|Morning in a Pine Forest (1899) by Ivan Shishkin and Konstantin Savitsky .|
For thousands of years now a belief has prevailed in South Asian society that one cannot escape all difficulties of life as long as one remains embedded in family, society, worldly ambitions and possessions, that to escape such difficulties and to find understanding and spiritual enlightenment one must escape into the wilderness leaving all behind, that peace, happiness, enlightenment and bliss may then be found through communion with nature, the stars, reflection and meditation. It was as a part of such traditions that Prince Gautama left behind his family along with kingdom and left for the forests. After several years of meditation he received enlightenment and became the Buddha.
Many persons who leave for the wilderness have led successful, highly educated and wealthy lives prior to their departure. Not all become a Buddha but many do become renowned saints. The educated and highly learned ones among them were given the title Maharishis or the Great sages. Next are just the rishis or the sages and the last category, especially from among the less educated and peasants are known as sadhus or holy hermits. Some who become sadhus are escaped criminals and find it a convenient disguise while some of the escaped criminals became great saints later too.
The question is where do such persons live in the wilderness?
They could live in a cave, under a tree or gradually put up a hut of wood, mud
and thatch in a forest. Some find refuge with other older hermits already settled
in the forest who became their teachers and in return they help the older
person with some routine chores around the hermitage such as fetching water,
tending to a vegetable patch or looking after a cow or two that the older
hermit may have acquired for sustenance. Many also go and live in abandoned
temples that are littered across the South Asian landscape and help to maintain
it. The offerings from occasional visitors to the temple help to meet their
Forest Seclusion" by Adrian Ludwig Richter
As a first step, such sages attained union with nature that surrounded them in the forest and later with the universe beyond. Many were educated persons in their earlier lives and had good knowledge of worldly subjects too. This knowledge became refined as they cleansed their intellects and souls in sylvan surroundings. Usually locations close to a village or town were chosen for their minimal needs and near rivers for water. The abodes of such sages were called Ashrams which translates as holy abodes or holy refuge. People from nearby town or villages would visit them from time to time to ask for a solution to their worldly problems, a healing herb, a blessing or a prayer on their behalf. When these sages visited the villages they were given free donations of food or at times some clothing. The holy sages knew that they have to depend on society for some of their needs and gladly provided the needed solace as a way of giving back to society.
The more educated sages also ran a sort of boarding or day school for teaching basic reading, writing and other skills. Some of these sages were soldiers in their earlier lives and would provide weapons training to their students too. Even kings would send their princes to better known sages for their education.
An ashram could have as few as five students or as many as fifty. Along with the students, often some disciples also lived in the same ashram. Women were not barred, and there were women disciples too in some of the ashrams while in some cases these sages also lived with their wives but not their grown up children that would be left behind in the city they came from to pursue their own lives. All shared in tasks of the Ashram including cooking, cleaning, looking after cows or goats that the ashram might keep for milk or for tending the small vegetable patches the sages grew around their huts to augment what they collected from surrounding forests.
One of the tasks these sages performed was to be guardians of the forest. If they found a useful tree sapling coming up in a cramped part of the forest they would tenderly replant them in better spots and look after these saplings when they were young. If they encountered a bird or animal that was hurt or in need, they would care for them. The animals of the forest became their friends, visiting them from time to time especially at moments of need, even dangerous animals such as lions and tigers. They say that when a life is charged with love and compassion no animal harms and this author has personal experience of this yoga.
In recent times, some of these saintly personalities have developed a huge following and huge monasteries or Ashrams too. A famous one in Nainital district in recent decades was Neem Karoli Ka Baba. It is someone Steve Jobs came looking for in Nainital District before he returned and launched Apple.
Among such holy personalities that live in the Himalayas are some ancient divine spirits too that take birth repeatedly on the planet to oversee major changes in human history or development. Their origins and doing remain a mystery for as long as they live among us However the most well known of such personalities of Nainital District was Baba Hairdakhan (also spelt Haidakhan or Hairakhan) or Babaji described in several posts of this blog.