Ash-smeared bodies and an air of mysticism: Who are the Naga Sadhus?
Voices Thursday, July 03, 2014 - 05:30
The News Minute| July 3, 2014| 04:45 pm IST Controversy erupted after Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati questioned the Sai Baba of Shirdi claiming that he is not a God and was in fact, raised a Muslim. Following this remark, the devotees of the Sai Baba held protests in Varanasi while those of Swami Swaroopanand, the Shankaracharya went out in favour of the seer. This aggravated tensions between the two groups. Reports suggested that the Shankaracharya threatened to unleash the Naga Sadhus on the Sai Baba followers. However, in later reports, he clarified that he hadnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t urged them to attack the followers of Sai Baba but wouldnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t stop them if they wanted to do so. So, we took a look at who these warrior- ascetics are and what they do. The term nag or naga means naked. These nude or semi-nude ascetics are followers of Shiva, they renounce the world- their families and materialism and adopt a celibate, ascetic lifestyle. Their long matted hair and ash-smeared bodies are considered representative of the God himself. The cult is believed to have begun in the 8th century by the Adi Shankaracharya, he is said to have established seven akharas or branches to protect the faith. Today, there are over 12 akharas, the naga sadhus are part of these different akharas. Of these, the juna akhara is the largest. Traditionally, akharas also mean wrestling arenas and the sadhus are often skilled at a type of martial art along with other tricks and feats. Initiation into most akharas is open to both men and women. The sadhus are expected to go through various tests, some severe, before they are anointed a naga sadhu. The anointment is done at the Kumbh Mela- at Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain. Once initiated, they become a member of the akhara, renouncing their worldly lives behind. During the Kumbh, these sadhus suddenly come to epitomize mysticism and become the favourite subject of the photographersĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ lenses. And from what texts and articles suggest, they are expected to adorn themselves with 17 shringars or adornments. These include grooming their hair or sometimes shaving it off, wearing the holy beads and bangles/ bracelets, smearing their bodies with ash and carrying the trident and conch shells as weapons. According to an article on a Kumbh Mela website, the sadhusĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ use of marijuana or chillum is also part of a process of avoiding distractions and many eventually stop feeling the need to use it. Traditionally, the naga sadhuĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s life is one of meditation, penance and renouncement, and it is only during the Kumbh that they make a public appearance.