Last updated: 11:00 PM ET, Sat July 30 2016

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  • Shannon Wolf | July 30, 2016 11:00 PM ET

    Up Close and Personal With Indian Sadhus

    Up Close and Personal With Indian Sadhus

    PHOTO: Walking along the streets of India, you will meet plenty of different types of Sadhus, some of which decorate their faces with the ashes of human remains. (photos by Shannon Wolf)

    Given that India is revered as one of the holiest places in the world, it’s no wonder that there are an estimated five million Sadhus (a holy man, sage or ascetic) spread out through the country today.

    Before coming to India, I hadn’t known much about the concept of India’s Sadhus, but that’s one of the many wonderful aspects of traveling. I had the opportunity to see and meet many different holy men and women (both legitimate and fake) on a firsthand basis and learn about what it truly means to be religiously dedicated.

    Taking the oath to become a Sadhu (although it varies with each sect) is something that requires a level of dedication far past what Westerners can typically comprehend (although in 1970, a Westerner did in fact become one).

    READ MORE: Yoga, Iced Coffee and Veggies: An Idyll in Rishikesh, India

    A Sadhu’s life is focused on his/her own spiritual practice in a search for liberation. Some live a life of extremes, fleeing to desolate lands to live in caves and forests; some spend their lives on a pilgrimage, always moving from one holy place to another, while others live in temples, ashrams or on the streets of India and Nepal to focus on praying, chanting, meditating and blessing citizens.

    PHOTO: The first Aghori Baba I met wore a human child’s skull around his neck, along with a small piece of thighbone.

    In order to become a Sadhu, one must go through rigorous years of practice under the guidance of a Guru. Before searching for a Guru, he/she must first renounce all ties with family and friends, possess no material possessions or emotional attachments of any kind to the world as they knew it, deem themselves dead and attend their own funeral.

    Then, after become a disciple for years, spending their days performing what is known as their service — their Guru will decide if they are eligible to become a Sadhu. Only then are they given the official title.

    Although there are many different types of Sadhus, one of the first I ever sat down with ended up being an Aghori Baba in Varanasi, who (to my Western eyes) was quintessentially the real life version of Beetlejuice and the category of Sadhu that both intrigues yet frightens me most.

    The Aghori is a particular clan of Sadhu that typically resides in cemeteries. They cover their naked bodies in the remains of human ashes; incorporate a corpse as an altar in ritual worship and wear jewelry made out of human skulls and sometimes thighbones, as Shiva and other Hindu gods were depicted in images.

    Their meals consist of rotten foods, animal feces/urine and human remains found in cemeteries, which are most often eaten and drank in a cup made out of a human skull. Their reasoning behind this is that it kills the ego.

    The Aghoris, unlike other Sadhus, focus their energies on the practice of Black Magic, but do not use their powers negatively. Instead, they absorb the diseases of others using black magic.

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    On the brighter side of things, they believe that although every person is hindered by "eight great nooses or bonds” including sensual pleasure, anger, greed, obsession, fear and hatred — they also believe that every person’s soul is Shiva.

    PHOTO: One of the first fake Babas I met were in the south of Hampi, dressed up only to obtain money.

    Even though society may never be able to fully grasp the concept and the many extremities of living the life of a Sadhu, it is a life from which we as westerners could learn a thing or two, such as living a pure life filled with the upmost patience, faith and dedication.

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Shannon Wolf Tales From the Leap

Shannon Wolf Shannon Wolf is a freelance photographer and writer, traveling across the globe with an open itinerary and no intent of stopping. Originally from Toronto, Canada, she left behind a fast paced life to truly live and not just exist in an attempt to inspire others to follow their bliss. At age 26, Shannon has visited 20+ countries on four continents around the world. She has travelled overland by chicken-bus and tuk-tuks, hitchhiked by fruit trucks and through islands on horse and buggy. She has slept in the jungles of Nicaragua, on benches in London, secluded hidden beaches and she’s only getting started.
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