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There is a great story to be told about the yogis of India, sadly it isn’t told here in the documentary Naked In Ashes. However that isn’t reason enough to pass up this wonderful film. Indeed, I feel rather petty to even bring up the mundane subjects of weak narrative and aimless film editing when placed next to the awe-inspiring feats of devotion, physical deprivation and metaphysical derring-do these men have preformed. Perhaps this is how the filmmakers felt, too, when confronted with the real works of art that the yogis have made of their lives. Talk about performance art... these holy men take the prize. This is a great film without being great film. It will take you places mentally and physically you never knew existed.

Taking Up the Habit

Yogi Shiv Raj Giri has carefully kept his press clippings
Yogi Shiv Raj Giri has carefully kept his press clippings

Naked in Ashes tells us that there are 1 billion people and 13 million holy men in India today. There is no real comparison in Western culture to the place and acceptance that the yogis hold on the Subcontinent. You would have to go back at least to the 13th or 14th Century in Europe to find a time when ordinary people could simply drop out of society to become religious devotees with such a total physical and spiritual commitment, and yet still remain a part of that society. Back then one could seal oneself off in an underground cell, with only a grate at street level as the only link to the outside world, and give oneself over to prayer and fasting. Dependent on passers by for your sustenance, you would nevertheless be a source of awe and respect. Today you would be pulled from your hole and institutionalized as a menace to your own well being. This is the price we paid for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Mind you, I for one am not complaining.

In India you can still opt for the High Road. But there is trouble in spiritual paradise and one of the messages in Naked is that there are fewer young men in India choosing the way of the yogi. As illustration, we see a 14-year-old boy make this rare commitment. Another of the film’s stories is the portrait of Shiv Raj Giri, the yogi whom the boy adopts as his master and who is the center of gravity to a cadre of lesser yogis and yogis-in-training. They all move toward the climactic spectacle of the film: the great meeting of yogis at the sacred bathing festival on the banks of the river Ganges. Part mountain man rendezvous, part professional convention and part Mardi Gras, the bathing festival really defies description to my Western eyes. For me, this alone was worth seeing the film.

Naked and in ashes is the yogi Shiv Raj Giri, presenting himself to the world. We find that this is a common and traditional appearance for the holy men who cover their naked bodies in ash after bathing in the river Ganges to both cleanse themselves of sin and to take on the sins of others who have bathed in the sacred river. Thus attired they walk about in public, drawing no more attention than a Western man wearing spandex running gear on Main Street. But that comparison ends quickly, as the yogi is also part revered spiritual exemplar and respected rock star. To many Western viewers, the yogis will seem to be shameless, self-promoting charlatans as well. I wonder if the real character fault lies with us or them.

Earning a Reputation

It is by a feat of devotion that a yogi makes his name and reputation. It is his branding, his trademark and credentials that prove he can walk the walk. It is the gauge by which his fellow Indians award him their respect. One yogi in the film has held his right arm aloft for 13 years in order to see God. It is as if he is waiting for divine recognition in the earthly classroom. Is that any less an accomplishment than building the biggest TV ministry or selling the most music CDs? Shiv Raj Giri too has done a noteworthy accomplishment for which he has carefully kept his press clippings. I won’t tell you here what that is as it would distract from the review; Westerners will inevitably view it as “reality” TV gone bad.

The obvious comparisons will be made here in the West to our own ‘holy’ men, the proselytizers who market their own brands and trademarks and gimmicks with a similar purposefulness and self promotion. But I think it is unfair to compare the relative quality or quantity of metaphysical complexity and spiritual involvement of the two because to do so takes them out of the context of their own society.

You may feel elated at Shiv Raj Giri, his dedicated life and holy comrades, or you may be appalled at this insane folly of the human mind. However you view this film, you will not soon forget Naked In Ashes.

  • Alma: It is exceptionally difficult to film a movie of this sort in India. We have been to Haridwar, where Yogi Shiv Raj Giri was interviewed in this movie, and we could not even get to the river bank where 'holy men' were sitting and offering their companionship. Any unusual appearance (i.e. western race, a person with a camera, or a well clothed human being) will be approached by an army of beggars, and will be welcomed with distrust. It is a complete chaos. To be able to discuss matters with Sidha Yogis and Naga Babas, one needs to obtain their utmost trust, and that is a difficult task which requires time and respect. For that reason, this is the first time (in 'Naked in Ashes') that we are able to see them talking about themselves, rather than giving lectures about their practices and the philosophy they follow. We should not view them with criticism just because they opened their souls to us, but we should be happy that this was made available to us, living so far away, and trying to figure out their secrets by reading articles somewhere between a stressful task and a lunch break.
    Once the author of this article shows that he is able to walk naked amongst the peak of Himalayas, he should be confident in his values and conclusions. Meanwhile, reverence. January 10, 2009 reply