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Robert Hirschfield looks at ceremony and how the “mystery of continuity in the presence of collapse” occurs not in the otherworldly, but right at ground level.

Photo: jmhullot

THE TWO OLD sadhus at the Trevini Ghat in Rishikesh were always smoking ganja. They would suck their fat paper horns into their mouths in a way that was so erotic watching them seemed indecent.

I’d heard lots of stories about sadhu stoners. They always made me defensive. I wanted to believe the sadhus kept alive an ancient solitude the world had let die. I wanted to believe they got high only on tridents and lingams and things like that. Until I encountered those two at the Trevini Ghat I never saw proof to the contrary.

Their getting high, I soon realized, was just one part of a benign ceremony that included marathon chatting and robe mending. Their robes were of wrinkled, gashed, pre-historic saffron. Beyond the healing of needle and thread.

Why even bother? Maybe just the need to push along the mystery of continuity in the presence of collapse. I imagined a couple of old ladies on a porch in the Midwest passing time.

Time, I say, not timelessness. The holy men’s tokes and chatter, the shuttling of their needles, blew away my fantasies of sadhu otherworldliness as if they were images on a Tibetan sand mandala.

Community Connections

What ceremonies and traditions have you encountered in your travels that broke away from your preconceptions? Please let us know in the comments.

For an interesting look at Western perceptions of (and issues with) Indigenous cultures, check out Christine Garvin’s recent piece at Brave New Traveler, The Rights and Wrongs of Traditional Cultures.



About The Author

Robert Hirschfield

Robert Hirschfield is a freelance writer and photographer whose work appears in Ode Magazine, The National Catholic Reporter, Outlook (the Indian newsweekly), and the London Jewish Chronicle, among other publications. He has travelled most recently to north and South India, and to Israel and the West Bank.

  • Alan

    I spent an academic semester in Nepal and researched/interviewed sadhus for the better part of a month. Traditionally, getting high–or fiery-eyed–is a way to invoke Shiva, sometimes explained as a shortcut to achieve an otherworldly state of mind. It’s a supplement to other forms of asceticism like taking ritual ash baths, performing feats of austerity (genitalia, anyone?) and letting one’s hair grow and grow and grow.

    Nice notes, Robert!

  • Joshywashington

    Lovely. Curious, succinct and simply lovely!

  • Paul Sullivan

    Agreed, lovely, as always Robert.

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