MENDICANCY IN INDIA.
BY C. D. NAYAR, Esq.
To those who have studied the Indian Society in all its varied aspects, the one fact that will naturally puzzle them is the existence of mendicancy to a great extent. Western Nations have often expressed surprise at the prevalence of mendicancy in India. Feeding of the poor is a peculiar trait in the system of the Hindu Charity, and Hindu philosophy upholds the system. There is a mistaken impression among many that begging followed from destitution and poverty. In an Agricultural country like India where the population is supported by Agricultural Industry and where a system of joint family obtains, there is not much scope for the growth of destitution and poverty. It is true that in Western countries begging is considered to be a result of pauperism; but in India where the people in strict pursuance of the tenets of their religion, "ate, walked and slept Religion," it is no matter for surprise that begging should exist almost as an institution. It will thus be seen that in India begging has a sort of spiritual origin, and is not so usually followed as a profession. Hindu Sastras tell us the accounts of many philosophers who despised the pleasures of the world and took to begging. Even God Siva of the Hindu Trinity is said to have taken to begging as a reparation for some of his sins. I have often noticed the Bhikshu, who begged from door to door, being revered and adored by the orthodox Hindus; and it is even believed that he conferred a favor on him of whom he begs alms by so doing. To give alms is, according to the teachings of the Hindu religion, a very meritorious act. This accounts for the large number of pilgrims and Sanyasins we come across in India. Of course, this feeling has also given rise to a class of sham mendicants who go about the country parts in disguise and make a dishonest living at the expense of credulous Hindus. These are the so-called professional mendicants who have become a nuisance to society at large and they deserve no charity – in their case it will only be charity misplaced. It must be on account of the instance of this class of professional mendicants who pester everyone by their importunate requests that the Western Nations are led to doubt the sincerity of even the religious mendicants who, as a rule, 'want little below' and who have no other desire than to pass their days in prayers and meditation. There are many kinds of religious mendicants and of these the Gosains form an important class on account of their great piety and their utter disregard for everything worldly. To me the Gosain has always appeared to be the very ideal of perfect humanity. Some are under the impression that the general run of the Gosains are immoral: this is not a fact. The Gosains generally spend their life as mere nomads. They travel from one place to another carrying with them all their worldly goods which consists of torn clothes and one or two cooking vessels. I propose in this article to give a short account of these Gosains in illustration of my foregoing remarks on mendicancy in India.
The Gosains, as a set of religious mendicants, owe their existence to Sri Sankara Acharya, the great South Indian Reformer who was born in a small village named Kalady in the Kunnattur Taluk in Travancore. Sankara Acharya lived a Sanyasin throughout his life. Regarding the chief events of his personal history we know very little. It has been mentioned that it was he who brought about this system of renouncing worldly life and living the life of an Ascetic. "His philosophy – based as it is entirely on the fundamental axioms of the eternal revelation, the Sruti or the primitive Wisdom – religion as Buddha from a different point of view had before based His … finds itself in the middle ground between the too exuberantly veiled metaphysics of the orthodox Brahmins and those of the Gautama, which, stripped in their exotic garb of every soul-vivifying hope, transcendental aspiration and symbol appear in their cold wisdom like crystalline icicles the skeletons of the primeval truths of Esoteric Philosophy." The above is the teaching of Sri Sankara in a nut-shell as it were, and we have a clear illustration of the same in the life of a Gosain which term, according to an old writer, has been defined to be a corruption Goswami which literally means Master of the Passions. It is an undoubted fact that the Gosain is possessed of sufficient self-control as to resist all attacks of worldly temptations. There are some Gosains who usually go about the streets calling out at the top of their voices Sitha Ram – Ram Sita (this is their universal prayer) and I am not one of those who appreciate the ways of this class of Gosains. There are others who are the real Gosains and they form but a microscopic minority. You can know the real Gosains by sight – their faces would show the unmistakable signs of piety and wisdom. Tradition has it that Sri Sankara Acharya founded this sect of mendicants in the ninth century A.D. He had four prominent disciples – Nira Thrithi Acharya, Sringa Rishi, Prithivi Acharya and Padma Acharya. The first of these disciples Nira Thrithi Acharya had three disciples – Giri, Sagra and Parvata. The Second disciple had another three disciples – Puri, Saraswathi and Bharathi. The third disciple had two who were known as Thirth and Asrama. And the fourth had two viz. Vana and Arnaya. Thus there were four chief disciples who in their turn had ten disciples, and all of them were practically under the directions of their principal Guru Sri Sankara. These latter ten disciples were known as the ten and each of these founded a sect after Acharya to each of the four following monasteries…one at Bhadrinath in the North, the second at Jagnath in the East, the third at Sringeri in the South and the fourth at Dwarakai in the West – he founded in different parts of India. This is known as the "Cenobitic System" established by Sri Sankara and it plays an important part in the origin of the Gosains. The "Ten" to which allusion has already been made in this article acted as supreme directors in all matters connected with the internal administration of the mutts or monasteries which are now presided over by a Guru or Mahant as he is called. The title has nothing extraordinary about it, for, the Guru or Mahant is only a title which testifies to one's seniority in regard to his piety, his devotion to religious habits and other attendant virtues that go make up the life of a holy Sanyasin. This is a peculiarly enviable position that cannot be attained by age or money. The seniority of a Mahant is gauged by the depth of his knowledge in Esoteric philosophy. A Mahant has complete control over his disciples under him and has the right to expel any one of them from the Mutt for proven misbehavior. These disciples it is that in after years themselves into Gosains. While in the Mutt, that is to say during the stage of incubation, they are made to live under certain prescribed rules, which is done with a view to create in them a feeling of supreme contempt for all worldly pleasures.
The usual rule is – and it has been established by custom – that any one may become a Goasin, be he Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya, or Sudra. No distinction of sects is observed, both males and females being admitted into the order. In the case of minors, permission should be obtained from their parents. There have been many instances in which small children were offered to the Mutt to be brought up as Gosains. The form of initiation being to secure the permission of the Mahant or Guru of the particular Mutt. The remaining portion of the initiation is to be completed by the disciples who, on securing permission of the Mahant or Guru, get the head of the man clean shaven – a clean shaven head (munninam) is one of the emblems of a Sanyasin – and gives him a bath. The man is then made to prostrate before the Guru who in his turn blesses him forthwith the man is metamorphosed into a Gosain. There is another difficulty he has to remain a Gosain on probation for a time. During that period he is kept under close surveillance and the feast misbehavior on his part is dealt with severely. He is made to undergo starvation and all other sorts of miseries that usually be set the path of a wandering pilgrim. Thus after spending an year or two in the Mutt on probation, he has to pass through certain ordeals of an insignificant nature. At the end of the probation period, a ceremony called Bijanhom ceremony is to be performed. It is this ceremony that gives him the finishing touch. One other important fact that has to be noticed in this connection is their dress. Both the males and females are made to dress similarly, a head-gear, a waist coat and a cloth respectively. This similarity of dress is an express injunction of Sankara Acharya and no one dare break it. Thus far, we have given an account of the Gosains and we believe it gives a fairly good idea of the institution of mendicancy in India. All Gosains have an innate respect for Sri Sankara Acharya. As enjoined by the great Reformer they observe no distinctions of caste. They have no worldly cares and they go about the country preaching religion and ethics to the great lay people. In this respect they are generally compared to the great wanderers of the Upanishadic and Buddhist sages. Some of the Mutts, it is true, do not fulfill all the objects with which they have been established; but most of them are true to their faith. By way of concluding we might point out that true Gosains are those who prove to us the utter hollowness of wealth and whose position a David Hemsley of Marie Corieli's creation might well envy.
The Mysore Review.