One of the meaning of the word nAgA is ‘to be absent’. This is true since nAgA-s before taking sanyAsa have to perform their own last rites (death rites). After the initiation ceremony, they get a new life which is not connected with the earlier one. Hence they are absent from their past life (pre-monastic life). The meaning of the word may not seem to be convincing, but a little deeper will help us get clarity. Worldly minded people have worldly thoughts and desires. nAgA-s have renounced worldly thoughts and desires and so worldly thoughts and desires are absent in them. Hence they are called as nAgA sAdhu-s - those in whom there is no worldly desires. Their monastic life is completely different than their pre-monastic life.
37.1. Life of nAgA sAdhu-s
There are 13 divisions of nAgA sAdhu-s who live in 13 different akhADA-s. Traditionally the word akhADA means a wrestling ground or a training ground for martial arts. akhADA is a place or a resident ashrAm of nAgA-s which not only includes their martial training but also spiritual training. nAgA-s undergo intense meditations and practice haTha yoga. Some take it to extreme and practice it for 12 years or throughout their life. They prefer to meditate in night when there is no one to disturb them nor are there any visitors or devotees. In addition to meditative disciplines, they also practice martial arts and were a part of rajput regiments for many years. SrI madhusudhan sarasvatI, a celebrated name in advaita vedAnta is said to have set up the order of nAgA sAdhu-s. They have their own guru (mahanta), who in turn believes in SankarAcArya-s. Some believe that nAgA-s are Saiva-s, but they believe in all forms of God. Some have guru dattAtraya as their ISTa devatA. bhagavAn Siva as rudra or bhairava is known to smear ash and bhagAvan dattAtraya used to roam naked. However their lifestyle does not match with that of vaiShNava sanyAsin-s. They do not adhere to siddhAnta-s as propounded by vaiShNava AcArya-s of various sects like SrI vaiShNava, etc. By nature nAgA-s are hot headed. Aggression is necessary for warriors. It should also be noted that their way of life is also different from traditional sanyAsin-s of the catur-amnaya matha-s (four traditional ashrams established by Adi SankarAcArya jI) and the fifth kAnchi matha. sanyAsin-s of Sankara matha-s or those directly or indirectly associated to it, do not roam naked. They were ochre coloured cloths. Ochre or orange colour is the colour of fire, which symbolises knowledge i.e. GYAnAgnI, the fire of knowledge. It is also a symbol of renunciation.
For nAgA sAdhu-s, the body itself is a cloth (a covering) of AtmA / jIvAtmA. So why to cover clothes with another set of clothes. It requires years of strict disciple to be a nAgA. They have to follow their rules strictly and practice intense meditations. After 3 years of serving his guru, guru decides him to make him a nAgA sAdhu-s. If they break the rules, then koTavAla (head) may give them punishment. Their punishment is different than punishments prescribed by civil law codes. They may be asked to dip 100 times in icy waters of mA gangA. In general, there is no provision of nAgA-s to return home, i.e. back to society, but may be some may run away if they cannot sustain the hard life of nAgA, they are not officially allowed to live.
According to general rules, when they are inside the akhADA, they remain fully naked. But when they roam in society, it is forbidden to roam naked in order to attune with the atti-quitty of society. They have to wear clothes, may be in 3 piece, as in loka-vyavahAra (i.e. in society). When they visit a temple, they have to wear 3.5 Mtr cloth. They can use the cloths to other purpose. Each akhADA has it’s own ISTa devatA and their own weapons which they have to master. junA akhADa have bhagavAn dattAtraya as their ISTa devatA. He is their idol. bhagavAn dattAtraya in srimad bhAgavat mahApurANa has said that ‘we do not have longing for worldly objects, we live in brahma-bhAva (in state of supreme state of consciousness) and our body itself is our covering (cloth) of our AtmA’. nAgA-s are given different responsibilities depending upon their skills and mental-makeup. Some are trained in combat skills and master a few weapons while others may be inclined towards intense meditative practice, some in haTha yoga, some in administrative task, some are temple priests and so on. According to their ability and mental makeup they are entrusted different types of responsibilities. There are mahant, koTavAla, bhanDArI, pUjArI, kArbhArI, etc. There are gradations of seniority among them like SrI mahant is the head of all (There are 4 types of mahant). Women are also given sanyAsa, but the yare forbidden to roam completely naked. They live in a separate place within junA akhADA in a women-exclusive area.
37.2. nAgA sAdhu-s - The defenders of sanAtana dharma
baraphAni nAgA-s were trained in such a way that they are capable to fight in extreme cold like in himAlaya-s, kArgila. rAja-rAjeshvara nAgA can fight in all conditions. mahA kAla nAgA-s of ujjain were considered as very deadly. They have mastery in killing opponents. When both baraphAnI and rAja-rAjeshvara cannot handle the situation, then the services of mahA kAla nAgA-s were called.
The famous religious gathering at various kumbha melA-s is very popular. nAgA sAdhU-s are given the first right to bath. Since junA akhADA, as the name suggests (junA means old), is the oldest, the SrI mahant (head of junA akhADA) is the first one to take a bath.
Both aghori-s and nAgA sAdhu-s smear themselves with ash as ash reminds that finally everything that they possess will ultimately turn to ashes. Ash is the final form of transformation and is considered to remain permanent i.e. ash has long life. It symbolises vairAGYa (dispassion), futility of worldly affairs, transient nature of body and world. Ash reminds one of death of body (temporary nature of human body) and also represents immortality. Ash is also favourite of Lord Siva and is considered as prasAda. Practically, ash is also a mosquito repellent. It helps both nAgA sAdhu-s and aghori-s. nAgA sAdhu-s live in jungles or remote places and aghori-s most of the time live in cremation ground. White ash is also said to have medicinal properties.
There are many types of ashes. One of the holy ash is made from body of a vedic brAhmin. There is a belief of one akhADA of nAgA that the ash (bhabhUta) offered to the temple of mahAkAleshvara is that of pyre of vedic brAhmin. This bhasma or bhabhUta (ash) is called as chitA bhasma meaning pyre-ash. During his lifetime, if a practising vedic brAhmin wishes that his body after death be useful to nAgA sAdhu-s, then honouring his last wish, his mortal body is brought to the cremation ground of ujjain’s mahAkAleshvara mandir (temple). then after burning his body on fire (after his death), the ash is offered to mahAkaleshvara and then it is distributed as prasAda in small quantities among nAgA-s of different akhADA-s. It is said that prasAda should be distributed to as many people as possible so that maximum people can benefit of God’s grace. Hence the quantity given to one person is very less, in this case it’s a small pinch.
Other ashes include mixing of other materials which help protect body from heat and cold and insects. Mixing of other materials also help increase the quantity of ash. Ingredients other than ash include peepal, pAkaDa, rasAlA, bel patra, banana and dry pieces of cow dung. The mixture in powder form is mixed and is screened by cloth. After screening, the mixture is mixed with milk (not warmed) and small laddu-s (laddoos), small balls are made. These small balls are baked in fire and the burning mixture is extinguished and cooled by fresh milk which is not warmed. Before smearing ash over whole body, nAgA-s chant some mantra-s, which they say are necessary to this mixture may harm their body.
bhabhUta is one of the 17 shringAra (decorative ornaments) of nAgA-s and an integral part of their life. They can’t imagine themselves without bhabhUta. Other articles used for decoration are rudrAksha mAlA tied at various places, flower mAlA, metal rings, tilaka, and even bells. It is interesting to know that female nAgA sadhu-s who are called as mAtA jI or mAI (and not nAgA sAdhvI-s) have 16 shringAra-s. nAgA-s have their own way of living and their unique world not found anywhere else.
Nice documentary of nAgA sadhu can be found on youtube:
Life of Naga Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 - Links not working - Youtube removed the Video