Yogi Unbearable

Washington City Paper | January 6, 2006
Among the many claims in Naked in Ashes, a rapt look at India’s gurus, yogis, babas, and sadhus, there’s one of particular interest: “Today, the population of yogis is going down,” a commentator confides. “In another 50 years, you will hardly hear the word.” This is bad for ingenuous Western documentarians but probably just as well for mystically inclined Indians. After all, the various holy men (and occasional women) in this film include one who’s been standing nonstop for years, another who sometimes sits with a stack of burning cow patties on his head, and a guy who professes to pull a Range Rover with his penis.

For the record, he doesn’t really. Although his flaccid appendage is involved in the procedure somehow, the guru actually pulls the vehicle with his hands. The “Standing Baba” has done far more violence to his anatomy, as close-ups of his ravaged legs reveal. And the Aguris, who eat human flesh during cremation rituals, could get something much worse than a bad case of ghosts, the affliction commonly attributed to the practice. If such stunts pass from fashion, it probably wouldn’t be at any great cost to man or Krishna.

The flamboyant forms of self-mortification documented by director Paula Fouce may be specifically Indian, but the philosophical rationales aren’t especially exotic. One yogi explains that human eyes see not the world but only illusion, a proposition known to the West at least since Plato’s Republic. A 14-year-old novice is shaved and covered with ashes in preparation for a dip in the Ganges that will bring “a new birth,” an idea that parallels the Christian tradition of baptism. And a Western woman who became a sadhu explains that her dead guru’s soul is still with her, a fancy shared by every religious person who wishes that all his or her loved ones were still alive. Given the universality of such notions, maybe it’s appropriate that Tony Humecke’s chiming, cooing score is generically world-ly.

Even more gullible than the makers of last year’s Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela, which claimed that 70 million people attend the Kumbh Mela festival, Fouce accepts that 100 million take part in the event. (Other estimates place the figure at somewhere between 15 and 60 million.) Viewers who know something about India or religion will be able to salvage a few moments from Naked in Ashes, despite the filmmakers’ failure to provide anything more than the flimsiest of contexts. For most other people, however, the documentary will look exactly like what we must assume Fouce hoped to avoid: a freak show.

Washington City Paper

In a city where a great deal of attention is focused on national affairs, Washington City Paper maintains a relentless emphasis on local Washington. City Paper serves as the definitive local guide to cultural and civic life in the District...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1400 I St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
  • Phone: (202) 332-2100