Smokin' Sadhus: India's Wandering Stoned Holy Men
Sadhus live a spiritual life and many smoke a lot of hash while doing so
By Tim Leffel
The half-naked man pushes back his orange turban and gets down to work. The Sadhu breaks off chunks of hash and mixes them with tobacco in his bony fingers, then dumps the contents into a chillum (conical clay pipe).
The flaming wooden match lights up the painted lines on his forehead as he shouts, "Bom Shiva!" and starts puffing away, his head disappearing behind a cloud of smoke.
After two massive lungfuls, he passes the pipe on to his brethren, more thin men dressed in a minimum of cloth, with long beards, matted hair, and a happily glazed look in their eyes.
Sadhus of India
They are sadhus, India's wandering holy men. They have renounced their worldly life, said goodbye to both their possessions and their families, and now lead a life of celibacy, ascetic yoga, and a search for enlightenment.
Most make pilgrimages across the subcontinent and spread ashes on their body, while the most radical test themselves by holding one arm in the air for years on end or spending twenty-four hours a day standing up. A far more pleasant and widespread characteristic, however, is the tendency to get stoned out of their minds on a regular basis.
Out of their minds
In fact "out of their minds" is a good goal to shoot for, as rational thought then gives way to a less earthly purpose. Like tribal North Americans drinking peyote mixtures or Rastafarians lighting up a big spliff, the purpose is a journey to a higher plane.
While sadhus can be divided into a zillion different sects, most follow either the god Vishnu (the preserver) or Shiva (the destroyer, and thus, the rejuvenator). While many followers of Vishnu manage to find reasons to smoke charrus (hash) for enlightenment, it's the latter group that really has a ready excuse. Shiva is generally pictured meditating alone in the Himalayas, his eyes half closed from the effects of his hash habit.
As Dolf Hartsuiker puts it in his authoritative book Sadhus, the Holy Men of India, "Mythologically, charas is intimately connected with Shiva: he smokes it, he is perpetually intoxicated by it, he is The Lord of Charas." Or as one young sadhu less eloquently put it, "Shiva is a cooool god!"
This perception goes a long way in explaining the Indian government's lax attitude toward marijuana and hash. Thousands of backpackers descend on India each year, some of them lured by easily available cannabis and hash.
While the police have cracked down in Goa, where only foreign tourists are partaking, they stay out of the way elsewhere, especially in pilgrimage areas. Dry up the supply of hash and they'll have some very unhappy sadhus to deal with. And since the sadhus are thought to be representatives of the gods… well, no Hindu cop wants to be on the God of Destruction's s**t list.
So by becoming social outcasts and smoking ganja or charas, the sadhus can claim that they are only trying to emulate Shiva. If even the most devout Hindu man were to sit down to talk with a group of sadhus, he would have no choice but to join in if the chillum came his way. To refuse the pipe would be to pass up the chance, the obligation really, to share a holy experience with the ascetics.
Steady stream of visitors
And many people do join them. As I sat for a half hour with a group of three sadhus near Manikaran, a steady stream of visitors came through: an old woman depositing some coins and flowers by a shrine of tridents, a farmer dropping off some vegetables, and two broken-down truck drivers with a big hunk of charas to share.
The last two were most warmly welcomed. When I naively asked one sadhu how he got around the country, he looked puzzled. "Train is free," he said simply. "Food free, train free, charas free. Baba's life is a good life."
Of course, there's a fine line between living off alms and being a shameless beggar. Some men draped in orange rags are merely the latter seeking a more profitable method. Those who hang out around backpacker guesthouses are particularly suspect, as are the elaborately costumed and painted men in Kathmandu's Durbar Square, fakes who aggressively hit up vacationing tourists for photo money. "Those guys are no holier than me," scoffed one Nepali shopkeeper nearby. "They're much richer though-I ride a bike to work each day but that fat one takes a taxi from his house!"
Of those that are for real, not all of them reach enlightenment, but what religion makes the effort so much fun? Besides, after they've smoked for twenty years solid, few are probably going to be too bothered about much of anything, including whether they've seen the light or not. More importantly, just by becoming a sadhu they've detached themselves from the reincarnation wheel and become casteless-a big motivation in itself for those who were on the bottom rung before.
To top it off, the afterlife is a nice one as well. According to Hindu beliefs, when a sadhu dies he leaves his body and floats off to Mount Kailash, the source of the Ganges River and the home of Shiva. There he goes about a life of doing pretty much what he was doing anyway: smoking heavenly hash and meditating in divine bliss. This probably offers some explanation as to why most don't seem too concerned about their health.
Bone shaking coughs
A lot of the older ones have obviously been at this a long time. Many have a beard that tickles their navel and long locks wrapped into a towering bun on their head. (You put your weeeed in it, man!) They also have little in the way of muscles left and many have a bone-shaking cough that would make a lung specialist wince.
Others display the classic signs of potheads the world over: little energy, a lack of motivation, difficulty maintaining a train of thought, and scant attention to personal hygiene. And when shooting photos of these guys with a flash, using the red-eye reduction seems pretty pointless.
It must be noted, though, that there are quite a few sadhus who don't smoke at all. Somewhere, somehow, they got the idea that it was counter-productive.