No official estimate is available about the number of sadhvis and sanyasins at the Haridwar Kumbh Mela, but there is no dearth of women who have left their families behind and 'surrendered themselves to God's service'.
Not to be left behind in asceticism, many of them command a sizeable following of faithful devotees and run their own ashrams. Some of them have also managed to break into the well-respected and coveted hierarchical system of the akharas (sects of Hindu ascetics).
Rediff.com's Sanchari Bhattacharya met some sadhvis who made their presence felt at the holy gathering this year.
Bodh Mayi Ganga Maa Pragya Devi
Her disciples have the most interesting stories to narrate about her. She belongs to a royal family, they say, and her father was an inspector general of police.
Maa Pragya gave up a cushy life in a posh locality in Mumbai, and her husband and three sons, when she heard the 'call of God'. It broke her heart to leave her sons behind, she says, and she missed them for one-and-a-half days, before "God gave me the strength to move on".
Her followers also talk about her spells of solitude when, for several months in a year, she leaves her ashram in Kulghati for unknown locations "to seek solitude and find truth". Even her closest disciples have no idea where she goes; they vaguely refer to "jungles in Madhya Pradesh and the Himalayas". On how the elderly sadhvi manages on her own, she says, "God's grace and the kindness of villagers" ensure that she has no problems.
The smiling sadhvi with a soft voice could pass off as anyone's affectionate aunt. Appearances, however, can be deceptive.
Maa Pragya tells us about her padyatra across India -- from Varanasi to Rameswaram -- in 2004. "The only thing that irked me was conversions," she says.
She describes her brush with the controversial issue while travelling through Bastar in Chhattisgarh. She dismisses the contention that tribals choose conversion as a way to escape a life of abject poverty and starvation.
"The tribals in Bastar are self-sufficient and content with their lives. But Christian missionaries are forcibly converting them. Today they don't even know which religion they belong to. And the irony is, most of these so-called Christian tribals' names still begin and end with Ram," she says indignantly.
She is quick to add a disclaimer, "I don't have anything against Islam or Christianity. But tell me, if all religions are the same, why have conversions at all?"
Mahamandaleshwar Chetana Mata
She was the first woman to become a Mahamandaleshwar in Juna Akhara, one of the highest posts in the hierarchical and male-dominated system of akharas. Chetana Mata received the honour, which denotes her superior status among the mutts (monasteries) within three years of being indoctrinated as a sanyasin. But when queried on how she reached such a powerful post in such a short time, she downplays the grand prefix to her name.
"It is just a title. We, all the sadhvis here, are equal," she says.
One of the youngest sadhvis at the bustling Mela, she prefers maintaining a low profile. Chetana Mata is apprehensive about being interviewed, as her guru, the popular and media-savvy Pilot Baba, had been 'victimised' by a sting operation conducted by a TV channel a few years ago.
The channel had alleged that Pilot Baba, an Air Force pilot-turned-saint, ran a money-laundering racket for foreign firms.
Chetana Mata hails from Haryana, and wanted to become an IAS officer as "I have always wanted to help people." She was always torn between her "spiritual calling" and her aspirations to become a civil servant.
Though she had to give up her "dream of helping people", she is "devoted to the service of God now, and I never regret it," Chetana Mata avers.
Like many of her fellow holy men (and women), she blasts the media for its "attempts to project wrong things about our religion".
She defends Pilot Baba, who had been allegedly caught while trying to 'convert' black money to white, by journalists posing as disciples.
"If a bhakt (devotee) is repeatedly urging me to have some tea, I will finally give in to his request, even if I don't feel like having tea. So when those people posing as bhakts, kept on requesting him to convert their black money to white, he was forced to agree," she claims.
She continues her spirited defence of sadhus who have been 'wrongfully projected' by the media, like Swami Nityanand, who was allegedly involved in a sex scandal.
"Why do people feel that just because someone is a sadhu, he will give up every pleasure in his life? We are not gods. We also have our wishes and desires. All sanyasis don't have to take the brahmacharya vrat (vow of celibacy)," says Chetana Mata.
"Jo bhakt pyaar se dete hai, woh sadhu ko leni parti hain (a saint has to accept the gift of his disciple). Just because he is wearing diamonds and rides a big car, it doesn't change the dhaarmikta (spirituality) inside him. True saints can accept such gifts and give them up also," she says.
Chetana Mata was probably talking about the monstrous SUV perched outside the ashram, used by Pilot Baba, bearing custom-made number plates that proudly declare the sadhu's name and designation.
Her Holiness Sai Maa Lakshmi Devi
At the Kumbh Mela held in Allahabad in 2007, Sai Maa received the title of Anant Shri Vibhushit Jagatguru Bhaktimayi Meera Bai. She was the first woman to receive the honour in the history of the religious festival.
Before she became a sanyasin, Sai Maa had worked as a counsellor, therapist, teacher and also dabbled in politics.
Originally an inhabitant of Mauritius, she has travelled across the world, before setting up an ashram in Colorado, United States.
Almost all her disciples are foreigners, and at Sai Maa's ashram located next to the scenic, flowing Ganga, few Indian devotees are visible. A paad puja (the ritual of surrendering oneself at the guru's feet) is in progress. Several doting disciples are kneeling on the podium with flowers and garland in hand, waiting for their chance to present their offerings to the revered Mata Ji.
A lilting but accented version of a kirtan (holy song), hailing the virtues of the Divine Mother, is playing in the background. Sai Ma, armed with a cordless microphone, lends her deeply melodious voice to the song from time to time. Her disciples, young and elderly, drag themselves on their knees to reach her, almost swooning as she accepts their garland and blesses them. She acknowledges them either with a warm smile or a hug.
Sai Maa also undertakes occasional spells of maun (silence), and most of the information about her is gleaned from her devoted followers. She has ashrams in Colarado and Varanasi and centres in Japan, Australia, Brazil, Canada and across Europe, Paramacharya Swami Parameshwarananda tells us. He is a New York-based management consultant who, after one meeting with Sai Maa, decided to give everything up to become a part of her mission.
Sathya Sai Baba was one of the most guiding influences in Sai Ma's life, and he asked her to 'become a bridge between East and the West', informs Swami Parameshwarananda.
Sai Maa is actively involved in charitable work, 'especially in the empowerment of women by making them self-reliant', he says. Her Sai Maa Vishu Shakti Trust has been providing loans to underprivileged women in north India to enable them to buy sewing machines. She has also worked with AIDS patients and distributed medicines in hospitals and schools in India. Her trust also distributes food, blankets and clothes to the needy.
"She has lived everything, done everything; she speaks from experience," says Swami Parameshwarananda.
Armed with a sharp tongue and sharper wit, this effervescent saadhvi is a delight to listen to. She travels to every Kumbh Mela in a special bus, and the vehicle becomes her special abode during the four-month long fair. She alights from the bus and mingles with her disciples, who have trudged through miles of poorly-maintained roads to meet their Mata Ji (Vehicles are not allowed to navigate in large swathes of the mela).
She listens in disapproving silence as they tell her about the trials of their journey, the difficulties in locating her ashram among the maze of tents at the Mela and the lack of drinking water and food.
"Our Vedas instruct bhakts to bring phal (fruits) and doodh (milk) for their guru. But the conditions here are so bad, the guru will have to resurrect his bhakt, who will be half-dead by the time he arrives here," she says, enacting someone trying to wake up an unconscious person.
She doesn't give a direct reply to the mandatory 'how-did-you-become-a-saint' query. "There are two kinds of sants -- the ones who are born like that, and others who are made into saints. One is a natural product; the other has some kind of chemical injection. You know, the difference between dasseri aam and Fruity," she says as her disciples break into peals of laughter.
She has an answer for everything. When queried on her opinion about the Women's Reservation Bill, she shoots back, "They are talking about one-third reservation for women. But tell me, there are so many sadhvis who are working so hard to spread the message of our religion, is anyone doing anything for them? In so many years, has anyone ever held a meeting of these sadhvis? Inke liye bhi toh kuch karna chahiye (Something needs to be done for them too)."
But she is quick to add, "There should be a bill like this for women. After all, they are not lagging behind in any sense. Things like these are planned by people with a high level of education and sense."
As the conversation winds up, Kalyani Maa philosophises "Tapasya kya hai? Woh mujhko nihaarta rahta hai, main usko nihaarti rehti hoon (What is meditation? It keeps on admiring me, I keep on admiring it)."