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Indus Society

Dr. Michael Yorke (OE), ‘Filming with India’s Holy Saddhus’

Dr. Yorke left Eton in the early 1960s, when sociological change was rife around the world and especially in Britain. A self-professed artist, his love for aesthetics and making things (especially out of clay – shaping and creating architecture) gradually led to him becoming a filmmaker teaching at UCL (he has worked with the director of ‘There Will Be Blood’ among other renowned people in the field), using his sculpture skills in directing and producing anthropological and ethnographic pieces on tribal culture around the world. As the hippy movement erupted in this time, with a search for a new age of living more freely and expressively, Dr. Yorke downed his pottery tools and left for India, a realm which fascinated him. Dr. Yorke was actually initially more interested in the Adivasi tribes of Kanchipuram and other parts of Northern India, and so the Hindus had naturally felt to be the enemy because of the rise of Hindu nationalism and Hindutva, and the mass cullings of the indigenous tribal peoples of the region for the sake of the religion. In this period Dr. Yorke learnt Hindi, Gondi and even Mundari, a tribal language only spoken in the Burmese jungle. However, he was then asked to produce a documentary for Channel Four which changed his opinion.

Dr. Yorke based his talk around his recent film ‘Holy Men and Fools’, a piece about a Shaivite Hindu called Vasishta giri who he had met in his travels in the Kumbh Mela, the largest festival on Earth, a fourteen-day meeting place for humanity in its formative and collective mass, all joining to pay homage to religion and the astrological zodiac. The first scene was symbolised in the dhuna fire which saddhus make in the places they stay in, an organic way of engaging with the auspicious force of fire and yet controlling something chaotic and flickering, like the material world. Another woman in the film, Uma giri, was a Swedish woman who had joined Vasishta’s Juna Akhara sect in order to start a new life of spirituality and inner sanctity, the only female to be accepted. This film portrayed a life of extreme asceticism, an image of saddhus as wanderers in the Himalayas and sources of the Ganges, living off the charity of others, in isolation in caves while performing penances and meeting gurus on the way in their yatra (the Hindi word for a search for knowledge and enlightenment through journey, an affirmation of vivacity and the wonderment of life). The entire film is done through a handheld camera, and paints a tapestric and very personal relationship with the saddhus, an intellectual interplay of the Western fool with the omniscient and wise saddhu, Vasishta, as they travel to places like Gangotri and around the untouched mountainous regions of the North.

Often however, as Dr. Yorke explained, the Juna Akhara sect was a very radical one which believed in extreme penance such as coating one’s body with ash in imitation of the blue-blooded neelakantha deity Shiva, giving lotus oil, aniseed oil and rose petal offerings to the lingam, as well as in some cases not speaking for a lifetime in order to withdraw from the outer phenomenal world and develop a sensitivity of the cosmic heartbeat. The saddhus are the best example of the devotional, ritual aspect of Hinduism, based on polytheism and story and divinity. Vasistha was able to give evening dissertation on the Janaka tales and stories from the Advaita Vedanta advocated in 800 AD by Adi Shankara when he reformed the religion, and had to know all the key Hindu texts. There were scenes of him often in a playful sense of not caring about the seriousness and trouble of the world and simply laughing, and at other times in very deep contemplation on the nature of truth and finality and the cosmos and the essence of those with knowledge. There was a sense that the viewer needed to have lived with these people for their lifetimes to truly understand them, not summarised in a film.

An interesting trait of the film was its ability to really show the colour of these people, their yearning to find what Dr. Yorke called the third realm, separate from the opposites of the human world like happiness and sadness, good and bad etc. Often the method used was through ganja and opiate-induced trances to try and get a glimpse of some paranormal vision. This was the atman and paramatman, the cosmic world spirit echoing in the valleys of Bihar and the jungles of Varanasi. The saddhus clearly had a deep respect for nature and the power that was concealed within them, and also seemed to love life itself and its adventure, like a journey. Dr. Yorke’s journey was an emblem of one of the common fools who regard the Shaivite Hindus with their bathing in the Ganges, odd appearance such as their saffron robes and gold tridents, as weird, and the saddhus who live in a dream world along with the divinity echoing through nature, without a care in the universe for what people think. In conclusion, Dr. Yorke showed a very different side to Hinduism which really is what gives the religion its wonderful tinctures and uniqueness, even though it is hard to say whether the truth the saddhus seek really does exist.

Dhruv Ghulati OS (MNF)


DATE POSTED: 06 March 2009

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