Hinduism: “A body of religious and philosophical beliefs and cultural practices native to India and based on a caste system; it is characterized by a belief in reincarnation, by a belief in a supreme being of many forms and natures, by the view that opposing theories are aspects of one eternal truth, and by a desire for liberation from earthly evils”
Varanasi is the most holy Hindu city and the spiritual home of India’s Sadhus – or Holy Men. They are revered by Hindus as representatives of the Gods and sometimes worshipped as Gods themselves. They are ascetics and wanderers and are often displayed as private, dignified, selfless people, respected for their holiness and feared for their curses.
Sadhus occupy a unique and important place in Hindu society, as holiness is a day-to-day way of life in India. These Holy Men are on a perpetual pilgrimage whilst living amongst major urban cities in contemporary India. Sadhus do not work and are supported by the public through donations. The rigors of spiritual practice – a strict prayer regime of mantras, devotions and personal vows and a series of seemingly arbitrary self-imposed physical hardships – test the limitations of the Sadhu’s human form. Aspiring to a spiritual separation from the world, they are freed of human attachments and common luxuries. For outsiders, the radicalism and unfathomable complexity of their task, to reach the pure and holy plane of a Sadhu, can seem a simplistic reaction to the world one might interact with them in.
I stayed in Varanasi for three months, spending time with the Sadhus for the ‘The Men Behind The Holy Men’ Series. My initial access into their secret world was through ‘Baba Moonie,’ an outcast Sadhu exiled by the Aghori-Sadhus who live in the Cremation Grounds where they keep company with the ghosts as part of the Sadhu holy path. ‘Baba Moonie’ now roams alone. He spoke the Queens’ English, had devilish good looks, and his conversation occasionally revealed sinful intentions. Amongst these contradictions, the authenticity of his commitment was easy to question whenever conversation verged on insincerity. He was nine when he lost his voice or, as he said, it was stolen from him. Years later it was returned to him through his Guru’s energy and this voice could only speak English. ‘Baba Moonie’ took me with him everywhere and often commented on “The People” and what he meant to them, saying, “They love me and they test me.” To him the bountiful praise he received was also his burden, as he often commented on the labor of living as a holy man. He said he learnt to be patient and tolerate them and their lack of knowledge, as this was his role. Though he called “The People” foolish and ignorant, his dislike for them seemed unalterable.
Through ‘Baba Moonie’ I went on to explore other significant Sadhus from all sects of Hinduism. I spent hours sitting with them hearing their stories and learning their anthropological viewpoints.
The Sadhus varied in age, from ‘Old Baba,’ who was highly respected and yet equally ignored, left alone to himself and his ways, to ‘Young Baba,’ who carried himself with a certain type of masculinity, strength, intimidation, and an overarching beauty that could not be refused.
The Sadhu’s degrees of separation from wealth and luxury also varied. Some were like ‘Moonie Baba,’ who denied himself speech and insisted on communicating through illustrations and sought me out with official invitations to the luxurious Naga Baba headquarters where he exuded immeasurable generosity and untroubled company.
I also met with a female Baba, who, as an orphan, was given the choice of becoming a holy woman, or joining the thousands of other street children in Calcutta. She now runs a convent of twelve young orphan girls training them in the Sadhvi way.
My communication with the Sadhus was diverse from ‘Aghori Baba,’ who summoned and refused my presence on countless occasions via his numerous assistants, to ‘Naga Baba,’ whose story I felt most attracted to as I corresponded with him only through letters and debatable translations.
Among the many varieties of Sadhu I encountered, their many complexities were often shrouded in overly abstract, seemingly simplistic mystery. When asked what it meant to be a Sadhu, ‘Monkey Baba,’ for example, replied that, “Everything it means will be revealed when I die and pass into the next world for it’s then that I will truly live.” I met many strong, strange and interesting characters during this project and I admire the Sadhus I photographed, with all their human flaws and desires.
My attempt to understand the people behind the Sadhus – and what it means to be a Sadhu – was both frustrating and curiously addictive. I’ve wondered if the tedious and irksome obligations they choose in their spiritual path can be humbled by the bountiful praise and respect bestowed upon them, and if such a balance exists.
These portraits explore the tension between the exacting standards required of Sadhus and the real men and women behind their holy title. In a world that both reveres holiness and also fears it, these images express the authenticity of Sadhus in clean, clear-eyed portraits. They are presented as straight on headshots, simple and impersonal, as the Sadhus may view themselves: alone with their spiritualism, set apart from any worldly context. In their expressions, I do however wonder if the clear realities of their human faces betray the kind of religious separation from worldliness they strive for.
Does faith remove you from the world or place you at its heart?
You can view more of Lynzy’s work at www.lynzybilling.co.uk