Fakir is the Arabic term for “poor person,” but when used in a religious context, it refers to a person who renounces all material wealth and riches out of religious devotion.
It is a term used by Muslims to describe nomadic beggars who have abandoned material possessions and placed their life in Allah’s hands, invoking the Prophet’s words, “al-fakr fakhri,” meaning “poverty is my pride.” Similarities between the fakir and the Christian friar are readily apparent.
In spite of this definition, the word “fakir” is commonly used in European languages to refer to Indian ascetics, who are typically portrayed as strange individuals who lie on beds of nails or perform other such bizarre rituals. These particular Indian mystics are more appropriately known as sadhus, yet both are frequently referred to as fakirs.
There are two types of Islamic fakirs: those who are “within the law” (ba shar) and those who are “outside the law” (be shar).
The be shar, although still identifying as Muslims, have always lived more freely than the ba shar, who have always adhered rigorously to Islamic teachings. A somewhat similar concept to the fakir are the famed Sufi dervishes.
Another name for ba shar fakirs is that of saliks, a word that describes a traveler on the path to heaven.
Both the ba shar and be shar fakirs are further subdivided into many orders, all of which can trace their lineage back to either Abu Bakr or Ali, the first and fourth “descendants” or caliphs of the prophet Mohammed.
These fraternities were first established around 770 A.D. They appear to have been founded by religious zealots to preserve the continuation and spread of the prophet’s teachings, but in a more social, person-to-person way rather than a preacher teaching his followers.
It was common for an order of fakirs to consist exclusively of people from a single secular profession, such as fishermen or camel riders. These organizations appeared all throughout the Muslim world and required their members to engage in daily individual prayer as well as come together for weekly prayer gatherings known as dhikrs.
The number of be shar orders was likewise great, and they frequently practiced self-mutilation and asceticism, sometimes taking such practices to extreme lengths. The most famous be shar order was started by Zinda Shah Murdar, whose temple is in Makanpur, India.
The Indian sadhu is a holy man who is frequently a wandering beggar, peddler, or miracle worker. Like the Muslim fakir, the sadhu is “poor in the eyes of God,” but is a much more active participant in the daily life of a community.
While sexual rituals may play a significant role in the lives and rituals of some sadhus, the majority adhere to strict asceticism and abstinence; members of one sect, for example, wear an iron ring on the penis to demonstrate that they have completely overcome their sexual urges.
Instead of a meditative, passive abandonment of the material world, the sadhus practice tapas, or “active asceticism,” the relentless mortification of the flesh. Their goal is to gain merit as well as supernatural or spiritual abilities.
Some submerge themselves in water up to their waists for extended periods of time, while others travel the nation and seek to bathe in as many holy rivers as they can before they pass away.
Some sadhus constantly move from place to place, while others sit in the same position for years on end— until insects cover all their limbs and birds build nests in their hair.
Some sadhus actually do sleep on beds of nails, while others engage in additional types of self-mutilation, such as clenching their fists and never relaxing them again or letting their fingernails grow to extreme lengths.
Ashes are used by sadhus to cover themselves, either in part or whole, since they symbolize the primordial substance that is present in everything and is only revealed through the process of burning.
A sadhu can often be identified by his distinctive possessions, such as his staff, which is commonly adorned by an image of a skull, a trident, or a phallus; his crutch, which he uses to hold his chin or arm while meditating and his body when he is buried; his begging bowl (though some sadhus say begging is now allowed); and his tongs, which he uses to tend his ceremonial fire and also used as a clapping instrument during magic incantations.
Many sadhus earn some money through magic and witchcraft, both good and bad. Some tell fortunes and interpret dreams, while others create and sell charms or magical amulets.
It is also important to consider that, in a country with a large population that has not yet been significantly impacted by modern technology, religion will inevitably seem very different when compared to the grand monasteries and cathedrals seen in Western Europe.
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