In the East, holy beings are often referred to as ‘saints’.
The term ‘saint’ (referring to holy beings) has different connotations in different cultures. In Catholic Church a saint is someone who has been canonized by the church. It is confirmed to have performed miracles. We also use the term metaphorically in the West when we say, “She’s a real saint,” or “That was a saintly thing to do”. We don’t usually mean that they were canonized by the church. But that they are unusually good or loving or particularly self-sacrificing people.
In India someone might be called a saint who is a sattvic individual, someone who is pure and oriented toward the light. A good person connected to the spirit. A saint can also be a liberated being who continues to take birth to relieve the suffering of other beings. This is what Buddhists call a bodhisattva.
India also has an ancient tradition of yogis and rishis, or forest sages, who were the living sources of spiritual life and knowledge. These great souls, or mahatmas, laid the foundation of India’s spiritual culture thousands of years ago as recorded in the Vedas. Some even entered the social and political arena, like the king Dhruva and Shiva-ji and more recently Mahatma Gandhi.
There are also holy beings who act as gurus, spiritual guides, and preceptors. This is a tradition much attenuated in modern urban society, but one that is still intertwined in Indian culture and persists to this day.
Holy men are often called baba, a Hindi term meaning “father” or “grandfather” but used as an honorific, for example, Neem Karoli Baba. Beyond all classification is a rarified class of great saints or yogis who have reached the pinnacle of consciousness, fully realized beings, the perfected ones, or siddhas. People revere and seek counsel from these great saints and go on pilgrimage to seek them out.
We in the West lack this ingrained tradition of seeking out holy beings, though doubtless they are present here too.
I have met some: a car mechanic in Boston, a Taos artist, Native American elders, Zen Buddhists, Sufis, artists, chemists, musicians, healers, and poets. Some were wonderful teachers. Most still had karma (the result of past actions, the laws of cause and effect) they were working out. Each had some aspect of the One shining through, and all were beautiful human beings. This is not to say we Westerners are not truth seekers. Yet we are not a traditional culture like that of the Native Americans. Their deep reverence for their spiritual elders is similar to the way holy beings are woven into the fabric of spiritual life in India.
This contrast was readily apparent to me when I traveled back and forth from Nainital in the Himalayan foothills to New York City. The people from Nainital, at least some of them, identify with their souls. In that part of India the world is still viewed from the vantage point of the soul. The Himalayan region is different from the plains and has been frequented by yogis and saints for millennia. The people seem simpler, hospitable, and loving, and their traditional culture keeps the stories of realized beings alive. They know they are souls.
In Nainital, people do the dharma of their social role. At the same, time they know their soul is separate from their role.
A sweeper isn’t necessarily just a sweeper, the king isn’t necessarily just a king; they are doing their dharma for that incarnation, while the inner being is also there looking out. From that soul point of view, your karma is your dharma, what you do is part of your inner journey. Your role takes you into your soul. Then you get a chance to stand back and see what in your incarnation is helpful to you as a soul and to others on your trip to God.
Photo credit: KK Sah, the man who first introduced Ram Dass to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. In this photo, he looks out over his hometown of Nainital. Photo by Rachael Fisher.