In Hinduism, the terms Sadhu, Swami and Sannyasi refer to renunciates and spiritual masters, who have usually left behind all material attachments to live in forests, temples and caves all over India. The word “Sadhu” is the general term for a Hindu ascetic who has given up the pursuit of the first three Hindu goals of life: kama (pleasure), artha (wealth and power), and even dharma (duty), to solely dedicate himself to achieving moksha (liberation) through meditation and contemplation of God. The title Swami literally translates as “owner of oneself,” denoting complete mastery over instinctive and lower urges. Many yogis and gurus (teachers) of the Hindu tradition hold the title of Swami as a sign of respect denoting spiritual accomplishment.
Holy men and women have long played an important role in Indian culture and religious traditions. As a result, there are a variety of Hindu terms used to denote religious mendicants. The most famous terms are “Yogis” (those who practice Yoga), “Gurus” (those who dispel spiritual darkness), “Sadhus” (medicants), “Swamis” (Spiritual Masters), “Rishis” (Seers), and “Sannyasis” (Renunciates). The number of these terms is a sign of the importance of holy men and women in Indian life even today.
Sadhus and Swamis occupy a unique and important place in Hindu society. Vedic textual data suggests that asceticism in India—in forms similar to that practiced by sadhus today—dates back to 1700 B.C.E. Thus, the present-day sadhus of India likely represent the oldest continuous tradition of monastic mystical practice in the world.
Traditionally, becoming a Sannyasi or Sadhu was the fourth and highest stage (asrama) in life in classical Hinduism when men, usually over sixty, would renounce the world, undergoing a ritual death (and symbolic rebirth), in the pursuit of moksha. At least three preconditions needed to be fulfilled before one could take this vow of renunciation—one needed to have completed one’s duties to family and ancestors, one’s hair should have turned gray, and one should have ensured a grandson to continue the obligatory family rituals.
It is estimated that there are several million sadhus in India today. Along with bestowing religious instruction and blessings to lay people, sadhus are often called upon to adjudicate disputes between individuals or to intervene in conflicts within families. Sadhus are also considered to be living embodiments of the divine, and images of what human life, in the Hindu view, is truly about—religious illumination and liberation from the cycle of birth and death (Samsara). It is also thought that the austere practices of the sadhus help to burn off their karma and that of the community at large. Thus, seen as benefiting society, many people help support sadhus with donations. Thus, by and large, sadhus are still widely respected, revered and even feared, especially for their curses. However, reverence of sadhus in India is by no means universal. Indeed, sadhus have often been seen with a certain degree of suspicion, particularly amongst the urban populations of India. In popular pilgrimage cities, posing as a “sadhu” can be a means of acquiring income for beggars who could hardly be considered “devout.” Some sadhus fake holy status to gain respect but they are normally discovered by true sadhus.
Becoming a sadhu
In the classical, Sanskrit literature of the Hindu tradition, becoming a sadhu is described as the fourth stage of life after having lived as a student, householder (where one is married and raises a family), and experimenting with social withdrawal. The rituals of becoming a sadhu vary with sect but in almost all sects, a sadhu is initiated by a guru, who bestows upon the initiate a new name, as well as a mantra, or sacred sound or phrase, which is generally known only to the sadhu and the guru and may be repeated by the initiate as part of meditative practice. (The guru is an important figure in all ascetic traditions, often being equated with the Deity. Service to the guru, even in the most menial of forms, is considered an essential form of spiritual practice.) Initiation may also require a sadhu to symbolically enact his own death and funeral before entering the sadhu vocation. Indeed, ritual initiation in the Dandi sect, a subdivision of the Shaiva Dashnami tradition, involves aspirant sadhus cremating effigies of themselves representing a new life. Sadhus are considered to be dead unto their former lives. However, it is also true that many sects are composed of men that have renounced early in life—often in their late teens or early 20s. In many cases, those who choose the sadhu life are fleeing from family or financial situations that they have found to be untenable. However, in general, becoming a sadhu is recognized as a difficult lifestyle and it is a path followed by few.
The sadhu life
The lives of sadhus in contemporary India vary tremendously. Some sadhus live in ashrams and temples in the midst of major urban centers, in huts on the edges of villages, in caves in the remote mountains. Others live lives of perpetual pilgrimage, moving without ceasing from one town, one holy place, to another. Some sadhus live with one or two disciples; some are solitary, while others live in large, communal institutions. For some, the bonds of sadhu identity, the brotherhood or sisterhood of other ascetics, is very important; for others it is not.
The rigor of the spiritual practices in which contemporary sadhus engage also varies a great deal. Apart from the very few that engage in the most dramatic, striking austerities—standing on one leg for years on end, remaining silent for a dozen years, most sadhus engage in some form of devotional worship, hatha yoga, fasting, etc. Though some ascetic sects possess properties that generate revenue to sustain members, most sadhus rely on the donations of lay people; poverty and hunger are ever-present realities for many sadhus. The ruggedness of the sadhu life deters many from following the sadhu path. Many sadhus have entered the Guinness World Records for feats of marathon endurance including standing for 17 years, staying in the same place for more than two decades, crawling 1400 km and many similar efforts, in their quest to attain liberation.
Thus, Sadhus are not unified in their practices. Some live in the mountains alone for years at a time, eating only bananas. Others walk around with one hand in the air for decades until the fingers withdraw into a stump. Still others partake in the religious consumption of charas, similar to marijuana and contemplate the cosmic nature and presence of God in the smoke patterns.
There are naked Naga (Digambar, or “sky-clad”) sadhus with thick dreadlocks, or Jata, who carry swords. Aghora sadhus may live in cemeteries as part of their holy path. Indian culture tends to emphasize an infinite number of paths to God, such that sadhus, and the varieties that sadhus that exist, all have their place.
Some sadhus allegedly practice black magic or herbalism and dispense cures to the local community, remove evil eyes or bless a marriage. For many sadhus, the consumption of cannabis—in the form of marijuana, hashish, or the edible bhang—is a central part of life, especially when interacting with their ascetic cohorts. Cannabis is accorded a religious significance by many sadhus; though many Vaishnava sadhus smoke it, cannabis is closely associated with Shiva and is said to be his “prasad,” a form of his grace, and to allow the participation in his being. Smoking cannabis is also said to further the sense of “vairagya,” or dispassion, and separation from the mainstream social world, its comforts and temptations—states that are central to sadhu existence. Smoking cannabis also marks the sadhus as occupying a different space than their non-ascetic peers.
Most sadhus are content to remain humble ascetics, eschewing worldly affairs, and working diligently in the pursuit of spiritual liberation. However, some sadhus have risen to national and international prominence as a result of their efforts to help the poor and the oppressed. Due to their public recognition as spiritual teachers and social reformers, these figures are often called Swamis and they may not be as rigorous in their ascetic practices as other sadhus. Thus, there are at least two interpretations of “worldly detachment” exist among Swamis: some emphasize complete renunciation of the material world while others renounce detachment to personal gain but still engage in political and social causes to benefit humanity (and other living beings). Consequently, many Swamis engage in political and social service to alleviate social problems.
In his book, Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, the great Indian yogi and guru, explains the underlying rationale for those Swami’s who engage in social service:
“The ideal of selfless service to all mankind, and of renunciation of personal ties and ambitions, leads the majority of swamis to engage actively in humanitarian and educational work in India, or occasionally in foreign lands. Ignoring all prejudices of caste, creed, class, color, sex, or race, a swami follows the precepts of human brotherhood. His goal is absolute unity with Spirit. Imbuing his waking and sleeping consciousness with the thought, “I am He,” he roams contentedly, in the world but not of it. Thus only may he justify his title of swami – one who seeks to achieve union with the Swa or Self. It is needless to add that not all formally titled swamis are equally successful in reaching their high goal.”
Some famous Swamis of the modern period are Swami Vivekananda, Swami Dyananda Sarasvati, Swami Sivananda.
There are two primary sectarian divisions within the sadhu community: Shaiva sadhus, ascetics devoted to the god Shiva, and Vaishnava sadhus, renouncers devoted to the god Vishnu and/or his incarnations, which include Rama and Krishna. Less numerous than these two sects are Shakta sadhus, who are devoted to the Goddess—or Shakti, the divine energy—in one form or another. Within these general divisions are numerous sects and subsects, reflecting different lineages and philosophical schools and traditions (often referred to as “sampradayas”).
The largest Shaiva sampradaya is called the Dashnami—or Ten Names; sadhus in the sect take one of the ten names as an appellation upon initiation. The sect is said to have been formed by the philosopher and renunciant Shankara, believed to have lived in the eighth century C.E., though the full history of the sect’s formation is not clear. The Vaishnava sect with the greatest number of members—and indeed the largest sadhu sect in contemporary India—is the Ramanandi sect, said to have been founded by a medieval teacher of bhakti, or devotion, named Ramananda.
Shaiva sadhus are known as “samnyasis,” those who have renounced, or laid down, while Vaishnavas call themselves “vairagis,” or dispassionate ones. The terms reflect the different worldviews of the two groups: the philosophy of Shaiva asceticism and renunciation is, in many ways, more austere and radical than that of the Vaishnavas. The Shaiva ascetic worldview emphasizes a radical separation from the mainstream social world and complete commitment to liberation from “samsara,” the world of birth and death, coming and going, while Vaishnavas emphasize remaining engaged in the non-sadhu social world through compassionate service.
While sadhus ostensibly leave behind caste at initiation, the caste backgrounds of initiates do influence the sects into which they are admitted; certain ascetic groups, such as the Dandis within the Dashnami sampradaya, are composed only of men of brahmin birth, while other groups admit people from a wide variety of caste backgrounds.
There are female sadhus—known as “sadhvis”—in many sects. In many cases, the women that take to the life of renunciation are widows, and these types of sadhvis often life secluded lives in ascetic compounds. Sadhvis are often regarded as manifestations or forms of the Goddess, or Devi, and are honored as such. There have been a number of charismatic sadhvis that have risen to fame as religious teachers in contemporary India.
The greatest gathering of sadhus in India, known as the Kumbh Mela, takes place every four years at one of four points along sacred rivers in India, including the holy River Ganges. Sadhus of all sects join in this reunion. Millions of non-sadhu pilgrims also attend the festivals, and the Kumbh Mela is said to be the largest gathering of human beings for a single purpose on the planet.
Overall, to the average Hindu sadhus are a walking reminder of Divinity and they are generally allowed free passage on India’s trains.