‘Sadhus’ by Dolf Hartsuiker: Book Review
Sadhus: Holy Men of India is a book penned by Dolf Hartsuiker, who has also included in it over 100 spectacular photographs of various Hindu holy men of India. The Hindu holy men of India are known primarily as Sadhus or Babas. They are either devoted religiously to Lord Shiva, the ultimate Sadhu and ascetic of ancient Indian mythology and religion or devoted to Lord Vishnu, the Preserver of the World, who incarnates as an avatar on Earth whenever he sees that humankind is going astray. Lord Ram and Lord Krishna are two of his most venerated Avatars worshiped in India. As mentioned in Dolf Hartsuiker’s book, a Sadhu renounce the pleasures of the world and all that this world holds dear and retreats far from his family and loved ones in search of self and to spiritually merge with either Lord Shiva or Lord Vishnu or other forms of God being worshiped in the Hindu Religion. I picked this book from Mumbai’s best bookstore Kitab Khana (Fort), somewhere in 2019. I was able to read it only last week and contemplate Hartsuiker’s beautiful and edifying photographs. I gave this book five stars on Goodreads, and it is well deserved. Without a doubt, everyone who is interested in Hindu Spiritualism should and must read this book.
I have always been fascinated by Spiritualism, especially since I had the calling when I was sixteen years of age to join the Carmelite cloistered order. I have always loved to read about people like the venerated and much misunderstood Sadhus because like them I too have many times felt the need to renounce everything and pick up my staff and seek the good Lord through meditation, scripture study, perseverance in a life devoted to prayer, Yoga, and so much else. If you as a reader and as a person love to read about asceticism in any way, especially Hindu asceticism, then this is a book you should read. It covers the following:
- Sadhu sects devoted to Lord Shiva.
- Sadhu sects devoted to Lord Vishnu.
- Sadhus and their appearance.
- Their spiritual practices.
- Their festivals, especially the Kumbh Mela event.
- Their austerities which can be painful to see and read.
- Their meager belongings which endear them to the reader.
- Their sacred places and their devotion to them.
- Their history stretching and merging from the Indus Valley Civilization to the coming of the Aryans.
- Their quest for the ultimate goal which is to merge with the Triune God – Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu, and Lord Shiva.
Along with all these details are various beautiful photographs of various Sadhus, real ones who have given the author and photographer Dolf Hartsuiker their darshan and blessings. This book’s beauty is undoubtedly the sincerity of Hartsuiker in making sure that he only took a photograph of a Sadhu or Baba who permitted him to take a picture. This was something that I respect and, as an Indian, understand because we are taught in Hindu scripture that a photograph of a holy man, especially a Sadhu, is a part of the Sadhu’s energy source in itself and should not be taken with an ulterior motive. I wish the same policy could be taught to our world where photographs are taken for self-glorification and vanity rather than to capture a memory or the darshan of the Sadhu or Baba. No, photographs should be respected, and the person whose photo you are taking should be respected. That is also my policy. That is why there are not many photographs of me on the internet; it gives out energy. Dolf Hartsuiker’s beautiful and enthralling photographs speak volumes. He has with a lot of love subtitled and explained each picture in this book, including the front and back cover photographs. If you love photography in earnestness and want to study the work of Dolf Hartsuiker, especially the way he has made all his photographs of various Sadhus and Babas come alive, then do get your hands on this book right away.
The book titled Sadhus: Holy Men of India is for a foreigner a basic understanding of the nature of Hindu asceticism. It is an excellent introduction to it and is educative to anyone who wants to take up such a life in the near future. For the reader, who is an Indian, half of the book is about elements in the practice that we already know because of exposure to the religion on an everyday basis. However, there is that other half, which is full of new information, especially about the severe austerities of the many Sadhus of India, that can just well up the tears in your eyes and make your heart break. One photograph almost made me faint. It was a photograph and description of a Sadhu who, as an austerity, kept his right hand, his working hand, upright without dropping it for over 12 years. This austerity has made his right hand useless and as limp as a rag doll. Once his austerity period is done, according to Dolf Hartsuiker, the Sadhu will have to pull himself together to pull the useless hand down. If he doesn’t, then there have been instances of such ‘one-hand’ Sadhus becoming deranged or psychologically disturbed! This photograph of this Sadhu Baba almost made me cry and faint. So indeed, there are these instances in the book that can inform us Indians of many things about Sadhus that even we don’t know about, especially for Indians who are not Hindus like me.
But austerities are not the only particulars of this little book. There are very in-depth details of the many sects of ascetic Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu cults that a beginner in Hindu mythological studies will find very helpful. Sadhus are basically very controversial figures in our society, and Dolf Hartsuiker has tried to be the bridge between fear and enlightenment where Sadhus and Babas of India are concerned. Sadhus do indeed make a large percentage of the Hindu population in India, and this book analyzes that aspect as well. Right from the reasons why they smear ashes on their body to the beads they chant, the author has done a marvelous and systematic job analyzing all these elements. I am very familiar with Hinduism, yet there were many details in the book that surprised me. I would recommend this book to everyone interested in the study of all things ascetic. I recommend all Indians read this book and learn a bit more about Sadhus who live in our society and yet consider themselves not part of our society.
The photographs in this book, Sadhus: Holy Men of India, are brutally honest, and there is a lot of nudity in the book, but that is the way of most Lord Shiva sects of ascetics in India. We are quite used to their nakedness, which symbolizes their total renunciation of self and all its lurid charms and false promises. We Indians see in a Sadhu’s nakedness their purity, and their conquering will over sexuality and everything carnal. There are some very amazing photographs of Sadhus going through various extremes to be devoid of sexual urges, and most of them have been successful in their quest. Like our Catholic nuns in convents, these Sadhus wear chastity belts, piercings on their penises, and heavy metal chains, not for show but to act as a reminder to these Sadhus of their vow of chastity and a sign of penance.
The book also narrates how one can discern that a Hindu devotee is a Sadhu or Baba. It is an excellent guide to pick out a Sadhu or Baba from a crowd, maybe like the crowd in India’s biggest rural religious festival for Hindu ascetics and believers – the Kumbh Mela. From ash markings on the forehead and arms to the long jata or uncombed knotted hair that Sadhus keep, everything is explained very simply and lovingly here in this book. There is a lot of power in photographs, and one senses the power in the eyes of these Holy men whom Dolf Hartsuiker has photographed – you feel that the Sadhus are maybe looking at you, and right into your very soul, which is sometimes unnerving!
Do pick up a copy of this book as soon as you can. It is an enlightening read and a lovely book to add to your Hinduism philosophy section. Those contemplating a life devoted to religion and religious practices should look at this book and read of the people who have had the strength and courage to give everything up for enlightenment. It is not an easy task to do. The Lord Jesus has spoken about it many times himself in the Gospels:
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.—Matthew 19:21–24
It takes great courage to answer the call to be a Sadhu or a Baba. Such a Sadhu is not only a blessing to himself but also becomes a blessing for others because of their many holy acts of penance and because they dared while we, we don’t care!
For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.—Matthew 19:12
I enjoyed reading and reviewing this excellent book for you. Do read Sadhus: Holy Men of India, and if possible, get a paperback copy of it for your personal library.
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