Archives For holy men

Hinduism: A Different Beat

from Beatdom Issue 10 (buy here)

by Geetanjali Joshi Mishra and Ravi Mishra


As a religion, Hinduism has been one of the most ancient and generational expressions. These expressions and beliefs are handed down from the past generation to the present. The Hindu religious thought is such that, on one hand it seeks to exclude life and its aspects in its entirety, and, on the other, its beauty is such that it radiates in the full expression of all forms of life…those that have been considered mainstream through the ages and those that have baffled the matrix of the mainstream.  Hinduism is naturalistic. A true Hindu does not believe in institutionalized religion; far from it, he/she inherits a doubt in all things institutional and becomes culturally inclined to observe society from a distance whenever he/she finds it imposing upon his spiritual and personal growth.

The Bhagvad Geeta or the Song of the Lord, the greatest-known book to guide conduct and human existence in Hinduism, expects one to play one’s role in the social and the worldly structure while keeping oneself at bay from expectations of societal and worldly gains. Then, there are the ‘Renunciates’ – those that feel that the world and society are obstacles in the way of realization of truth and that to realize truth one has to look beyond and out of the social structures. These men and women earn the distinction of being the ‘Sadhus’. They have held light to the Indian Civilisation from time immemorial. They are the wise. Once, they were also the erudite holders of the scales of moral and social justice in society, though they, themselves, were out of it.

It is a fairly well-documented fact that the Sadhus and Indian religions have cast an impression on the writers of the Beat Generation. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had travelled extensively across India in 1961-62 and stayed with some very prominent thinkers and writers of the period. One of them was the current president of India, Pratibha Patil (then a girl of nineteen), with whom Ginsberg stayed in Varanasi in 1962. Patil has been known later to have tried psychedelic drugs with the Indian Sadhus – Baba Neem Karoli, in particular. The Beats and the Sadhus meet in the context of Hinduism in many ways. They had very similar philosophies and aims, which in the context of Hinduism make them so akin to each other. They both seek advancement of their souls and spiritual elevation. They look for it beyond the frontiers of common humanity. The world beyond ours’ hosts the road to their ‘unworldly’ and asocial spiritual fulfillment.

In Wandering With Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas, Sondra L. Hausner, writes that the Sadhus do not believe in following the constraints of space and time. They believe in being on the move – as staying in one place restricts their intellectual and spiritual growth. One almost wonders if On the Road could have been written had Kerouac not experienced these brilliant realisations which richen his plot? The knowledge that Hinduism advocates is the knowledge that Kerouac offers his readers in his defining work. It is also the same as what made the Sadhus so venerated and revered: the experience of what lies beyond the common boundaries of Humanity. Dissociation from fixities is not the only common feature among the holy men ofIndia and the Beats. In the context of Hinduism’s infinity, drug use and sex for salvation are other commonalities. Although the latter appears confined to some obscure and secret societies of Sadhus, the former remains readily seen among them.

Lord Shiva, the Supreme God in Hinduism, one of the forms of the Hindu trinity of Brahama, Vishnu and Shiva, is worshiped with the offerings of cannabis and other intoxicants. Considered to be the supreme consciousness who lies outside the human realm he is still found somewhere within each of us. It is He we seek to explore and His energy that we wish to obtain by meditation, prayers and other spiritual means. Having gained the enlightenment and full of benevolence for all, the Sadhu wishes to dispel spiritual strength in the world and guide mankind on the right course. Shiva, the manifestly terrible form of the supreme consciousness, has also been called the most merciful in the ancient Hindi scriptures. It is this secret that the Beats and Sadhus seek.  They care not how they appear and the impression that they make on others – as long as they gain the spiritual strength to hold light to a saddening, darkening world. The Beats and the Sadhus are alive in us, in each of us. We have only to explore them to be mature enough to make our lives more meaningful.

In what may be regarded as one of the biggest fares of humanity in the world, the ‘Kumbh’ in the holy town of Allahabad in India, thousands of Indian holy men descend from the Heavens to Earth, in the midst of mortals…to spend a month or thereabouts with them. They are very strange people, or so we think. Some of them exist in utter defiance of humanity, and we can only ask what it is that they hold to be true. Society, social strictures, codes, values, morals as we know them, do not hold with the Indian Sadhus. They epitomize the most truthful essence of one of the most ancient and theologically superior religions of the world.

The one aspect where Hinduism comes closest to the Beat philosophy is the element of queer sexuality prevalent in both. In the vastness of the great Hindu mythology, the queer elements seem to be interspersed through the many religious texts that Hindus follow to understand their philosophical and religious truths. Although the age-old Hindu literature appears, by and large, to be mute on same-sex love and physical attraction, slips in sexuality, erotic same-sex fascination, and intersex or third gender characters are not very infrequent in the religious narratives of the Vedas, Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas and lore of the regions of the ancient land. In the words of Devaddata Pattanaik, a prominent speaker on mythology: queer manifestations of sexuality, though repressed socially, squeeze their way into the myths, legends and lore of the land.

To begin with, the compendium of Hindu mythology refers extensively to change of gender in the deities and their embodiment of different genders at different times. It also alludes to the combining forms of androgynous or hermaphroditic beings. The Gods participate too. They change sex or manifest themselves as Avatars of the opposite sex to facilitate sexual congress. Their influence on humans is such that the mortals also undergo sex-change through their actions, fructifying the curses or blessings, or as the natural reincarnates.

In addition, it may be said noted that Hindu mythology delves deep into incidents where sexual interactions serve a non-sexual, divine purpose; in some cases, these are same-sex interactions. Ambiguity in judgment of the Gods is revealed when the Gods sometimes condemn these inter-actions, but on the other hand, they occur with their blessing. These mythological interactions have been expressions both of male and female characteristics in the Gods as well as the mortals. Not bound by time and place – they may occur at the same or at different times. They might also become manifest with characteristics of both genders at once, such as ‘Ardhanarishvara’, the revered and widely worshipped figure created by the merging of Lord Shiva and his consort ‘Parvati’. The name Ardhanarishvara means ‘The Lord whose half is a woman’ which, in itself, creates sexual ambiguity. It is said that this form of Shiva represents the ‘totality that lies beyond duality’, and is studied in reference with the communication between mortals and gods and between men and women.

One of the most celebrated and written about examples of same-sex love and transgression of gender exists in the pages of the Bhagavata Purana. There, Lord Vishnu as an enchantress, ‘Mohini’ (a form he took in order to befuddle the demons into abandoning ‘amrita’, the elixir of life), charms Shiva, who is so drawn towards her that they have a relationship followed by the birth of a son. The Brahmanda Purana talks of Shiva’s wife Parvati, who ‘hangs her head in shame’ as she sees her husband’s pursuit of Mohini. Some of the stories also mention Shiva asking Vishnu to appear in the Mohini form again so that he can witness the actual transformation for himself.

Stories in which Shiva knows of Mohini’s true nature have been interpreted to ‘suggest the fluidity of gender in sexual attraction.’ Philosophers  interpret the narrative more profoundly. Pattanaik declares that efforts to focus only on homoeroticism ignore the narrative’s profounder metaphysical significance – Mohini’s femininity stands for the material aspect of reality, and her seduction is another attempt of Vishnu to induce Shiva into taking an interest in worldly matters. Scholars point to other stories to show that it is only Vishnu’s charm that has the power to enchant Shiva. A demon tries to kill Shiva by taking the form of a woman (placing sharp teeth in ‘his’ vagina). Shiva recognizes the impostor and kills the demon by the placing a ‘thunderbolt’ on his ‘manhood’ during their act of lovemaking.

The later Puranas talk of the origin of God ‘Ayyappa’ . Vishnu, as Mohini, is said to have conceived with the might of Shiva, and borne Ayyappa, whom he/she later abandons in shame. Some scholars dispute this version, arguing that Ayyappa sprang from Shiva’s semen, which was ejaculated upon Shiva’s embrace of Mohini. There are many versions of the Mahabharata wherein Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, also took the form of Mohini and married ‘Aravan’. This was done to let Aravan be given the chance to experience love before his death, as he had volunteered to be sacrificed prior to the Kurukshetra War to ensure the Pandavas victory. Krishna remained in mourning in the Mohini form for some time after Aravan’s death.

It is more among the humans, particularly in the context of the narrative of the Mahabharata, that sexual changes and slips manifest themselves. One such character becomes ‘Shikhandi’, originally born as a girl named ‘Shikhandini’ to ‘Drupada’, the king of ‘Panchala’. The stories tell us that in her previous lifetime, Shikandini was a woman named ‘Amba’, whom the great and mighty ‘Bhishma’ had rendered unmarriageable. Having been humiliated, Amba moved in search of revenge, undertook great austerities, and the Gods granted her wish to be the cause of Bhishma’s death.

Another such story that talks about queer sexuality is the tale of ‘Ila’, a king cursed by Shiva and Parvati to be a man one month and a woman the next, which appears in several traditional Hindu texts. After changing sex, Ila loses the memory of being the other gender. During one such period, Ila marries ‘Budha’ (the God of the planet Mercury). Although Budha knows of Ila’s alternating gender, he doesn’t enlighten the ‘male’ Ila, who remains unaware of his life as a woman. The two live together as man and wife only when Ila is female. In the Ramayana version, Ila bears Budha a son, although in the Mahabharata Ila is called both mother and father of the child. After this birth, the curse is lifted and Ila is totally changed into a man who goes on to father several children with his wife.

It may thus be seen that the Indian mythological world is replete with transgressions of sexuality to prove to man that sexuality is not constructed traditionally and historically – that same-sex love may be a yearning towards a greater fulfillment. In what may be regarded as the oldest surviving documents of man’s intellectual growth and religious stability, sex and its transgressions have only been the means to obtain the higher plane of human conscience, a life where even Gods desires change of form to demonstrate Nature’s instinct and unleashed, hidden desires.  Although the Beats and their thoughts did not spring directly from Hinduism, it is no less remarkable a coincidence that the two are so similar to each other. The Beats may be said to be the greater Hindu, a people who sought not institutions but individuals and looked for growth – not of restrictive notions but the advancement of the human soul.

From Ganja to God

by Geetanjali Joshi Mishra
Beatdom Issue 10

They are unmistakable: roughly kept beards, unmanageable, unruly and unkempt hair, chillums dangling from the oral cavity, drinking ‘bhang’ and smoking marijuana; add mysticism, reverence and fear and you will have before you the nativity of the Holy Men of India, the ‘Sadhus’.
A Sadhu is a mystic, an ascetic, the one who knows all and is liberated from the materialistic world of humans. He is a wandering monk whose singular goal in life is to achieve ‘moksha’, and he gets it through tough penance and uncommon lifestyle. India has been a country of much interest to the world and the Orient has forever lured the West. It is a country where the solitary aim of life is ‘liberation’ or ‘Moksha’, also called ‘nirvana’. It is the highest form of ‘Purushartra’; the choice to do good things in life, among ‘Dharma’ (duty), ‘Artha’ (meaning), ‘Kama’ (sex) and ‘Moksha’ (salvation). Hinduism has been forever guided and inspired by its spiritual leaders, mainly ascetics or Sadhus. Baldeo Upadhyay observes that “the Indian culture is based upon the three T’s – Tyag (renunciation), Tapasya (penance) and Tapovan (hermitage)”.This clearly means that, in order to achieve truth or the highest form of knowledge, an individual must observe unremitting penance and detachment from worldly vows.
Broadly speaking there are two main divisions, or sects, of Sadhus: ‘Shaiva’ Sadhus who revere Lord Shiva, the God of Destruction and ‘Vaishnavas’ who are ascetic followers of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver of the Universe. Apart from these two chief categories, there are some ‘Shakta’ Sadhus as well, who are the disciples of goddess ‘Shakti’, the supreme goddess of strength and power. Then, there are the ‘Naga’ Sadhus, (a sub category of ‘Shaiva’) who remain unclothed and wander naked openly in the streets, commanding respect and awe. Nudity in their case is not considered obscene but is seen as the highest form of penance. Along with the ‘Naga’ Sadhus are the ‘Aghories’, or the warrior Sadhus, who not only in some cases remain naked but also smear their bodies with human ash (acquired from cremation grounds, a place of worship and meditation). They are often seen with a human skull, which is used as a begging bowl.
The most remarkable facet of the Sadhu community is their sometimes excessive and non-restrained use of drugs like ‘charas’ (cannabis). The Naga Sadhus, and aghoris in particular, devour these drugs since they consider them as a fundamental aspect of their religious ceremonies and practices. Sadhus claim that use of hallucinatory drugs brings them closer to God, and thus closer to salvation. The use of the hemp plant in the religious rituals of the worship of Lord Shiva is noteworthy. It is said that cannabis is one of the favourite plants of the deity and is thus respected and held reverently by his followers. Drinking of ‘bhang’ (a drink made out of cannabis) is considered highly auspicious by these Sadhus as it is said to unite the disciple with the deity and open a way to achieve salvation and get rid of the miseries of life and death. According to religious beliefs it is said that bhang is capable of cleansing one’s soul of all forms of sin. The religious significance of cannabis and hallucinatory drugs is so obviously felt that it is validated by the fact that in most of the states in India weed is legal and sold openly in the market.
It is this openness in religion and this freedom in choice that inspired some of the Beat writers to extensively travel to India and experience a life without inhibitions and restraints. Initially, the West’s interest in the East was determined by negative impulses, the desire to study the Eastern religions was driven by the fanatical craving to convert the Easterners into Christianity. The West saw the East as ‘heathen’ and took the responsibility of educating the East and showing them the way of Christ. Whatever knowledge an average American possessed about the Eastern religions was due to missionary accounts. It was only in the twentieth century that the East could have been said to have any serious and scholarly influence over the American mind. The Beats may be considered the vanguard in a significant shift in post-World War II American religious consciousness, marked by rejection of institutional religion, a questioning of Christian values, and an affirmation of the possibility of new religious meanings to be found through mystical experience, hallucinogenic drugs and Asian religions.
First emerging in the nineteenth century, American interest in the Asian religions has grown spectacularly since World War II and today effects the lives of large numbers of Americans. Some have dismissed the phenomenon as a fad, while others hail (or denounce) the growth of interest in Eastern spirituality as the beginningstages of a shift in religious consciousness that will profoundly alter the religious view of future Americans.
The one outstanding resemblance between the Beats and the Sadhus is that both of them are away from the humdrum world of the square society; they are both in search of reality and internal peace. The one question that both Sadhus and Beatniks ask is the relevance of life, its meaning and its end. Post Second World War, the Beatniks seemed to have lost faith in Christianity and were looking for answers towards Eastern religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. When the strict righteousness of Christianity couldn’t satisfy their enthusiastic spiritual cravings they begged answers from Buddhism. “I don’t know about that, but I get my religion from Buddhism and the Oriental religions. Buddha was one of the original hippies – he was a beggar who rejected the ‘straight’ world. I think incense and charms help turn a person on. The teaching of Nirvana seems to be the essence of truth. The Oriental religions have more to offer than Christianity” said one of the hippies in an interview in 1967.
On one level, the Beat writers may be seen as early leaders in the war era who turned to the East, whose attitudes and use of Asian religious thought provide important insight into the impact of the East on modern American religious beliefs. In the post-World War II period, Beat writers did more than any other literary group to shift America’s cultural focus toward the East. The ways in which the Beats utilized and distorted Asian conceptions reveal both the rewards and dangers of turning to non-European sources. Thus, the Beats can be seen as the precursors to ‘Indian God Men’ who later allured the West into the romance of India and its spiritual offerings.

Marijuana has long been used as a spiritual tool and mood enhancer, and it is also said that a person taking marijuana has a heightened emotional experience. The Sadhu’s intake of ‘ganja’ or ‘charas’ brings them into a state where they feel one with God. The spiritual impact of psychedelic drugs depends entirely upon the person using them, it depends on his/her mental state and his/her intentions in using it. While Sadhus on one hand use drugs to experience the divine presence of God around them, on the other the Beats used them to run away from society into the world of ecstasy and bliss. Sadhus who embrace marijuana as a sacrament find it spiritually beneficial, as they feel that the intake of the drug purifies their soul; marijuana helps them focusing their attention inward, toward the realm of spirit and towards God. Allen Ginsberg in ‘The Great Marijuana Hoax’ talks about his experiences with ‘ganja’ during his stay in India:

In sound good health I smoked legal ganja (as marijuana is termed in India, where it is traditionally used in preference to alcohol), bought from government tax shops in Calcutta, in a circle of devotees, yogis, and hymn-singing pious Shaivite worshipers in the burning ground at Nimtallah Ghat in Calcutta, where it was the custom of these respected gentlemen to meet on Tuesday and Saturday nights, smoke before an improvised altar of blossoms, sacramental milk-candy and perhaps a fire taken from the burning wooden bed on which lay a newly dead body, of some friend perhaps, likely a stranger if a corpse is a stranger, pass out the candy as God’s gift to friend and stranger, and sing holy songs all night, with great strength and emotion, addressed to different images of the Divine Spirit. Ganja was there considered a beginning of sadhana (Yogic path or discipline) by some…

The question that one may ask is that why men like the Beats and the Sadhus have the desire to escape from reality, and in doing so make use of hallucinatory drugs. Aldous Huxley seemed to have an answer. He said:

Most men and women lead lives, at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and always has been one of the principal appetites of the soul.

The Beat writers made use of drugs in order to expand their range of experience beyond boundaries, just as the Sadhu who went into a state of trance after taking in drugs. The Beats also consumed drugs in order to go into the state of trance where they could create poetry which they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. The Beats were troubled souls. They were constantly at war with the world they were living in. In order to achieve peace and nirvana, they made use of drugs to escape into a world of trance, where everything was blissful and serene. Drugs such as marijuana helped them escape into a different world where they felt close to God, close to reality and above all they had a sense of unification with God.
The use of drugs by poets and artists is a known fact. For decades writers have made use of hallucinatory drugs to enhance their artistic ability. Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were scandalously known for their drug usage. All the three writers wrote while high on drugs and ended up creating the masterpieces of their lives. Kerouac’s On the Road is a detailed saga of drug use, most of the characters in the novel are seen consuming drugs, especially marijuana, while Burrough’s Junky and Naked Lunch narrates his early years of drug addiction. Burroughs kept on experimenting with several drugs as he claimed that he was ‘bored’ of life. Drugs provided him novelty, while Kerouac continued the use of marijuana and later replaced it with alcohol to get rid of the painful experiences of life.
However, it was Ginsberg who came closest to the aesthetic lifestyle of a Sadhu. He was, in a way, a wandering nomad in search of truth who came to India in search of a guru, someone whom he could revere and also make love to. Ginsberg adorned the looks of a Sadhu too: his unshaved beard and dishevelled hair could pass him easily for a Sadhu. His spiritual cravings led him to haunt the most daunting places on Earth – which included cremation grounds and habitats of aghoris and yogis. Ginsberg was very interested in the concept of ‘nirvana’ and thus he was always occupied with the notions of death and rebirth. Like an aghori he would meditate over cremation grounds late at nights with few of his fellow Indian poet friends. Cremation grounds became a meeting hub of radical poets, Sadhus and an eager Ginsberg who met many aesthetics in the hour of darkness. He questioned the holy men about the meaning of life and death. Ginsberg’s spiritual cravings led him to the pious ghats of Nimtala in Calcutta and Manikarnika ghat in Benaras where he accompanied Sadhus and smoked chillum in their company.
Steve Silberman in his essay ‘The Birth of the Sixties: When the Beats Became Hippies’ talks about Ginsberg’s experiences of the pious ‘ghats’ in Benares and Calcutta:

One of the experiences that made the deepest impression on Ginsberg was spending hours at the burning ghats in Varanasi, smoking ganja with sadhus and mindfully observing the corpses as they turned to ash on the pyres that smoldered all night. Deciding that ‘the present is sufficient subject’, he revitalized his writing by turning his attention away from his cosmic obsessions and toward the humanity around him in the swarming streets of Kolkata and Varanasi. Precisely observed journal entries such as ‘Describe: The Rain on Dasaswamedh Ghat’ became the model for Ginsberg’s later work, which replaced the earlier overheated philosophizing with cinematic rendering of a suffering world.


India taught Ginsberg the devout character of compassion, he realised that the world, which is full of immense suffering and pain, could become bearable only with the help of compassion. Regarding Ginsberg’s spiritual gain, Baker writes:

What held Allen Ginsberg and would hold him for the rest of his life was the sweetness and sympathy he found in the company of India’s Sadhus, charlatans, poets, and saints. They sang to him, and they held his hand. They reached out to his lover, and touched his feet; they sucked their teeth in sympathy when Ginsberg confessed his fears of demons, childlessness, old age, abandonment, and death.

Ginsberg found refuge in the spiritual and populated cities of Calcutta and Varanasi, these were the places that made him realize his own self, felt loved and cherished. While on his stay in India, Ginsberg also heavily experimented with drugs. He used marijuana in order to experience God and spirituality. He wanted to discover his own self, to know things more deeply just as a Sadhu would do. Ginsberg travelled extensively and propagated the use of marijuana in different countries, more of a Sadhu in search of the divine presence of God achievable only in a high state. Of all the poets who travelled to East, Ginsberg was the one who was transformed by the journey. It was through his prolonged stay in India and his experiences of staying with Sadhus, yogis and aghories that Ginsberg himself became a ‘guru’ for the young and rebellious youth of the 60’s in the US.
The memory of India lingered with Ginsberg all through his life. A few days before his death in 1997, Ginsberg wrote in his journal for the last time, his final poem, ‘Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias)’. Therein, he recalled some of the happiest moments of his life, which also included his trysts with India. He recalled his bathing at the banks of the holy Ganges, sitting beside Orlovsky at the Manikarnika ghat, and relishing ‘Chai with older Sunil & the young coffeehouse poets’.
Ginsberg’s main aim in travelling to India was to seek some spiritual answers that the West could not give. He felt that Hinduism could answer all his questions. He believed that ‘ganja’ could help him in his spiritual quest and just as a Sadhu feels unified with God after smoking weed so could he liberate himself and experience a trance-state in which he could be one with God. Ginsberg never did enjoy drugs so much in life as he did in India. There he could use it freely without inhibitions and without having any guilty feelings about it.
Ganja served him as a medium of communication with the Almighty. Ginsberg came to India with an open heart; later he mused on all that India had to offer him – from ‘Ganja’ to God.