Monday Morning Greetings 2023 #31 – What I Learned from the Sādhus Who Never Stop Walking

July 31st, 2023

Last week I wrote about the sādhus who never stop walking. Last Tuesday I again walked halfway around Govardhan starting at 5:00 PM. With the heat and humidity, I sweated so much that when I returned from parikrama, although I drank almost a liter of water before bed, I didn’t get up once all night. I was dehydrated and exhausted. Yet these elderly, raggedy, worn old men walk two or three times a day around the whole hill, even now in the hot, humid rainy season! Are they over doing it? In what mode is their austerity? Could it possibly be ignorance?


“And those penances and austerities which are performed foolishly by means of obstinate self-torture, or to destroy or injure others, are said to be in the mode of ignorance.” (Bg. 17.19)


Of course, they mean no harm to others, but doesn’t it seem almost a kind of self-torture? Is it great devotion or over endeavor? Before having this discussion, let us introduce a short outline (my own) describing what is austerity, especially in the line of devotion.


The seven principles of tapasya


  1. We are not the body, but we identify with and experience the pains and pleasures of the body due to the false ego, the desire to be the enjoyer and controller.
  2. The general purpose of life is mokṣa (liberation), to become free from this false identification so we can live in the true self, the soul.
  3. By extraneous sensual indulgence, one’s absorption in and identification with the body increases, which naturally exacerbates the pains and pleasures of the body.
  4. As this is a temporary world full of suffering and “a pinch of suffering is felt more than a ton of pleasure”,[1] sensual indulgence meant for pleasure that increases our bodily identification almost counterintuitively increases our suffering exponentially.
  5. In contrast, when one undergoes tapasya, voluntary discomfort for a spiritual objective,[2] one naturally abstracts oneself from absorption in the body and consequently minimizes suffering.
  6. Vaiṣṇavas do not perform austerity for austerity’s sake, as it negates the heart and emotions that are required for cultivating and experiencing devotion. However, as some tapasya is still necessary for a Vaiṣṇava to help them transcend the material condition and to serve Śrī Krishna with greater focus, a Vaiṣṇava willingly accepts the bodily and mental inconveniences that arise naturally during a simple and fully dedicated devotional life.
  7. A simple definition of tapasya (for Vaiṣṇavas): “Despite the irrational impulses of the mind and body, one engages fully in one’s devotional service.”[3]


Now back to our walking Vaiṣṇava sādhus. How do we characterize their tapasya? Of course, according to the Bhagavad-gītā, austerity can be mixed with passion if done for some reward, or even done in ignorance if done harshly and with ill motive. It’s hard for me, however, to envision some material benefit for what they are doing. This is what I do know:


For a Vaiṣṇava, circumambulation of the Deity is one of the sixty-four items of devotional service, especially when chanting God’s names constantly. Parikrama forces one physically and even mentally to place God or Śrī Girirāja in the center of one’s existence and to move to the periphery. The very nature of this activity thus puts one in a good place to beg Śrī Krishna for mercy and is therefore devotional and humbling at its core.


India is also tapa bhūmi, the land of tapasya. Despite the onslaught of materialism in the last century, there are still, to this day, true tapasvīs who have been born here who have zero interest in this world, like these sādhus. It seems so, otherwise, why would they spend their whole life walking around a sacred hill chanting God’s name? And it is certainly not a fruitive endeavor, for as soon as they meet their vow for the day, they must begin anew the following day!


If indeed, by one’s karma, one is inclined for renunciation, why not use it in the service of Krishna by throwing oneself fully into service in that way without any other material concern? Such renunciation in service to Krishna is certainly in our line. Look at the instructions of Śrī Caitanya to Śrī Raghunātha about renunciation and how pleased the Lord was that he dedicated himself to God to such an extent that he practically gave up eating and sleeping. Are not the walking sādhus just following in his footsteps? But what does this have to do with us?


Yes, there are rare souls who, by dint of their spiritual evolution, are qualified to completely renounce the world for the purpose of dedicating themselves to Śrī Krishna. Although such a life is noteworthy, it is not necessary on the path of devotion, for the essence of bhakti is dedication and not renunciation. In other words, devotion is giving oneself fully to Krishna, not physically renouncing the world. In the name of devotion, however, we cannot negate the value of tapasya, for it helps us transcend the bodily concept of life, which facilitates a fuller absorption in Krishna. We should therefore be careful not to fall prey to a Western complex (as opposed to simple) lifestyle that is geared to avoiding bodily discomfort or tapasya at any cost. Nor should we shy away from the challenges and inconveniences that may come in dedicated devotional service[4] or the special opportunities to perform tapasya offered in our lineage to increase our devotion, such as fasting on days like Ekādaśī.


Today on parikrama I passed a group of about ten of the walking sādhus. It seems they stop at a particular tea stall for a few minutes to sit and drink water. I stopped and watched them carefully. One saw me and gracefully put his left hand over his heart, slowly bowing his head ever so slightly to offer respects. I saw another gently smile in loving exchange with another. Although they were tired, I could feel their bhava, their mood of devotion. I understood that what was externally a chore, was certainly a joy for them, so much so, that in another seven or eight hours they would be in the exact same place on their second time around! I humbly bow to the sādhus who never stop walking.


Conclusion: We cannot imitate the walking sādhus, but we should certainly follow in their footsteps:


“Lord Ṛṣabhadeva told His sons: My dear boys, of all the living entities who have accepted material bodies in this world, one who has been awarded this human form should not work hard day and night simply for sense gratification, which is available even for dogs and hogs that eat stool. One should engage in penance and austerity to attain the divine position of devotional service. By such activity, one’s heart is purified, and when one attains this position, he attains eternal, blissful life, which is transcendental to material happiness and which continues forever.” (Bhag. 5.5.1)



[1] Not sure where I read this quote.

[2] It is important to understand that hardship that is forced upon one may not necessarily detach oneself from the body. Tapasya is voluntary, so it has spiritual objective, and it is this internal objective along with the self-imposed bodily inconvenience that is purifying.

[3] This definition is from the BBT translation of the 10th Canto of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. I cannot find the reference off hand, but it is from a commentary after the Bhaktivedanta Purports that struck me when I read it many years ago.

[4] I am not minimizing the great tapasya that naturally comes from those who dedicate themselves to spreading the mission of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu and strictly follow the bhakti sādhana that they were given.


Comments are closed.