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Naked Gurus and The New Yorker

May 21st, 2010

One of the joys of Facebook is that one can receive messages from gurus who are on Facebook and are in far-flung places. I have recently recently received a message from Baba Rampuri in India – a wonderful guru of the naked sect of Naga Babas whose autobiography I read while researching A Brief History of Nakedness. He writes:

Dear Friends,
Inner Traditions has published a new edition of my book now called AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A SADHU: A Journey into Mystic India. which now has 32 photos (some of them quite rare), a Glossary, and an Afterword, with which I’m very pleased. For those of you who haven’t read it – please read it – it’s the foundation of my work.

Book Description:

After traveling at age 18 from his native California to India in 1969, Rampuri was drawn to the Naga Babas, an ancient and wild order of naked yogis whom he calls the “Hell’s Angels of Indian Spirituality.” Organized into a sect by Adi Shankara in the 5th century BC, the Naga Babas see themselves as the ultimate protectors of the Sanatan Dharma, or what we call the Hindu religion. Rampuri became a disciple of a Naga Baba–a master shaman sadhu–from Rajasthan and, as foretold by astrological prophecy, soon found himself the first foreigner to become an initiate of the Juna Akhara, the oldest and largest grouping of Naga Babas with more than 50,000 sadhu members.
From drinking the “Nectar of Immortality” at the source of the Ganges River to allegations of tantric murder, this autobiography is filled with true accounts of magic, miracles, ghosts, and austerities, with lessons on Hindu gods, ayurveda, mantra, and Indian culture woven throughout. Through his journey of extremes, Rampuri takes us into the mystic heart of India. link

It’s a great read and full of atmosphere and information and I quote from it in A Brief History of Nakedness which was recently featured in The New Yorker – a million miles it seems from the world of Naga Babas, but ‘we are all connected’ as I hope the book demonstrates. You can see the feature here.

There’s Only the Soul – Poetry and Mysticism from Kashmir

April 16th, 2009

In the course of researching the current book, I’ve discovered the work of two female mystics from India whose poetry is beautiful and inspiring. One is Akka Mahadevi, the other, Lalla. Here is an excerpt from the chapter I’ve just written about Lalla:

Two centuries later, further north in India, Lalla, another naked female mystic achieved fame with her lucid aphoristic verses that have made her one of Kashmir’s favourite poets. Little is known of Lalla’s life, and what is known is apocryphal. It is said that she was born in a village near Srinagar around 1320 and died in 1391. Her husband and his family mistreated her, but she never complained and meditated instead at holy shrines whenever she could. One day her husband believed she was wasting time, and as she returned home from fetching water he struck the pot with a stick. The pot shattered, but the water remained intact above her head and became a sacred lake.

By the age of 24 Lalla had had enough of the marriage and left home to follow the Hindu teacher Sed Bayu. Soon she was so filled with ecstasy that she began wandering and dancing naked in a state of ecstatic clarity. One of her songs clearly conveys her feelings about being skyclad:

Don’t be so quick to condemn my nakedness.

A man is one who trembles in the Presence.

There are very few of those.

Why not go naked?

The ram of experience must be fed

And ripened for the sacrifice.

Then all these customs will disappear like clothing.

There’s only the soul.

A number of different religious impulses converged in fourteenth century Kashmir, and Lalla was influenced not only by Shaivite Hinduism, but also by Sufism, as was the religion of Sikkhism born two centuries later, in the Punjab just south of Kashmir. It is said that she studied with the Sufi master Ali Hamadani, but as with all true mystics her insights transcended the confines of religious affiliation, as she insisted ‘There is no reality but God’.

One of her translators, Coleman Barks, writes ‘Ecstasy is only one of her moods, and not the primary one. Political disgust is another, and a Hopi-like prophetic mode: “A time is coming so deformed…”’ He stresses the point that Lalla has essentially feminine qualities in: ‘her firm location in the breath; her sense of being dissolved into the lovemaking [of Shiva and Shakti] in the jasmine garden; and her attention to a truth which is very much in motion, and which can include her doubt and her lostness.’

Another translator, Jaishree Kak, writes of the way Lalla’s songs are embedded in Kashmiri culture: ‘Gowing up in Kashmir, I have memories of spectacular Himalayan Mountains, magnificent lakes, and countless rivers snaking through the valley, and accompanying all is the echoing on festive occasions of the melodious singing of Lalla’s verse-sayings, popularly known as Lalla-Vakh. Her outpourings are timeless and people of all faiths have treasured them. The oral transmission for centuries illustrates the extent to which she has been a part of folk memory. My old aunts who grew up in Kashmir have memories of women reciting Lalla’s verses while they spun fine shawls at the spinning wheel. Over the centuries, Lalla became the wise woman of Kashmiri culture. She was invoked not only at moments of personal dilemma but also to celebrate moments of social togetherness. I myself remember my mother singing Lalla’s verses and occasionally quoting them in her conversations.’

Whatever the actual facts of her life, Lal Ded or Mai Lal Diddi, Grandmother Lalla, as she is also known, has become a legendary figure, with her poetry esteemed as much as that of Rumi and Hafiz. In Sanskrit she is called Lalleshwari, the great yogini – a prophetess and practitioner of yoga. It was said that this great yogini proved she had found a freedom that was impervious to praise or blame when one morning some children were making fun of her nakedness. A cloth merchant scolded them for their disrespect, and Lalla asked him for two strands of cloth equal in weight. She then flung these over either shoulder, and through the day, whenever someone mocked her she tied a knot in one cloth, and whenever someone praised her she tied a knot in the other. At the end of the day she asked the merchant to weigh both – surrounded no doubt by all the villagers and their children. Both naturally weighed the same, and her point was made: praise and blame have no substance.

Reading Lalla we are invited to let go of our attachments, to live from the soul, and to be free:

The soul.

Like the moon, is now, and always new again.

My teacher told me one thing, live in the soul.

When that was so, I began to go naked,

And dance.

TreeSpirit Project

April 11th, 2009

I’ve recently finished an exploration of the use of nakedness to deepen spiritual experience for a forthcoming book. In it I look at its use in Classical Paganism, Wicca, Druidry, Jainism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity.

Now I’m working on the next chapter which explores its use as a political tool – as a vehicle for protest and awareness-raising. As I researched this topic I came across a project which articulates wonderfully the way in which nakedness can be used to make a statement about our need to care for Mother Earth. Nudity is used so much nowadays in a titillating or seedy way, it is heartening to see that it can be used with integrity to convey aesthetic and spiritual values. Have a look at some photographs from the project first (courtesy of photographer Jack Gescheidt), which is followed by the text I wrote on it for the chapter, which includes a link to the TreeSpirit Project site.

Stripping the body in public as a way of gaining attention and making a statement is clearly suited to the defence of rights in general – not simply those of animals. One of the most creative uses of nudity to raise awareness comes from the work of the American photographer Jack Gescheidt who started the ‘TreeSpirit Project’ in 2003. Rather than protesting against logging or destruction of the environment, Gescheidt’s project seeks to enhance our appreciation of trees in the belief that the more people are able to do this, the less destructive they will be: ‘I believe as more people understand the importance of trees for all they provide the ecosystem in addition to beauty and shade, all species on Earth benefit. The fates of species are intertwined; we have the power to destroy other life forms, and without other life forms humanity will perish. We humans may only be here for a brief stay in the cosmic picture, but we have the tremendous power of free will to shape our world. Many of us in technologically advanced cultures have forgotten the ancient wisdom trees and other life forms patiently hold.’
The TreeSpirit project includes two elements: the photographs Gescheidt takes of naked people in, beside and around trees, which are then displayed on his website ( and the experiences of the participants when being photographed in this way. In response to the frequently asked question: ‘Why are the people you photograph always naked? Isn’t this really just to get attention?’ Gescheidt  responds: ‘When naked, people are: more ‘present’ in the meditative sense of this word, meaning in the present moment instead of thinking about the past (worry) or future (planning); therefore more vulnerable and have greater, more conscious awareness, more feeling, and therefore move and behave more freely and genuinely; more harmless to trees and other species. We humans often harm as a collective, but not when stripped of our habitual and protective layers of clothing, tools and technology; more timeless, without the many cultural and historical cues clothing provide; unified as a mass of humanity rather than seen as the individual personalities to which we are so attached; and, yes, more attention-getting. One of goals of the TreeSpirit Project is to deliver its message of our interdependence with nature. The more people ready to take this to heart, the better.’

Nakedness and our Ability to Share Intimacy

January 19th, 2008

One of the limitations of this blog template is that the comments on each post are hidden until you click on the comments line and this means that some wonderful contributions may not get the airing they deserve.

Recently Maria commented on a post and I find her expressing ideas I’ve been trying to express in some posts here in such a beautiful and articulate way I want to present them in a post, rather than them languishing (perhaps!) in a comment.

She mentions how she went to a dance performance at Brighton University, just down the road from us:

[It was] a contemporary piece that dealt with the taboo of love between an older woman and a younger man. The female dancer was in her sixties, maybe older. There was a key moment where she appeared alone and naked with a bowl of water and began to simply wash herself. In our culture, the very act of a woman of her age stripping naked in public might sadly for some have been a challenge, particularly in the wider context of the dance piece where the sexual interaction between her and the young man was so powerfully explored. In this one simple moment of her being alone and naked, utterly exposed to the audience with all its potential prejudices and negative preconceptions, her body expressed such moving tenderness, poignancy and power. It was an incredibly intimate moment. There we all were, a theatre full of clothed strangers watching what felt like, to me at least, the unveiling of someone’s soul. It made me feel very tearful and not a little naked myself. I keep thinking of Blake’s notion of the body being an extension of the soul, and it seems to be that in true nakedness, physical and psychological, the soul speaks. It doesn’t matter how much we use our emotional and intellectual defences to cover up or hide ourselves, the body seems reluctant to join in with the lie. We can deny what we feel and yet our bodies are shaped by what we have experienced, sculpted by our emotions, and so to undress is to expose our story. When someone has the courage to stand truly naked before us, the courage to share that story, something deep within us has the potential to be unveiled too.

That’s it! The reason why spirituality and psychology are such fascinating fields to explore comes from the fact that we know how much potential exists in each soul. Sometimes that potential is expressed and we see great art, great ideas, wonderful acts of generosity and nobility. But most of the time it seems that the majority ‘go to the grave with the song still in them’ as Thoreau put it. And that’s the fascination for me with spirituality and with the concept of nakedness in its deepest sense: the question and the challenge then becomes “How can I take off all the layers that cover this soul, this radiance, this potential inside me that wants to shine?”

Uncertainty, Humility and Nudity

November 28th, 2007

Today, in learning about the way in which the Indian Gymnosophist sage Sanjaya’s doctrine of uncertainty may have influenced the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, has helped to connect a number of different threads of experience and thought in a very pleasing way.

I have always admired uncertainty as a quality and have been both repelled and attracted to certainty. I have admired it emotionally because an uncertain person is open, humble, willing to change, and I’ve admired the quality intellectually ever since I read Robert Frost’s saying  ‘Anyone with an active mind lives on tentatives rather than tenets’.

But certainty is attractive because it offers a sense of direction, safety and meaning. That is why gurus can be appealing – (‘Thank heavens at least someone knows what is going on’ the mind [not the soul] cries!) And that is why New Age publishers (particularly in the US) often insist on proscriptive writing: “Just tell us what to believe and what to do!” And that is why books like The Four Agreements are so depressing because they express absolute certainty about the way to behave as if their prescriptions will apply in every case.

The most extreme form of certainty is Fundamentalism and the fanaticism that comes with it, and it often seems a sure sign that someone isn’t as intelligent as we might hope when they act as if they are utterly certain that something is so – as if they haven’t experienced enough of life to discover that new facts come to light every day, that viewpoints by definition are limited and often relative!

Reading The Accidental American – Tony Blair and the Presidency by James Naughtie the other day helped me to understand the problem of certainty and at the same time clarified something that has been a mystery to me and most of the British (and probably world). Naughtie’s book finally explained to me why Tony Blair supported and is so close to George Bush.


What always puzzled me about Blair was that he appeared sincere, but in the end I started to believe that this was simply a cover for some darker motives or just a terrible weakness on his part. Naughtie’s book demonstrates convincingly that Blair’s sincerity is indeed genuine and his convictions are the very cause of his tragic decisions while in office. He hasn’t been ‘Bush’s lap-dog’ – cow-towing to someone else’s beliefs! His utter certainty about his (and Bush’s) rightness made him intransigent. And intransigence creates tragedy. Strength in the end becomes weakness. Certainty breeds doubt and conflict. ‘Morality’ becomes immoral. His case illustrates perfectly Laurens Van der Post’s remark that “Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond a doubt that they are right.” Blair doesn’t doubt, he is sincere – he is utterly convinced he is right and won’t allow himself a moment of uncertainty.

From what we can tell of Pyrrho of Elis’ doctrines suggests that he was the first person (in the classical world) to fully articulate the concept of agnosticism – that the nature of reality dictates that we can never be certain of anything. And it is quite possible that he learnt this idea when he was in India with Alexander the Great. There he met the Gymnosophists – the naked sages whose distant heirs can still be found in India. And it seems that one of their philosophers whose doctrines are known to us, Sanjaya , taught an approach that is remarkably like Pyrrho’s.

It is no surprise that such ideas evolved amongst the naked sages of India. Being naked, emotionally and physically engenders a sense of humility – a sort of innocent vulnerability to the world and life.

And here is the connection: for doctrines of tentative enquiry, agnosticism and uncertainty also foster humility, just as certainty breeds arrogance and fundamentalism.

I wonder if it is a coincidence that those approaches which are the most fundamentalist and fanatical are also those approaches that are the most shocked by nudity?

Spiritual Nakedness and Reductionism

November 15th, 2007

In another post I listed the many reasons for having a blog. I have been amazed at how many of these there actually are. And now it’s time to reveal a deeper, darker, motivation behind many an author’s blogging efforts (and my own though in a minor way I hope) – which is that they are trying to ‘build a platform’. So many books are published, and the competition for contracts and publishers’ attention is so strong, that the more of an audience you have the better. If the publisher thinks people are listening to you, they are more likely to offer you a contract.

So if we are to believe this is of value, creating a blog becomes one of the things an author needs to do – just like creating a website, trying to get reviews and so on. Of course this isn’t news and isn’t really a ‘dark secret’ but I guess it just adds to the idea I’ve been pondering over: the concept of ‘spiritual nakedness’. It shows that some, perhaps many, of our actions have layers of intent and that attempting to be authentic is not as simple as it may appear.

The problem with the concept of spiritual or psychological nakedness is that it easily falls into the trap of reductionism – and worse, of a search for an illusory ‘purity’ – as if we can ‘strip’ away motivations to come to ‘the truth’ which we will discover to be one single thing. The reality is, I suspect, more interesting, more complex, more colourful and confusing. When we undress – psychologically or literally – we do not come to just one version of ourselves – the ‘true self’. Instead there are still a multitude of identities – the same naked person can be coy, calm, proud, appearing as an object or clearly as a subject. Despite our knowing that life, and we ourselves, are complicated and multi-faceted why do we yearn so for the pure and simple?

Gymnosophy for Beginners

November 12th, 2007

A key figure for students of Gymnosophy (from gymnos – naked and sophia – wisdom) is Dattatreya. Here he is in the Avadhoot Gita:

“With fuel and without fuel, I am always burning; With smoke and without smoke, I am always glowing; with flame and without flame, I am always shining; I am immortality in knowledge, I am equality in essence, I am like the sky. I burn the faggots of action and inaction; I burn the faggots of pleasure and pain; I burn the faggots of him who adores his body, I burn the faggots of him who ignores his body; I am immortality in knowledge, I am equality in essence, I am like the sky. I am fire that burns religion and irreligion, I am fire that burns merit and sin, I am fire that burns bondage and privilege, I am immortality in knowledge, I am equality in essence, I am like the sky.”

(The title for this entry is foolish – it should, of course, be ‘Advanced Gymnosophy’. I’m off now to burn a ‘faggot of inaction’.)

Thought for the Day

November 6th, 2007

In order to swim one takes off all one’s clothes – in order to aspire to the truth one must undress in a far more inward sense, divest oneself of all one’s inward clothes, of thoughts, conceptions, selfishness etc. before one is sufficiently naked.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), Danish philosopher. The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection, no. 1395, (ed. and tr. by Alexander Dru, 1938), entry for 1854.