What makes a saint?

There is only one real way that an Indian escapes caste. This is, of course, through asceticism. The sadhu, the monk and the nun are not seen through the lens of his or her caste. Their giving up the business of the world and its material possessions includes surrendering their caste identity. Other than this valve, there is no other release for an Indian on the matter of caste. I was thinking about this when I came across an unusual story reported a few days ago out of Ayodhya by the wire agency ANI. It said that “in order to keep a tab on the growing number of culprits, hiding in and around Ayodhya city dressed as saints, the district administration of Uttar Pradesh’s Faizabad is conducting a verification process of all the citizens residing in the area.”

The story was, as such things are often in India, not reported particularly competently. Were the authorities worried specifically about the “culprit” (meaning a person responsible for a crime) or generally the charlatan, meaning a pretender who wasn’t really a sadhu but had taken the robe to dupe the innocent? This was not clear. Uttar Pradesh is governed by a man who is himself the head of a religious order, “Yogi” Adityanath. And so it is possible and, perhaps likely, that he was concerned about the general tarnishing that his community received when it was infiltrated by the charlatan.

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The Ayodhya sadhus that the agency spoke to were happy with the police’s action. “The image of saints shouldn’t be tarnished. Even in Ramayana, Ravan kidnapped Sita after becoming a saint,” one of them, “Mahant” Paramhans Ramchandra Das, said. Another individual, “Acharya” Satyendra Das of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple said that it was true that criminals had come to Ayodhya to avoid detection and that this “damaged the image of saints”. He added that “people come here from all parts of India. Even there are people from Nepal.” Here I think he was specifically referring to the charlatan and not the criminal.

The problem with this is, of course, not knowing who or what a genuine saint or sadhu is and how such a person is different from a charlatan. Indians use fancy titles to project their holiness. That is why Adityanath uses the prefix “Yogi” and Das uses “Acharya”. The latter is a title that indicates that its bearer has read, and has offered commentary on, three texts: the principal Upanishads, the Bhagvad Gita and the Brahma Sutra. But this is something that even you could do, and then, having done it, legitimately bear the title “Acharya”. Doing it does not make one a fraud and certainly not a criminal. It is the mark of an accomplishment, like the Muslim use of the word “Haji” to denote he who has finished the obligation of Haj. Incidentally, the word “Hafiz”, as used by the head of the Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba, is also a title. It means he who has memorised the Quran, and comes from the word “hafiza”, which means memory.

“Yogi”, of course, means he who practises yoga, which the dictionary defines as the “Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practised for health and relaxation”. By this definition, even I, someone who does yoga regularly (and quite badly) am a “Yogi”. And so of course is our prime minister, who also does yoga (quite brilliantly as the videos show). If either of us were to use this prefix “Yogi”, it would not make us fake in any way.

On the other hand, observe the number of individuals who are accepted as authentic “godmen” who carry prefixes that don’t mean anything, like Sri Sri and Bapu, and so on, which serve no purpose except to specifically elevate the stature of the individual.

To return to Ayodhya and our story, the police in the city have been going from temple to temple to verify the antecedents of the people who are present there. They are building some sort of a database, the report said, and I would have liked to have had some more details of this. Most priests use titles and give themselves new names. It’s highly unlikely that this is the same name on their Aadhaar card, and so what this database looks like would be interesting to see.

We referred earlier to the idea of asceticism, which is what we tend to associate with sadhus. It is characterised by severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons. We have ascetics who are Christians, especially the Friars, and Muslims, the Sufis. We also have in India, the unique Jain ascetic. I say unique because I do not know of another faith, or another part of the world, where often the middle-class and sometimes the wealthy, wilfully take up asceticism permanently.

The latest such story was reported in April, by the wire agency PTI, under the headline: “24-yr-old Mumbai-based CA renounces Rs 100-crore (1 billion) biz to become a monk.” It spoke of a chartered accountant, Mokshesh Sheth, who managed his family’s business for two years after becoming a CA, “gave up all the earthly possessions and aspirations and became a Jain monk at a ceremony held in Gandhinagar”. This was a matter of great pride for his family. Readers of Business Standard who are in Mumbai will often encounter reports of children from wealthy Jain families who do, or are made to do similar things. Not long ago, a 12-year-old child of a diamond merchant similarly took up the robe.

Jain asceticism comes with a specific set of vows, called vrat, which are undertaken for life. These include non-injury (to other living things), abstention from lying and stealing, chastity, renunciation of all possessions and contentment. Some of these are then made quite specific. For example, Jains are encouraged to limit or even totally cease bodily movement (so as not to harm creatures and organisms). The final stage of this is dying voluntarily by starvation, something which is called sallekhana. I suppose it is done so that in moving on, one doesn’t burden the external world any longer. The interesting thing is that, of course, one can do this while not claiming any sainthood at all.

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