Among Sadhus — Learning from the Ascetics of India

James Barrett
25 min readAug 30


Myself to the right having just bathed in Ma Ganga at Varanasi

I first learned of the existence of Sadhus in the Indian winter of 1989–90. I had been chosen for an internship program with The Times of India, as a 20 year old journalism student at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. I spent two months in India, in Delhi, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Bangalore. I traveled by train between these cities, witnessing a nation that I could have never imagined in my wildest dreams. From a distance I saw the dreadlocked, naked bearded men, often either walking alone with an air of detached purpose, or sitting in silence in the corner of a train station or temple. I was immediately fascinated by them. Then in 1996 and 1997 I lived with and learned from Sadhus for six months as a wandering solo traveler. Since then I have had further encounters. I want to try to describe the experiences I have had with the ascetics of India and convey some of what I learned.

Sadhu, also spelled saddhu, is a religious ascetic, mendicant or any holy person in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism who has renounced the worldly life. They are sometimes alternatively referred to as yogi, sannyasi or vairagi. Sādhu means one who practises a ‘sadhana’ or keenly follows a path of spiritual discipline. — Wikipedia

I carried no camera. I did not want to separate myself from the experience. I made some audio recordings but otherwise I just wrote notes and poems about my experiences. I retain many memories from this time. It is these I use to write this article. I began my 1996 India journey in Calcutta. I had managed to get a cheap ticket on a Drukair- Royal Bhutan Airlines flight from Bangkok. It was a small jet filled with rich, mostly American, tourists. At that time to get a visa for Bhutan you had to agree to spending $300 a day. This kept the hippies out, which is was precisely what it was supposed to do. I was the only passenger to disembark at Calcutta, which I did from out on the tarmac, where I was given my rucksack from the hold and pointed to the arrivals door. Through the door was a small collection of uniformed officials, who checked my passport and asked me a few simple questions. It was no hassle. They directed me to another door. When I opened it I was suddenly in India. Hundreds of people surrounded me, noise and lights and colours. I was mobbed by taxi drivers, all wanting to take me into town. I continued walking, thinking to find a bus. There was no bus. A shoeshine boy sitting a distance away. I asked him if there was a bus, he said “Yes, bus…but not here.” I offered him 50 rupees to take me to the bus, which he did. It was in a nearby shanty town that took about 20 minutes to walk to. I gave him the money and got on board the bus that took me into the city.

The first Sadhu I met was 2 months later in Keylong in Himachal Pradesh. Keylong is situated at 3080 meters above sea level on the side of a deep valley. I had just hitchhiked with trucks from Leh, over the Rohtang Pass (3980 meters). My travelling companion and I met him in the single street that went through the middle of the mountainside village of Keylong in those days.


Russell and I spent 3 days smoking charas and sitting in a temple looking at the incredible mountains around us with Giri Baba. He was a much-respected Mon Baba, a sadhu who does not speak, and had not uttered a word for 23 years (he even slept with a cloth tied around his mouth to prevent him speaking in his sleep). He instead communicated with us through whistles, hand signs and using chalk on a small cracked blackboard. While we sat with Giri Baba he received devotees at his tiny stone temple. I remember one young family gave him fruit and a thumb size piece of hashish as an offering. They bowed low as they left these gifts at his feet. In this moment I understood that the sadhu is a gateway to the other world, the spiritual realm. The devotees are average people, struggling with daily life as we all do; bills, work, family and society. But the encounter with the sadhu is to glimpse the cosmic.

The third day in Keylong, Russell got the fear after our usual lunch session with Giri Baba. Stoned and stumbling out from the tiny temple perched on the very lip of the high mountainside overlooking the vast valley. Walking up the path back into the village, Russell turned to me and stared wide eyed with; “He wants money from us. He is going to ask us for money next time’’. I was processing this idea when it became clear that Russell was panicking as he, and I were both stoned to the bone following several chillums in the pleasant company of Babbaji. In his growing panic he suddenly demanded we take a taxi to Manali immediately and escape the growing threat of the silent sadhu and the chilled village. Since he offered to pay, I accepted.

Outside Manali is the village of Vashisht. It was a center for the ‘Hippie Trail’ for decades. By the time I got there those glory days were over, but it was still relatively untouched by mass tourism. There were still sadhus bathing in the hot springs at Vashisht in 1997. Chillums were passed freely on the verandahs of the guest houses perched upon the cliff above the mighty Beas River. At night we would bath in the hot springs that were part of the local temple. There would often be sadhus present also, although we did not communicate with them.

I proceeded onwards to Parvati Valley and a trek of 25 kms up to Kheerganga. As we climbed up the river valley we saw many signs of sadhu life. At one point I stumbled upon and cairn of rocks with three Siva tridents or trishula emerging from it. On the rocks was blood, but who knew from what. The slogan ‘Love Begets Love’ had been written in English on a large rock nearby.

We spent our days talking, reading, bathing, smoking and walking. The cry of Bom Bolendad!! hung in the air at all hours of the day and night as sadhus and the few visitors we shared the hillside with, as we all smoked well-packed chillums together with tourists and with Sadhus. We ate at the shanti German bakery with a western sadhu named Andreas supplying us with bread and pastries. The ‘bakery’ was actually just a low wall of stones with a tarp suspended over it. We spoke a lot about opening the Third Eye. Andreas told us about his life.

He had been initiated as a Vanaprastha, or forest dwelling aesthetic. He had been meditating for months and told me he no longer had to eat solid food. Rather he could take energy directly into his body as sunlight through his throat chakra. He spent his days baking bread, doing yoga and sunbathing. Both his feet were missing from about halfway, and the stumps required dressing as they had become infected at some stage, even though the amputation had happened years earlier in Sweden when frostbite had taken them. Andreas walked, or rather hobbled on his heels with the assistance of a long stick. He stated that the sadhus respected the loss of his feet and it was one reason he had been admitted into their company. I heard later from another friend that Andreas spent the summer season in Goa the following year. At a rave party he was prevented from diving into a crater lake based on the belief he would emerge through an underground tunnel connection among his beloved Himalayas. That was the last I heard of Andreas.

The chillum haze of Kheer Ganga gave life in India its first magical overlay. It was not just the effect of the drug that brought about this change, but also the setting from which it was consumed. We spent our time sitting with the sadhus, the aesthetics that lived in the caves around the hot spring. This gave the smoking of the charas a ritualistic practice. The lore of the chillum was explained to me and it went something like this. The chillum represented the lingam or penis of Shiva, but once it was prepared for smoking, a wet cloth called the Safi was placed around the narrow end of the chillum and the hands assumed a gesture that resembled the vagina or yoni. Lighting the chillum corresponded with the opening of the third eye; with the flaming end usually positioned to correspond with the centre of the smoker’s forehead. So the lingam of Lord Shiva entered the yoni of Parvati and the ignition of the chillum brought the mind into a restful awareness of cosmic unity. Inhaling the powerful smoke usually had intense consequences and smoking more than one for me meant I could not do much else during the day. A well-packed chillum was like a rocket of light. It is not possible to smoke a chillum alone, as someone else has to light it for you due to the two-handed method of holding it for smoking.

Chillum Baba

The time spent at Keer Ghanga was about a larger vision of reality. Activity became observing, enhanced by the smoking of charas in chillums. The ease of life gave us time to think about the bigger implications. At night the chilly sky filled with stars and we sat staring at them. We slept in a large wooden box, with a bench around the edge, upon which we could place our sleeping bag. We could bath only in the hot spring and food was whatever Andreas could throw together for us. We had brought nothing with us. The simple life was also about responsibility and care it seemed. The mountains are beautiful but they are not your friends. They are to be feared and respected. This is not a movie. We left the valley knowing that there is real and there is reality. They are not necessarily always the same thing. It was time for me to return to Varanasi.

Baba Rampuri entertains and enlightens us with accounts of his “bold journey which explores the true intersections of Eastern and Western thought,” (Deepak Chopra)

Varanasi, Kashi, Benares is a 9000 year old city on the left-bank of the Ganges where the Assi and Varuna rivers meet. It is a vast spiritual apparatus that operates as a three dimensional, living and sacred calendar. According to traditional belief, the Assi River, along with the Ganges and the Varuna River to the north, marks the boundaries of Varanasi as a sacred space. The name Varanasi is therefore derived from the river names Varuna and Assi. However, it is more likely that the Varuna River alone, which was also known in older literature under the name Varanasi, gave the city its name.

Varanasi Manikarnika or the Burning Ghat

I arrived in Varanasi by train from Delhi with the idea of staying in the city and studying yoga and Hindustani music. It took me some time to get out of the backpacker ‘International Good Times’ scene that was dominant among travelers in India at the time. I first moved from the guesthouse I first stayed in at Dashashwamedh Ghat to a family house a few ghats south along the river, where I rented a room on a rooftop. But this was too expensive and I was isolated from the community of spiritual seekers I wanted to be part of. One day a rickshaw driver suggested I check out Nagwa, a small village just south of Assi Ghat, the southernmost ghat of Varanasi. The reason the rickshaw wallah gave for me being interested in Nagwa was because “that is where all the hippies are….” as he looked me up and down.

I went to Nagwa immediately and upon arrival I spoke to a dreadlocked western man I saw sitting in the street. I asked him if he spoke English, he said “Yes mate, I’m from Australia”. This was Todd. I asked him if there were places to stay in Nagwa and he said there was a room coming up in the house he lived in. I walked back with him to it and arranged to move in the next day.

Benares is filled with Sadhus, men and women who have (at least theoretically) given up society and all other cultures, other than the communal or solitary life of the nomadic contemplative aesthetic. They spent their time in yoga, meditation, chanting, the pinpoint attention to the Divine, as well as the copious smoking of charas. They are often either naked or near it, covered in ash from the sacred fire they tend all day, their long dreadlocks coiled on top of their heads. They survive physically either from the communal life of the Akhara — the community of monks and lay seekers who are fed by an ashram or by donations, gifts and alms given to them by the public that is often in awe of them.

I began taking yoga lessons with Ganga Prasad. He lived alone in a small abandoned temple near Godowlia Crossing. He had once been a householder, a worker with a family and the daily concerns that go with that life. But he had experienced some sort of mental breakdown and lost everything. He ended up being sent by his family to an ashram outside the city where a guru used spiritual means to deal with mental illness. We later visited this ashram, and saw psychotic people chained to trees while they underwent the spiritual healing from the guru. This healing consisted of satsang –the transfer of divine energy from the guru to the suffering devotee. It seemed to have returned Ganga to the world, but now as a teacher of yoga to tourists. I would later hear the ridicule thrown at Ganga by other local yogis, sannyasins, and gurus.

Ganga was the teacher for the house, and some of the rainbow people living there thought the world of him. But I had begun spending more time with locals and they spoke of him like he was a joke. The local chai shop was my connection and it was one of the young men who ran it who asked me one day if I would like to meet his guru and ‘learn real Yoga’. I and my friend Marcus agreed. The guru was an imposing man who went by the name of Veejay Nan Partuk, but we just called him Guruji, with a lot of respect and reverence. When we met him we were obliged to prostrate ourselves before him on the ground and touch his feet. This was difficult to do. I refrained from it, instead just bowing. He was the latest guru of the ashram and some 40 similar temples and ashrams around India in a family line that his father, grandfather and so on had maintained for a long time. When I asked one of the group how old guruji was he replied, “He is 35,000 years old.” Thus began my time in a sort of parallel universe that was the Tantric path of Machli Bander Math or ‘Fish Monkey Ashram’.

Nothing female was permitted in the ashram complex apart from the aged mother of Guruji, whom we referred to as Mataji. The inner-circle of the ashram was a motley collection of men who attended to the guru, with some of them living in the small rooms to the side of the ancient main temple. I also stayed there in the build-up to the journey to the Magh Mela at Allahabad early in the New Year when 5 million people gathered to bathe, but before then we had several months of hard spiritual work to survive.

My daily routine changed once I was accepted into the ashram. Yoga began at 7am every day with guruji for two hours of asanas. After yoga we were instructed to go to drink a large cup of warm buffalo milk. This was followed by a breakfast of yogurt and fruit. Chai was to be restricted to one or two glasses a day. I began studying Tantra and in particular the Yantras, diagrams used for mental and spiritual concentration. I usually spent the middle of the day reading books I purchased in the local bookshop on yoga, specifically Pranayama, Tantra, Nada Brahma (the yoga of sound) and the postures and what effect they had on the body. After lunch I had a couple of hours before returning to the temple for 2 more hours of yoga from around 5pm followed by more warm buffalo milk. An hour or two of bhajans or devotional singing ended the day with ecstatic trance chanting in the courtyard of the ashram. I would then return home in time for the evening meal with my household and music or talking.


The Machli Bandar Math is a Tantric school dedicated to the goddess Durga. There was a herd of cows kept by the ashram and there was a constant stream of wandering sadhus arriving and leaving, they would often sleep on the porch of the temple. We did four hours of yoga a day (two in the morning starting at 7am and two in the evening at around 4pm), followed always by a cup of warm buffalo milk and spent 2 or 3 hours singing devotional chants (Bhajan) in the evenings. Many of the devotees smoked ganja in chillum and I saw several taking pills at different times of the day and night. The Guru however was above all of it. He barely spoke and mostly kept to himself in is own quarters — a single room that features a large ancient canopy bed, a platform for sitting on, which also had a very old tiger skin placed on it. Guruji was a specialist of Danda — Indian stick fighting.

Guriji leads bhajan in 2018 (22 years after I spent time with him)

Machli Bandar ashram sits on the banks of the Ganges between Assi and Nagwa, as it has done for 1000 years. The ashram has many branches in the country, but is headquartered in Kashi. It is said that the name Machli Bandar was kept since there was a forest full of monkeys before at the site of the ashram, and river Ganga & river Assi were flowing near it. That’s how it got the name Machli Bandar. The residents of this ashram were all sanyasis of the Dandi tradition. The ashram is ancient. Many renowned saints have been associated with it. There’s a temple inside the ashram. The ashram has a large compound. There’s a big room for conducting rituals as well. One could also serve the cows in the ashram. There are many cows there. You can locate the ashram on the right side of Nagwan on Assi Ghat. Fire rituals are organised regularly inside the ashram. On Guru Purnima (teacher’s day), meetings of saints, fire rituals & large-scale food servings are organised. The ashram is also an established tantra practice centre. At present, my guru Dandi Swami Vimal Dev Maharaj still governs the ashram.

The ashram adhers to Dasanami (IAST Daśanāmi Saṃpradāya “Tradition of Ten Names”), also known as the Order of Swamis, is a Hindu monastic tradition of “single-staff renunciation” (ēka daṇḍi saṃnyāsī) generally associated with the four cardinal mathas of the Advaita Vedanta tradition and, according to tradition, organized in its present form by Vedic scholar and teacher Adi Shankaracharya.

The leader of the ashram is the swami, a renunciate who seeks to achieve spiritual union with the swa (Self). In formally renouncing the world, he or she generally wears ochre, saffron or orange-colored robes as a symbol of non-attachment to worldly desires, and may choose to roam independently or join an ashram or other spiritual organizations, typically in an ideal of selfless service. Upon initiation, which can only be done by another existing Swami, the renunciate receives a new name (usually ending in “ananda”, meaning ‘supreme bliss’) and takes a title which formalizes his connection with one of the ten subdivisions of the Swami Order. A swami’s name has a dual significance, representing the attainment of supreme bliss through some divine quality or state (i.e. love, wisdom, service, yoga), and through a harmony with the infinite vastness of nature, expressed in one of the ten subdivision names: Giri (mountain), Puri (tract), Bhāratī (land), Vana (forest), Āraṇya (forest), Sagara (sea), Āśrama (spiritual exertion), Sarasvatī (wisdom of nature), Tīrtha (place of pilgrimage), and Parvata (mountain). A swami is not necessarily a yogi, although many swamis can and do practice yoga as a means of spiritual liberation; experienced swamis may also take disciples. The

In January 1997 I travelled with the entire Machli Bandar ashram on the top of a loaded truck from Varanasi to Allahabad for the Magh Mela. The Magh Mela took place during the month of Magh (mid January — mid February) at Allahabad was a mind blowing experience for me. The religious basis for the Magh Mela is the belief that pilgrimage is a means for prāyaścitta (atonement, penance) for past mistakes, the effort cleanses them of sins and that bathing in holy rivers at these festivals has a salvific value, moksha — a means to liberation from the cycle of rebirths (samsara). I bathed at the sangham at Allahabad along with about 5 million other people.

The Mela was excruciating as we worked 10 hours a day to set up the camp for the entire network of sanyasins, swamis, yogis and sadhus that were in the network that radiated out from Machli Bandar. Spending time in the ashram was like being in an alternate reality. Time, reason, causality and purpose had all been distilled into the devotion to the goddess Durga.

Jungli Baba

Once the camp was set up we could relax a bit, and the days became filled with singing, chanting, smoking and gathering for the free meals — we sat in line with the sadhus and swamis with a metal plate in front of us while attendants walked down the line doling out dal, rice and chapati. From all over India they came, sadhus and devotees and families. Millions of people, but gradually we meet more of the wandering religious esthetics that I had been so fascinated by for so long. One of the most memorable of the babas I met at the Mela was Jungli Baba, who introduced himself to me with the words “Me Jungli Baba, me mountain Baba”. Jungli Baba had a deep growl of a voice (the result of countless chillums perhaps), a broad smiling face and a great mouthful of huge white teeth which revealed themselves often in a great smile. He lived in a cave in the low Himalayas near McLeodganj. But all public transport was free to the sadhus, babas and wandering mystics in those days, as I was soon to experience.

My visa was to expire on 30 January 1997. I needed to get out of India by then. After 10 days of hard work and chanting at the Magh Mela I was called into the presence of Guruji and was met with a surprising scene. The guru sat on his tiger skin on the throne, beside him was his mother, Mataji, and gathered around the inner circle of the ashram. Guruji was casually cleaning what looked like a snub nose 38 calibre revolver. It was explained to me via an interpreting devotee that there was no reason to leave because of an expired visa. Guruji could write a letter, I could burn my passport and I would be able to spend the rest of my life in Varanasi as a devotee in the ashram. The idea swam in my brain, half backstroke, half drowning. I did not know what to say.

My first thought was how I was such an outsider in this strange world of anti-social religious devotion and Tantric mysticism. I was a 6 foot two white dude from Australia. I could barely scrape together a sentence in Hindi and my awareness of Indian culture was rudimentary. I felt alone in the dense crowd one finds in India and at best got by on the ‘rockstar’ feeling that comes after a few months of travelling rough on the subcontinent and being the centre of attention in the marketplace, the bus station or the temple. The idea of slipping away from my identity, born of nation, family, friends and history was always exciting, but when it stared me in the face for real in the ornate tent of the Machli Bandar ashram, I chickened out. I replied that I was honoured but could not accept, making up some excuse about family, needing to go back home and return to Varanasi in the coming year. My decline was accepted and in place of my permanent staying arrangements were made to return to Varanasi with Guruji the following day as he had to return to the ashram to attend to some matters. The journey was to be made by bus.

I boarded a crowded bus the next morning with Guruji and we did not pay. I was stared at, bowed at and addressed as ‘Baba’ by the other passengers as I stood beside Guruji in the crowded aisle. I felt I had made it in some way. I was a devotee, a seeker and even a sannyasin. The journey lasted a few hours. Arriving back in Nagwa I gave Guruji 500 rupees for everything he had made possible for me. He never asked for money and when I gave it to him he was very offhand, almost surprised, and simply replied “Tikay” or ‘ok’. I turned and walked back towards Antula House. . The time for goodbyes had arrived and I was not looking forward to it.

Babaji Shiva Das

Just before I left Varanasi, I had a conversation with the Italian Baba Shiva Das at Assi Ghat. I was worried that I was soon returning to the material psychosis of the West, and I would lose the connection with the simple life and higher thinking that I felt in Varanasi. I asked Babaji Shiva Das about this and he said this to me:

“You see you are not who you think you are. Just make silence, the idea of turning off the ego machine and listening with your whole being. Become the harmony that is chanting the mantra, the names of God. Surrender to cosmic Bhakti, Live with balance in nature. Avoid the conflicts and chaos of desire. Realise what you need and travel through what is called days and nights. The moon is soma juice for all plants and from thoughts and actions you create us. Switch off and make the flow go the other way. Then tune consciousness through levels of perception to new states of ecstasy. What is really you is eternal and has been. We are all ascending into energy but there has been a breakdown. There has been a blockage along the way, a disturbance in the flow. Thoughts are self-fulfilling, so what happens if you stop thinking? Reality makes itself. Do not be distracted by your mind. Silence is penance.” — Babaji Shiva Das (1997)

I have thought a lot about these words. I wrote them down directly after he said them to me. Reality is a structure; a priori, that is ‘from earlier’ or it exists prior to the experience or observation of it. But at the same time we are taught from childhood what ‘reality’ is and with this knowledge we embark on life in society, usually reliant on and mediated by language/s in some form/s. Then we have our experience of reality. We balance our understanding between 1. the known, 2. the understood (knowledge) and 3. experience. In this sense we as individuals are vessels for these concepts; the known, the understood and experience. Time is used to frame us, as individuals and in relation to the three concepts of knowledge, experience and understanding. But beyond this configuration is a more absolute, undifferentiated level of awareness. This higher awareness is a form of consciousness that is one with the cosmic or universal. The goal of the sadhu is to join with the cosmic or universal consciousness. Silence and listening are intrinsic to expanding consciousness to this level of awareness.

Kali Ma

While I was living in Varanasi I had a vision of Kali Ma. It has been a pivotal point in my life and development. In this vision an apparition of the goddess said to me “Just shut up and listen!”. Following this vision I decided to make a pilgrimage to Kalighat Kali in Calcutta.

I took a bus alone from the Esplanade to the Kali temple at Dakshineswar. This was my Kali yātrā — from the visions of Varanasi to the temple I was about to stand before — I had been given a new identity in India by the presence of the Dark Goddess. I arrived and made my way through the crowded forecourt and entered the temple. The closer I came to the shrine the denser the crowd got, with the sound of chanting growing louder and louder. We moved into the inner part of the temple where the effigy of the Goddess was, and it was necessary to move through a narrow space where an iron bell hung. As the devotees passed beneath the bell, which was a little above head height, they would ring it, all the while chanting the mantra of Kali Ma. Om Kreem Kalikayai Namah, Om Kreem Kalikayai Namah, Om Kreem Kalikayai Namah, Om Kreem Kalikayai Namah. With the fragrant smoke from incense filling the air I pushed along with the crowd and rang the bell, while chanting the mantra. I was carried by the crowd through the narrow passage where the bell hangs and out the other side. The only foreigner in sight. Om Kreem Kalikayai Namah. I bought a small Kali icon for wearing around my neck and left the temple, feeling I had entered a new state.

In Varanasi I also discovered the concept of Nada Brahma — God as Sound. This tradition of knoweldge includes the idea that every breath is a raga and that sound is what composes the cosmos. Pandit Pran Nath (1918–1996), a legendary Hindustani classical singer echos these same ideas in this video. In the same way that the Yogic concept of breathing is both an involuntary and voluntary activity of the body, sound is a means to access the deep involuntary nervous system, including the thought process. Both sound and breath meet in music.

Nada Brahma is the idea that sound is god or that sound is a sacred element that functions as an access point to the divine in human consciousness. However, sound and music are not interchangeable concepts in Nada Brahma. Sound is a vibrational frequency, even when it cannot be registered by the human ear. There is a lot of sound that cannot be heard by even the most well functioning human ear. But sound can also be felt by the human body and organs. The voice and its verbal communication produce forms of sound. According to Hindu sources, matter is also a form of sound, as very low frequency vibration. The first task is refining the mind through the senses to be susceptible to precise tones and frequencies. There is also the expanded perception that comes from listening with the entire body. Vibrational awareness covers the entire spectrum of sense knowledge; colours, temperature, sounds, textures, aromas and of course music. I began to live my life as a student of Nada Yoga, which changed how I experienced the world and how I perceived myself and understood my own thoughts and actions.

My own music is an attempt to join mind with the cosmos, grounded in what I learned from Sadhus

In 2017 I had the good fortune to meet Uma Giri in Stockholm. I had watched a documentary about her (see below) called Holy Men & Fools: Directed by Michael Yorke from 2005. I had told a friend about the film, sent her a link and she had watched it. Then in 2017 my friend was in a shopping center in northern Stockholm and Uma Giri walked past her. My friend approached her, told her about me and gave her my number. Uma Giri texted me soon after and we arranged to meet. I invited her to my apartment for tea. Since then we have met each time she comes to Stockholm in the summer. In these meetings we have discussed matters both spiritual and temporal.

Uma Giri and I

Uma Giri is a Swedish woman who forsook all material and family concerns when she was in her 30s and took total refuge in the community of wandering ascetics in northern India. Uma Giri was born Eva in 4 May 1942 in Solna, a suburb of Stockholm. Her father was a police officer and she grew up in the austere environment of 1950s Sweden. Around 1960 she began fashion modelling and this led to work in Swinging London and an introduction to the hippie beatnik scene. She married the well known author and Tantric scholar Nik Douglas and together they traveled and lived in Ibiza, Morocco and India. In India she separated from Nik and took refuge in an ashram, where she found her guru.

I have had the honor of spending time with Uma Giri on numerous occasions. Her life story is extraordinary. But what has made the greatest impact on me is the wisdom she carries after almost 50 years living dedicated as a sanyasin, sahdu and yogini in India. If you want to learn more about this amazing teacher, watch this documentary about her:

Holy Men and Fools directed by Michael Yorke, fl. 1976–2005 (London, England: Royal Anthropological Institute, 2005), 1 hour 11 mins

The film narrates the story of Uma Giri. She is one of the few western women to be accepted into the most radical order of wandering Hindu ascetics. The film follows her and 29-year-old yogi, Vasisht Giri, on an 18 day pilgrimage of self-discovery into the high Himalayas. They search out and stay with the saints and mystics of Hinduism in their remote huts and caves. They meet one sadhu who has not spoken for 14 years living beside the source of the River Ganges, Hinduism most sacred river.

Uma Giri has taught me that you do not have to strive and do more to gain spiritual development. You are born a spiritual being. The world is what takes that away from you. Speaking to Uma Giri was about learning to see the illusion, the excess of consciousness that our society and culture cocoon us in and ultimately control us with, for intents and purposes that are actually anti-spiritual. Purity of vision would be what I summarize Uma Giri’s philosophy as. The pilgrimage, the devotional practices, the mediation and mantra are tools or methods for purifying thought and focusing the mind on the goal of cosmic liberation.

Two phrases have stuck with me from my time in India; Be in the World not of the World, and the Hindi सादा जीवन उच्च विचार (saada jeevan uchch vichaar) or simple living, high thinking. This became my motto; simple living, high thinking. To be in the world but not of it is to seek autonomy in the rush and rumble of daily life. It is to be devoted to those people around you, to work hard and develop as a householder or family member, but at the same time it is to watch this as one watches a film. You are not in the film, you are just watching it. But to lie, to create false realities is to corrupt the film. Be of one mind; or as the great Indian mystic OSHO teaches; one sky. The sky we see, the sky we imagine, the sky we are taught about is all one sky. There is no separation.

OSHO (1931–1990) was not a renunciate in the same sense as a sadhu. But he was a great spiritual teacher who had himself experienced some form of complete ego dissolution. However his ‘church’ was problematic. OSHO died when I was in India the first time and it was widely discussed and reported at the time there. His teachings became important for me in 1998–2000 when I was moving out of the world of drug use and popular culture. As a result of what I had learned from the ascetics of India, I had managed to change my mind and move on to become a little bit more grown up.



James Barrett

Freelance scholar. Humanist. Interested in language, culture, music, technology, design & philosophy. I like Literature & Critical Theory. Traveler. I am mine.