By – Ma Nithya Swaroopapriyananda
In English, there’s an old cliché often quoted in times of war and violence used to cool hot tempers and prevent a physical fight: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” No doubt, a well crafted point in a debate or a clear description exposing an opponent’s weakness or stupidity can be more advantageously used, in some circumstances, than brute force. However, when we are physically attacked, held up at knifepoint or threatened with death or destruction, the mighty pen loses it’s power and something with more brute force is needed.
What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with the naga sadhus, India’s deeply mystical sect of fierce ascetics?
Evolution of the Naked Monks
Hinduism has always been known for its tenets of tolerance and harmony. However, it has also had to equip itself powerfully to defend its principles against destruction and degradation from invading forces from other religions. During such times of threats, a small sect of Hindu monks, have over the centuries acted as spiritual warriors of the faith – dharma rakshak. These monks, known famously as the naga sadhus – naked philosophers or naked saints – broke free from every social limitations and conditioning, including clothes, to act as fierce and most authentic upholders of the Hindu Dharma.
In the 10th century AD when India was invaded by barbaric Islamic invaders, the Nagas were forced to take up arms – so they became not only shaastradhaaris (armed with scriptures) but also shastradhaaris (armed with weapons). Naga sadhus are not merely naked holy men who live in the high Himalayas and come out to greet an enthralled public at the Kumbh Melas; as shastradhaaris and shaastradharis they are masters of both pen and sword!
The Naga Home – Akhada
An Akhada is a place of practice for brahmacharis (novitiates) and sannyasis (monks), with facilities for boarding, lodging and training. Some of the earliest akhadas to be established were the Niranjani Akhada and the Mahanirvani Peeth. The heritage of the Mahanirvani Akhada is more than 10,000 years old, but it was formally named in 748 AD and trace their original master to the great sage Kapil Muni. All naga sadhus are aligned under one akhada or another, and come from different sampradayas (religious systems) which includes Shaivites, Vaishnavites, and even Sikhs.
Fierce and Fearless Protectors
The naga sadhus are, quite literally, an army for Sanatana Hindu Dharma, and their conquests are now the stuff of living legend. During the Jnanavyapi War, when Aurangazeb attacked Varanasi, an organized team of Atal Naga sannyasis beat them off and protected the city. Later, when the ruthless conquering army returned and massacred during a festival time, when the sadhus were unarmed, five powerful nagas quickly took the main Vishwanatha temple Lingam, and jumped into a well to keep the Shivalinga safe. Years later, the well was excavated, and all five sadhus, who were resting in samadhi, were still alive. Their skill in battle and wisdom in scripture is only the surface of their glory; the true depth of these great sadhus lies in their spiritual ability, earned by intense tapas and complete surrender to God.
Tanga Toda Sanskara
Brahmacharis who wish to confirm their sannyas, go through The Tanga Toda Sankara ceremony. Having proved their dedication and devotion to a master called the langoti guru, the brahmacharis are given permission to become accepted into the naga sects. With this rites-de-passage, the naga sadhus break all ties with their family and pledge a life of selfless service to the chosen akhada and to the path of sannyas.
Traditions depict the naga sadhus as particularly endowed with tremendous spiritual and physical powers acquired over several years of severe tapasya (penance) and practice in their ascetic journey. These tapasya involve extreme self-denial to the body to gain control over all egoistic parts of their being. Pilgrims at the Kumbh Mela therefore hold these naga sadhus with high veneration and respect.
Self Control thru Hatha Yoga and Tapasya
The nagas exhibit their powers of self-control by doing some excruciating exercises that drive crowds at the Kumbh Mela into a frenzy. Most famous is the linga kriya – control over the male sexual organ – through the austere practice of hatha yoga.
Instances of this mastery are legion and the most extraordinary exhibition of the triumph of the human mind over one’s body through tapasya. The purpose of such exercises is to show the control achieved over the body and the complete indifference to the sexual organ for procreation or as a means of sexual pleasure.
Other equally compelling tapasya include:
- Sadhus who have been standing on one leg in the vayu samadhi, breathing and sleeping so, for many years
- Sadhus who have kept one hand raised for several years, with an instance of one who has held it up for more than 42 years!
- Doing the sirsasana (headstand) with the head buried in sand for days at a stretch, breathing through the pores of their skin
- Doing jala samadhi (water meditation) to remain afloat on the surface of water for some hours
- Doing bhusamadhi, by burying themselves fully in sand in a pit and emerging from it after a few days or even months
- Doing the panchagni tapas or five fires penance to become immune to the 64 different temperatures of the body and to several illnesses and gain mastery over their emotions
Many of the sadhus are revered for their expertise in yogic sciences such as palmistry, astrology, the practice of exorcism and materialization. It is also quite possible to come across saints who are 200-400 years old who will make an appearance and vanish as quickly, and who are there only to teach their disciples some valuable lessons.
Since Independence in 1947, these akhadas and naga sadhus have turned to actively spreading Sanatana Hindu Dharma, preserving and reviving ancient Indian culture, lifestyle, philosophy and social service.
- Kumbh Mela and the Sadhus – The Quest for Immortality – Badri Narain & Kedar Narain, Pilgrim Publications, Varanasi, 2010
- Kumbh Mela – Rose Maria Cimino, Instituto Italiano Per L’Africa E L’oriente, Rome, 2000
- Kumbh Haridwar – Bondiah Adepu, Pilgrims Publishing, Varanasi, 2012
- Sarvajanpeetha Book, Nithyananda Peetham, Bengaluru Adheenam