The Orange Men of Rishikesh
Text and photographs © Charlotte Purin
It was fitting that I met G.T. Roa (above) on the holiday of Holi, the Indian festival of color that celebrates a man’s survival thanks to his unwavering devotion to God. On this day Hindus, especially adolescent boys, throw or smear brightly colored, staining powders at anyone in the street. Despite this, I left the safety of my ashram and ventured out for sweets. Zig-zagging in order to avoid the boys, I bumped into G.T., a much-bemused sadhu, who was color-free except for the orange uniform that all sadhus wear to signify their life path. I thrust some sweets into his hands and said, “Happy Holi!” He smiled: “Come and talk sometime. I will be sitting here. I am always sitting here.”
The next day, there he was in the same exact spot. And he was there every day until I left four weeks later. G.T. Roa is a man who left his job as a welder for the life of a monk, renouncing worldly desires for a life of devotion to God. One day he told his family he was going to the mountain – the Himalayas, refuge of seers (rishis) and saints.
Rishikesh is full of men like this, who are free to follow an inner calling to wander and wear orange. This spiritual freedom is made possible by the humanity of Hindu culture. It is not a crime to sleep on the streets of Rishikesh or hold out a palm, whether one is wearing the orange of a sadhu or not.
“In America, you can be passed out drunk or dead, and the world will pass you by. Sleep in the street or put up a cover and the police appear. This is the crime of America,” G.T. said. “In India we are humane.”
“Sit in one place” he advised. “Don’t waste time. Sit by one tree, one Ganga [Ganges river]. The world is busy, but you don’t have to be. You can experience everything from one place.” As we spoke and drank tea, couples and children would stop and stare, saying nothing. I wondered if it was because I was wearing all red; maybe they thought I was from some rare sect. “No,” he said, “it is because you are a woman. If you were a man they would not notice.”
Sadhus give up women, among other worldly things. He half-joked, “A Hindu woman’s biggest fear is that her husband will become a monk.” From the look on his face I could tell that he was remembering the moment when he left his family 25 years ago. Now he spent his time reciting mantras and taking daily purifying baths in the Ganga at four in the morning.
How do these families fare when the fathers leave? Usually the men makes arrangements before they go, but it still is not easy for those left behind. If there is much suffering, it is said to be one’s karma from past lives. Hindus believe that when a man chooses to be a good sadhu God will provide for the family.
[Right: Swami Atma in Rishikesh]
He started a new subject, “Don’t waste time earning too much money. Never make more than you need. Money controls the mind.” He paused to acknowledge a blessing from another staring passerby. “Speak your power, follow your intuition, control your mind. I am not an educated man, but I make an effort.”
It is clear he is a highly educated man – in a scripture-based, community school system – but not if judged by the British education system that was imposed in India in 1835 and was designed to wipe out men such as he.
There is a quotation from a much-revered Hindu saint, Sri Rama Krishna. When he was just a child he said, “I refuse to partake in a bread-earning education.” He never went to school, yet he is still adored and written about today. This sort of freedom is allowed to male seekers in India, a country that wholeheartedly supports the pursuit of spiritual mastery. Oh, one more honor bestowed upon the sadhu, during the Holi festival: no one even thinks about throwing colors at a holy man. It just isn’t done.