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Group Book Review: Sadhus and Yogis

For this Group Book Review, I’m going to review three books which focus on Indian Sadhus and Yogis. In popular texts, sadhus and yogis are frequently represented as disengaged from the world – socially isolated and in popular works on tantra, often portrayed as marginalised “antinomian” figures existing on the edges of Indian society. All of these books challenge these representations in various ways.

Wandering with SadhusSondra L. Hausner’s Wandering with Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas (Indiana University Press, 2007, 250pp) is an intimate ethnographic account of the lives of Hindu renouncers in northern India and Nepal. Throughout Wandering, Hausner highlights seemingly opposed tensions and how these are reconciled in the daily lives of her informants; for example between the ideal of renouncers as solitary individuals versus sadhu life as a parallel form of community; between the emphasis on the illusory nature of space, time versus the importance of sacred time, space and place, and the issues of religious practice; between the body as illusion and hindrance and the body as the ground of experience.

Wandering with Sadhus opens with the perspective that there is a fundamental split in renouncer lives which is at once both practical (splitting away from householder society) and metaphorical (the split of the soul away from the body). Hausner relates how this split is mirrored across all aspects of a renouncer’s life and that this reflects a wider Hindu concern with transcendence from the material world. She points out that all of her informants strongly emphasised how their religious practices or lifestyles were different to householder society, and goes on to discuss how much renouncer society offers a “place of refuge” from mainstream Indian society – particularly for women. She also points out that for householders “the sadhu community symbolizes the fearsome power of a world outside structural norms, from which there is no return. I heard a number of lay families, even as they outwardly expressed respect for renouncers, tease their children with the threat of giving them away to a wandering sadhu if they misbehaved” (p45). She presents a useful review of Hindu ideas of the body, and argues that the “split” between renouncers and householders does reflect, to a degree, the work of Louis Dumont – particularly his work on renouncers as forming an “other-worldly challenge” to the social web of householder life (some related discussion of Dumont here). She refutes the contemporary idea that the mind-body split is not present in Indian religious or medical body traditions, and argues that the interpretation of Cartesian dualism is not actually a seperation of mind from body, but between body-mind and soul – pointing to the similarities between Descartes and the Indian Samkhya philosophy. She suggests (pace Jonathan Parry) that “the collective refusal to think of South Asian embodiment as a dualistic enterprise might be Orientalism at work” (p56). This discussion is carried on in the book’s appendix, which provides a useful review of anthropological work on Hindu renunciation and embodiment. Pretty much all of the heavy “theory” in this book is done in chapter one and the appendix, which certainly makes the book more accessible.

Hausner shows how, despite textual ideals and popular representations of sadhus as isolated individual practitioners, renouncer life is highly social – mantained through family lineages, administrative orders (akharas), and the guru-disciple relationship – allowing the widely geographically dispersed sadhu communities to remain vital, ensuring the transmission of religious values and the maintenance of communal identities, and also how the akharas both support and discipline their initiates. She also examines how the act of wandering is related to the representation of sadhus as having broken free of the constraints of householder life – and how renouncers’ spatial experience of community is related to networks of pilgrimage circuits (see this post for a brief discussion of pilgrimage sites). Wandering, she points out “teaches detachment and observation, but also gathers the blessings from dispersed holy places into the body of the wanderer.” She describes pilgrimage sites as “spatial nodes” where members of the dispersed sadhu community may periodically meet each other and examines how visiting pilgrimage sites can act as social and economic supports for itinerant renouncers Hausner also highlights the tensions – and material problems – of wandering versus the benefits settling down in a particular place in terms of the dictates of practice. Hausner also makes some interesting contrasts between “places of solitude” such as caves, jungle, and forests, and the social demands of ashrams.

In her conclusion, Hausner discusses how social and bodily practices are understood by sadhus within terms of their religious worldview: “Renouncers insist on the split between soul and body because it is a powerful metaphor for the split they enact from householder society” (p183). She ably articulates how for renouncers, religious transcendence translates into social power – that because sadhus are not tied to one particular place – they inhabit a circuit of holy places, and function on divine, rather than everyday time, they are considered able to manipulate the world at will. Their peripheral and mobile status contributes to their reputation for being religiously powerful. As one of Hausner’s informants put it: “The individual thinks the individual body is his body; the knower of brahman knows the whole universe is his body. Others see his body as his body, but from his point of view his body is the whole universe” (p185). She also presents some useful observations on the nature – from a renouncer’s perspective – of bodily experience, and in particular, how renouncer’s religious discipline serve to enable them to distinguish between “experience that clarifies and experience that obscures.”

Aghor MedicineRon Barrett’s Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death and Healing in North India (University of California Press, 2008, h/bk, p/bk & Adobe Digital Edition) is an engaging examination of contemporary Aghori adepts and how, in shifting their practices towards the healing of socially stigmatised diseases (in particular, leprosy) the Aghoris have become socially legitimate and acquired political power. This is particularly interesting as popular representations of Aghoris are bound up with cremation ground worship, cannibalism and coprophagy (although admittedly the latter does not loom large in popular western representations of antinomian tantric practices). In This book, based on extensive fieldwork with members of the Kina Rami Aghori lineage in Banares, Barrett examines the cultural dynamics of pollution, death and healing in relation to what he terms “Aghor Medicine” – which includes a wide range of eclectic practices such as religious purificatory rites, Ayurvedic and biomedical treatments conducted with the guidance of Aghoris, and the Aghori philosophy of nondiscrimination which challenges practitioners and clients alike to confront and overcome fears and aversions – particularly those around death and disease. Although, as Barrett shows, much of the older cremation-ground practice smashan-sadhana has been supplanted by more socially acceptable practices, the underlying philosophy of cremation-ground practice and its symbolism is still central to Aghori medical practices. He also examines how patients & devotees of the Aghoris draw upon the cultural capital surrounding their reputation for possessing power (shakti) and magical abilities (siddhis).

Along the way, Barrett examines and dispells many of the popular misconceptions that have grown up around the Aghoris. For example, he is cautious about automatically assuming that Aghoris are “tantrics” – discussing contemporary Aghoris’ own ambivalence towards the term, and the general difficulties of defining just what constitutes “tantra” anyway. Instead, he opts for a polythetic approach – “in which Aghor may share enough features with certain tantric traditions to claim some family resemblance but in in which no single feature defines all of them as necessarily tantric” (p12). There is also an interesting discussion of the notion of the right-hand path (dakshinamarg) and left-hand path (vamamarg) which are often portrayed as oppositional and antagonistic. One of Barrett’s sources, an Aghora guru named Hari Baba however, takes a nondualist view that the two paths are complementary to each other:

“they are like two banks of a river that work together to channel the water in a certain direction. The disciple might use one or the other path or a certain combination of both, at different stages of his or her development. Moreover, the disciple need not be an Aghori to combine left-hand approaches with right-hand ones. … Left-hand practices are meant to be temporary exercises, not permanent ways of living. They are supposed to be practiced in moderation, no more than is needed to overcome a particular obstacle to nondiscrimination.”(p152)

Aghor Medicine is a highly readable and fascinating book which sheds much light on the interrelationships between sacred geography, healing and pollution, as well as showing how the Aghori tradition is changing and developing.

Sinister YogisDavid Gordon White’s Sinister Yogis, (University of Chicago Press 2009, h/back, 336pp – also available in paperback and for Kindle) is third part of a “triptych” (the previous two books were Alchemical Bodies and Kiss of the Yogini (see review). Of the three, I would say that Sinister Yogis is the most accessible, although like the other two, it is not exactly a page-turner either.

According to White, the majority of scholarly approaches to Yoga have oriented themselves around the “philosophical yoga” tradition (commonly known as “Raja Yoga” or “classical yoga”) of which Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a foundational text. White says that: “it has been the equation of yoga with meditation or contemplation that has been most responsible for the skewed interpretations that have dominated the historiography of yoga for much of the past one hundred years.” (p42) White says that this focus has had the effect of marginalising earlier (and later) developments and so, as a counter, Sinister Yogis focuses on the Yogi – the practitioners, and examines accounts of practitioners within a wide variety of literary genres spanning a period of over a thousand years; ranging through the Vedas, Epics and Puranas, to early traveller accounts of Yogis, colonial reports; narratives from Hindi, Sanskrit and Persian sources, which depict yogis behaving in extraordinary and yes, sometimes “sinister” fashion, but largely not depicted in terms of the practices familiar from “classical yoga” – assuming postures, restraining breath and senses, meditating or realising transcendent states of consciousness. White asserts that, in contradiction to the majoritarian view of Yoga practice, the yogis in these narratives are not introspective or inward-turning.

In countering the familiar image of the yogi as “holy man” – detached from the concerns of the everyday world and spurning the acquisition (and use) of siddhis – magical powers such as the ability to enter another person’s body, raising the dead and so forth, White makes the radical claim that this image of the yogi is not historically correct, and he gives a lengthy examination of “the science of entering another body” (which can be likened to a form of possession) and how this relates to Indian models of perception and modes of personhood: “Before it was closed off from the world to ensure the splendid isolation of spirit from matter, or the vacuum necessary for the “hydraulic” practices of hatha yoga, the yogic body was conceived as an open system, capable of transacting with every other body – inanimate, animate, human, divine, and celestial – in the universe” (p166). Moreover, White examines how scholarly representations of the yogic body in terms of it being a microcosmic “miniature” of the wider cosmos is a mis-step (see some related discussion here); rather, he says, it would be more accurate to understand the yogic body as “a self-magnifying self that has become fully realized by the magni-ficent universe” (p175).

In addition, Sinister Yogis examines portrayals of yogis as power-brokers, ascetic warrior-mercenaries and traders; and the British criminalisation of yogis in the nineteenth century. He presents a critique of the popular, unreflexive assumption that the figure in Sir John Marshall’s so-called “Pasupati Seal” is seated in a yogic posture, and argues that the “lotus position” was originally associated with royal sovereignty – and later became extended to yogis due to the relationship between yoga and sovereign power.

Sinister Yogis is without doubt a ground-breaking approach to the historical representation and understanding of yoga traditions and aims. It overturns much of what is considered canonical in terms of how we think about yoga and yogis.