Rajat Kumar Rai, 27, from Kutch in Gujarat, has a diploma in marine engineering. But instead of pursuing a career on the high seas which would have got him a fat pay-check, he has decided to instead renounce the world and become a Naga sadhu, one of the toughest streams of asceticism to pursue. It's a similar story for Shambhu Giri, 29, a management graduate from Ukraine, and Ghanshyam Giri, 18, a class XII board topper from Ujjain, both of whom prefer to use their post-initiation names only.
Last week, at a mass initiation ceremony during the ongoing Kumbh mela at Prayagraj, the three along with thousands of others had their hair chopped off (leaving only a tuft or 'shikha' at the back of the head), performed their own 'pind-daan (after-death ritual) and participated in a night-long sacred fire ceremony after which they were inducted into the ancient order of the Naga sadhus.
The Naga sect, often the centre of attraction at the Kumbh melas, is known for its seers performing extreme penances by pushing their bodies to the limit and staying naked with ash smeared on them as part of their practices to achieve spiritual growth.
Despite the hardships and tough regimen associated with the sect, it is estimated by the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (ABAP), apex body of the country's akharas (sect of seers), that over 10,000 men and women are taking deeksha (initiation) and becoming Naga sadhus this Kumbh. Of these, around 1100 were initiated by the Juna akhara, largest of the 13 akharas in the country last Sunday. The Juna akhara has planned a few more mass initiations this month as have other major akharas like Niranjani and Mahanirvani.
According to Mahant Hari Giri, chief convener of Juna akhara and general secretary of ABAP, the initiation ceremonies are held only during the Kumbh, and the number of those being initiated is "in the thousands on every occasion." As for the backgrounds of those becoming Nagas, he says, "Any person who has a strong desire for vairagya (detachment) irrespective of caste, colour or religion is eligible to become a Naga. Many Muslims have been accepted as have several Christians and people from other religions. So have people who have earlier been doctors or engineers."
Once accepted by the akhara, the path to becoming initiated is a tough one. "We test aspirants for years to conclude whether they are here to stay or have just decided to become a sadhu either due to a whim or after a crisis in life. Only when they prove themselves after being put through rigorous tests, and we are satisfied, are they ordained as a Naga," says Giri.
The process, from being accepted by the akhara, to finally being ordained, can take anywhere between a couple of years to even a few decades. According to Ghanshyam Giri, the key is to remain focused on the goal. "After I had cleared my board exams, I realised what my aim in life was. I was 16 when I moved into the ashram of my guru, Mahant Jairam Giri, in Ujjain. By his grace, I was able to receive initiation as a Naga after just two years, during this Kumbh."
Rai, now known as Nityanand Giri after his initiation, adds, "I had a dream many years back in which I saw myself dead and meeting God. It was then that I decided to become a Naga. The journey has been tough but I would have it no other way," he says with a beatific smile.
Ask them what was the toughest part of their regimen and Ghanshyam says that it would have to be the practices which are designed to "eradicate sexual desires and kill the ego." The Nagas as part of their practices perform 'kriyas' which involve lifting of weights using their private parts and other similar exercises which for a lay person, seems unthinkable to perform.
Nityanand says that giving up all attachments is a big challenge. "One has to do his own pind daan as well as that of his family members who are still alive in order to be fully dedicated to this path."
The journey after initiation is no less difficult. Depending on the instructions of their guru, the newly-inducted Nagas either spend time mediating in the Himalayas, or perform jan-seva (social work). Nityanand's guru, Mahant Amrit Giri, has ordered him to return to Gujarat and devote himself to public service. He says he is now looking forward to "improving lives of people in whatever way I can by putting into practice all that I have learnt."
INITIATION AS A NAGA
The process of deeksha (initiation) begins with an aspirant living a celibate (brahmachari) life sometimes for several years and undergoing severe practices in order to condition his body and mind. When he is ready to be initiated, a 'panch sanskar' ceremony is done in which five gurus perform different rituals for him. These include pramukh guru cutting off his shikha (hair), bhagwa guru giving him saffron clothes and rudraksh guru offering him rudraksh beads. Vibhuti guru applies ash on his body while langot guru takes away from him the last cloth on his body.
A 'viraja hom sanskar' is then conducted by the acharya mahamandaleshwar of the akhara. The aspirant has to perform his own pind daan besides that of his ancestors from both the mother's and father's sides. The last ritual called naga diksha is conducted by his sixth guru under the akhara dhwaj (flag) after which he is declared a Naga.
Over the years, as their spiritual practices progress, the Nagas are elevated within their akharas to becoming a mahant and thereafter mahamandleshwar and finally acharya mahamandleshwar, which is the highest position in their hierarchy.
Courtsey: The Times Of India