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Who are they?
The Gosain are traditionally a community of religious mendicants – homeless, wandering ascetics who have renounced material pleasures to become a sadhu (saint) and live by collecting alms and looking after temples. They are dedicated to the worship of Shiva, god of destruction who is also a god of regeneration and sexuality in the Hindu trinity, the Trimurti. Not all Gosain are ascetics.
The Gosain are a community that can be found all over India, but live in larger numbers in the central and northern states, particularly in the Gonda and Gorakhpur districts of Uttar Pradesh.
They have names like Karangar, Hirapuri and Chanchalbharathi. Gosain (Sanskrit for master of cows or also master of senses) are followers of a brilliant sage who lived around the ninth century AD. Ten religious orders or sects make up the Gosain which is why they are also called Dasnami Gosain (ten named Gosain). The ten orders are: Giri (peak or top of a hill), Puri (a holy city beside the sea in Orissa), Parbat (mountain), Sagar (ocean), Ban or Van (forest), Tirtha (pilgrimage), Bharathi (goddess of speech), Saraswati (goddess of learning), Aranya (forest) and Ashrama (retreat).
These names may perhaps refer to the different places where members of each order pursued their spiritual enlightenment or may be derived from the names of ten disciples of Shankaracharya who is said to have founded the sects. The different orders have bases at various shrines. The Saraswati, Bharathi and Puri orders are supposedly attached to the famous monastery at Sringeri in the state of Karnataka; the Tirtha and Ashrama to a monastery at Dwarka in Gujarat; the Ban and Aranya to the Govardhan monastery in Puri; and the Giri, Parbat and Sagar to the sacred shrine of Badrinath, in the Himalayas.
Where these ascetic people originated is unknown. However, their literature indicates five main possibilities:
- they are descendants of Guru Dattareya
- they are born of ten qualities of Shiva
- they are descended from Shankaracharya,
- they are descendants of ten rishis (sages)
- They found expression in the sound of the sacred syllable Om, which is presumed to contain incredible power and mystery and the essence of the four Vedas – the earliest holy Hindu texts. The Gosain also believe that they have descended from a celestial sage called Sandhya, who was Brahma’s teacher (the creator god in the Hindu trinity from whom Brahmin’s have originated) and because of this, the Gosain claim a higher ritual status than the Brahmin though they do not wear a genoi – the sacred thread.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Over the centuries, the ascetic lifestyles of the Gosain have undergone radical changes with most of them leading settled married lives like other Hindus. Ascetic, mendicants and caretakers of Shiva temples are in the minority now as many have turned to agriculture, raising cows for milk, industrial labour, government service, business and trade. These traditional ascetics wear ochre robes and bead necklaces supposedly worn by Shiva and are strictly celibate. They smear ash in three horizontal lines on their foreheads to represent a trident, Shiva’s weapon. Some have sacred marks of their sect on their arms and chest.
Their status, however, has dropped due to changing food habits and charges of drug use. Since the Gosain belong to heterogeneous religious orders, they are generally not regarded as a pure caste group by Indian society whereas the Brahmin caste is considered pure because they have not intermarried with other castes. The other non practicing Gosain respect and applaud those who have chosen to follow the path of asceticism.
The Gosain are a landowning community except in the states of Punjab and Maharashtra where the majority are landless. In Punjab they are mainly engaged in begging, casual labour, rickshaw-pulling and carpentry. Some are weavers and embroiderers.
The Gosain used to be strict vegetarians in keeping with their beliefs. Their eating habits have changed drastically. Their staple diet is grain, lentils and vegetables, along with all meat with the exception of beef (especially among men). Smoking marijuana, opium and hashish is traditionally common and alcohol is becoming popular. Men also smoke bidis, cigarettes and the hookah.
Formal education is encouraged among boys. The literacy rate among women is well below that of men. Family planning and the use of both modern and traditional medicine is used by them. Marriages are commonly arranged by family members. The Gosain are monogamous. Adult marriages have almost completely replaced child marriages. Marriage symbols for women are toe rings, bangles and vermilion. Dowries are common though not as strictly demanded as by other castes. If the first wife is barren, the husband is allowed to remarry and retain his first wife. Divorce is granted on grounds of adultery, chronic mental illness, impotence and cruelty. Divorcee remarriage is permitted and remarriage of widows and widowers is socially sanctioned. The remarriage of a widow or divorced woman is solemnized in a simple ceremony.
Traditionally, only the sons inherit property and succession passes to the eldest son. Inheritance by daughters under modern laws is routinely surrendered in favour of their brothers in the interests of maintaining cordial family relations. Women have a lower status than men. As a rule, the community does not approve of women working and earning salaries. Hence, they largely have roles only in the social, ritual and religious spheres. Many Gosain women strictly observe the custom of purdah (veil) in the family.
The Gosain have a repertoire of folk tales concerning Shiva and his consort Parvati. On special occasions there is folk dancing and songs. Folk songs are sung by both men and women and played on a variety of musical instruments like the flute, pipe and a variety of drums.
The Gosain have organisations at national, regional and local level that look after the socio-economic, educational and religious needs of the community. In villages, a traditional community council is elected by consensus. These act as judges, settling disputes related to marriage, divorce and other domestic issues. The guilty are boycotted or fined, the fine contributing to a Shiva temple or a community feast.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Gosain are devout Hindus who make offerings to all the Hindu gods and goddesses. Shiva is given more prominence in worship as he is their tutelary deity and they are his disciples. All Gosain households worship the Shivalinga (phallic symbol of Shiva) as their principal object of devotion. Shiva is also worshipped in many other of his 1008 forms.
In addition, each clan worships its female and male clan deities called mata (mother) and bhagwan (god). In some regions the clan deity is an ancestral god and offerings are made to the deity at every dark fortnight. They believe in evil spirits and perform ceremonies to exorcise malevolent spirits in order to appease their god.
The Gosain visit all major Hindu pilgrimages that are considered sacred. Four of these are where the Kumbh Mela is held every three years by rotation. The Gosain undertake a purification pilgrimage to them. The religious fair at Pushkar (a shrine near Ajmer in Rajasthan devoted to Brahma) is also very important. A place called Bibasa in Rajasthan is of special significance since it houses a famous temple of Gulabgir, an enlightened saint from the community. Also, temples of Shyamji, another sage who is especially venerated, are found in many places. The Gosain observe all Hindu festivals as Holi (spring festival of colours) and Diwali (festival of lights), but Maha Shivaratri, or great night of Shiva which celebrates the destruction and regeneration of the universe, has a special significance for all Gosain.
Most of the Gosain except those residing in Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Bihar, bury their dead. However, due to scarcity of space, in cities the bodies are burned. Burial is unlike most other Hindus who practice cremation. The dead are buried in a seated position facing north towards the Kailash peak in the Himalayas which is believed to be the heavenly abode of Shiva. The dead body is invariably clad in a saffron cloth with white underwear and is carried to the graveyard in the upright posture. Death pollution is observed for a specified period and a funeral feast is held to mark the end of it.
What Are Their Needs?
The Gosain are Shiva devotees who are deliberate in their attempt to find peace and contentment in God and are looking for redemption in living a life of denial and self inflicted hardship.