When I was six, my parents gave me three books by Rudyard Kipling. There was The Jungle Book, and a book called Stalky and Company which was a fictionalized account of Kipling’s teen years in an English “public school” which was actually a private boarding school. My mother had been the Akela in a Cub Scout pack in Holland and she was encouraging me to join a local Cub pack. The Cubs and the scouting movement in England and Canada used the Jungle Book as their organizational metaphor. (Mowgli was raised by wolves in the Jungle Book, and Cub Scouts are wolf cubs).
The third and best one was Kim, the story of an Anglo-Irish orphan abandoned in Northern India, who lives on the street and becomes recruited into the Great Game of military and political spying, while also finding his own integrity in acting as a helper, disciple and friend to an elderly Tibetan Buddhist monk on a pilgrimage in India to seek the River that sprang forth where the Buddha’s arrow fell. Kim is a rich, complex and enjoyable novel by an undervalued writer, and I have re-read it several times.
In the book, we find several encounters with fakirs. Fakir has a rich sound to an English-speaking listener. It sounds like faker, and it sounds like an obscenity. In the Oxford World Classic Edition of Kim it is spelled faquir and explained in a footnote referring to a religious mendicant, properly a Muslim but including other ascetics, such as Hindu Saddhus. Kipling and his character Kim see a clear distinction between true holy men, like Kim’s Lama, and a variety of yogis (holy men) and pundits (learned men) and other self-serving and corrupted religious characters that they encounter.
Dictionary definitions of fakir inform us that it has an Arabic root, in the word for poverty, and that it refers to the voluntary practice of poverty within the Sufi tradition. It goes back to the early middle ages and corresponds to the radical poverty of St. Francis and his followers in European Christianity. The religious traditions of voluntary poverty inform and inspire socialism, the Christian social gospel, and modern liberation theology. It also seems to inform the creation of communes and alternative communities and movements for voluntary simplicity in modern living, such as Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity books and teachings.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary brings us closer to Kipling’s observations:
The term is also used, however, to refer to itinerant Indian conjurers and alleged god-men who travel from village to village and perform “miracles” such as materializing vibhuti (holy ash) or jewelry. They do other conjuring stunts such as walking on hot coals, laying on a bed of nails, eating fire, sticking their hands in boiling ‘oil’, piercing their faces with long needles, putting large hooks through the flesh of their backs attached to heavy objects which they pull. Some conjurers are even said to levitate or to have performed the famous Indian rope trick.
I think there are many fakirs in our time and place. I include many inspirational/motivational speakers and writers, personal coaches, self proclaimed counsellors, therapists, and healers, teachers of personal growth, leaders of cults and vendors of enlightenment.
It has been said that modern writers and thinkers see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants. I don’t mean to imply that the evolution of ideas and culture is progressive or that we are being taken anywhere on the wave of history. I think modern writers and thinkers are able to work with the wisdom of the past in their own work. This gives them a new vantage point, and of course it gives them the opportunity to appropriate terms and ideas from the great traditions.
I believe that modern fakirs have been able to strip mine the religious, spiritual, philosophical and scientific traditions of many cultures to manufacture a variety of pleasing psycho-spiritual stories. Some of the fakirs are true pilgrims, devoted to finding God or enlightenment. However many of them are selling junk, for their own financial gain or to gratify their inner child’s need to be the center of attention.
I see a powerful and healthy tension in the word. I would like to use it as a critical tool, rather than as an insult, but I don’t plan to walk on eggshells.