Keemattam, Augusthy. The Hermits of Rishikesh: a Sociological Survey. New Delhi, International Publications, 1997.
The city of Rishikesh is mentioned in many ancient Hindu sources, and reappeared as a significant site of religious activity about a century ago. Rishikesh is situated near the Himalayas in northern India, on the banks of the Ganges headwaters, surrounded by lush forests and countryside. The area is the site of many temples, shrines, and ashrams. Modern Westerners may have first heard of Rishikesh when the Beatles visited in early 1968.
Augusthy Keemattam's book was written as a doctoral dissertation, and this technical apparatus shows: chapter 1 is a review of sociology as a discipline, and chapters 2 and 3 apply a descriptive survey approach to Rishikesh and its religious character and institutions.
With chapters 4-6 the author gets to the heart of the title, offering a scrupulously detailed, almost piquant view of true hermits. The portrait is a fascinating survey of authentic eremiticism. Chapter 7 is a summary. The appendices reproduce the questionnaire and score card administered by the author and a useful glossary of Hindu religious terms. A bibliography and index complete the book.
In chapter 1, "hermit" is defined, though for India no simple corresponding term exhausts what in the West is called "hermit." Some of the terms used interchangeably in India are:
- sadhu: holy man, sage, ascetic
- svami: master, lord, guru
- mahatma: great one, great soul
- sant: saint
- yatin: ascetic
- kesin: ecstatic, literally, "hairy one"
The author's definition of hermit is five-part. A hermit is one who
- has withdrawn from ordinary social life for apparently religious motive;
- lives in solitude, not following a common rule;
- is not limited by sect or tradition, even when an apparent adherent;
- is occupied primarily in spiritual or ascetic pursuits; and who
- freely chooses his/her life style, schedule, and pattern of living and working.
The author identified 110 persons meeting the basic criteria, then randomly choosing a third (36) for his study. These hermits represented a variety of dwelling-places: hillside, riverside, roadside, and in the vicinity of ashrams. The author then provides a thorough breakdown by sex (four were women), age, education, place of origin, physical appearance, and family and social background. For aspects of personal life style, Keemattam includes dwelling-place, income, use of alms, personal effects, use of fuel, work, and travel status. Of special interest are ascetical practices such as solitude, celibacy, silence, and devotional and meditative practice.
Here are some interesting details from chapter 4: "The Lifestyle of the Hermits."
- Women were closely associated with a guru or ashram or other religious organization, reflecting traditional social roles in India.
- Most hermits were over fifty years of age, paralleling traditional social roles of householder males pursuing the vanaprastha or third stage of life, that of renouncing family for solitary forest-dwelling.
- Nearly all hermits regardless of class were literate, with reading and study of Hindu scripture and spiritual writings being an important skill.
- The hermits were easily distinguishable from ordinary people by their physical appearance, such as ochre- or white-colored clothes, malas or rosaries, forehead marks per sect, and/or matted hair.
- Most of the hermits had always been celibate, but a fourth had been married, now widowed or unsuccessfully married or now representing the vanaprastha stage without their living spouse.
- The overwhelming majority of hermits had severed all social relations (though they accepted occasional counsel-seekers), including with their families, but a few still accepted the financial help of relatives. The majority also described their origins as middle class.
- Only a very small number of the hermits owned both their dwelling and the land on which they dwelt. A third owned their dwellings (not the land) which ranged from concrete structures for about two-thirds of these hermits to thatch for most of the others. A few lived in caves or tents. Only a third had both running water and electricity. The dwellings were intended by their occupants to be indefinite homes -- that is, the hermits were not wanderers.
- Half of the hermits interviewed maintained bank accounts from which they drew interest for survival. This amount was very modest, as nearly all the hermits willingly accepted alms, and a percent of them already depended on regular gifts. Likewise, half of the hermits depended on an ashram or other institution for food.
- Three-fourths of the hermits lived alone; the other fourth had or lived as a disciple. The four women were all disciples or lived within ashrams, as noted above.
- All of the hermits were now celibate (brahmacarya), practiced silence (mauna), and regularly read spiritual sources (svadhyaya), among other practices.
- Two-thirds of the hermits did not believe in or were indifferent to the efficacy of ritual or devotional practice. They were non-theistic and practiced meditation. Practitioners of devotional worship (bhakti) chose a personal deity as the object of mystical devotion. The author explores the spiritual practices of the hermits in the following chapter.
Chapter 5, "Religious Vision of the Hermits," is a short chapter focusing on the specific beliefs of the hermits of Rishikesh. Broadly , the hermits are of the Saivite tradition (Shiva), the Vaisnavitae tradition (Vishnu), or "other." Nearly all had been under the tutelage of a guru once and lived as a sadhu and sectarian for about ten years before becoming hermits.
Keemattam identifies the motives of sadhus generally in order to clarify the religious status of the hermits. Some sadhus renounce the world based on an early predisposition to asceticism. Some renounce the world from a studied knowledge of the scriptures. Still others follow the prescription of the life stages and become forest-dwellers after satisfying all legal obligations.
The author notes the important role of Buddhist and Jaina asceticism influencing the Hindu sadhus, and offers a useful summary history of Hindu ascetics and sects, including Kabir the non-sectarian and Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikhs.
Most of the hermits reported positive spiritual or devotional influences in their decision to pursue eremiticism. Only a few reported negative influences such as being orphaned in youth or failing in marriage or in worldly success.
Chapter 6, "Hermits and the Society," summarizes what hermits represent to the rest of the world. As archetypes in the pursuit of liberation, the hermits are, as the author puts it, "a powerful symbol challenging the prevalent slavery to consumerism." They are a "symbol of beyondness." Their wisdom invigorates the teachings of spiritual sources and forms a bridge for householders to a spiritually-informed world. The hermits are regularly consulted, respected, and honored as functional participants in Indian society.
One of the attractive features of this study is the copious use of quotations from Hindu scripture and writings to illustrate specific virtues or practices of the hermits. This provides a context for non-Hindu readers. The hermits of Rishikesh are not so exotic or idiosyncratic under the detailed and empathetic treatment of author Keemattem.
NOTE: Augusthy Keemattem is a member of a Carmelite order.