India is infested with saints, sadhus, sanyasis, fakirs and other religious charlatans too numerous to mention. One meets them at every corner. The mentality of the uneducated Indian masses forms a particularly favorable environment for them to flourish in. They are privileged beggars and cannot be treated with contempt. For most of them lay claim to supernatural power and if they condescend to beg, it is only to provide the faithful with the opportunity to practise the noble virtue of Charity.
The respect that is usually accorded to them does not depend on their religious elevation, whatever that may mean since a Hindu will respect a Mohomedan fakir as much as a Hindu Sadhu or a Christian saint. All these have one common characteristic. The way to become a sadhu or fakir is to display some eccentricity of dress or behavior. This produces an impression that these people are, in some occult way, superior to the common run of mortals and being on intimate terms with God, can arrange interviews with him or even induce him to listen to prayers and change his divine intentions accordingly. Of course you can choose your eccentricity to suit your nature. You may for instance, lengthen your shirt into a robe long enough to cover all your sins or perhaps reduce your clothing or give it up altogether like Jain Munis. You may grow your hair and beard to extraordinary lengths or shave it off’ altogether. You may decorate your body in various ways or go about with a serpent coiled round your neck if you have the nerve. If you are an educated man with university qualifications you can assume a Sanskrit or a Latin name if your own is not sonorous enough to make any impression. A Sadhu with a university degree is immediately pounced upon by people is a proof of the worthlessness of modern knowledge and the vast superiority of ancient lore.
It is a patent fact that nothing produces such a universal impression as eccentricities in dress or outward behavior. Without attributing any motives, it can hardly be denied that great deal of the vast influence acquired by such distinguished personalities as Mrs. Besant and Mahatma Gandhi is due to this factor, which or course does not mean that they have not many excellent qualities.
Eccentricity in itself is not a thing to be condemned wholesale because no change of any kind would ever be made if there was nobody eccentric enough to introduce it, and there can be no progress without change. But a change adopted with a genuine cause for reform can be easily distinguished from one adopted to give an impression of superiority. In the first case, imitation is welcome, in the second it is not. Jain Munis do not wish everybody to go naked because that would diminish their importance, nor would matted locks mean anything if everybody had them.
In spite of the doubtful ways in which Sadhus acquire their influence, it must be admitted that there are good sadhus and bad ones. And if it comes to that, are not politicians known often to acquire influence in more than doubtful ways? The lust for domination is so ingrained in human nature that it often underlies public exhibitions of humility. We may condemn it, but we must admit that it is practically impossible to eradicate it. The crucial test therefore lies in the use that is made of the influence so acquired. The well known saints of Maharashtra were certainly well intentioned people, whatever the actual result of their activities may have been. Some of them were not only excellent poets, though their poetry was mostly religious, but even social reformers in their own way. Some of them disapproved of caste distinctions and behaved accordingly. But as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi, even their followers never accepted their teachings in this respect, because to them it was merely another eccentricity permissible only to Saints, never to ordinary mortals. This was the direct result of the importance they give to religion, which always includes all current superstitions. People will worship Saints and mahatmas, will even build temples to them, but never imitate them. The sins of a Saint may be cancelled by his merits in the religious code, but to ordinary people, they are sins still. This is why the total effect of life of even a good Saint is on the whole never good.
These good Saints are however ii a, very small minority. Most of them tend to misuse their easily acquired power. The petty saints indulge in petty deceits, the abler ones acquire a large following, consisting largely of women, as Saints are mostly men, for religion is more often connected with sex attraction than religious people ever dreamed of. One married saint in particular, an educated man who persuaded his wife to join him in fakirism, has been known to announce to his followers that a favoured female disciple of his had been his wife in previous lives, and consequently had the right to live with him in this life. Whether the wife who was already married to him had anything to say about it, is not known. More often, however, their role of saints obliges them to pretend indifference to all worldly matters, But, of course, this supposed indifference itself can be turned to good account. Since luxury and poverty are the same to them, why should they wound the feelings of their followers who are so anxious to maintain them in luxury? So they condescend to accept everything that comes their way, fine clothes, first class travel, succulent food, unless the pretence of living without food is part of the dodge. Again, just for the spiritual uplift and salvation of their fair followers, they accept their personal attendance and services such as massage, if nothing more. In any case, those of them who are not sexually abnormal are certainly not starved in this matter any more than in food.
The profession of a sadhu seems to become more naturally to a man than a woman, who often lacks the initiative. A man becomes a sadhu as a woman may become a prostitute, merely choosing the most convenient way of earning a living, and the man has this advantage over a prostitute that there is no Social Purity League to hound him out of the town, nor any Prevention of Fakirism Act.
The modern variety of fakir is spiritualist, who however requires a confederate, usually a woman, to act as a supposed medium. It is difficult to understand why living on the earnings of a medium is not a crime. It should really be a much greater one than living on the earnings of a prostitute, since the latter serves some useful purpose and need not be dishonest, while the medium is a cheat if she is not an idiot or insane. Most mediums have been proved to be cheats, but some idiots will still believe that they are honest when they are not found out.
A priest is a nuisance, but even he renders some service to religious people, but a saint is merely a parasite.
A saint or sadhu is supposed to have his passions under perfect control, yet some of them fly into a rage if you do not bend low enough to salute them. A friend once induced me to visit one and as a matter of politeness, I saluted him as I would an equal, but would not for a moment think of touching his feet as other people were doing. He immediately started pouring a volley of filthy abuse against everything modern. The faithful followers of a saint will even drink the water in which his feet have been washed, or which runs out when he is bathing. No wonder they get all kinds of diseases and stick to him all the more in the hope of being cured. I have known well-to-do people squandering any amount of money on sadhus of this type and leaving their children in penury. Of course religious people are under no moral obligation to look after their children. God is supposed to do that, while they prefer to look after sadhus, whom apparently God cannot look after.
These so-called unworldly sadhus accumulate vast estates and their heirs fight for the inheritance in mundane courts. Even religious heads of different sects hays been known to do it. Poverty is only pretence. The sufferings of a saint principally arise from the pretence that his wants are few and under perfect control, This is sometimes inconvenient, as saints are often surrounded by the faithful who will give them no peace, but after all they cannot watch all the time, and a saint can always claim a few hours privacy if desirab1e, on the pretence of religious meditation. It may be uncomfortable to be naked if the weather is really cold, but sndhus can always smear ash all over the body. This orthodox form of toilet powder serves the same purpose as the modern form and protects the skin quite well from the inclemencies of the weather.
One class of saints or sadhus consists of perfectly harmless idiots, whose natural eccentricities make them saints with out any pretence. If they have hallucinations, so much the better, as that gives them a religions status. In short anybody can become a sadhu if so inclined, with a little natural idiocy or cunning.
Is there any remedy for this state of things? The only remedy is obviously to try to change the environment, the gullible mentality of the multitude, without which these gentry would be like fish out of water. The only way to effect the change is the right kind of education, meaning mostly scientific education, for it is only in scientific subjects that the mind is trained to ask the reason why. In literary subjects one has very often to accept things without question, like rules of grammar for instance. The only training which will be useful against saints and fakirs is scientific training. Let us therefore fight with all our energy for scientific education.