The imagery is graphic enough. Ash-smeared Naga sadhus wearing nothing but marigold garlands, shrieking with joy and marching under the huge flags, signs and banners of assorted akharas of Dashnami ascetics on their way to the shahi snaan—a devotional dip—at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati. They are an enigma to regular Hindu devotees and a visual delight to photographers and foreign tourists alike. Yet, the Kumbh Mela’s biggest attraction—this procession of naked Nagas—has much more that goes on behind the scenes.
Not all naked ascetics are really Naga sanyasis. Kanhaiya Lal, for example, is not a Naga, but was part of the naked contingent of the Juna Akhara, the largest of seven Dashnami akharas, which participated in the shahi snaan on 14 January, the first such ritual dip of the ongoing Kumbh at Allahabad. He got Rs 501 for that as ‘dakshina’ (an offering in gratitude).
Kanhaiya Lal is from Haridwar, where he survives on alms. With no permanent place to stay, he lives mostly on the ghats of Har-ki-Pouri. At the Kumbh, like the three others who have accompanied him, he has the security of both food and shelter. For these few days, he does not need to beg, and that’s motivation enough. “We came here on 13 January from Haridwar and have been living in the Juna Akhara’s camp since then,” he says, “We got an invitation from Juna well in advance.”
Kanhaiya’s fellow travellers Gopal, Ilam and Ballu are also camping on the premises allotted by the Kumbh administration to the Juna Akhara. They spend most of their time at rest, breaking for meals served at bhandaras and earning dakshina for their exertions: turning into naked sanyasis, that is, for a few hours on the day marked for the devotional dip.
“Normally,” he says, “akharas do not allow us to have meals meant for Nagas. But before the Kumbh, they invite us properly not just to stay with them, but also eat at their bhandaras and take part in the devotional dip. Of course, we get dakshina for that. In the Haridwar Kumbh [of 2010] too, we stayed with the Juna Akhara. This is the only time they take care of us. We will stay here for one-and-a-half months, till the end of the Kumbh Mela, and go back to Haridwar after that,” says Gopal, adding that ‘temporary Nagas’ are to be found in other akhara camps too. “Har-ki-Pouri khaali ho chuka hai; sab yahin honge (Har-ki-Pouri is deserted now; everybody must be here),” says Ilam, referring to other alms-seekers who have not let an opportunity such as this go.
Thought the Kumbh is billed as the world’s largest religious festival, a gathering that draws people from almost all traditions of Hinduism to observe river-bathing rituals for some six weeks, it is the akharas—the seven Dashnami being the most prominent—that organise the event. The proceedings are led by Naga sadhus. It is they who initiate the rituals that other devotees follow.
Dashnami ascetics are militant Shaivites who could belong to any of the ten religious orders (Dashnam means ‘ten names’) said to have been founded by Adi Shankaracharya, the 9th century Hindu seer and exponent of Advait philosophy. All Dashnami akharas have ascetics of any or all ten orders, and they have names that reflect this allegiance:
Aranya, Ashram, Bharti, Giri, Parvata, Puri, Saraswati, Sagara, Tirtha and Vana.
Juna is the biggest of today’s Dashnami akharas in terms of membership and property ownership. Others include the Niranjani, Mahanirvani, Atal, Anand, Awahan and Agni akharas. The last of these, however, differs in a significant way. None of its members is a Naga sadhu. All Agni members claim to be Brahmins sworn to lifelong celibacy and refer to themselves as Brahmacharis.
Most members of the other six akharas are Naga ascetics, and it is they who form what’s seen as the Kumbh’s grand spectacle. Shorn of all clothing, having renounced all material aspects of a worldly life (at least in theory) in their pledge of sanyas, and with their bodies smeared with vibhuti (holy ash), Naga sadhus have a reputation of being volatile and unpredictable in their behaviour. This helps keep others away.
While they have long displayed a preference to be left alone, there are signs of a shift in attitude these days. At the ongoing Kumbh, they appear to be aware of their status as the star attraction. In their open camps, several of them are spotted basking in the attention of onlookers, often pleased to accept offerings from frightened-yet-curious devotees.
If the temperament of Nagas is changing, so is the size of their fellowship. Their numbers are in decline, a phenomenon that akharas blame on today’s unholy age (‘Kaliyug’) in general and Western influence in particular. “The Kaliyug has affected both the material and religious spheres,” says Ravindra Puri, secretary of the Mahanirvani Akhara. “The number of Nagas in every akhara has been falling. Till 1925, we had a force of 30,000 Nagas. Later, it started coming down. Now it is much less.”
Yet, the fact that the Kumbh retains its allure as the largest congregation of Hindus on earth (and that Nagas are vital to it) gives akharas hope that youngsters can be enrolled for lives of asceticism and the decline reversed. Such efforts, they say, are being made. What has injected an element of desperation in these efforts is the fierce rivalry among larger akharas—particularly between the Juna and Niranjani—to portray themselves as the most influential, a rivalry that is played out as a show of contingent strength along the river ghats.
With an image at stake, enlisting ‘temporary’ Nagas to enlarge the akhara’s contingent as it troops down to the river is a powerful tactic that is used. “These days, I hear that many who are not Nagas become so, for various reasons, at the time of shahi processions,” says Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati, heir apparent of Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Dwarka and Jyotish peeths. “This is bound to happen because the focus has shifted from quality to quantity,” he says, “After all, except for naked Nagas, what else do akharas offer the masses today? What kind of ‘dharma yuddh’ (holy war) are they fighting? And how close is their life to that of Nagas of earlier times? Where is the original Naga spirit? Why should new people come and join akharas when they have lost all that used to be their motivational force in earlier times?”
Today, observes Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati, it is the nudity of Nagas that is proving a draw for many Kumbh attendees: “This is uppermost in the minds of people when they come [to attend it]. This curiosity is being exploited, and the scene is being put on sale.”
Ravindra Puri feigns ignorance of fake Nagas at the Kumbh, but admits that akharas compete intensely to ensure the highest possible turnout of devotional bathers. “This competition started only two or three Kumbhs ago,” he says, “Earlier, it was not there.”
Not everyone is quite as vague about fake Nagas. “There are some genuine Nagas too, but not all who take part in the procession are genuine,” says Shri Mahant Chandrakanta Saraswati, a Haridwar-based sadhvi who earlier headed the Juna Akhara’s Maiwara (women ascetics wing) and rebelled against discrimination—which she blames on money power and male domination—across the Dashnami akharas. Together with Ranjana Mai, another sadhvi of Haridwar, she has formed an All India Maiwara.
On the presence of fake Nagas, Ranjana Mai is more forthcoming: “These days, naked Nagas are bought [from somewhere] for the shahi snaan. Such Nagas account for more than half the contingent of naked ascetics of these akharas at the time of the processions.”
Most Nagas and other sanyasis, how-ever, turn mum the moment this question is posed to them. That they are clueless of what’s being done in their name is hard to believe. Since they are dependent on akharas for their survival, it is quite likely that they prefer not to risk the wrath of their benefactors by speaking out openly.
Yet, it is not hard to find a Naga ready to spill the beans. Late on 14 January, the day of the first shahi snaan, I have a chance encounter with one such sadhu on the banks of the Ganga, where he is present with two friends for a quick ganja session. “Maharaj,” he says, looking up with his earthen chillum in his hands. “You want to know who the fake Nagas are? What do you expect a Naga of Juna Akhara to tell you? You noticed it today, I noticed it three years back [at the Haridwar Kumbh of 2010],” he says, passing the cannabis chillum to another sadhu seated next to him.
The sadhu’s chin drops down in deep thought. After a while, he starts speaking again: “In the very first Shahi procession (at Haridwar), I noticed that the Murti (as most Nagas call one another) by my side was so aroused that he was not being able to walk properly. I was shocked. No sanyasi who has been initiated as a Naga can ever get an erection.”
It was a significant observation. For, secret Dashami rules prescribe a set of esoteric initiation rituals that are a must for any male who wants to join. The last of these, held after midnight, is notable for the mark it leaves on the man. At the appointed time, the sanyasi who wants to join the akhara stands next to a kirti stambh (triumphal column), accompanied by four Shri Mahants and an Acharya Guru who assigns him a mantra. A Mahant then pulls the foreskin of his penis back thrice, forcefully, snapping the membrane underneath that restrains it. Called the ‘tang tode, only after this ritual does a sanyasi qualify fully as a Naga, and over time, prolonged exposure desensitises the penis to an extent.
Strange it may seem, but different people have different ways to assess the truth. The tang tode may be performed in symbolic or token ways as well, but for the Naga with the chillum, authenticity of Nagahood is determined by the status of the ascetic’s sexual organ.
Nevertheless, fake Nagas are just one among many tactics employed by some akharas to gain prestige. The other is competitive poaching, to which the Shivoaham sect of sanyasis has lost substantial strength over the past decade as the Juna and Niranjani akharas went on a spree to win switchovers and increase their own flocks.
Independent of the Dashnami akharas, the Shivoaham sect of Shaivism professes Advait philosophy and was founded by Swami Dhataram around the mid-19th century and given shape by his disciple Swami Akhandanand. “Trouble began after the Allahabad Kumbh of 2001, when we declared ourselves a separate akhand akhara (integral subgroup) and anointed Swami Parmanand and ten other important sanyasis as Mahamandaleshwars (titles bestowed on leading ascetics of the akhara),” says the present Acharya-Mahamandaleshwar of the sect, Swami Divyanand. Back then, the head of the sect was Swami Dayanand, guru to Swami Divyanand as well as Swami Parmanand. “Soon after that, the Niranjani Akhara started making overtures to Swami Parmananad,” he says, “In the Ujjain Kumbh of 2004, he along with a section of the Shivoaham sect’s sanyasis joined the Niranjani Akhara, which made Swami Parmanand the Mahamandaleshwar in that Kumbh.”
Most of what was left, the Juna Akhara lured a little later. “Merely days after the split in 2004, Swami Avadheshanand Giri and Pilot Baba (both of the Juna Akhara) proposed to our Guruji Swami Dayanand to join them. They said that in return, they were ready to give whichever title we wanted,” Swami Divyanand recounts.
Swami Divyanand, who became head of what was left of the Shivoaham sect after the guru’s death in 2006, points out that since the 2001 Allahabad Kumbh, every akhara has been ready to do anything within its means to magnify itself in public perception. “Just before this Kumbh, the Avahan Akhara invited us to take the shahi snaan as part of its procession,” he claims, “But we refused, saying we were independent and would like to stay so.”
The Shivoaham sect’s survival, though, is uncertain. All that can be said with any certainty is that competition among akharas will intensify in the Kumbhs ahead, and with it, the raising of dakshina budgets and swelling of processions with fake Nagas as they swarm into the river for their devotional dip. So long as the pretence works, these ascetics are more than ready to place themselves at the service of such imagery.