Holy Madness and Insanity

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Eccentrics have always been subject to ridicule by mainstream society, while more serious divergence from the social norm has predictably led to accusations of insanity. The holy madmen of the East, including the Fools for Christ’s Sake, occasionally anticipated society’s classification and condemnation. They called themselves “mad.”

From the perspective of the ordinary mind, the traditional approaches to the sacred can indeed look not only odd or bizarre but quite insane. This is especially true today where there is a much sharper distinction between the sacred and the profane than in the past. We apply the label “oddball,” and worse, to the person who voluntarily renounces the luxuries of our consumer society—who refuses to own property, abstains from alcohol and meat, hugs trees, and marches in protest of war or nuclear power stations. If, on top of that, we find out that he or she has visions, we are quite ready to certify him or her insane.

It is true that when we look at crazy adepts like Drukpa Kunley or Nityananda, we see phenomenal feats of renunciation. But we also see behavior that, certainly in the eyes of a psychiatrist, at times borders on the neurotic, if not psychotic. Some of these holy fools have in fact wondered about their own sanity. The saintly Ramakrishna, teacher of the world-famous Swami Vivekananda, is a case in point. For a period of time he ceremonially worshipped his own genitals, and on other occasions he installed himself on the altar of the temple where he served as head priest.

Such behavior is certainly not “normal.” Nor is sitting on garbage heaps or sexually fondling women and girls, as has been reported of several contemporary Hindu adepts. When the avadhuta proclaims himself mad, should we take him at his word? Insanity is a loaded concept, and clinical textbooks notwithstanding, there is no consensus among psychiatrists about exactly what it is. We also know, certainly since Thomas Szasz’s incisive writings, that the label “insane” has frequently been used as an ideological weapon by which nonconformists can effectively be silenced.

Psychotics tend to be dysfunctional individuals who, moreover, can be potentially dangerous to their surroundings. Now, judged by ordinary standards, many of the world’s holy fools fit the description of a dysfunctional human being. They do not care to make sense. By their own admission, they are dangerous to the average individual who bases his or her life on rationality, order, predictability, and stability.

Yet, the holy fools are filled with a higher purpose, which belies the charge of insanity. When we examine their eccentric lives more closely, we find that they do make sense. Their madness is a self-chosen form of saying No to the ways of the world, which appear mad to them. It is, of course, always possible that a particular holy fool is not only metaphorically mad but shows actual signs of neurosis or psychosis. Religion, like politics, has always offered sanctuary to unstable individuals.

In my view, the history of holy madness does indeed include fools who were not merely God seekers but also suffering from mental instability. I also believe that this fact does not necessarily diminish their saintliness, though it puts it in perspective.

Regardless of their personal problems and the questionable moral status of some of their actions, the holy fools are a constant reminder that our perception of reality is largely a matter of choice, and that our choices are not necessarily the best we can make. Their challenge may be passive, as in the case of the Fools for Christ’s Sake, or it may come as a deliberate onslaught, as with that arch enemy of conventionality Drukpa Kunley.

The holy fools stop us in our tracks, which is exactly their intention. They confront us with alternative values and attitudes and thus with an alternative definition of reality. They have always been only reluctantly accommodated by their own cultures, however tolerant their fellow citizens may have been toward religious eccentrics. Yet, the fact that they have persisted in many different societies and religious communities throughout the ages may indicate that they have an integral social function to fulfill. Perhaps, their dissenting voices need to be heard for the good of the conforming majority. I believe that our era is the poorer for its dearth of holy fools.

Source: “Holy Madness and Insanity,” from The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, by Georg Feuerstein

Photo by Vincent Li

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