Commoners visiting Kumbh are constantly drawn to the rigorous penances of Naga Sadhus, who are famed for their seers, pushing their bodies to the maximum, and staying nude with ash smeared on them as part of their practices to seek spiritual progress.
A centuries-old custom
The Naga Sadhu tradition dates back thousands of years, thus it is not a recent one. It can trace its history back to coins and carvings from Mohanjo-daro, where representations of Naga Sadhus adoring Lord Shiva in Pashupati Nath form were found.
Additionally, it is stated that while Alexandar was in India, he encountered Naga Sadhus together with his men. The penance of Naga Sadhus and their love to the populace and the nation equally moved Buddha and Mahavira. There are also allusions to the Digambar (naked) sects, whose evidence may be found in numerous prehistoric Vedic writings.
The Naga Sadhus are regarded as the Hindu religion’s armed army, protecting Hinduism and India’s ancient culture from outside intruders. Adi Shankaracharya first grouped the Nagas into military units in the eighth century for the purpose of safeguarding Sanatan Dharma, the foundation and essence of India.
Adi Shankaracharya later established the Dashnami Sanyasi order, which included the seven Akharas of Niranjani, Juna, Mahanirvani, Atal, Agni, Anand, and Aahwahan. They were known as akharas because their members carried weapons and were willing to give their lives in defence of their nation and religion.
Most of these Naga Sadhus reside in Himalayan caves, and they only emerge during the Kumbh Mela. With a sword, trishul, or other lethal weapon in their hands, they are constantly beaten for upholding the law.
They are all almost disciples of Lord Shiva, yet they each have their own distinctive way of praising and contemplating the Lord. Some Naga Sadhus, like Lord Shiva, wear Nagas or serpents around their necks. Other Naga Sadhus, like Hanuman, choose to wear merely langota.
When participating in the customary plunge in the Ganga during the Kumbh Snan, Naga sadhus still venerate the spear they adopted as the symbol of the akharas.
These Nagas participated in numerous conflicts as soldiers in Hindu armies. Thousands of Nagas fought against Aurangzeb’s leader Mirza Ali Turang’s army and assisted in defending the Kashi Vishwanath temple in 1664 when he assaulted Kashi (Varanasi). In 1666, when Aurangzeb’s army besieged Haridwar, these Nagas once more stepped forward to defend themselves.
steps to becoming a Naga Sadhu
Being a Naga Sadhu is so painful, demanding, and challenging that it is practically impossible for a materialistic person to complete.
The Nagas are promoted within their akharas over time as their spiritual practises advance, reaching the greatest position in their hierarchy, Acharya Mahamandleshwar, after first becoming a mahant, then Mahamandleshwar, and lastly, Mahamandleshwar.
Without knowing that Sadhus who practise these high conscious duties take penance to an unfathomable level, unimaginable for regular people even if they take a hundred incarnations in human form, people who are uninformed of great Hindu bhakti and traditions merely make fun of this Hindu ethos and rituals.
An aspirant begins the process of Diksha (initiation) by leading a celibate (Brahmachari) life for a number of years and engaging in rigorous practises to focus his body and mind.
When he is prepared to be initiated, a ceremony called “Panch Sanskar” is held during which five Gurus carry out various ceremonies for him.
These include Rudraksha Guru giving him rudraksha beads, Bhagwa Guru giving him saffron clothing, and Pramukh Guru cutting off his Shikha (hair). While Langot Guru removes the last piece of clothing from him, Vibhuti Guru applies ash to his body.
The akhara’s Acharya Mahamandaleshwar then conducts a “Viraja-Yajna Sanskar.” The aspirant must conduct his or her own Pind Daan and Shradh in addition to those of his or her ancestors on both the mother’s and father’s sides. This is done symbolically to signify that they have left the world in which the aspirant was born and will no longer return. His sixth teacher performs the final rite, known as the Naga-Diksha, under the akhara dhwaj (flag), at the conclusion of which he is branded a Naga.
The Nagas are rising within their akharas as their spiritual practise develops through time. The hierarchy of the Akharas advances from becoming a Mahant to Mahamandleshwar akhara there and then Acharya Mahamandleshwar, which is the highest position.
Life After Kumbh
Following the massive gathering at Sangam, Prayagraj, or one of the other three Kumbh locations, people often return to their various Akharas. They prefer to live in a remote location called Akahara or perform extreme austerities in the Himalayas because Naga Sadhus like to live fully naked and their prayers differ from those of other people.
In North India, there are many Akharas that serve as monasteries and training grounds for these Naga Sadhus. After the Kumbh, one can observe them there, although entrance is also restricted.