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'My introduction to North Indian sadhus via the Prayagraj Magha Mela etc.'

Article Submitted By: GeorgeFarrow
Date: Tue, 23 Aug 2011 Time: 3:54 AM

'My introduction to North Indian sadhus via the Prayagraj Magha Mela etc.'

 As recalled by 'sadhu' George, aka., Ram Avatar Das, Hari/Hara-ananda Giri etc., etc.  

Mahashivaratri-Shahi-Snan-Haridwar-Kumbh‘He who performs funerary rites for his ancestors at the junction of the three rivers gains salvation for his ancestors... Shiva samhita 5.135.


   I was raised in the UK., had a loving family and thanks to the efforts of my parents I received a good education. Also allied with all these advantages I was born and brought up in the freest era of human social history etc. But thanks to the rise of the fascist US., Empire that era is now finished. Apart from the normal interests of youth etc., I was interested in literature, psychics, history, jazz, art as well as travel and even eastern philosophy etc.

      Since the '60’s I had the opportunity to travel in North Africa, the Middle East as well as South and Southeast Asia. I first traveled overland to India in '70 and made further visits there etc., in order to explore South Asian ‘applied’ yoga doctrines and the various sectarian systems of emanation and yoga. I went to India in order to make further sense of my personal explorations of consciousness aimed towards the 'now moment' and the innate 'one' nature of consciousness.

     Once in India I had the opportunity to enjoy modern South Asian social/religious culture etc., at first hand. This happened as a result of my initial and subsequent stays in India and in Nepal. This contact with South Asian social/religious culture occurred with my exposure to Indian street life as well as exposure to the daily round of Indian village life. Further exposure to Indian religious culture occurred within the context of the numerous annual and periodic religious festivals as well at the various small and great religious fairs. In addition I was gradually exposed to North Indian classical Indian music; to South Indian classical dance and to the more or less simple style of the Sanskrit language used in composing classic yoga texts.

      I was exposed to and enjoyed Hindu festivals included Diwali, the late autumnal, new year festival of Lights; the emotionally charged ten days and nights of the Bengali Durga festival; Shiva Ratri, Shiva’s early spring Night of vigil as well as to the marvelous chariot festivals of the Kathmandu Valley etc.

      The great fairs included the Magha Mela and the Kumbha Mela-s. The Magha Mela is annually held outside of the northern city of Allahabad on the sandy river banks of Prayagraj at the confluence of the Jumuna and Ganges rivers. A Kumbha Mela festivals is also held at Prayagraj, as well as being held in the cities of Harıw›r, Ujjain and Nasik. These major, month-long festivals occur within separate cycles of twelve years.

      Via these degrees of social/cultural contact, especially at the colorful religious fairs, the author also came into contact with Indian and western devotees and significantly with ascetics/yogı-s from Hindu Vaisnava, Shaiva and Shakta sects. Elsewhere, in Nepal, the author first came into contact with monks from exiled Tibetan sects. These Tibetan monks and yogi-s follow the Vajray›na/Mantray›na yogı lineage tradition founded during the 1st., millennium AD., by the Indian lineage of the maha-siddha-s, Great Adepts.

    I was subsequently certainly fortunate to come into personal contact with accomplished masters of these various sectarian traditions. These masters included Neem Karoli Baba, the then two hundred year old, yogiraj Deoria Baba, Mustram Baba, Baba Ram Sevak Das, Ganesha Baba, Dr. yogiraj Ram Nath Aghori Baba, Bhairava Baba, Vasudev Baba, Tarrig Rinpoche, Trungu Rinpoche and Lama Sanjur.

      My initial introduction to contemporary South Asian ascetic traditions initially came about by way of following the time-honored avenue of making pilgrimages to some of the great religious fairs/meetings held in the ancient tırtha-s, bathing/pilgrimage locations. As mentioned the most renowned and famous of these fairs and gatherings are the great Kumbha Mela-s. The most renowned of these is the fair/gathering held at Prayagraj near the modern city of Allahabad.

     According to the Purana tradition the origins of the Kumbha Mela-s are linked to the myth of the churning of the cosmic ocean by the deities and the anti-deities. As a consequence of this churning, a jar of deluding liquor and then a pot of the nectar of immortality emerged from the depths of the cosmic ocean. The anti-deities greedily grabbed the jar of liquor and deities gladly received the pot of nectar. According to one account the jealous anti-deities upon realizing their folly of choosing delusion over immortality, stole the deities’ pot of nectar and in the aerial chase to regain the pot of nectar, four drops of nectar were spilled.

     The four locations where the drops of nectar fell to the earth became the melapaka-s, the ‘meeting places’ where the four Kumbha Mela-s are historically held. Sanctified by drops of the nectar of immortality these locations became recognized in popular Hindu tradition as the locations where pilgrims and devotees can meet adept yogi-s and are further understood to be able to overcome their cycles of delusion and sin and thereby can attain direct knowledge of the intrinsic state of liberation.

    The locations of the Kumbha Mela-s are at Prayagraj as well as at Hariwar, near where the Ganges exits the foot hills of the Himalayan Mountains. The other two locations are at Ujjain on the Shipra River and Nasik. The Nasik Kumbha Mela is held at a confined bathing area in close proximity to the Godavari River. Certainly in the contemporary context the Kumbha Mela held at Prayagrag is the most significant of the annual and periodic north India religious fairs/gatherings where modern day ascetics and yogi-s gather. Prayagrag is followed closely in significance by Haridw›r and then by Ujjain and Nasik.

     The confluence point of the Jumuna and Ganges Rivers at Prayagraj is known as the triveni, the Triple Confluence. Modern city of Allahabad is sited on the ancient site of the city of Pratishthana. This city was also famed as the location containing the aksya-bat or Tree of Immortality. In c.640 AD., this tree was visited and reputedly viewed by the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen-Tsang during his pilgrimage of the eastern Middle Country of Northern region.

      The historic date of the first Kumbha Mela at Prayagraj is unknown. But although not mentioning the Kumbha Mela specifically, the early Buddhist textural tradition does mention that large religious fairs were held in the Middle Country of the greater Northern region of the Indian sub-continent during that era. Therefore great religious fairs, such as the fair/gathering at Prayagraj, potentially date back at least two thousand five hundred years. But the origins of these major religious fairs go back to the era of pre-history probably pre-dating the late Vedic era and even the Indo-Dravidian era of the Indus Valley Civilization.

     The late Vedic textural tradition indicates that the sandy riverside shores of Prayagraj, annually washed by the monsoon flood, was the location where Brahma performed a great fire sacrifice to re-discover the lost Veda-s. Here the suggestion that the hitherto orally transmitted Veda-s had been lost is quite misleading. Since the Indo-Aryan’s entry into the Indian sub-continent and from their protracted contact with other indigenous religious systems the ‘losing’ of the Veda-s should rather be interpreted as a diminution of the utility, meaning and cultural relevance of the Vedic sacrificial science in the face of more sophisticated yoga-based approaches.

     Therefore the traditional myth that Brahma performed sacrifices to regain this loss of utility, of meaning etc., could equally refer to the historical era when the Veda-s and the Brahmana-s of the hitherto orally transmitted Vedic/Brahminic tradition were in fact edited, re-ordered or ‘updated’ and recorded for the first time. This occurred during the 5th., or 4th., centuries BC.

      This process transformed the Vedic tradition from an orally-handed down tradition into an ‘updated’, ordered, recorded tradition. This was necessary to restore the relevance and prestige of the sacrificial Vedic tradition and was probably performed during this era by several generations of Brahmin scholars. However given the Brahminic tendency to avoid bringing their pristine ‘divinely inspired’ tradition into contact with historic trends this whole process is characterized in myth as solely being the product of the superhuman labors of the sage Vyasa. On occasion Vyasa was aided in his labors by the deity Ganesha.

     Certainly from these mythic connections Prayagraj is popularly known in the Brahminic tradition as the tirtha-raja, ‘king of bathing places’ and also as the ‘navel of the earth’ or the ‘navel of [or the connection to] the universe’ etc. The latter characterization evokes the iconography of the deity Visnu where he is seen reclining on the Shesha-naga, the king of snakes, while floating on the cosmic ocean. Here the deity Brahma, the creator within the Hindu trinity of cosmic deities, is seated on a red lotus flower emanating from Visnu’s navel.

       The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen-Tsang recorded a remarkable account of his pilgrimage to India during the years c.630-644 AD. Hiuen-Tsang mentions that after meeting the patron of Mahayana Buddhism, the Emperor Harsa, c.606-648 AD., of the Vadana dynasty both he and this monarch proceeded together in c.640 AD., to observe the great fair held at Prayagraj. Subsequently Hiuen-Tsang continued his pilgrimage through the eastern Middle Country visiting the great Buddhist Monastery /University of Nalanda as well as the Vajrasana, where the Buddha attained enlightment etc.

      In his account of his visit to Prayagraj in the company of the Emperor Harsha Vadana, Hiuen-Tsang mentions that ‘to the east of the capital between the confluence of the rivers is pleasant and upland [the bluff now known as Joshi]’. As can still be seen today, Hiuen Tsiang describes the ‘whole [area of the banks beside the Ganges and Jumuna Rivers as being] covered with a fine sand’.

      Hiuen-Tsang mentions that at the confluence of the two mighty rivers a high stone column had been raised in the midst of the merged rivers. There, in the afternoon dozens of ascetics climbed up the column. While clinging to the column only with one hand and one foot they stretched out, all the while gazing at the setting sun. They were reported to have only descended once the sun had gone down.

      Hiuen Tsiang also records that a part of this area beside the Ganges and Jumuna Rivers was a ‘great charity enclosure’. The ‘great charity enclosure’ area was so named on account of the custom of kings of that region to distribute the wealth accumulated over the past years to charity. He relates the tradition of how pious Buddhist rulers would gather ‘in the space of the charity enclosure immense piles of wealth and jewels’. Here initially a ruler would ‘ adorned in a very sumptuous manner the statue of the Buddha...[and] afterwards offers the residing priests...other of distinguished talent...[ascetic] heretics who live in the place and lastly to widows and the bereaved, orphans...the poor and mendicants’.

      All this and more charity was performed while showing ‘no regret’. Upon completion a ruler is recorded as saying “ [It is] well done! Now all that I have, has [through the merit of charity] entered into incorruptible and imperishable treasuries.”

      According to Hiuen Tsiang ‘to the east of the enclosure of charity at the confluence of the two rivers every day there are many hundreds of men who bathe themselves and [then] die’. Here he indicates that after fasting for seven days and following the then popular notion that bathing in the confluence of these rivers absolves the pilgrim from all sin some of the pilgrims did not simply depart but preferred to die ‘pure’. Such pilgrims drown themselves after throwing themselves into the river with a heavy stone slung on a rope placed around their neck.

     According to the popular Brahminic traditional view among his numerous labors, the 9th., century AD., great Hindu reformer Shankara also thoroughly reformed and re-ordered the great fairs held at the four locations. From the post Shankara era there are references in 13th., and 14th., century AD., vernacular records to large scale pilgrimages being made to the locations of the Kumbha Mela-s, especially to Haridwar and Prayagraj.

     As a member of the Bharatı section of the Dasanami Order, the great Vaisava ecstatic mystic Caitanya, the original lineage founder of the modern Krsna Consciousness movement, is recorded as attending the Kumbha Mela at Prayagraj in 1514 AD. Muslim records from 16th., century AD., and even early European accounts from the 17th., century AD., offer descriptions of the great fairs held in these locations similar to the kind of fairs held in the modern era.


      As mentioned at Prayagraj there is an annual mela in addition to the Kumbha Mela. Devotees and ascetic yogi-s etc., come worship at the point where the Ganges and Jumuna rivers meet the hidden river, the Saraswati. As mentioned this is known as the triveni, the Triple Confluence. The Triple Confluence is bound up with the basic symbolism relating to the Shaiva and Vaisnava traditions of 'eight-limbed' yoga. Within the context of the ritual bathing rites, that are the center-piece for ritual performance at these gatherings, the term kumbha, ‘pot’ is an apt title for this kind of fair by referring to the water pot used in daily and ritual ablutions.

     Within the yoga system this term is also metaphorically related to the shape of the body when the breath is gathered and retained by the principle mode of breath regulation, kumbhaka-pranayama, Pot Breath Regulation. Further the emptiness of an unfilled ‘water pot’ can symbolize the nature of undifferentiated mind attained by those yogı-s accomplished in breath regulation in conjunction with the yoga bandha-s, Bonds and mudr›-s, Seals.

      A section of the fourth chapter of the Nath› yoga manual the shiva-sa˙hi˛a (SS.) is dedicated to the significance of the sacred tirtha, bathing place of Prayagraj. Here the significance of Prayagraj is discussed from the point of view of both householders and yogı-s as well as in terms of outer and inner utility.

      From the point of view of a householder’s family lineage SS.4.136-137., discusses the benefits accruing from worship at the confluence of the three rivers at Prayagraj during a pilgrimage and by a technique of visualization during daily devotions.

These verses state:

      ‘He [the householder] who [annually] performs [post]-funeral rites [offerings made to absolve ancestors of cycles of sin] at the confluence of these three rivers procures liberation for his ancestors and he himself attains the supreme state.

    ‘ He [the householder] who daily performs the three modes of duty while mentally visualizing this place receives [divine] fruits from performing these acts.’

       SS.4.133-135 discusses both the external and internal significance of the sacred bathing place where the three rivers and the three yoga nerves meet:

    ‘[At Prayagraj, near Allahabad] between the Ganges and Jumuna rivers flows the [hidden] S›raswatı River.

    'From bathing at their confluence the fortunate one attains liberation.

    ‘Previously we [Shiva] have stated that [internally] the ida [moon yoga nerve] is the Ganges and the pingala is the daughter of the sun [the Jumuna River].

‘In the middle [of these two] the susumna, [the yoga nerve known as] the Saraswati.

   ‘The [inner] place where these three meet is inaccessible [to all except skillful yogı-s].

   ‘The [skillful] one [the yogı] who mentally bathes [his consciousness] at the confluence of the white [the pingala nerve] and the black [the ida nerve in the central nerve] is freed from all sin and attains the eternal brahma, [the essence of] the Body of the Expanding Universe.’

    SS.4.138-140., further discuss both the utility and benefits of worship of the internal confluence of the three rivers/nerves, stating:

    ‘ He [the householder/yogı] who [even] once bathes [his mind] at this sacred location enjoys heavenly pleasure, all his manifold sins are consumed and he becomes pure minded.

   ‘Whether pure or impure, in whatever condition the individual may be, from [mentally] bathing [in this very inaccessible inner location] he [the skillful yogi] undoubtedly becomes purified.

   ‘ [If] the yogi is able to [mentally] bathe in the waters of the triveni, the Triple Confluence of the three [inner] nerves, at the moment of his last breath [immediately prior to death and dies concentrating on this] he instantly attains liberation.’

    Certainly as suggested by the quotations from the SS., the deeper significance of Prayagraj can be measured. Prayagraj, as a pilgrimage/bathing destination and as the bathing area located in the midst of this wedge-shaped confluence, is bound up with the applied symbolism of the Shaiva and Vaisnava traditions of ‘eight-limbed’ yoga. The symbolism of the merging of two visible rivers with a hidden, ‘concealed’ river, created by this wedge-shaped geographical formation also suggests the three pronged configuration of a trishula, a trident carried by Shaiva ascetics.

      Internally the trident symbolizes the unification of the three principal inner yoga nerves within the bhaga, literally ‘womb’. But here 'womb' means the ‘auspicious source’ or the heart of the purified and energized spinal centers. Therefore the two vast visible rivers symbolize the two principal outer relative nerves that upon yoga purification etc., can be merged into the ‘concealed’ principal nerve, the central nerve. The central nerve running upwards within the danda, the spinal column, links the ‘auspicious sources’ within the spinal centers.

     Thereby in the external context the utility of the ‘concealed’ Saraswatı River ‘braided’ or merged with the two seen rivers is to symbolically indicate a fundamental goal of yoga. For yogi-s/devotees the internal symbolic significance of bathing at the location where the three rivers are said to merge can evoke the applied yoga task of bathing consciousness at the point where three nerves merge within the central nerve as well as the potential to manifest undifferentiated consciousness etc., etc.


    However despite their positive social/religious side and the potential for offering applied symbolism, historically the Kumbha Mela-s held at Prayagraj and elsewhere also possesses a darker, notorious and even dangerous side. Because of an outpouring of religious hysteria generated among pilgrims and ascetics, even during the modern era, simple participation at the Kumbha Mela-s can be dangerous. Even today religious hysteria is certainly still generated over the place, timing and precedence of the purifying dip on the most auspicious bathing days.

    At the Kumbha Mela held at Prayagraj in 1954 AD., the first after Indian independence, hundreds, possibly thousands died during a stampede by pilgrims to bath at the appointed place, time etc. Crushes leading to deaths have occurred to a lesser degree at later Kumbha Mela-s, mostly during attempts to bath in the very confined bathing areas in Haridwar and Nasik.

    Further during the pre-Independence era and even the pre-British era, long before electrification, railways, modern roads, modern policing etc., making pilgrimages to the great religious fairs was a dangerous affair not only for the reason of possible encounters with large crowds of pilgrims driven frantic by religious hysteria. Historically, as well as today, the great fairs were magnets for every kind of religious fanatic, impostor, crank and rogue etc., who prey upon the superstitions, the pockets even the lives of the pilgrims.

    There are historic reports of kidnappings by members of the notorious Thug-gee cult; of human sacrifice and ritual suicide, of theft, murder and rape etc., as well as huge camp fires, epidemics of cholera and the plague etc. There were even full scale battles between opposing groups of sectarian devotees and ascetics. Apparently pilgrimages could only be performed with any safety by companies of armed villagers/devotees or organized groups of Brahmin Shaiva sanyasin-s, Vaisnava mahatyagi-s and householder gosains. These were accompanied by their regiments of lower caste, martial naga sanyasin-s and naga bairagi-s.

    The emergence of martial naga Shaiva sanyasin-s and martial Vaisnava bairagi-s began from the 13th., and 16-17th., centuries AD., respectively. From the 13th., century AD., ‘twice born’ vaisya-s and even low born shudra-s were allowed to enter the martial so-called naga akara-s, ‘snake gymnasium/schools’ within the overall Dasanami, the Ten Names Order. The Ten Names Order was founded by Shankara in the 9th., century AD. A majority of sections within the Ten Names Order had originally been reserved solely for Brahmin sanyasin-s, the remainder for warrior caste ascetics.

     The martial regiments of atıt-s, ‘low caste ascetics’ were formed to protect the hermitages and monasteries of Brahmin sanyasin-s, their related temple sites, their village grants and the other privileges of the Dasan›mi Order. During the era of alien Islamic rule the unusual step of entering lower castes into the Dasanami fold was deemed necessary because of the rise and free rein given to militant Islamic Fakir groups.

    Steps leading to the creation of fighting, ascetic regiments were also necessary because of deep-seated sectarian conflicts and the regular incidence of violent confrontations with other independent and unorthodox Shaiva yogı groups. These included the Kapalika-s, the Kalamukha-s, Natha-s and also later with Vaisnava bairagi-s. For the same reasons as the Dasnam sanyasin-s, the first well organized regiments of Vaisnava bairagi-s were actually only formed in the 17th., century AD., by Madhusudana Saraswati of Varanasi (died 1623 AD.,).

    There are recorded incidences of both naga Shaiva sanyasin-s and naga Vaisnava bairagi-s refusing to take food until they had accomplished a daily vow to kill an ascetic from the opposing camp etc. Therefore in general these criminally inclined Shaiva and Vaisnava naga martial groups have historically possessed a dubious and sometimes notorious reputation within the orthodox community and within the lineage circles of adept yogi-s.

   The deep-seated sectarian conflicts and rivalries often came to a head at the Kumbha Mela-s leading to violent confrontations among rival sectarian ascetic groups. These violent confrontations occurred over precedence in the bathing parades; for patronage and donations. Although it is generally agreed that the Shaiva naga have precedence in these parades nevertheless heated arguments even among naga sanyasin themselves over precedence still regularly occur at contemporary Kumbha Mela-s.

    According to a probably unreliable account offered by Jadunath Sakar, naga Shaiva sanyasin-s led by Bhavan›nanda, Sur›nanda and Kamal›nanda are understood to have inflicted a severe defeat upon the Vaisnava, bairagi ascetics at a Kumbha Mela held in Haridwar in c.1266 AD. Further the Mugul Timur is certainly known to have massacred a large number of pilgrims at a fair held in Haridwar in 1398 AD.

    Later in 1760 AD., a battle was fought at Haridwar between Shaiva naga sanyasin-s and Vaisnava naga bairagi-s. This battle is recorded to have left as many as eighteen thousand dead. Their defeat in this battle led to the exclusion of Vaisnava participation in the Haridwar Kumbha Mela until the period of British control of this region from the mid-19th., century AD.

   A further battle in 1796 AD., fought between armed Sikh pilgrims and Shaiva naga-s led to the deaths of five hundred or according to another account the deaths of five thousand of the latter. Smaller battles between naga sanyasin-s and naga bairagi-s also occurred in Ujjain and Nasik.


    Despite their lower caste origins and the unsavory reputation of the various kinds of naga martial ascetics they were and are proud of the prestige afforded by being members of major sectarian ascetic orders. However, many members of these regiments are in reality not dedicated ascetic practitioners of devotion, austerity or yoga etc., but are rather footloose members of society who are recruited to find socially acceptable avenues for their peculiar talents.

    The inclusion of criminal elements within major ascetic/yogı orders certainly contributed over the generations to a decline in the overall lineage’s ability to produce the obviously very small number of fully adept yogı-s every generation. In turn this has also led to a steady dilution of the quality of lineage instruction and intuitive transmission.

    From the author’s own observations, the dubious reputation of Shaiva n›ga sanyasin-s and Vaisnava naga bairagi-s continues in the contemporary context with an often superstition-ridden and simplistic popular approach to doctrine. This is aided by the ascendancy of tendencies towards anti-intellectualism; to foregoing study and even forgoing the dedicated approach required to apply yoga precepts. In some schools the dubious reputation of nag› sanyasin-s etc., is clear by the absence of dedicated application to even the initial mantra-yoga stage of the four stages of yoga.

    Many naga sanyasin-s and also naga bairagi-s have apparently forgotten the instructions of their guru-s or never even paid heed to the most basic of injunctions emphasized in all sectarian yoga lineages and in all yoga manuals. All adept guru-s from any yoga lineage empathize that only by application, detachment and even more application can accomplishment in yoga or devotion be attained.

   But many naga sa˚yasin-s etc., simply state that having become naga sa˚yasin-s etc., is sufficient because they have thereby severed the chains of householder cause and effect etc. Such types prefer to be on continuous pilgrimage, where their brand of bravura and empty boasting find a ready audience among villagers and others looking for a ready show.

    Many others simply wile away their time with the daily use of drugs, such as smoking ganja or hashish filled chillums and even resort to the use of opiates. Open drug use can be frequently observed among ascetics and yogi-s from all sectarian traditions at the great fairs and elsewhere where s›dhu-s gather. The often notorious reputation of the various naga schools etc., also continues by way of scandals involving incidences of moral laxity with female devotees or even of homosexuality or other even more vile perversions within a school's temple compound etc.


    During the Indian month of M›gha or January recent Kumbha Mela-s held at Prayagraj have attracted upwards of forty million plus or more pilgrims wishing to take a purifying dip at the confluence point of the Ganges and Jumuna Rivers. Some pilgrims stay for the full month. However most other pilgrims stay for only a short while and after shaving their heads, taking their purifying dip, perform the rites and rituals marking their devotions to their chosen deity and to their ancestors.

    Additionally during the festivals held a Prayagraj ‘twice-born’ families of the various upper castes and sub-castes from the surrounding regions register marriages, births and deaths with their gotra, ‘clan’ records. Also they commence the task of finding suitable girls for their sons from equivalent caste families in unrelated caste clans.

   The author’s visits to Marg Mela held at Prayagraj occurred mainly during the early 1970’s when limited electrification of the vast campsite on the Ganges bank allowed this fair to retain a much more peaceful and traditional feel. Later with complete electrification of the campsite together with the influence of the commercialization of Indian sects in the West, the atmosphere previously experienced by the author was all but lost in a cacophony of hours of competing, poorly amplified discourses and often maddening, dirge-like devotional songs. This cacophony commenced even during the hitherto pristine pre-dawn hours, the hours most suited to devotion and silent contemplation.

    Nevertheless at Prayagraj and other great fairs the author had the opportunity to closely observe modern Vedic rituals and hear the rhythmic, charged chanting of mantra forming the rites of fire sacrifice. Here the author initially had encounters and subsequently in some cases close contact with north Indian sadhu-s, holy men and ash covered sometimes even naked, yogı/ascetics from a variety of sectarian traditions.

    The term sadhu, holy man can among definitions such as ‘virtuous’, ‘efficient’ can also literally mean men ‘unentangled’ with the delusions of conventional world. The various sadhu-s encountered at Prayagraj by the author included ascetic devotees and yogi-s from Vaisnava, Shaiva and Shakta sects.


    Prior to his first visit to Prayagraj in January '72 the author had already met in Varanasi a sadhu/guide Baba Kaushlesh Das of the Vaisnava, Ayudhya Sect. The late Baba Kaushlesh Das was not a renowned lineage master or a yoga adept but was an honest and sincere sadhu, devoted to Lord R›ma. Baba Kaushlesh Das resided beside the Ganges River in a small shrine on the principal bathing ghat.

    Here the author first enjoyed the company of this sadhu and other sadhu-s. Also near Baba Kaushlesh Das' 'seat' I met the compassionate yogini known as Mataji, the Dear Mother, who always called western hippies her ‘love children’. With these different sadhu-s the author enjoyed many early mornings and evenings taking in the colorful and chaotic spectacle offered on the bathing ghat-s of this bustling pilgrimage city.

    Following the legend that Shiva liberates devotees who die in Varanası I learned that many elderly pilgrims actually came to Varanası to die. As initially pointed out by Kaushlesh Das these and other ordinary pilgrims, because of their beliefs and their superstitions, were constantly at the mercy of and were preyed upon by opportunistic Brahmin priests, by beggars and a majority of grasping fraudulent fakir-s, so-called holy men. The author was thereby introduced to the classic Indian maxim regarding Varanası that pilgrims should beware the bad habits of ‘Brahmin pundit-s, fakir-s, prostitutes and cows’ when walking in the narrow lanes of the old city near the Ganges River.

    In order to take in and understand all these contradictions as well as to gain a greater insight into an initial, startling realization of the impermanence of existence, I also spent time in the legendary Manikarnika crematory ground of Varanası. Here Shiva is said to have successfully performed penance for cutting off one of Brahm›’s heads. From the effect of meditating in the Manikarnika crematory ground I was initially spurred to begin a more systematic approach to understanding the doctrines of the modern Vaisnava and Shaiva traditions.

    In the popular modern householder context the north Indian Vaisnava sectarian tradition is essentially based upon cultivating bhaktı, deep devotional love for a personally chosen form of Visnu by reciting sectarian mantra-s and performing daily ritual. In addition devotion is offered to the initiating lineage master by way of service. Vaisnava ascetics apply the yoga system of ‘eight-limbs’ or a regime of austerities. The Shaiva approach applied by yogi/ascetics is based upon the classic yoga system of ‘eight-limbs’, as well as the ‘five’ stages of Shaiva devotion and/or even application to regimes of austerities.


     Subsequently the author also had the opportunity to visit the home village of Baba Kaushlesh Das located in the countryside not far from Allahabad. I met his former wife and his adult children who belonged to the warrior caste. Here the author was further schooled and learned basic Indian social/caste customs.

    These included the proper modes of ablution, of bathing/ purification, of eating, drinking liquids, preparing food as well as cleaning cooking utensils and metal dishes etc. For a while the author adopted the modest mode of dress that then governed the simple daily life of north Indian villagers.

    Such basic knowledge of social/caste etiquette and basic ritual convention later allowed the author to be accepted and move quite freely in village life and also among s›dhu-s. The honest kindness, cheerfulness and the simple lessons on contentment in daily life that were offered by the example of numerous hard working North Indian villagers; by rural and urban artisans, by rickshaw drivers etc., left a lasting impression on the author that remains to this day.

     Despite the contradiction of returning to his family village Kaushlesh Das was certainly honored by his family and wider clan because he had accepted the Stages of Life and had continued to perform his duty by taking up the life of renunciation. While in the village he organized rituals and ceremonies offered to the deity Visnu. On an occasion in early December '71 Baba also organized a party of villagers who had vowed to attend the Magha Mela held nearby at Prayagraj. This party had saved up sufficient money and vowed to reside in the pilgrimage grounds of Prayagraj for the full duration of the up-coming lunar month.

     January is the height of the cold season in northern India and most North Indians are susceptible to the cold. Part of the vow of pilgrims entails ritualized dips at dawn and dusk in the Ganges etc., in order to fulfill the popularly held belief that ritual baths in sacred rivers purifies sins. Because it is chilly in January and because of mists and sometimes even early morning frost, this regime of dips is considered to be a real penance by villagers and to be an actual foretaste of the ascetic life.

    With just basic baggage and cooking utensils our party traveled on unpaved roads in hired, open, antique jeeps. We passed through fields of yellow flowered mustard and winter wheat inter-spaced with groves of Mango trees etc., eventually arriving on the southern, Jumuna side of the great confluence. Even in January, long after the fall of the rivers from their fullest level during the height of the monsoon season, the breadth of the two co-joined rivers was more than just a couple of kilometers from shore to shore.

    After the men in our party had their heads shaved we boarded large rowboats and proceeded to the middle, to the place where the lighter colored Jumuna and the darker colored Ganges merge. Remarkably in the midst of the merged rivers, many hundreds of yards from either shore an incongruous square bamboo structure had been erected in the riverbed. The author understood from Kaushlesh Das that we were fortunate because this year the normally sand covered, kunda, stone enclosed ‘bathing place’, built on a reef, was uncovered.

    He suggested that this spot, rather than an underground kunda at a temple on the Ganges shore, was the actual place where the third river, the mythical Saraswatı River merged with the other two great rivers, forming the Triple Confluence. Certainly the great Jumuna and Ganges Rivers physically merge at this point but the third river the Saraswatı was not physically seen other than in the waters appearing within this particular kunda that was already awash with the co-joined rivers.

     Historically in the early Vedic tradition the now geographically unknown Saraswatı River was located further to the northwest. The name Saraswatı is linked to a Punjabi river that in the ancient era was thought to actually disappear into the northern Rajastan desert. Having later visited the underground kunda of the temple on the Ganges shore, that was filled with stagnant water, the author was certainly happy to have bathed at this other more appropriate location where Kaushlesh Das said the Saraswatı River merged with the other great rivers.

    While our party’s village priest made appropriate offerings and prayers and after waiting for other pilgrims we were also able to mount the bamboo structure and to bathe in this water covered, but visible square stone enclosure filled to a depth of some ten feet. Although the author returned to Prayagraj on a number of other occasions he was never been able to see or again bathe in this particular and symbolically significant ‘kunda’ located midstream at the confluence of the two mighty rivers.

     After this bath and the receipt of ritually charged sipping water, marigold flowers and a ritual mark on the forehead with sandal paste our boats proceeded to the Ganges bank. Here we sought out the tents that had previously been reserved for our party within the campsite of the Ayudhya Sect in the quarter reserved for the other Vaisnava sects such as the dominant Ramanandı Sect.

     Within this camp householders were generally separated from the lineage circles of ascetics and yogı-s but nevertheless there was free if respectful interplay between villagers and ascetics. Often older villagers already knew many of the leading masters of the yogı/ascetic circles and sought out these masters to offer respect and offerings, smoke chillums and to listen to discourses or tales of the year’s ups and downs etc.

     In the extensive campsite located on the sandy Ganges shore of the confluence the author initially observed at first hand the demanding life-styles of yogı-s and ascetics. At Prayagraj the author came into contact with the classic yogi/ascetic milieu individually centered upon the deer skin or meditation blanket and in the daily routine centered on the lineage master and his initiated circle; the chosen deity’s portable alter and the sacred fire, the dhuni.

      From this initial contact the author became accustomed to the ritualized manner required for daily service offered to the master; service offered for worship of the deity and required to service the constantly burning sacred fire of the dhuni. Subsequently, under the tutelage of the mahatyagı, ‘great renunciate’, Baba Ram Sevak Das, I came into comprehensive contact with the daily routine of Vaisnava ascetics and yogi-s. Here I met the two hundred year old, Ramanandı yoga adept, yogiraj Deoria Baba. Deoria Baba gave me the name Ram Avatar Das and initiated me into a particular Vaisnava mantra.

     At the junctures of the day, dawn etc., when rituals are offered to the deity’s portable alter the author became familiar with the sounds of chanting, of ringing bells, of the conch shell and the smell of incense. The author became familiar with the use of the cimpta, fire tongs, the kamandalu, the water pot and to handling gai-gobha, fresh cow dung that is smeared around the shallow fire pit, the dhuni at least twice a day.

     Ritualized attention paid to the sacred fire stems not only from the utility of fire to cook pure, ritually charged food but also because simple rites of fire sacrifice are daily offered by Vaisnava ascetics to the deity Visnu and his consort into this log fire. Sadhu-s preferred Mango wood logs for the dhunı because they burn slowly and evenly like a cigarette, with very little smoke. The sacred fire provides the ashes used to daily dust the ascetic/yogi’s body after their ritual bath.

    Ash covered Vaisnava yogi-s certainly apply the ‘eight-limbed’ system of yoga as described in the shandilya-upanisad, the Instruction [of] Shandilya [on yoga]. Therefore for some Vaisvava yogi-s the sacred fire also acts as the symbol of the normally dormant ‘secret fire’, or the kundalini-shakti, the coiled-up energy/capability that can be aroused and awakened by application to the sectarian Vaisnava system of ‘eight-limbed’ yoga.

     Vaisnava ascetics, who simply apply austerities, are known as tyagi-s, ‘unbound’ renunciates or as bairagi-s, ‘ones that are detached’. These ascetics apply devotion by way of rituals and by way of mantra recitation offered at dawn, midday and dusk. Here tyagı-s apply cycles of austerities within three distinct seasons of the year.

     The devotional mode includes chanting devotional tracts, singing devotional songs as well as applying visualization techniques and reciting sectarian mantra-s with the distinctive rosary of Vaisnava sects. This rosary is formed with 108 beads plus the guru bead that are fashioned from tulsi wood taken from mature Holy Basil bushes.


     At Prayagraj I first observed ascetic/yogi-s’ ritualized, early morning bathing regimes noting that many wore girdles made of thick rough hemp rope or even of chain upon which their loin-cloth is slung. Sometimes inadequate girdles and even loin coverings are made from dried twisted plantain leaves and lengths of dried plantain leaf. In line with the view that prolonged sleep is an obstruction to concentration/devotion and that deep meditation should only be performed at night in the pre-dawn hour,s these various kinds of girdles had large knots on the right side that stop comfortable and prolonged sleep.

    As Vaisnava ascetics are considered to be in the third stage of life, the stage of the ‘Forest Dweller’ those ascetic/yogı-s from the ‘twice born’ castes still wear their sacred thread. During bathing rituals they offered further prayers and short rituals before donning the sacred thread.

      The author observed that after their bath, yogı-s dusted off and smeared their bodies with ash from porous cloths filled with sifted ashes, before donning the Vaisnava devotees’s distinctive white cloth often worn from above the breast. From donning the white cotton cloth above the breast Vaisnava yogi-s/bairagi-s are sometimes known as sita-padri-s, Followers of the Goddess Sıta.

      The Ayudhya Sect and the Ramanandi Sect apply the vertical lines of a trident shaped sectarian mark known as the triphala, the Triple Fruit or the urdhva-pundra, the Upwards Mark. The formers’ three lined, trident shaped sectarian mark is applied with cream colored clay whereas the latter’s sectarian mark has a red streak between two outer prongs formed of white clay.

     The author observed the ritual mode of applying these distinctive tilak-s, sectarian ‘marks’. The mark of the Triple Fruit is applied first on the bridge of the nose and then across the eyebrows, then on either side of and in the middle of the forehead. Similar 'marks' are also placed on the arms and on the locations of throat and heart spinal centers. A ‘mark’ is simultaneously offered to the sacred tulsi, Holy Basil, bead worn on a string around the neck that was given on initiation by the lineage master.

      After these basic rituals and after saluting and offering homage, respect to their masters the author also observed some yogıs applying basic asa˚a-s, postures and other limbs of hatha-yoga on a prepared ground already smeared with red clay and cow dung. Hatha-yoga is said to be the second stage of the four stages of yoga applied by ascetic/yogı-s possessing medium sensibility. Other ascetics simply performed japa, ‘recitation’ of a sectarian mantra. Mantra-yoga is considered as the first stage within the four stages of the yoga system, applied by ascetic/yogı-s possessing mild sensibility.

      Significantly for Vaisnava ascetics the month of Magha commences the three cycles of austerity performed annually by those ascetics who aspire to graduate from the simple grade of tyagı, ‘renunciate’ to mahatyagı, an accomplished ‘great renunciate’. This cycle must be performed for twelve years in order to attain this higher grade. Under the classic outlook of the yoga tradition these various forms of austerity do not form part of the yoga regime.

     The cycle of asceticism commences with the regime of the panca-agni-tapas, the ‘austerity of the five fires’. This austerity is performed while being surrounded by four, often smoky cow dung fires with the sun as the fifth fire. Or sometimes this austerity is performed while being enclosed by a single horseshoe shaped fire. At Prayagraj and elsewhere the author initially observed ascetics performing this morning/midday ascetic regime while reciting mantra-s.

     The other two basic cycles of asceticism include camping out during the hot season and reciting mantra-s in dry riverbeds, rocky outcrops in the full glare of the sun. During the rainy season Vaisnava ascetics remain outside without cover or sit for a fixed number of hours in cold mountain streams.

     Within these regimes Vaisnava ascetics also sometimes apply extreme forms of vegetarianism, only eating wild red rice; unleavened bread made from the flour of dried lotus flower nuts also jungle plants and vegetables. On other occasions these ascetics apply vows of silence and even the extreme austerity of remaining standing while awake or sleeping for a period of twelve years.


      The last time I visited Prayagraj was at time of the Kumbha Mela held there in January '78. According to modern sadhu folk lore Indira Gandhi's State of Emergency was lifted in late 1977 by the combined power of the adept Babas in order that the next Kumbha Mela then to be held at Prayagraj, could go ahead. Among that mass of devotees many western devotees and sadhu-s also attended the Prayagraj Kumbha Mela. These included Jasper Newsome, aka., Ramgiri, Ira Cohen and many others including myself etc.

     At first I stayed within a old Vaisnava guru's camp until I got thrown out for smoking chillums at my 'dhuni' with some invited Shaiva n›ga babas. Historically as mentioned there has been bad blood between the Vaisnava naga bairagi-s and the Shaiva naga babas since the bairagi-s suffered a defeat at a battle between the Shaiva naga-s held at Hardwar in 1760. Then I went to stayed at Ganesha Baba's 'dhuni' set within the Shaiva, Ananda school's naga camp. I was already introduced to Ganesha Baba by Ramgiri/Jasper and I had met Ganesha Baba in Varanasi as well as in Kathmandu in c.'75/76.

      At the Kumbha Mela Ganesha Baba subsequently gave me the name gosain Hari/Hara-ananda Giri. The term 'gosain' indicates a non-celibate householder practitioner closely associated with the Dasnam Order. I was contented to receive this name and title as I did not want to enter and possibly break a vow of total celibacy.

     Also during this Kumbha Mela Ramgiri/Jasper took me to meet his main n›ga guru Dutt Giri. Also during this Kumbha Mela, along with Ramgiri/Jasper, I met my future Shakta guru Basudev Baba. Dutt Giri, who had already given up smoking chillums, also noted the presence of the non-smoking, Bengali Basudev Baba. Dutt Giri remarked to Ramgiri/Jasper that Vasudev was an upright devotee/practitioner of the Devi, the Goddess, who had awakened the inner 'energy'.

    After the Kumbha Mela during the early spring of '78 I met Vasudev Baba again. This occurred during the festival of Shiva Ratri when Vasudev Baba was staying at the 'seat' of Ramnath Aghori Baba. His 'seat' was set within the burning ghats of Pashupatin›th the premier Shaiva temple of Kathmandu, Nepal etc., etc.

(This essay is copyrighted by George W. Farrow).

About the Author

      The author was raised in the UK., had a loving family and thanks to the efforts of my parents I received a good education. Also allied with all these advantages I was born and brought up in the freest era of human social history etc. But thanks to the rise of the fascist US., Empire that era is now finished. Apart from the normal interests of youth etc., I was interested in literature, physics, history, jazz, art as well as travel and even eastern philosophy etc.

      Since the '60’s I had the opportunity to travel in North Africa, the Middle East as well as South and Southeast Asia. I first traveled overland to India in '70 and made further visits there etc., in order to explore South Asian ‘applied’ yoga doctrines and the various sectarian systems of emanation and yoga. I went to India in order to make further sense of my personal explorations of consciousness aimed towards the 'now moment' and the innate 'one' nature of consciousness.

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