Derived from the Greek asketes, meaning “monk” or “hermit,” ascetics are individuals who chose a life characterized by severe self-discipline and abstinence from all forms of indulgence. Almost every major religion breeds ascetics, and for many thousands of years, there have been wandering monks who have renounced all earthly possessions, and chosen to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of spiritual liberation. For many of these individuals, reality is dictated only by the mind, not material objects. India’s holy men, the Sadhu, are one such example.
Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, and it is thought that people may have lived in this place for about 3,000 years or longer. As the epicenter of Hindu faith, it is similar to Jerusalem for Christians and Mecca for Muslims. The images in this story are part of my “Holy Men” series, featuring religious ascetics from around the world.
I first began this collection with a photo series from the North of Ethiopia focusing on Coptic Christianity. Although Coptic Christian monks and Sadhus live in different corners of the world, the connection all of these subjects have to each other is profound. I have been working with some of the same sadhus from Varanasi since I was 16 years old, and coming to know these individuals has truly been a life changing experience.
When a rare outside viewpoint gives context to your own life, you can’t help but feel the mold within you bend and twist into something new.
In particular, I came to know some members of the Aghori, an intense sect of Sadhu infamous for overcoming all things taboo. For instance, they may meditate on corpses, even eat human flesh as part of a sacred ritual, or keep a skull as a reminder of the impermanence of life.
The Aghori have a profound connection with the dead. Death is not a fearsome concept, but a passing from the world of illusion.
Sadhus live a very different life from most of us. A sadhu renounces his earthly life, all his worldly attachments, and leaves home and family. As part of this renunciation, they also leave behind their clothes, food and shelter, and live on the generosity of others. Another part of renouncing your former life is to attend your own funeral and die to yourself, and be reborn into your new life as a sadhu. Below you see Magesh, who left a well paid job as an IT computer consultant to pursue to path of Aghora. After years of practice, he finds no temptation to return to his old life.
When he was young, Lal Baba’s parents arranged a marriage for him. Uncertain about his future, he ran away from home in Bihar Siwan and took up the lifelong task of becoming a sadhu. He has dreadlocks (jatas) several meters long, which have been growing for over 40 years. For sadhus, jatas are a sign of renunciation and a life dedicated to spirituality.
Another important and sacred ritual for Aghori sadhus, is covering themselves with human ash, which is the last rite of the material body.
To many Hindus, Sadhus serve as an earthly reminder of the divine, and may take on the role of a healer as someone who can help to rid others of negative energies. As a part of their daily routines, sadhus will arise before sunrise and bathe in cold water, before starting their daily prayers.
The Ganges River is an important subject in this photo series, creeping into the background, giving the holy men and their students a sense of environment. In the Hindu faith and Indian society, the Ganges River holds a prominent, special, and sacred place. Hindus believe that the Ganges is divine, in part, because it flows from the heavens. This is understandable when you realize that the Ganges is primarily composed of Himalayan meltwater, which falls from the heavens as snow.
One of the most sacred aspects of the Ganges is that Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges reduces a person’s sins and increases the chances for eternal liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Although considered extremely polluted with human waste, garbage and industrial waste, the Ganges is still considered sacred, and some believe there’s nothing that can be done to diminish its holiness. The Ganges has been the spiritual and physical lifeblood of northern India for ages.
The unique perspectives of the Sadhu, and other ascetics like them, challenge the way we interpret the world around us. There are so many places to explore and people to photograph, it keeps me up at night.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
Joey L. is a Canadian-born photographer and director based in Brooklyn, New York. His own curiosity for different ways of living have brought him to new and unfamiliar territories—from areas as far away as the holy lands of Varanasi to culturally-distinct neighborhoods tucked away between the graffitied-streets of Brooklyn.