Sadhus: India's Mystic Holy Men, by Dolf Hartsuiker. Rochester, VT, Inner Traditions, 1993.

This fascinating record of Hindu ascetics offers a glimpse of an ancient tradition of bhakti or devotional life and practice in India.

The book is a photographic tour of male devotees of Shiva and Vishnu. It is not a record of modern Hindu sages like Ramana Maharshi or popular sects like Krishna Consciousness, but of the eccentric and otherworldly men who possess a minimum of objects (including clothing, they being Alexander the Great's original "naked philosophers"), are mendicant, and pass their days and nights in ritual worship of their chosen manifestation of deity.

By their poverty and simplicity, the sadhus demonstrate their genuineness. By their isolation from society, except as occasional objects of popular veneration, they are erstwhile eremites, though they will come together at religious festivals or as fellow-devotees in ritual practice.

The sadhus are a bridge to ancient practice, but they are not like any hermit or comparable eremitical tradition of the West. They are imminently eccentric and their austerities are unique. They are vaguely like the Christian Desert Fathers in their social separation, a little more like Simon Stylites in the exaggeration of eccentricity. Their beliefs do not approximate the mature Vedantaism of recent or perennial time, and their primitive creed seems to justify their daily lives.

Thus the reader should not think that everything is told in this book. There are Jain sadhus, also "naked philosophers," of perhaps more deliberate creed, and there are Buddhist sadhus, especially in the Zen tradition and without physical eccentricity. But this is, well, India, where a thousand colors scintillate, and myriad gods and deities fill the earth and sky above.

Though the work is good, one senses a voyeurism, not simply because the book revolves around photographs, many of which are compelling studies (and the author is a professional photographer, after all). Perhaps it is the frankness and openness of the sadhus' lives which we are invading. This book is not a spiritual manual so much as a cultural and anthropological record of an aspect of India, tumultuous and vast in its spiritual birthings.