Kumbh Mela festival

Baba Rampuri
Image caption Baba Rampuri zealously guards information about his past life

Amitava Sanyal reports from India's Kumbh Mela, the world's biggest religious gathering, on the stories of three foreigners who have become top Hindu monks.


Sir James Mallinson is perhaps the only baronet to wear dreadlocks.

The fifth baronet of Walthamstow started growing his hair around the time he first travelled to India in 1988.

He had enrolled to study Sanskrit at Oxford University's St Peter's College because his only other option, Chinese, came with a "boring introduction".

At the end of his trip to India, he "fell in" with a group of Hindu monks in Kashmir and became fascinated with their way of life.

Image caption James Mallinson was renamed Jagdish Das by his order

In 1992, Sir James was initiated into a Hindu order with the monastic name of Jagdish Das at Ujjain in central India.

"I was kidnapped by some competing monks who wanted me as their student. Finally it was Ram Balak Das who got me initiated," he says.

Sir James received his doctorate - on a critical translation of a 14th Century Sanskrit text on yoga - in 2002 from Balliol College, Oxford.

In India, when not with Hindu monks, he runs a paragliding business in Bir in the western Himalayas.

Sir James was ordained a mahant, or abbot, of a Hindu religious order in early February at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.

His friend from Eton, actor Dominic West of The Wire fame, had wanted to make a documentary on his work in India.

When Sir James offered his guru some money for the film crew's fortnight-long stay, he was offered the post of mahant.

"The word translates more as a military commander than an abbot," says the Sanskrit scholar.


Valery Victorovich Mintsev had an experience at the age of six that he could not quite articulate.

But it was inspiring enough to make him stand on a rock and tell his puzzled young friends "the ways of the universe".

It took the 46-year-old monk, who is the son of a Ukrainian typographer and Soviet Communist party member, another 10 years to "find the right words".

That was when he came upon the texts of Shankaracharya, an 8th Century Indian philosopher and Hindu revivalist.

Image caption Valery Mintsev met a Hindu monk in 2006 who reinforced his ideas

While studying Cold War politics at the Kiev Higher Naval Political School, a belief that Russians and Indians are descended from the same Aryan ancestors became stronger.

"Why else do we have old Russian places named after Indian deities - like Ram and Sita lakes or Narada mountain?" asks Mr Mintsev.

A 2006 meeting with Pilot Baba, a Hindu monk who got his name because of his former career as a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, reinforced his ideas.

Three years ago, Mr Mintsev was initiated into a Hindu order with the monastic name of Vishnu Dev.

Later this year the Russian monk is planning to put up a Chinese-made, 18m (59ft) bronze statue of Dattatreya, the presiding deity of his sect, at his 1,000-acre retreat situated 600km (373 miles) east of Moscow.

Why did he choose to be a Hindu monk? "I have searched for freedom all my life and I got it in Hindu philosophy. It must be a great connection from a past life," is his explanation.


Baba Rampuri guards his personal history - his life before he came to India from the United States in 1970 - with a fierce zeal.

Not even those who have known him for decades know his real name. What is known is that he came from California.

But when asked to comment on reports that he is the son of a Jewish plastic surgeon, he laughs and says, "maybe I was his daughter who had a sex change."

Image caption The Kumbh festival is the world's largest religious gathering

Whatever his antecedents, Baba Rampuri is today one of the most successful Hindu monks from the US.

Part of his popularity flows from being one of the first Westerners to be initiated into the secretive Juna order of monks, the largest of the 13 powerful sects that control religious affairs at the Kumbh festival.

The publication of his book Autobiography of a Sadhu: A Journey into Mystic India, later added to the mystery.

In 2010, Baba Rampuri was made one of the three abbots of the order's international chapter and today he is one of the very few Hindu monks raising funds through internet-based social media.

He derives his monastic lineage from Keshav Puri, a monk buried outside Multan in Pakistan who is also called Multani Baba or Shamshad Tapa Rez.

"He is called a pir, a Sufi saint. And Muslims wearing black sit with Hindus wearing orange at his memorial meetings," says Baba Rampuri.

So possibly there was an undercurrent of commonness between the faiths that we deny today."

The belief is shared within his order but, like Baba Rampuri's own past, the real history is shrouded in mystery because of a lack of verifiable evidence.

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