The Naga sadhu from Beverly Hills
What do you say about a Naga baba who listens to Nemanja Radulovic, Dhafer Youssef, Pandit Jasraj and Jimi Hendrix? Who knows what’s exhibiting at MoMA. Who reads Rushdie. Derrida, Foucault, Orhan Pamuk and Bhartrihari’s Vakyapadiya.
“I am thrilled that Peter Handke was chosen this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature as he’s always been one of my favourite authors,” he tells me.
We are sitting in his ashram in the toniest part of Goa, Assagao. Baba Rampuri, one of the few blue-eyed, non-Indian Nagas in the world, grew up in Beverly Hills. He left it since he “found it increasingly difficult to live the comfortable insulated world of the bourgeois.”
Beverly Hills to Assagao? From the frying pan to the fire?
“I came to Assagao in the 1990s and established my dhuni in 2005. This was considerably before the pilgrimage from South Delhi and other places began to Assagao.”
Fire to ashes
The dhuni at Baba’s ashram burns 24/7, 365 days a year. I can feel its heat and its pious purity. But why a 24/7 burning dhuni, I ask him.
He explains. “A dhuni is an altar that houses a living deity, Fire. Our deity has a 24-hour day and is attended as such. Awakened in the morning with offerings, fed during the day with the dried branches of trees, fragrant resins and oils, worshipped through the day with incense, diyas and Ganga jal, put to sleep at night on a bed of cow patties buried under the ashes. It is a continuous, sacred theatre.”
I then ask him about the theatre that surrounds the Naga sadhus and babas. The typical impression is that of a naked (nagna), ash-smeared, celibate living in the Himalayas.
He presides over the question like a living deity would.
“But he is not really naked,” he says. “He wears ashes as his garments. Ashes from burning the things of the world, including our own bodies, into shapeless, identity-less sameness. His jatas resemble those of the banyan tree, which dismisses time as trivial, witnesses countless generations of humans grateful for its generous shade and has a diversity of animals as well as bhoots and praits taking refuge in its branches. Our Naga baba in your image of him is not standing on the human maidan. He stands above it all, in the Himalayas as the witness of all things. He is not born into the world, but out of its womb and it is not an immaculate birth as his five fathers network him into a kinship system resembling that of the Indian society.”
“The DNA of blood, however, is replaced by an intellectual gene. It is from that gene that the identity of a Naga baba is born with five gurus like five fathers, one of whom gives the guru mantra and four others who connect him throughout the four quarters that divide 52 lineages. So from his birth he is a member of a guru-household with guru chachas, guru dadas and so on.”
Is he the only ‘foreigner’ Naga baba in the world?
“No,” he says. “There are several now including some very accomplished sadhvis. What makes it difficult for foreigners is that being a Naga baba has nothing to do with ideology and individual practices but everything to do with relationships. Engagement and seva over many years is required to have proximity to the voices of a living tradition. There are no books to read, no classes to attend, no practices to perform. Here authority exists in the voices of the knowers and not in the pages of a book or a scripture. Story and speech lie in the boundaries of this extraordinary world. This is a dynamic kinship system.”
“In this tradition there exists a treasure house of knowledge of many things, secrets, histories and extraordinary powers. There are traditional knowledge banks as it were, from which those who are authorised may make withdrawals of knowledge that don’t decrease the ledger balance. The network of relationships is tasked with making the entire enterprise sustainable through time. Most foreigners return to their countries. I didn’t.”
This is mesmerising.
In his fantastic book, Autobiography of a Sadhu, he wrote, “…the real guy was in there, somewhere buried among a mound of temporary identities and I needed a way back to myself.”
I found this true of all of us. We are all a sum of temporary identities, aren’t we? And then again, look at the dichotomy of life. Identity is supposed to be permanent. Yet it is actually temporary. And then again, who defines identity? One’s soul? Or the eyes of other people?
He explains: “Culture largely determines identity and that is why I think it is so important that our cultures remain alive and contemporary. Identity has become the challenge of our times. We identify ourselves by what we believe, what we consume, how we represent ourselves online. All of the above is sold to us and we buy into it. This mound of temporary identities is the mound of garbage that we leave behind ourselves in the age of consumption. For these identities correspond to the cartoon figures from whom our speech of the marketplace is borrowed. A speech of self-interested insincerity. Should we bring collective interest into our speech of sincerity, it should increase joy around us, if not great joy. And in that way, our identities will be liberated.”
Baba has a perfectly normal life. For instance, he is part of book clubs in Goa. My question then is, can normal be spiritual? His interpretation of spirituality throws me off.
He says, “I think most people in the world are essentially spiritual, in that they make a basic sacrifice in life to raise and feed a family, as part of a community and basically try and do good things. That’s being spiritual to me. I have a perfectly normal life though others may disagree. I don’t use the category of spiritual because it is misleading. If spiritual means being good, considerate, mindful, self-sacrificing, self-reflective, charitable, then I am comfortable with that usage. Shouldn’t everyone be like that?”
Diamonds and cut glass
I move on to a subject that I know will make him uncomfortable: the media frenzy around the Kumbh Mela.
“The photographers, filmmakers, journalists and other media who come to the Kumbh Mela become seduced by the fabulous imagery and colour. And in that intoxication, they forget that there is a very compelling story to tell, after all. I have no aversion but a touch of regret for those who come for diamonds and leave with cut glass. When they ask for my advice, I tell them to put away all the cameras and gear, and go to the mela as a pilgrim and find a story. When you have found your story, get your camera and shoot it. But don’t kill it. Take it back to your studio, heal it and bring it back to life.”
Speaking of life, I ask him his views on what he would wish to be in his next one. He says, “They say unfulfilled wishes, desires and karmas lead to reincarnation. Once we take our virja havan sanskar to become a baba, we are not supposed to reincarnate. But I do have an unfulfilled desire and that is to become an Indian citizen so that I may complete my work here.”
With that he smears on some ash from his dhuni while his blue eyes twinkle into a smile.
Author bio: The author is a connoisseur of luxury and an ad guru. He launched his own agency, Equus, and has some of the most prestigious corporate honchos as his clientele.
From HT Brunch, November 24, 2019
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