FAKIR (from Arabic faqir, "poor"), a term equivalent to Dervish (q.v.) or Mahommedan religious mendicant, but which has come to be specially applied to the Hindu devotees and ascetics of India. There are two classes of these Indian Fakirs, (1) the religious orders, and (2) the nomad rogues who infest the country. The ascetic orders resemble the Franciscans of Christianity. The bulk lead really excellent lives in monasteries, which are centres of education and poor-relief; while others go out to visit the poor as Gurus or teachers. Strict celibacy is not enforced among them. These orders are of very ancient date, owing their establishment to the ancient Hindu rule, followed by the Buddhists, that each "twice-born" man should lead in the woods the life of an ascetic. The second class of Fakirs are simply disreputable beggars who wander round extorting, under the guise of religion, alms from the charitable and practising on the superstitions of the villagers. As a rule they make no real pretence of leading a religious life. They are said to number nearly a million. Many of them are known as "Jogi," and lay claim to miraculous powers which they declare have become theirs by the practice of abstinence and extreme austerities. The tortures which some of these wretches will inflict upon themselves are almost incredible. They will hold their arms over their heads until the muscles atrophy, will keep their fists clenched till the nails grow through the palms, will lie on beds of nails, cut and stab themselves, drag, week after week, enormous chains loaded with masses of iron, or hang themselves before a fire near enough to scorch. Most of them are inexpressibly filthy and verminous. Among the filthiest are the Aghoris, who preserve the ancient cannibal ritual of the followers of Siva, eat filth, and use a human skull as a drinking-vessel. Formerly the fakirs were always nude and smeared with ashes; but now they are compelled to wear some pretence of clothing. The natives do not really respect these wandering friars, but they dread their curses.
See John Campbell Oman, The Mystics, Ascetics and Saints of India (1903), and Indian Census Reports.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)