If you venture out of Varanasi, India, as I did recently, and you find yourself at the Kali temple just outside of Vindhyachal (as I also did), you might be smitten (or bitten) by the insane amount of monkeys that hang around the temple.
Or you might be smitten (and not bitten) by the Monkey Man. He sits on a perch in a tree and, for a small donation, will bless you with his wand.
It all started about 20 years ago, when the man-who-would-become-the-Monkey-Man was sitting around the temple. He was feeling down on his luck and didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. He had no purpose. His depressive thoughts, though, were interrupted when he saw a young monkey dying. He ran over and fed the monkey some water and it immediately sprang to life. All the other monkeys surrounded the man and began touching him with great reverence.
It was then that he had an epiphany: he was an incarnation of Hanoman, the great Hindu monkey god. He immediately went home and created a costume (complete with a tale) and affixed himself in a tree near the temple. He even transformed his face and jaw to make it more monkey like.
For the last 20 years, the Monkey Man of Vindhyachal has been perched in his tree, blessing those who come to the temple.
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A Rare Meeting with a Holy Woman
Meet Bengali Ma. She's an aghori, part of a rare sect of Hinduism that has a reputation for very bizarre practices. In their belief system, everything is the same, which means they might eat meat but aren't bothered if the meat came from an animal or....a human. They might have sex but it doesn't matter if the person is alive or dead.
They (fortunately) practice away from society and speaking to outsiders is very rare. When I was in Varanasi recently, a professor friend who studies the aghori took me out of the city for a very rare meeting with Bengali Ma, one of the few female aghori.
The first question I wanted to ask was about the unusual way aghori are said to practice. Was it true? Bengali Ma was vague. She said she doesn't do these things. But, she told me, when you're in training, which consists of hanging around cremation grounds for about 10 years and doing ample amounts of mediation, you have to do a lot of strange stuff. "To get to the light," she said, "you have to go through the darkness first."
A friend recently took me out of Varanasi to meet Baba Dinesh. He's an aghori, part of a little known sect of Hinduism that has a reputation for strange practices. One such practice is carrying a skull around with you, using it as a vessel for your food and drink. Baba Dinesh, who has more than a passing resemblance to a certain great German-born theoretical physicist, wasn't holding a skull but in the canopy where we sat, a shelf around the ceiling held some 30 + human skulls.
Why skulls? Baba Dinesh explained: "In any society, death is always something to fear. First you have to understand death, then you can understand life. This is the eternal understanding of reality. And that gives you special power to see the world."
He did not, though, explain his theory of relativity.