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A fakir is a Muslim or Hindu mendicant who travels between villages reciting scripture and performing various physical feats. In some regions, fakirs are a topic of controversy, as some people consider them to be mystics with holy powers, while others suggest that they are simply magicians, using a variety of tricks to hoodwink people. Whether fakirs are spiritual messengers or simply magicians, they have quite an air of mystique, and many people have become fascinated by the fakir community.
The term “fakir” is Arabic for “poor man,” and fakirs originally arose in the Muslim Sufi community. These Muslim mystics took a vow of poverty to bring themselves closer to God, studying various Islamic texts and Sufi literature. As part of their ascetic practice, make fakirs also engaged in physical deprivation and other physical tests such as walking on coals or allowing themselves to be buried alive. Some fakirs also danced, sang, and engaged in performances to express their religious devotion.
In India, the term came to be applied to Hindu mystics as well, since they also engage in various physical challenges and recite scripture. As a result, the term has come to be used to refer to practitioners in both the Muslim and Hindu traditions, though these fakirs obviously believe very different things, and their practices are different as a result. Whether Muslim or Hindu, many fakirs are capable of demonstrating incredible physical feats which have made their mendicant lifestyles famous.
There are all sorts of reasons to incorporate physical hardship and challenge into religious practice. Many religions have a tradition of asceticism which is designed to bring people closer to God, for example, while some traditions believe that physical feats are a demonstration of holiness. In these traditions, the feats of a fakir are pointed to as proof that God exists, and that by applying oneself, one can become a holy man, potentially communicating directly with God and being gifted with the ability to do things which would otherwise be extremely painful, impossible, or simply deadly, like lying on a bed of nails.
Critics of the fakir tradition have demonstrated that many of the feats performed by fakirs can be performed by anyone, with a little bit of training. In some parts of India, groups of skeptics actually travel in the countryside in an attempt to debunk fakirs by showing people how they perform their tricks. However, some people prefer not to know the secrets of the fakirs, just as many Westerners suspend their disbelief during magic shows, because physical feats and sleight of hand can simply be enjoyable and amazing to watch.
I'm not sure if they would be titled as fakirs, but I know that some Hindus and Buddhists also practice things like walking on hot coals, lying on nails or fasting for many days.
Even regular people do such things sometimes hoping that they will get something in return from God. It's sort of like a pact. For example, if a man's daughter has fallen really sick and the family is unsure what to do because she is not responding to treatment; the man might walk on hot coals or fast until she is better.
I think what lies behind all of these practices is belief. Fasting or burning your feet does not heal someone, the belief that they will heal, does. The practice is kind of a test for that individual and a plea to the Divine for help.
In Turkey, the word "fakir" just means "poor." It doesn't relate to ascetics in any way. Anyone who is poor is referred to as a "fakir." We must have picked up the word from Arabic and used it in this way.
Considering how much poverty there is in the world today, it's hard to believe that people would willingly deprive and challenge themselves like this. I understand that it can be done for spiritual gain because many religions also incorporate things like fasting as part of their practice. But why would you want to hurt yourself physically for entertainment or money?
I also heard that fakirs don't actually feel pain because they have disciplined their mind and body that way. I just don't understand how that works exactly.