Religion could be a good thing. Scriptures of all religions in one form or other talk of life being a journey wherein man aspires to overcome the guilty pleasures of anger, pain, pride desire and longing. These scriptures help man gain wisdom and seek the eternal truth of the “Self” which is being wise, tolerant, open and one with the Creator.

But looking at the world today, a lust for validation, fame, greed and instant gratification seem to contort these principles as one’s outward behaviour rather than a personal and a very intimate, internal conflict with the soul. Instead of realising the truth within himself, man has used religion as a weapon to destroy everything in his path and seek dominance over everything around him.

The Nāgas (naked holy men), worshipers of Lord Śiva, are warrior saints who embark on a life long journey to be devoid of yearnings and attain emancipation from the cycle of rebirth. They endure hardships, pain and sacrifice to detach themselves from the very desires that many of us hold so dear.

These carefully staged portraits tell a story of a journey. A journey that begins with detachment from worldly possessions and ends in realisation of the “Self”. A journey that often takes the effort of a lifetime.

Oh mind, why do you wander about deluded, like an unclean spirit?

Behold the Self indivisible.

Be happy through renunciation of attachment.

– Avadhoot Gita – Chapter 1 – Verse 18

— Kumbh Mela, Nashik, Maharashtra – September 2015.

Over one hundred thousand pilgrims visit the kumbh Mela. I deliberately wanted to isolate the nāga sadhu’s from their environment so that the viewer could appreciate the unique and intense personality that each of these saints embody. Also, an isolated environment helped me build my narrative without being influenced or distracted by the surroundings of a rather chaotic setting.

The captions of the images are literal translations of verses from the “Bhagvad Gita”.

puruṣa. The Self, the Universal © Sandeep Dhopate

Śiva. Then there appeared before them a transcendental sound vibration, emanating from a personality not visible to material eyes. The voice was as grave as the sound of a cloud, and it was very encouraging, driving away all fear. Śiva is formless and infinite like the blue sky. © Sandeep Dhopate

Avidyā (Ignorance). Because of identifying oneself with the body, one is subjected to desires for sense gratification, and thus one engages in many different types of pious and impious action. This ignorance is what constitutes material bondage. © Sandeep Dhopate

Māyā (illusionary material energy). the living entity has been attracted by the external feature from time immemorial. Therefore the illusory energy gives him all kinds of misery in his material existence. © Sandeep Dhopate

Krodhin. Before giving up this present body, if one is able to tolerate the urges of the material senses and check the force of desire and anger, he is a yogī and is happy in this world. © Sandeep Dhopate

kāma (passion). Renunciation of the feelings of lust and desire. © Sandeep Dhopate

Ahaṃkāra (egoism). They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of “I”, “me”, and “mine” to be united with the Lord. This is the supreme state. Attain to this, and pass from death to immortality.” © Sandeep Dhopate

sādhaka. The devotee © Sandeep Dhopate

śaraṇāgata (surrender of self). He is humble and bashful, and He is the protector of the surrendered soul. © Sandeep Dhopate

Tapasvī (one who undergo severe penances). A naga strives to become a great sage through penance and austerity © Sandeep Dhopate

vedanā (pain). A sadhu has to overcome the emotions of pain, of grief, of loss. © Sandeep Dhopate

vairāgya. Complete renunciation. Letting go of all worldy possession the nāga sets out on a journey to find the “Self” © Sandeep Dhopate

Vināśam. Destroyer of evil © Sandeep Dhopate

nistārak. Restorer of peace © Sandeep Dhopate

yoga-īśaḥ. We have three states of consciousness – waking, dreaming and sleeping, and there is a fourth state of consciousness where we are neither awake, nor dreaming, nor sleeping. It is a state where the mind is awake but the body is resting, and you know you are present, but do not know where you are – this is Shiva. And this state is experienced in meditation. A naga is one who has mastered meditation © Sandeep Dhopate

mokṣa-ākāṅkṣī. A naga ultimately desires to attain emanciaption (moksh) from the cycle of death and rebirth. © Sandeep Dhopate

jñānī (wise one). Of these, the wise one who is in full knowledge in union with Me through pure devotional service is the best. For I am very dear to him, and he is dear to Me. © Sandeep Dhopate

Ātman (soul). You are the Supreme Soul and the creator of this material world, but You are not connected with this material world. This form is the original source of all living beings and their senses.’ © Sandeep Dhopate

satya-dṛk (one who has realized the ultimate truth). A learned, thoughtful person must realize that material existence is illusion. This is possible only by self-realization. A self-realized person, who has actually seen the truth, should retire from all material activities, being situated in self-realization. © Sandeep Dhopate

oṁ namaḥ śivāya. The entire cosmic creation is caused by You © Sandeep Dhopate