The Sadhus Of Arunachal, India

The Sadhus of Arunachala

This morning, in the dark before dawn, Nancy, my sister, and I walk a road that winds around Mount Arunachala in southern India. Lord Shiva first touched the earth at the top of this mountain, descending as a column of fire. During the festival called Deepam, which takes place a week from now, devotees will carry a giant cauldron to the top of the mountain, fill it with ghee and light it on fire. You can see the flaming mountain for miles.

As we leave town, Nancy and I realize that the road is lined with orange-robed sadhus--sanyassis--the saints of India, monks who have left home, left society and wander through India alone, meditating, begging for their meals, possessing only a robe, a water jug, a begging bowl, and a staff, their long black hair and beards never cut. They gather at holy places, followers of Shiva, Lord of Yogis, who gathers in his train all those forsaken by other gods: outcasts, the homeless, holy fools, and former criminals. Many are tall and strong. All incredibly thin. Some look like robes of bones, barely holding together. The orange color represents fire--earthly life all but burned up. I have never seen so many.

This morning, a few are still asleep but most are stirring in the darkness, sitting in meditation, chanting. They kneel or squat before shrines--makeshift tripods or small temples, tending the flames of oil lamps--tiny ceramic cups with wicks. Incense fills the street. The mantra, Om Nama Shivaya, resounds around us. "I bow to Shiva, Infinite Divine Consciousness."


One evening in 1978 when I was 21, I sat down in my parents' living room to do my meditation. A mockingbird sang in the holly outside the window. As I entered deeply into meditation, all of a sudden, I was overcome by a clear, certain sense of a calling, or understanding that I'd been born to become a sanyassi. I opened my eyes. To take the vows of a monk in the tantric order I followed would mean coming to India for training and then being sent to another country, never to return home, never to see family or friends again. It meant vows of poverty, celibacy, obedience, fasting, and meditation. I had spent my college years dedicated to spiritual practice with great intensity. I'd become a yoga and meditation teacher, teaching in prisons, attending powerful meditation retreats, practicing tandava every day, the dance that Shiva, Lord of Yogis, performs in a circle of flames.

I got up. I paced the house. I was beside myself with exhilaration, a feeling of being chosen, but also with paralyzing fear. I went to a bookcase and took down the Bible to look for a sign. I let it fall open in my lap. My eyes fell on a passage in italics: Take the wings of the dawn. Go to the farthest reaches of the East.

My mind reeled. I stood up, paced around the room, went outside, down the street. My parents would be devastated.

But the die was cast. A few months later, I graduated from college and moved to an ashram in Charleston, South Carolina, where for a year I worked and taught meditation and prepared to go to India. But over the course of the year there, I began to discover troubling things about the organization. I grew disenchanted and knew that at the end of the day I could not leave my family. I also fell in love.

This was a long time ago. I never became that monk. Marriage and career intervened. Now, I have an amazing partner and two wonderful boys. And though I never became a monk, a part of me is haunted by a yearning for such a life.


People come to Arunachala from all over the world not only because of the myth of Shiva but also because one of the greatest gurus of India made his home here. Also called as a youth to abandon family and dedicate himself to meditation, Ramana Maharshi lived in caves on the mountain for twenty-three years. Absorbed in meditation, he rarely took food. Local people literally put food in his mouth to keep him alive. The people found peace in his presence, and though he remained in uninterrupted silence, there they discovered answers to their problems and questions when sitting near him. News spread. When the crowds grew too large for the mountain forest around his cave, they built an ashram for him at the foot of the mountain. For the next forty years, Sri Bhagavan, as he is called, eventually began to take questions and to share a powerful meditation, called "self-inquiry." Westerners arrived. Books appeared. Ramana became famous among spiritual seekers the world over. And though he died in 1950, people still come, as we have, for the spiritual power of Arunachala is palpable. This is one of my favorite places in the world, one of the places where I feel I truly belong.

Nancy and I pass a sadhu sitting on the curb, his dreadlocked hair brushing the ground as he rocks and chants, holding the trident of Shiva, the divine avatar. Out of a face wreathed in black, his eyes peer out like seeing jewels. All these sadhus seem like aliens appearing out of another world. Yet, if you walk up and talk to one, what you most often encounter is a childlike smile and easy laughter. In spite of their poverty, homelessness, and material insecurity, they act like gleeful children with a great secret. And they do have a secret.
I remember the same bright fierceness, lightness and laughter, in the monks I once lived with. And I remember my calling to join them.

They say there are three ways to become a sanyassi in this life. The first is the usual way. A yearning for enlightenment stirs within, a burning desire to wake up, and one leaves home and society to seek that enlightenment. The second occurs after a spontaneous enlightenment. Already awakened, one realizes that worldly pursuits are futile. Why do anything other than live to serve the world as a monk, to teach the wisdom one was graced to attain? The third can happen when one has lived a family life but some inner desire burns for the renunciate's life. For these, it is said, one can still take the vows of a sanyassi even on one's deathbed, and at the very end of life join that tribe of wild, savage followers of Shiva, who have left this world while remaining in it, who have given up everything to call the Divine down into this world.

And yet, as many of us have come to realize, the life of the householder too has its asceticism, its daily sacrifices and renunciations, the sleepless nights, the offering of time to one's children, the intense focus on someone other than oneself. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that performing such actions in the world can also be a kind of yoga--karma yoga--if we act without seeking reward making every act an offering. Everything on the spiritual path is paradoxical. Sanyassi father. Sanyassi spouse.

The sun strikes Arunachala with rose-gold light, and I say a prayer to Shiva:


Make me your outcast, your fool,
give me the one-pointed devotion of a drunk,
give me one grain of the strength of the poor,
who live with little and brush their teeth
at the side of the road.
In worlds of work, the world of time,
let me light my wick with the sanyassis
of the world. Om Namah Shivaya.
I want nothing but the Divine.