The Nagas – Holy Mendicants or Unholy Nuisance?
Swami B.V. Giri

Of all the images of the Kumbha-Mela, it is the image of the Nagas that probably stands out as most prominent. These naked sadhus with their long dreadlocks and beards, covered in ashes and brandishing tridents and swords are considered by some to be the quintessential holy men of India. Sitting around fires with their disciples, smoking marijuana in imitation of the great god Shiva or boisterously marching to the sangam in droves, the Nagas exude an aura of mysticism…

The word naga is a corruption of the Sanskrit word nagna, meaning 'naked' and tradition states that the Nagas first appeared during the time of Adi Shankara (8th Century CE). Shankara established two categories of ascetics – astra-dharis (holders of weapons) and shastra-dharis (holders of the holy scriptures). The Nagas were astra-dharis and the ekadandi-sannyasis were shastra-dharis. It was the duty of the astra-dharis to protect pilgrims on their way to holy places from attacks by bandits. This is the reason, so the Nagas claim, that Shankara created the Nagas.

However, there is also a darker story to the origins of the Nagas.

It has been said that in order to propagate his monistic Advaita philosophy, Shankara employed the Nagas to physically threaten members of other schools of thought to convert to Advaita Vedanta. Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains this in the introduction of his Krsna-samhita –

Shankaracharya converted the brahmanas who were attached to karma-kanda, and he prepared himself to vanquish the Buddhists. Wherever he failed to convert the Buddhists to his philosophy, he engaged Nagas, naked sannyasis, who used weapons such as spears.

This is also confirmed in the book ‘Mani-manjari’ of Narayana Panditacharya and other works of Madhva scholars, who state that many Vaishnavas were forced to adopt the garb of Mayavadis or went into hiding out of fear of attack from Shankara’s Nagas.

Shankara formed the Nagas into 7 akharas, or institutions – Maha-Nirvani, Niranjani, Juna, Atal, Avahan, Agni and Anand Akhara. Today there are also many minor akharas that are classified according to the deity that they worship. All these akharas have prominent positions at the Kumbha-Mela.

When one attends one of the major bathing days at the Kumbha-Mela, it seems that each of the larger akharas has many adherents. However, it is well known that each akhara pays beggars to become Nagas in order to increase their numbers during the main processions at the Mela. These ‘rent-a-Nagas’ are given food and shelter while they stay in the akhara’s camp – all they have to do is ‘bare all’ on the main bathing days and when they leave they are paid 501 rupees ($10).

The explanation for this pretense is that the numbers of Nagas is rapidly dwindling. One Naga leader explained that the reason why the Nagas are fast becoming extinct was that nowadays most people do not have the courage to undergo such severe initiation rites.

Brahmacharya (celibacy) is mandatory for genuine Nagas, and all who wish to become Nagas must go through a painful operation during their initiation in order to ensure that they never become sexually stimulated again. However, some Nagas obviously slip under the radar. In 2001, one prominent leader of the Juna Akhara went abroad and married two Italian women without disclosing to them that he was already married to a number of ladies in India!

Monkey Renunciation
Nagas claim to follow the teachings of the great sage Dattatreya, but in reality they do not expound any coherent Vedic philosophy. That is one of the fundamental attractions for many westerners who first contact the Nagas – the Nagas have no structured sadhana. In other words, there are no hard or fast rules to follow.

Truth be told, today’s Nagas are generally a vulgar bunch and rather than speak philosophy, they are more inclined to tell dirty jokes. They are also not shy to inform visitors how great they are – Nagas tend to be very conceited about their so-called renunciation and their tapasya (austerities).

Modern day Nagas are far from renounced. Some akharas are known to own whole villages and towns (such as Kankhal just outside Haridwar). Some travel in luxury cars and keep personal security guards. All the major akharas own assets worth millions of rupees that often lead to ruthless conflicts and violent clashes over property. At the 2004 Kumbha-Mela in Ujjain, it was estimated that the Naga akharas jointly spent about 75 crores (aprox. $14,000,000) on marijuana. We are unsure as to how much money was spent on marijuana at the 2013 Kumbha-Mela, but we can be sure that it beats the 2004 Mela hands down.

Marijuana and Mayhem
Indeed it is the Nagas penchant for marijuana that makes them so popular with foreign backpackers who come to seek them out in their camps at the Kumbha-Mela. However, at this years Mela, the Juna Akhara made an announcement that they were banning all foreigners from their camp – firstly because they were concerned that some of their ‘sadhus’ would lure western girls into their tents and exploit them, and secondly because some of the Nagas were buying cheap alcohol and other recreational drugs (besides marijuana) from foreign visitors.

Besides nakedness and marijuana, there is one other thing that the Nagas are famous for and that is their violence. At almost every Mela a fight breaks out amongst the akharas as to who has the right to bathe first in the sangam at the auspicious hour in order to attain moksa (salvation). Here are a few historical incidents where the Nagas caused mayhem at the Mela:

1690 – 60,000 people were killed at the Nasik Kumbha-Mela when two rival Naga akharas fought wit each other.
1790 – 1.800 people are killed when Nagas fight over the right to bathe at the sangam first.
1820 – A fight between Nagas at the Haridwar Kumbha-Mela leaves 430 people dead.
1906 – The British cavalry is forced to intercede when two akharas fight.
1954 – Infuriated at the sight of a woman at the sangam, a Naga spears an elephant which stampedes. Angry Nagas kill pilgrims with spears and tridents. Over 800 people are killed and 2000 injured.
1986 – Nagas quarrel and cause a stampede in which 50 people are left killed.
2003 – At the Nasik Mela, a Naga akhara suddenly arrives at the sangam and asserts their right to bathe. They throw silver coins into the crowd starting a stampede – 39 people killed, 57 injured.
2010 – At the Haridwar Mela, clashes between akharas leave 5 people dead and 15 injured.

In conclusion, the Nagas only seem to be interested in promoting themselves by performing some penances, or are simply content to smoke ganja and be glorified by ignorant people as sadhus. They do they follow any particular sadhana which is ordained by shastra, and those that have foisted celibacy upon themselves by artificial means remain arrogant, angry and violent. The fact is that real celibacy can never be attained through such an act of self-mutilation. According to the Bhagavad-gita, self-mutilation is considered to be in the mode of ignorance (tamo-guna). Such extreme acts of masochistic torture are simply external and do not eliminate sex desire which originates within the mind. A true sadhu must overcome sex-desire by mental discipline and through the performance of sadhana-bhakti. In other words, he must attain a higher taste in order for the lower taste to vanish.

As regards vairagya, nakedness alone is not a sign of renunciation. If mere nakedness makes one a holy man, then all monkeys are paramahamsas! The Nagas pride themselves on their severe tapasya but fail to understand that it is that pride that bars them from making any real spiritual advancement. Pride stems from ahankara (false ego) which forces us to identify with the body and our environment. Although the Nagas crave mukti, while ahankara remains, one can never attain liberation. The conception that “I am a great tapasvi,” “I am a great sadhu,” “I am so renounced” – these are all products of false ego.

Therefore, despite their popular renown in the media as ‘holy men’, the Nagas seem to have very little holiness about them…