On Friday Peter Owen-Jones' fascinating adventures on television continued as he attended the only-every-six-years Hindu Mela (gathering) on the banks of the River Ganges in India, met a guru, and experienced the initiation of lots of Saddhu (holy men).
His last Kung Fu exploit looked pretty hard work, but in this he seemed to look bewildered and out of his depth most of the time. This may have been helped by the hash smoking which seemed to be a necessary part of being a Saddhu, or the very in-your-face experience of lots of naked men covered in ash excitedly converging on the river at dawn to immerse themselves as an initiation. Peter opted out of this part “so as not to offend.” On a brighter note, he may not have needed the initiation because as a Church of England Priest the Guru and his followers seemed keen to accept him as a Saddhu.
More insightful was his trip into the Himalayas, dressed in the saffron robes of a Saddhu, to experience solitude in a particular small cave (regularly used for the purpose) in a remote village. He enjoyed the companionship on the way. Unfortunately, after being accepted and fed by the villagers for some weeks, he had to abandon his trek further into the Himalayas because of dysentery.
I found it fascinating that although he didn't really know what being a Saddhu was all about, the villagers accepted him in the role. This may have been helped by some long-awaited rain that fell as he arrived. His cave was empty when he arrived, but gradually the villagers brought him everything he needed from cow dung to bedding to food and water: humbling hospitality.
In reflecting on his own religion, and life as a parish priest in England, he felt that the life of the guru, with casual visits by many people, was perhaps more like the life of Jesus than he had experienced, and how the pattern of being a holy man is perhaps how his predecessors would have experienced their own ministry a few years ago. (This is in contrast to the more managerial way in which many church leaders feel it is right to focus their energies.)
He noted the way in which the Saddhu is “sustained by the faith of the community.” In the U.K I note that the church authorities sometimes wonder about how to make the church more relevant, or can blame themselves for lack of impact. This reciprocity in the life of a Saddhu means that one also has to ask whether British society collectively wants holy men (or women) or a church.
I can't wait for the final episode next Friday. Here's the link to the BBC site, you can watch the ones you missed!