The sadhu spoke English with the accent of a rich man. When a renunciate puts on saffron robes, he becomes dead to his family. I wondered who they might have been.
“What did you do before you came here?” I asked
“Before? Before, I was in the womb, then I was born, then I was a child...” He rattled the words out, quick and irritated. “And then I was at school, then at college. Before, what is before?”
He drew deeply on his roll-up. A little caravan of ponies passed by on the path, Congress Party pennants fluttering from them limply. The election campaign for the Uttar Pradesh State Assembly had begun. If it were a nation, Uttah Pradesh would have the fifth largest population on earth.
“Kangres ghore, Kangres log “ said the chai wallah, who had a Congress flag on the wall of his cooking area, beneath the picture of Shiva and the little shelf where incense sticks burned.
“Politics,” said the sadhu. “This is spiritual country.”
And again I wondered about the man, and about why a middle-class boy should need to forget his home before he could lead a spiritual life in a spiritual country.
“We have great political leaders also,” said one of the tea-drinkers, looking straight at me. “Gandhiji, Nehru...” He spoke English with a peculiar provincial cadence that was hard for me to follow.
“Yes, yes,” said the sadhu. “This man is schoolteacher here. He knows history. People say we are not a developed country. Why should we care? Mughals; they come, they take. British; they come, they bleddy take. Bleddy Americans; they come, they take. Anyone can come, take what they bleddy want, we don’t mind. India is spiritual country.”
The other tea drinkers looked on respectfully, at sea amongst the English words.
“India is also scientific country,” said the teacher. “Our scientists are not sufficiently known outside India.”
“Some are known,” I said. “Bose, Chandrasekhar...”
The teacher looked blank.
“Chandrasekhar. He’s famous for his work in maths and astronomy.”
“You are interested in astronomy?”
“I used to be an astronomer. Before I became an engineer.”
“What was your work in astronomy?”
I began to talk of supernovae and pulsars.
“Excuse me,” said the teacher. “What is the use of this work? Do you not know our Indian astronomy?” And he began to explain the signs of the zodiac to me.
“In England we call that subject astrology, not astronomy.”
“In India we have many famous astrologers.”
Charas clears the mind. Helps you work.
“Yes,” said the sadhu. “India is spiritual country...You want charas? You know charas, Indian hemp? Charas clears the mind. Helps you work. Spiritual work, that is. It’s not so good for other work.”
It seemed best to move on before my mind became too clarified.
A man intercepted me and led me into his guesthouse, a few hundred yards further down the track.
“You want dinner? First you will go to the temple?”
So I walked up through the fields and woods to Kalpeshwar, and passed through the two bell-hung gateways into the tiny temple precinct. I was alone, but I took my shoes off anyway. The temple was built against rocks next to a waterfall. Its sanctum sanctorum was a little cave. There was no image of the god inside the cave, just a dozen columns of black stone a few inches high. Like miniatures of the obelisk from the film 2001.
Shiva is not Allah. Images of him are not banned. Nevertheless, he is not worshipped in temples as an image, but as the primordial column called a lingam. To the metaphysically minded the lingam is the essence of formlessness; to the earthily minded it is a phallus. Each of the lingams in the cave-temple stood in a circular stone dish, to symbolise the vagina.
I met the sadhu again on my way back to the guesthouse.
“You’ve been to the temple? Very spiritual place, very peaceful.”
“Lots of lingams.”
“Yes. Very spiritual. You know what lingam is? Brahma and Vishnu were fighting. Whole universe shook. The other gods went to Shiva and asked him to put an end to the fight. Shiva materialised between them in form of a pillar. Brahma and Vishnu stopped fighting and went to look for ends of the pillar, down into the earth and up into heaven. This pillar has the nature of Shiva. It is past, present and future.”
“Isn’t the lingam ...errm....hrrrm?”
“Lingam is Sanskrit word for sign. Sign of man is sex. So people who are not spiritual think lingam is sex thing. They see what they want. But these lingams are signs of Shiva. What can be the sign of Shiva, who has no qualities - no smell, no colour, no taste, no sound, no feel? Only this, the simplest shape of all, the column.”
We walked on.
“What about your accommodation?” said the sadhu. “Is it really OK? Will you have enough to eat? I am staying in the dharamsala. There are some other sadhus there. You stay with us. There will be food.”
But I had to tell him that my host was already getting my dinner ready.