Sadhu for a while; Interview with Patrick Levy
Indeed, even claiming to be an atheist, Levy is “greatly interested in religions and spirituality. He has travelled the world in search of spiritual masters and experiences; practiced Kabbalah, Sufism, Buddhism and Vedanta and has published books about his explorations”.
I read his book Sadhus while staying in Varanasi, my second home. I’ve appreciated it and I’ve been able to contact the author and to interview him.
Below his answers to my questions as well as few quotations by his book.
Sadhus: «There are millions of them ― these wandering Indian renunciants, begging monks, mystical walkers, roaming philosophers, miracle-workers, hashish smokers, holy men…but little is known about them. They are often photographed yet their words are seldom heard».
Dear Patrick, could you please, briefly, introduce yourself?
At the beginning, I spent ten years studying and practicing five different religions: Buddhism of the Tibetan kind (Kagyupa), Judaism through Kabbalah, Islam through Sufism, Vedanta Hinduism, and Christianity through Mother Teresa and monastic orders. I did this more or less simultaneously. In each of these traditions, I had search masters who could teach without imposing dogmas and beliefs. Then I wrote my first book, Does God believe in God?
I had realized that there are two religions in each religion: the ready-to-believe path, as in ready-to-wear, made for those who are capable of believing incredible things, and the path of the spiritual quest.
I was born in a non-practicing Jewish family. The religion that we find in our cradle is not necessarily the one we ought or desire to study and practice. If we cease to draw a strong part of our identity from religion, we can break the absurd taboo of hereditary fidelity to a God or a tradition. In that field, everything that belongs to humanity is mine as well.
The starting point was meeting Kalu Rinpoche during my first trip in India as he was giving a five day teaching on the Mahamudra in Tibet House (New Delhi). Of course I didn’t understand anything, but it opened the first door. Kalu Rinpoche was not talking about God; he was referring to the mind, its nature, its function, its qualities, something we know and experience all the time.
How did you get the idea to write a book about Sadhus?
It took me ten years to have the beginning of an understanding of the Hindu religions. I was regularly traveling to India. India is very complicated; spiritual schools overlap each other, and every guru impresses his own particular mark on the path he teaches.
For example, Shiva is the name of a God but he has many different aspects and qualities from North to South. He is an impersonal absolute in the Kashmiri tradition, whereas he is a sole God in Varanasi, and he is the God of destruction in a Trimurthi in Mumbai, and still very different as Nataraj, the King of Dance, in Chidambaram.
All the expressions of the sacred conceived since the beginnings of times persist in India. They are animists, pantheists, polytheists, monotheists, non-dualist philosophers, and even have an atheistic tradition with Charvaka or Buddha. So India is a fertile grown for spiritual research.
In the West, philosophy is taught starting with ancient Greece. What the human mind has produced East of Greece is ignored, though China and India have given birth to great philosophers. We get to know about them only through personal interest.
Ancient Greece became Christian and lost her philosophical tradition. Well, India is Greece never having lost her intellectual stamina. With her six schools of thought and her innumerable sub-schools, India still produces eminent real philosophers like Ramana Maharshi, Vivekananda and Nisargadatta Maharaj (they are to be distinguished from scholar philosophers who study the history of philosophy but live a life disconnected with philosophy). Sadhus are also philosophers putting their philosophy into acts. Some are not capable of theorizing what they do, but I still consider them as philosophers as much as they are monks or holy men. I would easily compare them to Diogenes who lived in a ceramic jar in the streets of Athens.
The Indians love their saint alive. They like to meet them, talk to them. Most of the ashrams are built around a guru by his disciples. They prosper, grow (or not), their followers multiply, and then the guru dies. Often a successor replaces him, but he doesn’t have the aura and charisma of his master. A trustee (a management group) takes charge of the real estate and intellectual property, but the atmosphere deteriorates rapidly in the absence of the founder and gradually the ashram undergoes sclerosis. But then, many other gurus arise and teach, ashrams are built around them… and it goes on like this.
I slowly read the Hindu sacred literature from the Veda, Upanishads, Vedanta, Puranas, Brahmanas, Bhagavad Gita, Avadhuta Gita… And the ancient philosophers like Sankaracharya, Swami Vidyaranya, Ramanuja, to the more modern ones like Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna, Ramdas, Shri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramayana Guru etc. And the great poets, Kabir, Tulsidas, Tukaram…
At the same time, I occasionally sat with sadhus here and there and got to understand the reason why they had left family, job, and home, to wander on the roads. Those who did this at as adults wanted to give up fighting for survival. They gave up the rat race as Bob Marley would say. Their motivation was not only religious, it had a philosophical stand: Their road to Moksha, the liberation from samsara (the cycles of life), started for them with the decision to leave their old way of living, in hope for a life without tension.
India is the last place to keep the wandering monk tradition alive. Everywhere else this practice has disappeared. The book Ramdas wrote about his leaving his family and business to wander the roads as a penniless sadhu was then a great inspiration to do the same.
So, one day, I decided, not to write a book, but to try this. I found a Guru suitable for me, and followed him on the roads. And I discovered being a sadhu was a way of life, a lifestyle more than a specific spiritual path. Some sadhus are Shaivas, other prefer Ram, Krishna, Kali, Durga, Gorakshnath, or Dattatreya; others don’t care about God. They follow Sankaracharya’s non-dual path, and refer to Ramana Maharshi or Vivekananda…
Some practice devotion (bhakti), some yoga, some a specific ascetic exercise (tapas), or a vow like chanting the name of a God, or to eat only milk and fruits; some pursuit knowledge (jnana), the path leading directly to the consciousness the other paths also lead to, but indirectly. Some carry a picture of their favored God, others a single book which they read endlessly and which outlines a lifelong program, like the Avadhuta Gita, the Astavakra Samhita and many others.
What is common to all of them is renouncement (Samnyas). Renouncement is a joyful path. It means giving up worries, goals and aims. It also means living in the now. When we met companions who had good manners and a sense of humor, the evening was a feast. And if we were alone, the open night sky was our contemplation. Suffering is not required. They are not trying to expiate anything. Renouncement leads to fearlessness, and being free of fear steers generosity, openness and joy.
Then, I felt the need to tell their story, to share this spiritual path accessible to all, to describe this way of life which is little known, from the inside, in a road-novel style. Somehow I have tried to give their darshan with words.
«The Sadhu order has a history that dates back more than five thousand years. They are direct descendants, from masters to disciples, of the rishis, the original seers whose stories are told in the most ancient legends and the first books. They declared themselves to be Brahma’s first born, who emerged from his creative breath. They conceived the Gods and told their myths. The ancient hymns of Rig Veda, which they authored, sing their praises: “They carry the sky and the earth, ride the wind, and know the connection of being and non-being…”. They gave teachings to the Gods, were advisers to the Princes and cursed who, they decided, were going to die. Alexander the Great called them gymnosophists. Buddha practiced terrible mortifications with five of them before leaving their practices to start the Middle Way. Sankaracharya classified their thought into schools». (Patrick Levy, Sadhus, going beyond the dreadlocks, pp. 12-13)
Do you think Sadhu order could be considered still actual ― in today quickly developing India ― or more a kind of fascinating survival of the past?
Their life style is very old and futuristic at the same time. Sadhus are the messengers of a freedom and a moderation one has forgotten the taste of in our commercial civilization which preaches labour and consumption, growth and competition, in a world which announces its ecological doom and its demographic tsunami on short term. They are the reminders of frugality and temperance.
Sadhus have a place in the Indian economic society. They give darshan, a live image of the holy. Shiva lived as a mendicant for a while. They give blessing and it always feels good to be blessed. They give advices when requested to. They also give the “shilum service”, that is a person can smoke legally charas and ganja with them. For all this they receive a “dakshina”, a kind of teacher’s retribution.
They keep a tradition alive: there is a way out of life as a struggle (apart from death); the option to give up, renounce, live another way of life exists. Every Indian lives with this possible choice in his mind. At any time, he can choose to leave the game; and in doing so, he will be regarded as a saint. Some do it in childhood, some in old age, and some as adults.
Many Indians despise sadhus for their refusal to work. But many still consider them as heroes. India is developing but engineers, whom are rational and logical men, come to sadhus to receive a blessing.
A sadhu I met yesterday had been very sick when he was twelve. A sadhu who was passing through his village told his mother that if she would give the child to him, he would save him. The mother gave up her son to the sadhu. He is now forty years old. I asked him if he was happy with the choice of his mother. With the smile of happiness, he replied an unrestricted yes.
They dedicate themselves to actionlessness, roam the roads, flaunt satisfaction on principle, are wrapped in a cheerful peace, and wish not to want anything else. They follow various paths leading to God, love, peace, non-duality… And their company is often pleasant. Some have acquired wisdom. Sometimes they teach, they guide. Some of them accomplish rigorous tapasya (ascetic practice), but very few spend years meditating in the loneliness of high mountains. And after some time, most of these return to wandering.
In the 80’s and 90’s religions were on the decline. In the West, churches were empty. Socialism was preferred to religion is Islamic countries. Then Internet and Free Trade arrived. In our liberal world everything is everywhere. Apparently the world is too big and we want more specific identities. So people returned to religion as the one root they could still hold on to. There is very much past in modern India, but that’s the price to pay to avoid getting totally absorbed into materiality. That’s how a civilization holds on to its specificity.
What about your human relation with Ananda Baba? How did you match with the unusual condition for a westerner to obey, daily, to an Indian Guru?
In the traditional way, the disciple comes to the guru as an ignorant child. The guru takes care of educating him. And then, even grown up, he keeps treating him as a child. The disciples are not trained to think by themselves, to be creative with the knowledge they receive, to interpret it, to acquire it. They are only taught to know it by heart and to be able to regurgitate it accurately.
In the traditional way, the Guru is a figure of God. Not with me. He is supposed to be omniscient, but he is not! I met Ananda Baba as an adult, educated man. I didn’t discard my knowledge and my experience on the principle that my guru new all about everything.
One of the reasons of this book was also to show disciples how to approach gurus.
“The disciple makes the guru”, it is said in Asia. This means that the responsibility for the quality of spiritual teaching rests with the recipient. It’s up to him to accept or refuse what is submitted to him, to guide the teaching. His over-complacent enthusiasm, his gullibility, his desire to believe, his timidity, his fidelity, the quality of his questions, in a word his stand for intellectual excellence or his passivity stimulates the dogmatic and authoritarian temptation that will imprison him or, conversely, arouses an initiation which addresses all of his intellectual and affective means and leads to the knowledge of the principle, the source, from which one thinks, lives, knows and teaches a path that leads to liberation.
It is up to us, disciples, to demand from the Guru a teaching which meets our expectations, that is a path as devoid as possible of things to believe in, and of which the goal is verifiable by direct experience. Buddha expected this from his bhikkhus.
My practice of Kabbalah taught me to ask questions, and not to blindly accept the first answers. An answer encloses you in it, a question opens you.
The lazy guru will tell you: “Give up questioning. Stop thinking. Thoughts are what your pains are made of” and it’s not entirely false. He could also tell you “Doubts come from your ego” (the ego pointed as our most intimate enemy!). He might also add: “Forget all book learning, get a fresh start with oral direct teaching”, meaning his. I say “Bring your mind to peace with proper, rational, logical answers, then give up mind and thinking as the only reality.
Some sadhus, when approached by a Westerner who knows little of Hinduism, will instantly develop the ready-to-believe Hindu catechism: karma, rebirth, purification of past actions through alms given to him, yoga, pranayama, meditation, ayurvedic cooking, natural simple way of life… He wants to be your Guru!
One time, I was peacefully sitting with Nirenga Baba on the gaths of Varanasi. Comes a sadhu whom, the day before, had hailed me saying: “You are the writer who wrote a book on sadhus!” But he went on walking. So the following day, this sadhu joins us on the gaths. I ask his name, he answers: “I am a holy man”. I tell him: “I only asked for your name Babaji”. But he repeats: “I am a holy man”. There is something odd about calling oneself a holy man. And a presupposition of superiority, borne by pride, which assigns you into the “not-holy”, impure, ignorant realm. In “I am a holy man”, “I am” creates a second within the only One existing holy being, separates himself from that intrinsic unity. So, to irritate him, I say: “Me too”. He looks at me in disbelief so I add: “For me, everything is holy except me. Me, I am not always sure. Your claim to be a holy man means most of the rest of the world is not. So tell me Babaji, who is more holy? One who sees holiness everywhere, or one who sees it mostly in himself? ” From that point on, he refused to talk to me.
Ananda Baba is an educated man. He quoted from the sacred books par heart. He is a smart, joyful, worriless, free man. His self-discipline was to readily accept what life offered him. I never caught him in a contradiction with this principle. It was pleasant to share his life, to be within his darshan, to get contaminated by his wisdom.
He was not teaching me the usual Indian way: obedience, service to the guru, blind acceptance of the theological background. He belongs to the Saraswati Sampradaya, that is the intellectual school of the ten Sampradaya. Saraswatis are philosophers. They seek and recognize the fourth form of consciousness, the witness of all the internal and external creations of the mind.
The Saraswati school does not prioritise devotion or service. It favours knowledge. It declares: “knowledge more than action (karma) destroys ignorance”. It pledges: ‘learning and studying the principles of advaïta makes it possible to have indirect knowledge of the One-without-a-Second, and to understand. However this indirect knowledge can be instantly transformed into direct knowledge. Until then, “reasoning drives out the traces of darkness and confusion, reflection illuminates, and meditation is the direct realization of Brahman as the achievement of consciousness in its own form.” The Rig Veda, the Upanishads, the Vedanta and treaties of the Masters of advaïta (non-duality) model their darshan, their point of view, the philosophy which they embody.
Ananda Baba accepted me the way I was: always asking questions on his answers, arguing, requiring better explanations. He loved to be challenged this way in the same way a Jewish Rabbi welcomes questions for he considers each of them as an opportunity to produce a new light into the world. I think he loved me as a disciple for he considered my questions as prassad (gifts, alms) for the Gods and for him. (He gave me the name Prassad).
Ananda Baba is a clever man. I wouldn’t ask me to do the impossible. But he led me beyond myself to the self in which there is no imperial “me” anymore.
«In order to find freedom, liberation, balance or lightness, immediately, and not later, sadhus practiced methods, which are passed down from master to disciple. These are the tapasyas. Ananda Baba wanted me to meditate two hours before sunrise. “Observe what happens when you do not act…Place your attention on your thoughts but do not identify with your thoughts and you will find yourself at rest”». (Patrick Levy, Sadhus, going beyond the dreadlocks, p. 49)
How did the experience of writing this book change you? Concepts as Sanatana Dharma, Maya, Karma, Moksha, became less “abstract” for you?
The experience itself changed me into being more patient, more courageous, more tolerant, more into peace and trusting that not being in control would cause no misfortune.
Writing always imposes to make things clear and short. A scene in a book is a concentrate of what really happens. You sit with a group of sadhu and nothing notable might occur for hours. You find yourself being with very ordinary people. But if you wait long enough, something out of the ordinary will take place or someone will say something stunning. It’s like having the patience of a photographer waiting for the exact moment.
I tried to write in conjugating lucidity and benevolence. I tried to show the stage and the backstage, what is the visible and what is less obvious. I wanted the reader to experience relativity concerning reality. Describing the different meditations Ananda Baba made me practice, I tried to pull the reader into them and into the effect they produce.
There are various ways to understand Maya, Karma, and Moksha. I have pointed them out in my dialogues with Ananda Baba. For example Maya doesn’t mean that the word is unreal or doesn’t really exists, it means that the world and yourself do not exist only the way you think they do. There is always more than what you think and conceive.
Ananda Baba based his teaching on the three states of consciousness that we generally know about (the waking state, dreaming and deep sleep) to reveal a fourth: the witness of all three, that transcends them, is always aware, immutable, ever present and covered only by the veil of appearances.
Ananda Baba used to say: “There is no outside of consciousness that you can know of. So, everything happens within you. And you are responsible for everything”. From that point of view, Karma is made of seeds you saw and eventually harvest. It’s not a reward-punishment thing. It’s more subtle. It points out to your own rigidity.
Non-duality means to stop expecting anything from God. There no-two (you and God); only one being exists, and you can know him, and know yourself, from Sat, Cit and Ananda, the three qualities of the absolute Brahman. Consciousness is the Cit part. Sat means truth, reality and being in one single state. And you can find Ananda within yourself as the joy of being when no other feelings or emotions cover this ever existing, endless and uncaused joy.
Monotheistic traditions state that there is only one God; he created me; I must love him. Therefore I am supposed to have no choice regarding God. Indians have the liberty to choose the God they wish to be in relation with. If you choose your God, it gives you a whole different perspective on God, and therefore a whole different relation with God. For example, in the Puranas, a story tells that the Lilliputians threatened Indra, who had made fun of their weakness, to generate another Indra. You can also create your God through some of the traits of one or several Gods.
«I am not what I think, I had discovered meditating.
The water in the jar and space in the sky are both contained in the space limited by the jar. Everyting is nothing but the play of illusions.
When name and form disappear, consciousness knowing the destruction of name and form remains. There is no outside of consciousness. When the duality of the knower and the known is dissolved, that which remains is Self.
When it is quiet the mind returns to its cause
I am That». (Patrick Levy, Sadhus, going beyond the dreadlocks, p. 300)
Could you please expose shortly the concept of inclusive logic which gives the title to one chapter of your book?
If A is cause of B, B is not cause of A. We live in this exclusive, binary, Aristotelian logic with which we fly airplane, built power stations, create very sophisticated computer programs. Most Indian philosophers subscribe to an inclusive logic: If A is the cause of B, B can also be the cause of A. And neither A nor B cause of anything.
For example, this translates into Maya exists, doesn’t exists, exists and doesn’t, neither exists nor doesn’t. Maya is the power to make reality appear. It must exist because we experience it. But actually, it is inferred. It exists in the realm of dreams and the waking state, but disappears during deep sleep, fainting and samadhi. Therefore, it does not exist in all states of consciousness. The realm of name and form arise from Maya; but that from which names and forms arise, that which is before name and form, has neither a name nor a form. And does not exist. Yet, it has a name! This is why maya exists and does not exist. Maya makes the immutable capable of imagining changes. From this one may conclude: «The world exists and does not exist, neither you nor me have ever existed. Cause and effect are not distinct. How can one conceive pain or pleasure?» (Avadhuta Gita)
What about the tough sides of your experience in the field?
This question makes me laugh. India is a tough experience even for a tourist traveling in decent conditions!
I learned to sleep on my back entirely covered, to cut my nails with a knife, to brush my teeth with a stick, to eat with my right hand only, to wash without soap, to launder my clothes striking them on a stone, to blow my nose without a handkerchief, to urinate squatting and defecate in public. I learnt to beg without becoming a beggar, as if embodying Shiva testing his devotee.
I learned to greet whatever situation presented itself. Our expectations shape what we take for what we find unpleasant and our rigidity amplifies this. By taking the flow of events as a spouse one endures a great deal. However, wells waters are very cold, and bathing in wells waters is the first time every time. The apprehension may lessen but the shock is always the same. It is a powerful surprise that is indeed like a rebirth every time. And meditating in front of a pond before dawn without a mosquito repellant is a challenge.
The most difficult moment was the day before starting: getting rid of money and credit card and trusting tomorrow wouldn’t be too painful without them. But then I discovered that Ananda Baba knew his way around. We rarely slept in the street; there are many ashrams, akharas, temples and dharamsalas hospitable to sadhus for a night or two. Food is given out in many places.
One day I lost Ananda Baba in a crowd. I was not a full sadhu then; I had not received the diksha, the ordination, and was wearing white color turning greyish, so I was considered a lost westerner or a beggar and not a “holy man”. Then, I was alone, penniless and frightened; panicky.
Many westerners live in Asia like sadhus of sorts. They travel on a very low budget, some work on small art craft (jewelry, macramé) which they sell on markets… The other day, I met a French man, Fabrice Piemonte, who travels nonstop since 5 years. He makes small bowls out of coconut shells. He carries the web of a hacksaw, a cutter and some sandpaper. He saws the shells neatly, shaves them and sands them before applying some coconut oil which makes the veins of the wood appear. It’s quiet pretty. He sells them to survive. When I met him he was living in a cave in Hampi. His spiritual concern was “Nature”: its beauty, its truth, the motherly respect we owe her.
Which kind of reactions your book Sadhus is having in the West?
Readers interested in India, in Hindu spirituality and travels appreciate the book; some thank me by email for sharing this experience, some tell me they had samadhi experiences reading it. It gives them a part of the explanation that they might have missed.
A fiction movie is probably going to be made out of it. It’s a long process. I wrote a first script which will be modified many times before it becomes a film. There is a huge shrinkage of material between a novel and a film.
A documentary film called “Sadhu” by Gaël Métroz, came out two years ago, but it has nothing to do with my story. And I think the subject was completely missed.
I am invited in schools for yoga teachers to talk about this experience and of the advaita point of view; though, I must add, I know nothing of yoga.
Have you other publishing projects in India?
I have published my Tales of Wisdom here since, in English and in Hindi. Sadhus will be published in a Tamil translation. It’s already available in Hindi and Marathi. And I am happy that Indians can read it.
The ITT or MBA students are totally ignorant of their own culture. The Indian middle class only knows sadhus from a distance, from hear say. They never sit with them, talk to them. So, they don’t really know what sadhus are about. I am happy to help them understand this part of their culture. And maybe they’ll approach them directly one day.
Let me tell you a publishing story which somehow relates with this. When I was working with the English translator, Andy Paice, I told him to write Gods (in the plural form) with a capital G. The girl who supervised the publication of the English translation in India corrected all these “Gods” into “gods”. She had internalized the western monotheistic cultural dogma, imposed into grammar and spelling, that a capital G is given to the only One God, and not to other gods when they are many. I asked her: “Do you accept to consider that Shiva, Krishna and Vishnu are lesser Gods? Are these Gods less God to you than the God of the British grammarians?”
And I am also happy to help Westerners know that India is not only about yoga and karma; Sanatama Dharma is also a rich corpus of philosophical points of view (darshan) which the Hindu catechism doesn’t tell about.
Many westerners discriminate between what they call “real” and “fake” sadhus. They expect to meet an accomplished saint when they sit with a sadhu. They don’t realize that becoming a sadhu is only the beginning of a road, not its end. Almost all sadhus are “real” sadhus. When will they cross over “the point beyond which the ocean of becoming disappears”, the state when there is no future? Who knows? Every sadhu is not to become your Guru.
Eventually Westerners sit with a group of them to smoke a shilum, and then they are astonished and disappointed that they might be asked for some money. Charas doesn’t rain. It has to be bought. And because these westerners don’t know the proper manners, the sadhus remind them to give an offering. Let me state the proper manners: if you talk with a sadhu, you should give him 10 or 20 rupees; if you sit with him for a long while, eventually smoke a shilum, then you should offer 50 to 100 rupees (which must be placed in front of the idol, the bond fire, or under the blanket they sit on) preferably towards the beginning of the encounter, rather than before leaving. With this information, one can sit with sadhus with peace of mind.
If you sit with a group of sadhus long enough, you become part of the group like a guru bhai, a brother, and you are no longer considered a live dollar bill.
Are you still in touch with you Guru?
Ananda Baba refuses cellphones and sim cards. So I can only meet him by chance. I don’t actively look for him. I have accepted that we parted as part of his teaching. A Guru frees his disciple, from the world and from him.
«“We are all awakened if we know we are dreaming”.
“The name of Ram is more powerful than Ram”.
“Because only the name of Ram is true”
“It doesn’t matter anymore”». (Patrick Levy, Sadhus, going beyond the dreadlocks, p. 306)
Patrick Levy, interviewed by Manuel Olivares
 Ram Naam Satthya Hai: The name of Ram is truth. Words shouted while carrying a corpse to the cremation ground.