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					                                      Hindu Ascetics
Identity And Attitudes
        Among ascetics themselves, one critical division is between those who have taken
formal initiation, and those who have not. Initiates have become formal members of a
particular ascetic group—they are Sanyasis, Bairagis, or Udasis—and display this identity
in their dress, decorations, ritual accoutrements, and objects of devotion.1 Non-initiates are
considered householders (grhasthas), regardless of their lifestyle, and one ascetic informed
me of a coded language (sadhubhasha) to distinguish genuine ascetics from fake ones
based on a few simple questions, and indicated that this code crossed sectarian boundaries.2
Yet even though ascetics themselves stress the division between initiates and non-
initiates—which upholds their privileged status—this can mislead outsiders for two
reasons. First, many other people dress, act, and function socially like ascetics, even
though they have never taken formal initiation, and this makes it difficult for an outsider to
any functional difference between them. More importantly, these monastic orders are not
centralized religious bodies, but rather each local institution--math, ashram, or trust—is
more or less independent, as are its members. As van der Veer notes of Ayodhya's
Ramanandi ascetics: "There is no central authority which decides upon doctrinal and
organizational matters. Every sadhu may go and roam throughout India, teaching, within
certain limits, his own religious message, and great value is put on that freedom of the
sadhu. Moreover, any sadhu can be chosen by any layman as his guru." (1989: 75). Given
this fluidity, it seems clear that these ascetic organizations are extremely broad categories.
        A careful look at individual ascetics further reveals nearly endless variety in ascetic
“styles,” beliefs, and practices. Sanyasis are divided into Dandis and Nagas: the former
trace their spiritual lineage from the philosopher Shankaracharya and are often well-versed
in Sanksrit and classical learning, whereas the Nagas were warrior ascetics who made their
living as traders and mercenary soldiers. Some Vaishnava ascetics worship Krishna, but

1
  In general, sanyasis worship Shiva, wear red or saffron clothing, mark their foreheads with sacred
ash in three horizontal lines, and use a rosary made from rudraksa beads. Bairagis worship Vishnu,
wear yellow or white clothes, display vertical red and white/yellow forehead marks, and have
rosaries and necklaces of tulsi wood. Udasis dress more like sanyasis, but worship various deities.
Mantras and rituals for each group reflect their sectarian divisions.
2
  Within orders the strongest bond is usually between a guru and his disciples; this binds the
disciples into a loose "family," which often shares identifying marks or religious practices.
most worship Rama and Sita, and here too one finds pronounced differences. Rasiks
(“aesthetes”) focus their worship on Rama and Sita’s domestic bliss as a newly married
couple, and they imagine themselves as servants and companions during the divinities’
daily lives. Tyagis emphasize strict renunciation, and aim to emulate Rama’s life in the
forest during his fourteen-year exile; the strictest ones tyagis take vows that can renouncing
woven garments or dwelling under a roof (Gross 1992: 154). The Bairagi Nagas are
Vaishnava militant ascetics, who like the sanyasi nagas used to earn their living as soldiers
and traders.
       Aside from differences in worship and ascetic style, these groups have considerable
differences in status, which often reflect conventional status differences that they claim to
have renounced. Dandi Sanyasis initiate only Brahmins, and in general more restrictive
membership criteria tend to confer higher status. At other times these social distinctions
are determined by a group’s internal factors. Among Vaishnavas, Rasik worship tends to
center on temples and have the greatest connection with householders, and both of these
factors have highlighted ritual purity concerns. Rasik abbots are always Brahmins, and
only ascetics coming from the “twice-born” groups can enter the inner shrines of their
temples (Fuller 2004: 168).3 Other signs seem to indicated that social distinctions continue
even among “renunciants”: one sanyasi naga scornfully informed me that the Juna Akhara
accepted “low” people, and Gross reports that Bairagis from “unclean” Shudra and
Untouchable groups sit separately when meals are served (1992: 145). Other status
differences are economic—established ascetics with stable residences and incomes have
higher status than itinerant wanderers, who in dress and bearing seem little different from
any beggar in Hardwar. These ascetics are thus an extended "family" with nearly unlimited
instances.
       Despite this ascetic variety, a few things are almost universally true. They tend not
to have families and households as regular householders do, although ascetic initiation
often entails the transition from blood family to a “family” based on a guru-disciple
lineage. Many ascetics describe their purpose not only as seeking to know God, but also to
serve God through serving others. Whereas householders are primarily concerned for their


3
 Van der Veer (1989: 178-80) discusses how establishing temples with fixed images influenced
Rasik organization along caste lines.
families, ascetics are supposed to transcend such attachments, and their service to others
can be seen in their hospitality to visitors. They should ideally be celibate, since this not
only shows detachment and control over a fundamental human drive, but is also believed to
generate spiritual power through retaining semen. Here reality and ideal sometimes
diverge, although such lapses are generally kept quiet.4 The most important similarity is
the notion that they possess some sort of power, although there are varying conceptions of
its nature and source. Such power may be mechanically generated through celibacy or
other ascetic practices (tapas), it may result from devotion to God or intensive ritual
practice, or it may reflect superhuman powers (siddhi) believed to be the byproduct of
religious practice. Yet in every case these powers are felt to reflect something essential
about these individuals, and testify to their attainment.
        This stress on power is critical to understanding how ordinary people perceive
ascetics. By itself power is ambiguous--it can be used by all sorts of people for all sorts of
ends, and has no necessary connection with goodness, purity, or morality. Although some
Hindu ascetics can be described as saintly, many others are marginal figures. One telling
sign of this is that Hardwar's "bogeyman" is Mota Baba ("fat ascetic"), who was invoked
when our landlord's children were being naughty. The children were genuinely afraid of
him, and when an ascetic came to the house by chance one day, they ran away in terror,
convinced that Mota Baba had come to claim them.5 Another indication of deep-seated
ambivalence toward ascetics can be seen from Jim Corbett's note that people in the
Garhwal region attributed all tiger and leopard fatalities to ascetic shape-shifters, whose
purported motive was lust for human flesh and blood (1988: 18-21).
        Such attributions reflect the ambivalent social attitudes toward ascetics—
ambivalence one can easily understand for wanderers with no identification, no past, no
family, and no social network—which create an identity in “ordinary” society.6 Such

4
  Sexual opportunity differs according to circumstances. Many Hardwar residents assume that the
mahants’ wealth and power gives them access to women, and one mahant lived openly with his
mistress under the fiction that she was his disciple. The same is true for any ascetic with an
international following, given their access to foreign women. Poor sadhus may have homosexual
relationships, and Sax notes that in colloquial Hindi the word chela (“disciple”) refers to a person
who is sodomized (2002: 103 n. 20).
5
  While this example mentions only one household, I have heard Mota Baba invoked by other
people in Hardwar, and as recently as November 2005.
6
  This anonymity has been affected by social change. During the 1998 Kumbha Mela I met a
anonymity makes householders wary in their interactions with sadhus, since one never
knows with whom one is dealing.7 For genuine renunciants, obliterating past identity is an
important religious practice—it provides a definitive break with one’s former life, and lets
one form a new identity unaffected by one’s earlier life. Yet this paradigm has clear
advantages to anyone in trouble with the law, and some ascetics are common criminals
who take on ascetic clothing as a way to avoid punishment.8 Most people usually treat
ascetics with respect, but any unknown ascetic will be subject to suspicion and doubt.9
        This ambivalence is partly attributable to some ascetics’ anti-social tendencies.
They are often characterized as unpredictable and quick to anger, and any interaction with
them carries potential danger. It is not uncommon for ascetics to abuse (verbally or even
physically) those who displease them, in ways that would be unthinkable or unacceptable
in normal society. Such latitude reflects their marginal social status, and their
independence from ordinary behavioral codes. Lurking underneath this uncertainty is the
threat of violence, and my only physical altercation in India was with an ascetic who
(mistakenly) believed that I had taken his picture.10 In extreme cases this violence is sheer
banditry, as for one ascetic who had been beaten and robbed by some Shaiva nagas.
        Everyone in Hardwar knows that all kinds of people become ascetics, and for all
sorts of reasons. The ideal sadhu is seeking spiritual attainment through renunciation and
intensive religious practice, and this path is fraught with pitfalls, particularly the danger of
being seduced by the powers (siddhi) described as the byproduct of this practice, and losing
sight of one’s true goal. Success requires many years of selfless practice, which one ascetic
characterized as surrendering everything to God and letting God take care of things. Such
genuine saints are not only believed to be very rare—estimates usually run from between

Jammu sanyasi whose police-issued identity card listed his occupation as “naga baba,” which he
explained was necessary because of the state’s political instability. This case notwithstanding,
sadhus have categorically opposed proposals to give them government identity cards.
7
  This same sense of displacement is a lasting trauma from Partition, which destroyed many of the
social networks that allowed one to know who people really were.
8
  Oman (1905: 235-38) describes a pre-Independence political activist as living underground as a
sadhu for six months, only to resurface following an amnesty. I have earlier mentioned that a sadhu
in Hardwar was alleged to have murdered two people.
9
  In 1990 one sadhu sadly related that while village people still gave sadhus what they needed, they
no longer welcome them, but want the sadhus to move to another place.
10
   He sneaked up behind me, snatched the glasses from my face, and then motioned for the camera.
My instinctual response was to knock him down, at which point a crowd gently restrained me, and
retrieved my glasses.
five to twenty percent of all ascetics—but also difficult to find, since they prefer a quiet life
and have no desire to attract disciples.11
          Most ascetics are believed to frauds of one sort or another, for whom ascetic life
provides a mere livelihood, with no deep call to religious life. I have already mentioned
that criminals may become ascetics to escape punishment, but there are plenty of other
reasons. Miller (1996: 77-84) and Gross (1992: 99, 415-16) both note that many men
became ascetics in response to some unbearable and irresolvable crisis: business failure, a
bad marriage, economic hopelessness, or the loss of all kin ties—such as an ascetic I met in
1986 whose entire family had been killed during Partition. Renunciation provides a
socially acceptable way to handle such crises in an otherwise highly structured society.
Low-caste people may become ascetics to upgrade their social status, and for many poor
people—such as the ascetic who told me he had been a bicycle-rickshaw driver in Old
Delhi—the ascetic standard of living is no worse and potentially much better than their
present one, since involves an entirely new support network (Gross 1994: 134, 417). Some
ascetics are simply vagrants and idlers, for whom ascetic life legitimizes begging as a
means of support. Finally, over the years I have noticed a significant number of ascetics
with physical differences--loss of a limb, blindness, birth defects, or dwarfism—and it may
be that the difficulty in living a “normal” life may have made ascetic life a more attractive
option.
          If most ascetics have no real attainment, how can one discern which ones are
“genuine”? There is clearly no uniform standard, given the fluidity of the ascetic ideal, and
the wide variety of ascetic styles. Groups emphasizing asceticism may denigrate learning
as a waste of time, groups stressing devotion may see learning as a manifestation of
egoism, and learned ascetics may characterize the others as lazy and stupid.12 Yet even
though learning brings cultural respectability, it guarantees neither spiritual attainment nor
moral probity. During my initial fieldwork in 1989, one learned ascetic allegedly
sodomized his students—a clear abuse of his role as a teacher. In the end, distinguishing
“genuine” ascetics is a complex contextual calculation, based not just on what ascetics say


11
  Mangal Das, interview, 25 April 1998.
12
  In such contexts being a scholar is often difficult—one ascetic assured me that becoming his
disciple would bring me far greater benefits than a Ph.D.
and do, but ultimately on who they are, for their lives and messages must be consistent.13
Such evaluation is a constant process, and while one finds near-universal skepticism about
ascetics as a whole, most people encounter enough genuine ascetics to keep this ideal
vibrant and meaningful. Such men (and women) appear in many different guises—learned
and unlettered, gentle and abrasive, rough-hewn and refined, quiet and boisterous—but
they all have charisma and an air of spiritual attainment that automatically attracts people.14
This sense of spiritual power sets apart these “genuine” ones, and even skeptical people are
rarely disrespectful, for fear of insulting someone who has genuine powers.


Gurus And Disciples
        The highest status ascetic livelihood is to be a guru (spiritual preceptor) supported
by one’s disciples. It is also the least common, and an ascetic’s ability to do this is a
commentary on to having "something" that attracts followers and support. Gurus need not
be ascetics—the only necessary thing is to have disciples—and Hardwar has had notable
non-ascetic gurus, such as the Gayatri Parivar’s Shri Ram Sharma, a brahmin householder
whose wife succeeded him after his death, and the Manav Utthan Seva Samiti’s Satpal
Maharaj, a Rajuput householder and member of Parliament (Mckean 1996: 45-57). In
some cases marriage is required, as for a “tantric” guru I met at the Kumbha Mela, whose
wife was treated as the embodiment of kundalini. Despite these cases, most gurus are
ascetics, and for ascetics this is the ideal relationship between householders (disciples) and
ascetics (gurus), since most ascetics see themselves as spiritually superior to householders.
This section will specifically examine the economic aspects of this relationship, whereas
the following section will look at the roles and functions which teachers play.
        In its ideal form, the guru-disciple relationship reflects central Hindu values, and is
based on mutual obligations. According to this ideal, a disciple chooses a guru based on
the latter’s spiritual attainments, and only after long and careful scrutiny. Although a guru
is deemed essential for spiritual advancement, it is important to note in this model that the


13
   Any divergence between life and message is suspicious, such as an ascetic who claimed he was
devoted solely to singing the divine Name, but then demanded batteries for his tape player.
14
   Attributing power is a crucial difference among sadhus themselves—Gross describes one sadhu
as dividing ascetics into two classes: the siddhapurush (“accomplished man”) had genuine spiritual
power, whereas others merely took on the outward appearance (1992: 114-15).
disciple approaches the guru, and not the reverse. Of course, a prospective guru must agree
to accept the disciple, and will often refuse—sometimes as a strategy to test a disciple’s
sincerity and persistence, but because the disciple is deemed unsuitable. Once committed,
each party has obligations to the other, based on the principle of mutual service (seva). The
guru takes responsibility for the disciple’s personal and spiritual development—so
complete that gurus are said to take on their disciples’ karma—and in so doing must act
only in the disciple’s interests. For their part, disciples should surrender to their gurus—
one typical formula calls for body (tan), mind (man), and wealth (dhan)—and serve the
guru without question. The guru-disciple relationship involves clear hierarchy and
subordination, but is based on the assumption that each party is acting selflessly.
        This is a sound formula for spiritual development when the parties are truly selfless,
and a recipe egregious deception when they are not. Both parties can be at fault here, but
since gurus hold greater power, their actions have correspondingly greater influence. A
further complication is that both saints and charlatans give exactly the same messages—
which are venerable cultural messages—but which can used for a variety of ends,
depending on the person’s motive. One hears many tales “false” gurus deceiving and
manipulating others, and the cultural ideals of seva (“service”) and surrender be can potent
psychological weapons. Unscrupulous demands for service and surrender can be presented
as tools to break the disciple's ego, and critically examining the guru's teachings or
behavior can be dismissed as "resistance"—signs that the disciple has not truly surrendered
the ego. Demands for service and the accusations of egoism can be extremely effective
strategies to enforce conformity and obedience, particularly in settings where others
reinforce these messages.15
        For better or worse, this sacred bond is a clear intersection between religion and
business, and unscrupulous people can use it for their own benefit. This is particularly
dangerous for foreigners, who are valued as sources of money, status, and access to foreign
markets, and often completely unaware that ascetics might be spiritual con men. At the

15
  Sudhir Kakar describes this dynamic in the healing work of the Radha Soami Satsang, which he
characterizes as based on idealization of and identification with Maharajji, the Radha Soami guru
(1982: 145). For to this succeed, negative impressions of Maharajji need to be denied access to
consciousness, which means that followers reinforce this idealized image with each other. He
further notes that even though identification and idealization occur in every therapeutic setting, they
are temporary expedients in psychotherapy, but permanent in the Radha Soami Satsang.
crassest level, successful gurus get patronage from their disciples, and wherever there is
money involved, people will try to take advantage of it. Baba Amarnath often said that
religion was the best business in the world, for it had no start-up costs, no inventory, and
one received tangible goods for intangible ones. In the worst cases, being a guru is a
passport to a life beyond most people’s reach—wearing silk robes, eating rich food, living
in air-conditioned comfort, and using the latest electronic gadgets. Aside from questions of
money—and many ascetics genuinely don’t care about wealth—there are subtler issues of
status and control. Being supported by one’s disciples not only confers material benefits,
but more importantly confers status vis-à-vis one’s peers, and validates one’s identity as a
spiritual leader. Such status also enhances one’s “standing” in the market, reinforces one’s
claims to spiritual power, and makes it even more likely that one will receive future
support.
       Of course, there are other challenges besides simply raising money. Another
fundamental conflict is the tension between the need to generate enough patronage to
satisfy life’s minimum desires, and the need to appear detached from the world, and thus
worthy of such patronage. This tension is neither new nor unique to India, as Judith Adler
notes when discussing the Christian Desert Fathers:
       [T]o be perceived as authentic, a holy man had to appear to disdain the world; yet
       the social worlds of asceticism were built upon personal reputation, and exemplary
       lives could fulfill their redemptive purpose only through social report. Visitors were
       essential to the transmission of reputation, and (as modern ethnography confirms)
       long-distance, wealthy visitors, bearing tribute in which others could share,
       enhanced a saint’s local standing (2002: 40).

In the same way, one of the most basic patronage strategies among ascetics is to profess
profound disinterest in money, status, or worldly goods—recall Raper’s comment that
many of Hardwar’s ascetics “profess a total disregard for all worldly concerns,” but that
among them were “many men of considerable property” (1979: 456). Any guru desiring
such things is clearly acting from selfish motives, and thus still enmeshed in the world,
whereas the detachment shown by those who deny wanting them things enhances their
authenticity, and makes them more desirable patronage recipients.
       This strategy can continue even after a guru has become financially successful, and
seemingly lives a comfortable upper-class life. Most financially successful ascetics can
buttress their authenticity by circulating stories about their past practice, which usually
involved long periods of poverty, hardship, and intense religious practice in which they had
to depend on God alone. Such “validating narratives” reinforce ascetic authenticity by
establishing genuine detachment from the world—despite an apparently comfortable and
luxurious life—and implicitly claim that the ascetic’s worldly success is the fruit of this
practice, and evidence of divine care. Just as with the Christian Desert Fathers, there is a
deep belief that a genuinely holy life cannot be hidden from view—that God will provide
for that person, and eventually lead people to them (Adler 2002: 39). This sort of saintly
luminance makes it unnecessary to seek out disciples, who are drawn to them as naturally
as bees to flowering plants.16
        Of course, this ideal is also imperfectly realized, and ascetics use various strategies
to circulate word of their spiritual accomplishments. The simplest method is to tell people
directly, yet unless one’s stories and claims flow naturally in conversation, it will strike the
hearers as self-promotion--which would be unnecessary for a true saint, to whom God
would lead people. Another common strategy is to have one’s disciples spread these
stories. This creates an appropriate distance from the actual saint, who can maintain an air
of humility and dispassion, yet at the same time ensures that these stories become known.
Whether spoken directly or whispered in hushed tones, the lessons and values in these
stories enhance their status. Higher profile gurus can enhance their status by using mass
media (print, radio, television, audio and video media) or through signs and billboards. At
the Kumbha Melas in both 1986 and 1998, Pilot Baba (who was apparently in the Indian
Air Force) bought billboard space on the Delhi-Hardwar road, directly opposite the spot
where Hardwar-bound vehicles stopped to pay road tax.17 Asa Ram Bapu, another
successful guru, devoted an entire wall of his “booth” at the 1998 Kumbha Mela to a
comic-book style portrayal of his spiritual career—including gaining full enlightenment in
1964—and also had a roaming loudspeaker truck spreading his praises throughout the Mela
16
  Amarnath consistently stressed that genuine teachers did not make disciples, but that disciples
made themselves. This idea’s deep roots are clear from the biography of the seventeenth century
saint Dadu Dayal who remarks: "I do not make disciples, people come on their own...like the lotus
recognizing the moon or the snake smelling the sandaltree" (Callewaert 1988: 65).
17 In 1998, Pilot Baba sponsored a publicity event in which a Japanese sadhvi named Mata Kela
Devi demonstrated her yogic powers by being buried in an underground chamber for 72 hours. She
was unearthed on March 27, the day before the second major bathing day—timing that seemed
calculated to gain maximum exposure (Amar Ujala 3/25/98).
streets. Both men are clearly using standard advertising strategies, but the visible signs of
their success—in the size of their compounds and the number of their devotees—may help
reassure hearers of their authenticity.18
        I received many different “sales pitches” while wandering around Hardwar, since it
was generally assumed that I had come there to find a guru, smoke hash, or both. Several
people tried the direct approach, perhaps figuring that since all foreigners are idiots, I
wouldn’t know any better. One older man with whom I talked at Har-ki-Pairi kept telling
me that I could call him "Guruji," and said that his "many" foreign disciples did the same.
The most transparent pitch came from a sadhu who first made me a cup of tea, then trotted
out a shopping list for my initiation: new clothing for him, fruit and sweets for puja, and
finally his daksina ("preceptor's fee") "according to your means." I excused myself after he
announced that unless I took initiation he could do nothing more me, and when I told a
respected ascetic what had happened with him, she laughed scornfully and people like him
knew nothing spiritual life: "They meet foreigners in the marketplace, trap them with
words, and then make fools of them."
        More sophisticated attempts involved a third party making the initial contact with a
prospective disciple, and bringing that person to meet the guru—or as one colleague pithily
described it, “pimping.” This seemingly distances the guru from seeking out disciples, and
at the same time ensures contact, particularly if the disciple is an effective go-between.
During the 1998 Kumbha Mela a young lodger at my house struck up a conversation with
me on the porch, and then led me up to their room to meet his father, a “tantrik” guru who
deprecated my external research as compared to his inner wisdom. In 1990, a California
man living as a Bairagi sadhu took me to meet his ascetic guru, who offered to initiate me
as well. In 1998, that same Californian had severed all ties with his guru, and spoke
bitterly of serving as the baba’s front man to foreigners, who are more desirable devotees
because they have more money, and bring greater ascetic status. The Baba reportedly used
several simple tricks to convince people that he had some powers (siddhi), but he needed
an English-speaking front man, since he spoke little English and had little sense of foreign
culture. Here the partnership was successful until personal factors drove them apart.

18
  Asa Ram Bapu’s camp was massive--a four-day yoga program between March 26-30 1998 was
advertised as being able to seat 150,000 people, sleep 50,000, feed forty to fifty thousand people
every day, and to have 7,000 latrines and bathrooms (Amar Ujala 3/27/98).
        The most sophisticated attempt—and the most understated—came from another
guru-disciple pair in 1990. The disciple asked me, in English, whether I would like to sit
and talk, and after I agreed, I found myself sitting with the guru directly across from me,
and the disciple to my right. We exchanged some pleasantries, but as our conversation
progressed the Hindi-speaking guru was clearly trying to filter our conversation through his
English-speaking disciple. For most foreigners this would have been necessary, but since I
spoke perfectly serviceable Hindi, I grew frustrated by his reluctance to speak to me
directly. After listening to tired clichés contrasting Indian spirituality and western
materialism, and the need for complete faith in one's guru, I decided it was time for me to
leave, and refused to commit to a second meeting, despite the disciple’s demand to know
when I would come to see them again. This encounter was much subtler than the others—
neither or them actually asked anything of me, other than when I would come to see them
again—yet it left me feeling unclean. This feeling was heightened when I learned that both
men were local Brahmins, but that the disciple lived most of the year in France, where he
ran a yoga center—giving him the necessary expertise to “sell” their product to
foreigners.19
        Since the guru-disciple relationship is hierarchical, and the guru holds most of the
power, it is not surprising that the dominant dysfunctional pattern involves the guru taking
advantage of the disciple—this simply reflects this relationship’s power dynamic. Indeed,
it is not difficult to uncover all sorts of deceit, manipulation, and catastrophic abuse of
trust.20 Yet as with all human relationships, this can work both ways, for one can also find
"disciples" taking advantage of this relationship as shamelessly as any entrepreneurial guru.
For an authentic teacher, disciples are people toward whom they have genuine
responsibilities, and such teachers usually emphasize their duty to serve much more than
their right to be served. The guru’s service naturally involves spiritual direction, but can
also be connected with pragmatic needs, and when these "disciples" have obtained what
they want from a teacher, they may simply vanish.

19 Both yoga and Indian spirituality are highly marketable export commodities, as a quick look
through magazines such as The Yoga Journal clearly shows. They have also been used as tourist
attractions, as in Rishikesh’s annual yoga festival, which targets an international audience.
20
   Amarnath described helping a foreigner who had been left penniless in Badrinath after quarreling
with her ascetic guru; the moral here was that economic dependence paved the way for all sorts of
unpleasantness.
        Such fickle opportunism was a recurring complaint among ascetics. One ascetic,
who claimed to be able to guarantee the birth of a son, complained that householders came
to him in times of distress, but ignored him after their problem had been solved. This same
complaint was echoed by another ascetic who was reputedly a skilled Ayurvedic healer.
Finally, since influential ascetics often have a wide range of contacts—often with wealthy
or powerful people—unscrupulous people may become “disciples” to as a strategy to
further their financial or personal goals.21 During my stay in 1989-90, the clearest example
of this seemed to be Amarnath's relationship with one particular family. When I arrived in
October, they were his "dearest disciples," with the father and two sons visiting every day.
Amarnath’s advice and local influence had helped them resolve some family problems, and
he also had helped to arrange the marriage between his grand-niece and the elder son.22
Yet after the marriage the family cut him off, and Amarnath was convinced that they had
used him. The first time he told me about it he got so upset that the dinner burned, leaving
every bite permeated with the fire of his rage, and for months merely hearing their name
brought an embittered rendition of his service to those “ungrateful” people.
        Yet things are not always as they seem. Just before I left Hardwar in 1990 I ran
into one of the sons, who elliptically alluded to his family's disillusionment with "that
Baba"—that they thought that they had found a man with "something," but later discovered
his fondness for intoxicants, and his tendency to verbally abuse them. Here they were
speaking the truth, yet I still found it striking that they had broken ties with him only after
the marriage. Ten years later, I finally learned the whole story—that on the wedding night
Amarnath had verbally abused the groom in front of everyone, telling him that he was good
for nothing. Although normally mild-mannered, such public humiliation prompted the son
to give his family a “me or him” ultimatum—that he would leave the family if they went to
see Amarnath again. Faced with this choice, blood ultimately proved thicker than water.

21
   Making money off holy men is hardly unique to India. Adler (2002: 32) notes that an
enterprising deacon built a successful business leading tours to St. Anthony’s desert hermitage.
22
   One problem was a "bad” son who refused to vacate a family-owned apartment. On Amarnath’s
advice the father sold the property from underneath him, and at Amarnath’s request the property
dealer took no commission from the sale. Another problem was a daughter who had finished her
B.A., but was at home because of difficulty arranging her marriage. Amarnath advised further
education—both to get her out of the house, and to enhance her stock in the marriage market. Her
marriage was fixed soon after finishing her M.A., and paid for with the money raised by selling the
apartment.
       Yet just before describing his family's "disillusionment" with Amarnath, my friend
spoke most respectfully about another ascetic they had known, as proof that real
renunciants still existed. Even though most people accept that most ascetics are corrupt,
just about everybody can name at least one in whom they had real faith. One also finds this
among ascetics themselves-- Amarnath often rebuked me for "wasting my time" talking to
roaming ascetics, and urged me to search out the truly knowledgeable people. Despite my
unfavorable assessment of most of the ascetics that I met, there were a few who impressed
me as genuinely having “something.” Such figures enable people to keep faith in the
ideal—which the corruption, greed, and "failure" of individual ascetics can never destroy--
and their presence is one of the crucial factors for Hardwar’s continuing religious vitality.

				
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posted:10/18/2011
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