Sadhus A Go-Go!

Posted on December 14, 2010

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Sadhus at Pashupati Temple

In the Pilgrimage to Pashupatinath post I promised to post pictures of sadhus (Hindu holy men) that we saw at the temple. Here they are. These fellows were hanging out at the shrines on the banks of the Bagmati River, but you see sadhus at many a holy site all throughout Nepal. The sadhu lifestyle, as it were, adheres to strict rules: They have to renounce all worldly possessions, never marry, stay abstinent, travel to holy places to meditate, and never work for money or food, except to beg for both.

I’ve never sat down and talked with a sadhu, but I imagine the decision to become one is an intensely personal one. But lifestyle restrictions aside, it seems to me that these emaciated holy folk don’t go without a sense of pragmatism or humor.

For example, this particular trio at Pashupati really hammed it up for tourists. And because Pashupati attracts a lot of Westerners, I guess the location serves as a two-birds-with-one-stone situation for sadhus. It’s a very holy site, so it’s an ideal place to meditate, and it’s teeming with tourists, so it’s a cash cow for begging.

Sadhus have picked up on fact that tourists looooove taking their photos, and it’s become a permanent part of their begging routine. If they sit in a conspicuous area and simply wait, a tourist will come wandering by in their sun hat and fanny pack and inevitably want to take their photo. There’s nothing against posing for photos in the sadhu lifestyle guidelines. So they ask for a fee, pose, and click!—Sadhu’s gonna eat today.

sadhu at Pashupati

Penny for your thoughts? Rupee for your picture.

And let me tell you, many are not shy about asking for more money. That’s why as a Westerner, you have to know the drill too.

When I had Taylor take these sadhu photos, I first approached the holy men with my polite Western girl smile and asked, “May we take your photo?” It’s only right to ask for permission first. The guy who seemed to be the leader of the pack immediately struck a pose and Taylor clicked away. After a few shots, I approached the leader with a 20 rupee bill.

The leader said, “50 rupees, 50 rupees.” But instead of giving him more money, I kept smiling my polite Western girl smile and said, “Thank you.” Then Taylor and I walked away.

There’s no set fee for donations, is there? I think it’s perfectly morally sound to give what you consider a fair fee, even if they ask for more. And when a sadhu is pushy (which can happen), it really ruins the spirit of giving.

A similar thing happened to Taylor’s father on his recent two-day visit. We were wandering around Durbar Square when a friendly sadhu in robes approached him. The sadhu smiled and gave him a blessing with some special oils, and Taylor’s father obligingly accepted, probably thinking to himself, “What a nice man.” Then the sadhu asked him to pay for the blessing.

Luckily, Taylor’s dad has a robust sense of humor, and he laughed out loud, saying, “Oh, he really got me!” We gave the sadhu 20 rupees and thankfully he didn’t ask us for more. He did recommend I receive a blessing as well, but I told him no thanks and we scurried away. Later on, someone in Durbar Square pointed at the very same sadhu and told us not to give him money, because he was a fake. Good advice too late.

Nepal is a wonderfully mystical place where itinerant holy men are a not just a romantic part of a bygone era but an actual fact of life. But dang, do they know how to run some game. Begging is their business, and they’re good at it. So when you’re in the country, beware of—and be merry with—the sadhus!

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