of Holy Lives
The Sadhu of Rishikesh
There is a sadhu in Rishikesh who gets up early in the
morning and stands near a great waterfall. He looks at it
the whole day and says to God: ‘Ah, you have done well!
Well done! How amazing! He doesn’t practise any other form
of japa or austerity. At night he returns to his hut.
- Sri Ramakrishna
and its environs in the Himalayan foothills are the traditional
habitat of sadhus. Countless sadhus have lived there practising
varied austerities and spiritual disciplines according to
their temperament and spiritual orientation.
Rishikesh is a well-connected bustling town, housing the administrative
offices of the district headquarters, and boasting of most
basic urban amenities. But when Mahendranath Datta first went
there in 1894 he had to walk through dense forest infested
with tigers and wild elephants. Rishikesh itself was no better
than a jungle with just the odd temple or two, a couple of
dharmashalas, and no shops. There were, of course, several
sadhus, living in small grass huts. A big pipal tree by the
fast-flowing Ganga acted as a natural rendezvous for sadhus
where they gathered for their frugal lunch distributed by
the almshouse of Kali Kamliwala. There were many stones of
varied shapes lying around and one had only to pick one up,
wash it in water and use it as a plate. After meals the sadhus
would continue with their personal routines - some read the
Gita, others immersed themselves in contemplation.
than a Blade of Grass
morning, when it was time to collect alms, Mahendranath was
struck by the appearance of an elderly sadhu making his way
to the almshouse. He appeared to be in his eighties and was
fairly well built. But what was remarkable was the great respect
that his very presence elicited from the other sadhus. Making
way for him, they stood motionless, waiting for him to collect
his rotis first before they took their turn. Mahendranath’s
curiosity was fuelled and he soon found his way to the sadhu’s
hut, which was not far from Kali Kamliwala’s almshouse.
hut itself presented a strange sight. It comprised all of
four wooden sticks at the corners with some creepers stretched
overhead - a semblance of an awning. The floor was strewn
with pebbles and stones amidst which sat the sadhu, clad only
in a kaupina of birch leaves. The hut had a serene quietness
and a peaceful, meditative air. As Mahendranth approached
the sadhu, he was greeted with a kindness that was touching:
‘Ayiye, Guru Maharaj; Welcome, Master.’ Moved by this expression
of love Mahendranath proceeded to touch the sadhu’s feet,
but the latter made it known, without saying as much, that
he did not like such things.
settled down on a stone by the sadhu’s side. ‘I have not been
able to practise as much austerity as did my guru,’ said the
sadhu, and then fell silent. He was sitting on his heels,
his knees tucked below his chin, his hands joined together
in salutation, and with a distant look in his eyes. A long
time passed and not another word was exchanged. The sharp
pebbles under Mahendranath’s feet hurt and his legs began
to ache. So he finally got up and withdrew from the hut, leaving
the sadhu alone in his reverie.
Mahendranth was feeling an irresistible attraction. He now
began visiting the sadhu whenever he found time - morning,
afternoon or evening. The sadhu spoke but one sentence, ‘Ayiye,
Guru Maharaj.’ No other word was exchanged. He was like a
living statue, motionless; and Mahendranath too would sit
quietly in his presence. He was about twenty-five years old,
restless and fidgety by nature, but in the sadhu’s presence
all restlessness vanished. He would start on his visit planning
to ask one question or another, but once in the sadhu’s presence
all questions would simply dissolve. The sadhu’s perpetual
meditative mood was infectious and Mahendranath’s mind would
effortlessly quieten down in his presence. He did not make
any attempt at japa or meditation, nor did he ask the sadhu
for any help, but the sadhu’s very presence induced in him
a meditative state of mind. It was as if a power was emanating
out of him engulfing anyone who happened to be in his presence.
old sadhu’s face radiated an ethereal peace and tranquil joy.
He would always be found squatting, be it day or night, his
half-closed eyes bearing the inward gaze of the mother bird
sitting on her eggs that Sri Ramakrishna described as the
mark of a yogi. The greeting, ‘Ayiye Guru Maharaj’, was reserved
not for men alone. A monkey or a dog or a squirrel stealing
into his presence would be greeted with the same words. Even
the fall of a leaf would at times evoke the same response.
However, when he was more indrawn, the sadhu would hardly
be conscious of his surroundings. Squirrels would then run
all over his body and he would not know it.
as the Tree
at other times, the sadhu seemed to be scarcely aware of his
body. Sometimes he would be found strolling barefoot on the
hot sands of the riverbank in the burning afternoon sun, when
one would think twice before venturing out.
a couple of young troublemakers, who had arrived from the
plains dressed as sadhus, decided to test the sadhu’s nonchalance.
They collected some leaves of the poisonous wild hemp plant,
rolled them into a ball, and having fried it with some chillies
offered it to the sadhu at his lunch. The sadhu cast his benign
glance first at the youngsters, then at the deadly fry. Then
he calmly ate it along with his rotis! After taking his usual
sip from the Ganga, he retired to his squat as if nothing
sadhu’s deportment reminded Mahendranath of the legendary
Rishabhadeva, the first of the twenty-four Jaina tirthankaras
and the father of Bharata, from whom India derives its name.
Of royal birth and possessed of auspicious qualities, Rishabha
mastered the Vedas at a young age. He then married Indra’s
daughter Jayanti, led the life of an ideal householder - helpful,
peaceful, unattached and beneficent, and ruled according to
dharma - his rule being marked by justice, propriety and prosperity.
Yet Rishabha was a free soul. He was pure in heart and had
realized his oneness with Brahman. When his son Bharata came
of age, Rishabha relinquished the throne and assumed the life
of a wandering avadhuta. He was honoured in some places and
abused in others, but his equanimity was never disturbed.
He had attained yogic powers but paid no heed to them. He
communicated with none and would therefore often be taken
as deaf, dumb, drunk, or mad. On occasions he would take to
ajagara vritti, remaining immobile in one place, as
if inert, for days together. Having realized oneness with
God, he was free of attachment to the body. His body was simply
working out the momentum of karma till it burnt itself out
in a forest fire at the foothills of the Kutakadri.
legacy of Rishabhadeva and the sadhu of Rishikesh is alive
to this day. One can still meet in the vicinity of Rishikesh
sadhus who, when asked their name, are likely to answer: ‘Just
as flowing rivers disappear into the sea, losing their names
and forms, even so the wise man, freed from name and form,
attains to the self-effulgent Purusha, who is higher than