How to Spot a Neo-Shiv Bhakt

Pop Culture

How to Spot a Neo-Shiv Bhakt

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When I was travelling through Himachal Pradesh a few years ago, I met a middle-aged man from Chandigarh who had long dreadlocked hair tied into a bun on his head. He owned a little shack in Parvati Valley, where he would entertain white people with stories of India – how it was “the best ever land of boom” and how it’s “always a party, you know”. When he would smoke his pipe, he would lift it to his forehead and say the words “Bam Bholenath” to himself, before taking a deep hit. The white people would ape him one after another as their little way of showing respect to Indian culture.

But this man was no Saivite. He was no travelling Sage with a white beard and saffron robes. He didn’t have a maala around his neck, or a deity set up in a corner of his shack. What he did have, was a giant silver wristwatch, Ray Ban sunglasses, and a neon t-shirt that had the words “Experience the Unknown” written on it. The man’s only talent seemed to be the way he seamlessly inserted the words “boom” and “baba” into any message that he was attempting to convey. Leaving you in a situation where sentences like, “Do you have change for a 500 rupee note”, would turn into, “Baba, baba, boom baba, change baba”?

With all due respect to this man and whatever his religious beliefs are, I’m going to typecast him along with a growing “tribe” of neo-Shiv bhakts, who I will henceforth refer to as “Urban Baba”. These guys don’t wait to get to Haridwar to show their reverence, they do it everywhere they go, with the help of “Shivji ka prasad” and “Iphone 6”. Now, admittedly, the Urban Baba may be a very tiny minority of people – you probably won’t find one shopping at Inorbit mall – but that doesn’t mean we don’t talk about them. (Hear that, government, we’re going to talk about minorities). In fact, what better time to talk about them, than this, the day of Maha Shivratri?

One very strong trait, but not necessarily the main identifier of the Urban Baba, is his tendency to talk about the effect of full moon parties on the soul. This line is usually delivered in the heart of a city, so the act of seeing a full moon in the sky (this happens once a month) seems a whole lot grander. Another prominent feature of the neo-bhakt is their ability to bend over into an almost full squat with one hand on the heart, when passing an object to a person on the right. The more it looks like they are worshipping said object, the better they are at being Urban Babas.

A still rarer trait — congratulations if you spot this one — is suffering from headaches in the region where your third eye should theoretically lie. Alas, science has not yet found a cure for this.

The Urban Baba is also more likely to get their hair dreadlocked by the local parlour aunty than any other person, and has a significantly higher chance of letting out a smoke burp at a social “Prasad” gathering. An urban baba might also feel the urge to book early-bird tickets for a Maha Shivratri party that starts at midnight in the middle of fuck-knows-where, Goa.

The babas take Sravanam to the “next level” when they travel to Goa on the weekends they manage to get off from their jobs as *insert cool-sounding thing here*.

An important thing to remember about the Urban Baba at this point is that he doesn’t have to necessarily follow all of the traits mentioned above. He could have any number of those characteristics and still be a regular, religious guy. What really sets these babas apart from the rest is their routine.

According to legendary reference book, there are three ways to attain the grace of Lord Shiv. To the Urban Babas’ credit, they do a great job of covering all three. The first is the Mananam, which requires you to chant Shiv mantras, or contemplate upon the grandness of Shiv. The Urban Baba practices Mananam much like a bad guy in a Sylvester Stallone movie, by muttering “Boom” under his breath when a friend is about to partake of “Shiv prasad”. If the baba himself is the first person to partake of the Prasad in that particular circle, he will usually say “Bam Bam Bhole”, or “Boom Shankar”, while placing the “prasad” on his third eye. He may also contemplate Shiva’s greatness with a few neat leather armbands, or a jhola made out of hemp.

The second form of reverence is Sravanam, and involves listening to other views on the concept of Saivism. Once again, the Urban Baba has this covered in his own way; by listening to thumping psychedelic music in his Wagon R with four other friends. This psychedelic music, which has probably been produced by a white person, usually involves the words “Shankar” or “Om Shiva” chanted repeatedly at 160-180 bpm. The babas take Sravanam to the “next level” when they travel to Goa on the weekends they manage to get off from their jobs as *insert cool-sounding thing here*. When Urban Babas indulge in this form of Sravanam it’s best not to get in their way, or “kill the vibe”.

The last form of reverence, the Kirtanam, involves singing in glory of Lord Shiva. It’s basically, a bhajan. But the Urban Baba is not your everyday bhajan-singing sort of guy. He will usually practice Kirtanam when he is travelling to an Urban Baba hotspot, such as Parvati Valley, Goa, or Hampi. There in the company of other devotees, he will sit in a circle and talk about “prasad” for hours till it’s dinner time, and he can move on to talking about food.

When the above mentioned circle gets a little bit too lit, the bhajan session escalates slowly into a rave, where the Urban Babas get a chance to show off their mad tandav skills and loose harem pants. They then proceed to step on the toes of all curious bystanders and other tandavers, while shaking their fists wildly at a DJ. The next day they will call their friends and refer to this destructive dance form as “full-power baba! Boom baba… Psy baba?”

This is the true essence of the neo-Shiv Bhakt. He might not go on a pilgrimage, or read any scripture, but he looks a lot like Shiv and he’s willing to try damn hard. In fact if society would be a little more accepting of him, he might just paint his body blue, and lie down on a mountain for a few years looking for a girl named Parvati. To quote directly from a wise Urban Baba I once knew — “Boom till I die, baba”.