The Sadhus of India

The Sadhus of India

If M.Knight Shyamalan had made his blockbuster movie The Sixth Sense in India, the dead people could well refer to Sadhus or Sadhavis! Abhijeet Deshpande shares a perspective about these enigmatic Hindu monks.

Genesis of a Sadhu

A Sadhu is born when a man or a woman sets off in pursuit of Moksha – burning the effect of karma and eventually seeking freedom from the cycle of life and death – a daunting task. Before embarking on this journey, they give up everything – be it material possessions, social status (such as caste), relationships (including parents) and even their identities (names) to become legally dead. A Sadhu is typically associated with an Akhara (a gender-egalitarian term for a monastic school) and initiated by a guru. Government of India recently announced support to allow Sadhus to refer to their respective gurus as parents while applying for a passport (Passport rules: Sadhus, sanyasis can now mention names of gurus instead of parents).

Martial or Thought Leadership Traditions

The ancient Akharas either have martial or scriptural (schools of thought or debate) traditions and played a crucial role in the mainstream society. While the schools of thought promoted arts, architecture, astrology, medicine, science, or meditation, the martial schools contributed to safeguard people’s interests against marauding invaders and bigoted rulers of the time. It seems as if much has been lost to time. The only martial tradition that these apolitical Akharas continue to practice is the art of wrestling. The tridents that some Sadhus carry have been cut to its cosmetic tradition rather than a utility.

Reverence and Reforms

Many Indians continue to regard renunciation and the search for Nirvana as one of the highest virtues of human life. As such, Sadhus are not only accepted but revered. It is common sight to see people making way for them, offering food, or offering them seats in a bus or a train (Sadhus are allowed a free pass on public transport system across the country). Helping them in any capacity is considered as an act of making merit (Sanskrit: puṇya).

Their social reverence has its fallouts too. It lures impostors, who, using a mix of authority (Sadhus and Sadhavis are somewhat feared for their ability to ‘curse’) and special powers, may dupe or seriously harm people. Obviously, impostors get widespread media coverage that serves as a reminder to be watchful for the black sheep. A public debate cuts both ways. While it may cast aspersions on the community of Sadhus, in few cases the intent of media houses may also be questioned. Either way, the churning is ringing reforms.

Hinduism is not considered a ‘religion’ in the same sense as Christianity or Islam. Its many codes are not upheld / governed by a central body but by its practitioners. Sadhus and Sadhavis play their part in preserving a part of this ‘way of life’. With the recent spate of incidents, the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad or ABAP, the organization overseeing all major monastic schools has announced plans to formalize a procedure to award the title of a ‘sant’ to a Hindu monk.

Social Benefits

Numbering less than 1 per cent of the overall population of India, Sadhus’ and Sadhavis’ positive contribution to the society continues to hold popular conscience. Besides helping world travelers in their search for meaning (remember, Beatles took lessons in and practiced Transcendental Meditation in India?), the following points remain in public memory.

  • Preserve Heritage: They continue an age old practice of seeking Moksha and contribute to the unique cultural landscape of India
  • Share Knowledge: They have been sharing knowledge and wisdom long before written word came in vogue. For instance, though not all Sadhus may be yogis, the ones who do practice it, retain and pass on the knowledge. Similarly, some may work to demystify the spiritual body of knowledge and help people deepen their understanding of life. List of Hindu gurus.
  • Economic Impetus: They contribute to the economy by congregating at Kumbh Melas – largest social gathering on earth. This festival is fast becoming a major tourist attraction, propelling related business activities of restaurants and guesthouses.

To end on a lighter note, Sadhus serve as ‘inspiration’ to many photographers (doesn’t the Sadhu featured in the header look cool?). Pictures of ash-smeared, trident-flashing monks are quite a rage on social media. They smoke the ‘happy plant’ and are a source of weed for many. Importantly, here’s a point for backpackers – they ‘invented’ the dreadlocks! Sorry, Bob!


Have you interacted with any Sadhus or Sadhavis during your travels in India? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).

Credits: This piece is edited from its original version, written in response to a question, on Quora?

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