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Saint, Peace Seeker, Hero by Turns

Neither mud nor dung slows the Rolling Baba on his Indian journey toward eternal bliss.

June 01, 2004|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

HODAL, India — Barreling down a sizzling-hot road, in a cloud of diesel fumes and dust, Ludkan Baba is on a serious roll.

He lies flat on the ground, turning himself over and over like a runaway log, limbs flailing as he bumps across potholes, splashes through mud puddles and falls deeper into a spiritual trance.

Like any sadhu, or Hindu ascetic, he undertakes severe penance to liberate his soul from reincarnation's endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Stretched out in the middle of the road, rolling hour after hour, mile after mile through crowds and heavy traffic, he is making his trip to eternal bliss.

But this is no ordinary holy roller. He is also on a mission to bring peace to the world. His devotion, and alms-raising power, has earned him several disciples, many admirers and the title Ludkan Baba -- the Rolling Saint.

He has rolled thousands of miles in the last 19 years, turning round and round so many millions of times that just pondering the thought can make your head spin.

Yet to the 55-year-old sadhu, the constant turning is refreshing. He says he feels no pain. And except for a few blisters from rolling at high noon along gritty asphalt in 110-degree heat, his taut skin is baby-smooth.

When he stands, he is barefoot, around 5 feet tall, with a mop of matted black hair and a long black beard flecked with gray. He doesn't look to be carrying more than an ounce of fat on his body.

When he left the road for a midday break recently, the faithful gathered to be healed with his swishes of a peacock-feather broom and sachets of blessed ashes. The sadhu said he had not suffered a single accident or serious injury in nearly two decades of long-distance rolling.

"I move during cyclones, during blazing summers and cold winters," he said. "I think of God, I think of Mother Earth, and then I roll and roll and roll. I don't feel dizzy. I don't consume any food, just tea and cigarettes. At night, I eat fruits, roti [bread], whatever I can lay my hands on."

As a sadhu, the Rolling Baba is a wanderer who survives on alms. In his quest for moksha, or release from the cycle of reincarnation, he must reject the comforts of ordinary life.

But sometimes even a sadhu can't resist a good gadget. One member of the Rolling Baba's small entourage carries a silver clamshell cellphone. So as long as there's a good signal, the Rolling Baba is never out of touch.

He believes God's hand propels him. How else, he asks, could a man spin round and round, along unforgiving ground, for months on end and suffer no injuries?

"All I do is put coconut oil on my hair at night, and even that, only when I feel like it," the Rolling Baba said, between draws on a cigarette. "This is the power of nature, the power of the divine."

He was born Mohan Singh in the northern Indian town of Dungarpur, and as a barefoot boy of 12, he rubbed the hands of a dying boy and saved his life, the Rolling Baba said. After performing that miracle, he said, he went to a temple, renounced the world and became a sadhu.

In 1973, he said, he entered a cave and stayed there, surviving on grass and water for 12 years, until a divine voice told him to start rolling for peace.

His first journey lasted just under 25 miles. On his third trip, in 1994, he rolled about 2,500 miles across India. Today, as he rolls toward Pakistan, the sadhu thinks he might go to Iraq next.

A 17-year-old girl, a disciple whom the Rolling Baba and his entourage call the Young Saint, said she joined his holy journey, or yatra, because she believed the example of his strength through suffering would move the world to be more loving.

"He has so much love within him that even streets -- the same streets that we walk on and which we consider one of the worst places to lie down upon -- become an object of love," the Young Saint said.

"Just like a baby rolls on a mother's lap, similarly this man rolls on the streets. So if he can do this, what is it that prevents others from loving each other?"

This is the Rolling Baba's sixth yatra. He is heading toward the Pakistani city of Lahore, where he hopes to meet President Pervez Musharraf and urge him to reach a lasting peace with India.

So far, the Rolling Baba doesn't have an appointment. He doesn't have a passport, either, or a visa to cross the border. But those are problems for another day, some 380 miles, several weeks and countless rolls away.

"To make passports and obtain a visa is the job of the Indian government," he said. "After all, I am not going there for professional reasons or to further any business interests. I am going there as a messenger of peace. If they want peace, then both nations will give me the chance to carry out my yatra."

The Rolling Baba began his 800-mile journey on Jan. 28 at his home in India's central Madhya Pradesh state. When he reached Hodal, a town 50 miles south of New Delhi, India's capital, on Wednesday, he was roughly halfway to his goal.

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