7. In Search of the Sadhu’s Stone: Metals and Gems as Theraputic Technologies of Transformation in Vernacular Aesceticism in North India
Soulless Matter, Seats of Energy - Metals, Gems and Minerals in South Asian Traditions - Fabrizio Ferrari
Antoinette DeNapoli [+]
Texas Christian University
“In the middle of these mountains is our immortality,” said Shabari Bai, a female Hindu renouncer (sadhu) from a Bhil (tribal) community in North India. Located in Chirva village (Udaipur district), Rajasthan, Shabari Bai’s ashram is nestled in the Aravalli Mountains, one of the oldest mountain chains in South Asia. She continued, “The earth [bhumi] is the most precious life [jiv] on the planet. She is alive just as we are alive. She bears the pain of the world and has all the knowledge [jnan] that will heal our suffering and keep us from destroying ourselves.” Shabari Bai’s incisive statement calls attention to the earth and, more specifically, to landforms such as mountains, as the seat of energy, power, and salvific knowledge. More significantly, Shabari Bai suggests that mountains possess a form of consciousness (jiv) and, thus, represent a “precious” natural resource—or life—precisely because they contain invaluable substances such as metals, minerals, and gems that promote the health and healing of all life on the planet, including the planet itself. Like Shabari Bai, sadhus in the North Indian state of Rajasthan, in which I conducted extensive field research with Hindu sadhus from the Shaiva (Dashanami and Nath) and Vaishnava (Ramananda/Tyagi) renouncer traditions, associate naturally occurring substances like metals, minerals, and gems with power and immortality and use them in their everyday ritual/healing practices. In my experience, preferring naturopathic—or, in Indian terms, Ayurvedic—methods over allopathic methods, sadhus, men and women, commonly wear stones, gems, and metals on their bodies as an efficacious means to heal, cure, and prevent ailments from poor digestion to anaemia. To take an example, according to many of the sadhus I knew, wearing copper on the big toe aids digestion. In another context, following an almost fatal dog attack and only after allopathic methods failed, Kailash Das, a Ramanandi (Tyagi) sadhu, started to wear thick silver rings on each of her toes. “It keeps the veins open and causes the blood to move in my feet. Since I’ve been wearing these [rings], I suffer no pain in my feet at all.” Based on over a decade of ethnographic fieldwork in Rajasthan, this essay describes and analyzes sadhus’ knowledge and use of metals, minerals, and gems in order to shed light on a level of vernacular practice and experience that has been underrepresented in the scholarship on sannyas in South Asia. Special attention is paid to the sadhus’ gendered representations of metals, minerals, and gems and the ways that their practices shape and reconfigure the more standard definitional parameters for what sannyas is all about in contemporary India. The essay is divided into two parts. Part 1 analyzes what I have characterized as the sadhus’ “rhetoric of renunciation,” the stories (kahani) and songs (bhajan) that they perform about the earth, its properties, and humans’ responsibility to the planet. In addition, this section explores sadhus’ ideas about ecological sustainability in a consumer-based economy through means of their performances. Part 2 examines the sadhus’ use and classification of metals, minerals, and gems, the deities associated with these substances, the problems they are thought to cure and/or prevent, and the sadhus’ personal experiences of illness that catalyzed their knowledge and use of metals, minerals, and gems. In sum, this essay contributes new research to academic studies of sannyas in South Asia and shows that sadhus draw on indigenous knowledge about minerals, metals, and gems in their practices both to address and redress the deleterious effects that Rajasthan’s mining industry is wreaking on the earth in a rapidly changing, postindustrial India.