary movements is a new feature of consumption-ridden Indian cosmopolitan life.
Around the same time, in the 1980s and 90s, the political mobilisation around the issue of masjid-mandir started, which renewed the importance of the figure of the sadhu and the sadhvi in Indian political life. Now, the intermixing of religion and politics has gone to such an extent that politicians appear in the ‘disguise’ of sadhus. No guess there!
Politically, in the rise of sadhus is encapsulated the ascendancy of Hindu neo-orthodoxy, which professes conservatism in its values and modernity in its claim. It quickly adapts itself to the needs of the changing times but professes to adhere to the customs from Indra’s times. While ‘disguise’ continues to operate, as some godmen continue to build empires of wealth with tunnels carved inside their mansions, the new echo-chamber of hate-politics, fake-news, and polarised social beliefs present an event such as Palghar in unambiguous religious framework. Arnab Goswami took a lead in presenting the death of two sadhus as an attack on 80 per cent Hindus orchestrated by Sonia Gandhi. The historical past of disguise was sacrificed at the altar of politically motivated reporting.
There would always be good sadhus and clever charlatans. In their everyday lives, people would filter through them using their experience and engagement with them. There was politicisation of sadhus attempted in the past; there is a politicisation done over them in the present. In the past, the accent was on their reform through nationalism, which meant the society accepted their ills. In the present, the clear articulation of the shrill media is on their Hindu identity to stoke suspicion and social polarisation in the name of exclusionary nationalism.
If history repeats itself, it is about time that the literate society, at least of the Hindi belt, takes exception to two things. One, the media-fuelled hatred that deliberately, and dastardly, invents symbolic icons of ‘imagined communities’ to fuel divisions in the society, and two, to question itself for allowing the increasing number of ‘charlatans’ gaining ground in every aspect of our everyday life. This is what the fore-fathers and -mothers of this public sphere had tried to do around hundred years ago.