Sadhus: The Seekers of Salvation
Bedi Films Visuals
Rs. 2,950 PP 280
Towards the middle of Rajesh Bedi's book, the photographer and his team are on the hunt for an aghora called Ramnath in the upper reaches of Haridwar.
The man who would lead them to the much-wanted ascetic is Satya Narayan, an ex-sadhu, now a building contractor.
He appraises his questioners, and after clearing any misgivings about their intentions leads them many kilometers down a range that is the base for Ramnath.
Ramnath is the real aghora McCoy, an ascetic who meditates in the midst of burning, half-decaying corpses at a cremation spot by the river. After many attempts at getting him to open up about his life, Bedi succeeds.
His group is called one night to witness shav vada - a necromantic ritual where ascetics pray and meditate in front of a corpse. There, in the middle of frightening sounds and silences, they get in on the most guarded secrets of spiritual life in the Indian wilds.
The Ramnath recollection is interspersed with photographs of sadhus picking up skulls from decaying dead bodies. The skull is the jewel in the crown of aghora life. One sadhu is shown separating flesh from a decomposed head, the way butchers clean quartered meat.
The next photo shows a sadhu with matted hair washing a skull, revealing the beauty of bone beneath skin. The skull is a chalice for offerings, a headgear for meditation, or an object of much affection in the morbid environs of sadhu life.
Along with the story of Ramnath, the images of sadhus working with their favourite things, gives the book its cresting moment.
Bedi tells us what is known about sadhu life in India and includes information capsules on everything from the akhadas, Adi Shankaracharya's rejuvenation of the religion at the time of the Buddhist surge, Hindu rituals, and intra-faith fault lines.
Consider the reality of caste: even when you leave the material world, the caste of your past chases you. Once you don white or saffron robes (or less) for the 'new life', you carry a stick that denotes the caste you belong to.
Worse, the number of years a novitiate spends under a guru who will ordain him varies for brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras. The lower the caste, the greater the time required and more stringent the tests to qualify as an ascetic.
Bedi's best finds are naturally exotic ascetics: Parshuram Das has been standing in one posture for twelve years, his feet swollen like pumpkins; an Ayodhya sadhu, Khadeshwari Baba, who has vowed to be celibate for 12 years has incarcerated his genitals in an iron loincloth.
Bedi devotes a chapter to sadhvis, bringing out the vast female contribution that is often a footnote in religious historiography.
He writes about Mira Puri, who was educated at an English school, and left home despite familial remonstration to become a sadhvi. A more telling account comes from a Bengali sadhvi, at home with the bones in a graveyard.
Where photos might not carry the story forward, Bedi uses archived prints from the National Museum. This makes for a book which has his photos, his late father (photographer Ramesh Bedi's) visuals and insights, and Bedi's own narration.
Bedi has a passable yen for the pen. However, there are grammatical lapses, and more seriously, spasmodic sentimentality (the babas and sadhvis bring out the good-son in him).
One hazards that Bedi may not have come this close to the people he portrays if he didn't share their spiritual fervour. That said, when Bedi's camera rolls, the pictures shine.
A standout photo is one of a floating corpse. It's as if a living man is somersaulting in turquoise water, the soles of his feet buoyed over the surface. There is glory in the photo and a touch of gore. What price is salvation? Hari Om Tat Sat?
Rahul Jayaram is an independent journalist