If you've been to India, you've seen those men, rarely women, dressed in saffron robes and dreadlocks in their hair with dreadlocks; in Varanasi they can also be seen almost naked and the body painted white with ashes.
They can be confused with beggars but they are not. They are the most respected and sacred people in India, they are the sadhus.
WHO ARE THE SADHUS?
Sādhu, comes from Sanskrit, means "good man", "holy man". Considered the most sacred beings in the faith, they are ascetics who follow the path of penance and renunciation, cutting all the ties that united them to the material and earthly world, leaving behind their families, their jobs and properties, and even their names.
Sadhus are as old as Hinduism, in whose belief system it distinguishes four phases of life: childhood and adolescence which is that of formation, maturity where a family is formed, the pilgrim stage that coincides with having fulfilled the previous obligations, and a last stage that is asceticism to achieve enlightenment.
A sadhu is someone who follows the inner call to reach that last state of enlightenment and liberation (the "moksha"), for which they must achieve the absence of desires and perform good deeds.
It is common for them to be called Baba, "father," "wise man," to show them respect. Occupying a predominant place, particularly in small towns and villages.
There are about ten million sadhus in India, of which the vast majority are men, women are called sadhvis. They are generally women who follow this path after being widowed.
They are usually found on the banks of rivers, at religious festivals and in sacred places such as Gangotri or Varanasi. Many live completely isolated, in caves in the mountains or forests.
Constant movement is part of their life because they consider that staying in the same place makes them inactive.
BECOMING A SADHU
Someone who has decided to become a sadhu should seek and follow a guru (teacher) from whom he will learn until he is ready and on his own, which can take about two years. In a first stage, the applicant will perform servile tasks, from cleaning to cooking, while also beginning spiritual knowledge, yoga and meditation.
During that period of service, the guru will assess whether his student is eligible to lead that way of life. When the guru understands that his disciple is ready, he will give him a new name through an initiation ceremony. From there he leaves his past behind and begins his new life.
Photo by Ashes Sitoula on Unsplash
Sadhus come from different social backgrounds. Some have lived in unfavorable environments from an early age, while others have left money and important social positions.
Among the latter is Baba Ashutosh who belonged to a wealthy family in Varanasi, completed university in Germany to start his own business. But the sudden death of his father led him to rethink the purpose of his life and question the model of society in which we live in order to later make the decision to dedicate his life to spirituality and self-discipline.
Hans Hablützel became Swami Jnanananda, of Swiss origin, had studied at a prestigious boarding school and his mother wanted him to dedicate himself to banking. After a mystical experience in Switzerland, he decided to undertake a spiritual journey to India from which he never returned. He lived in complete austerity. In 2016 he died in the city of Dehradun, at the foot of the Himalayas, his body was buried in a meditation position, sitting, as tradition calls for Swami, the Hindu religious title he obtained.
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati grew up in Hollywood, graduated from Stanford University and completed her PhD in Psychology, when in 1996 she permanently moved to Parmath Niketan, a famous ashram in Rishikesh. It teaches meditation, it is dedicated to a foundation where it provides free education to women and children in vulnerable situations.
THE LIFE OF A SADHU
A sadhu begins his day before sunrise with a purification bath in a river, after which he meets other sadhus around the dhuni or sacred fireplace, and they begin with their prayers and meditation for the day.
They are strict vegetarians, they do not drink alcohol, although they do smoke hashish, according to them it allows them a more direct connection with the higher energy and to focus on meditation, they have taken vows of chastity and renounce any kind of material pleasure. They undergo hard exercises to dominate the body and free the mind.
They live on charity since they are highly revered and helping them is considered an act of merit. Thus, the townspeople will provide them with food. Sadhus will give back through ceremonies and spiritual services, even traveling great distances to help others.
In India they have free passes on all public transport throughout the country, no one will take long to offer them a seat on the bus or on the train.
Recently the Indian government announced that they will be allowed to refer to their gurus as parents when applying for the passport.
TYPES OF SADHUS
Most of these ascetics are identified with one of these two groups: Shaiva sadhus, devotees of Shiva and the Vaishnava sadhus, dedicated s Vishnu.
However, beyond these two great groups there are different doctrines and orders. Some of the types of sadhus are:
They are of Brahman origin (priests), the highest caste, and therefore know the scriptures. That makes them very conservative in upholding Hindu values and traditions.
Its name comes from "danda", the bamboo stick that they carry and from which they do not separate. They eat once a day (food that was provided). A majority of these sadhus are found in Varanasi.
Three lines can be seen on their foreheads, painted with ash, to represent the three aspects of Shiva: desire, knowledge and action.
These sadhus are recognized because they wear saffron-colored robes, which means that they have been blessed with the fertile blood of Parvati, Shiva's consort, and wear a rudraksha (a rosary).
They learn control of the mind and body until they become yoga teachers.
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Originally they were warriors who defended Hindus against invasion by Muslims in the 12th century and later by the British. They continue to be trained as warriors.
Naga means to go naked, and hence its name, since they are practically naked, with their bodies covered in ashes and matted hair. They look a little scary, but they actually preach and teach about God's special grace.
They live for the longest time in caves in the Himalayas and are rarely seen, except at major religious festivals such as the Kumbh Mela.
Like the Aghoris, they are devoted to Shiva, and to convert they must undergo very difficult examinations, in a process that takes about twelve years.
A naga sadhu will join an Akhara (a kind of monastery) in his early teens where he will stay to become a monk.
The Sanskrit term Aghora is the combination of two words and has different meanings: A is a negation; Ghora is the darkness of ignorance, but it also means intense, deep. Aghora therefore means light, the absence of darkness, awareness.
They are the sect that arouses the most curiosity, the strangest to understand and also the most feared, they even cause rejection.
Unlike the other sadhus schools, the Aghoris do not need any Guru to convert. Their mentor is Lord Shiva himself and they are regarded as his incarnation.
Similar in appearance to sadhus naga, they are recognized because they live near crematoriums and this is where they perform for penance to become a true sadhu aghori.
Among their few personal items, they carry a human skull that is used as a drinking bowl.
The Aghoris incorporate the impure, what everyone fears and rejects. Their mission is to accept everything that is repugnant to society, which is why they come to consume the remains of deceased people and animals. For the Aghori, Shiva is perfect, and since Shiva is responsible for everything that happens, everything in the world is perfect and holy. Consequently, to deny the perfection of anything would be to deny the Supreme Being. They believe that to find spiritual light one must enter the darkness of existence, and that the light of altruism can only be known when the darkness of selfishness has been known.
There is no kind of ego when corpses or feces are consumed. By consuming the unthinkable, the Aghoris are able to drop to a level below which there is nothing. It is humility and extreme renunciation, transcending the laws of purity to achieve enlightenment and be one with God.
The Aghori work with those who consider themselves to be the most untouchable people in humanity: Leprosy patients, many of them abandoned by their families, find refuge in the hospital run by Aghoris in the city of Varanasi.
Many people believe that they are dedicated to black magic and therefore they are very feared, although they are also attributed longevity, and healing power.
THE SOCIAL IMPORTANCE OF SADHUS
Hinduism is not considered a "religion" in the same sense as Christianity or Islam. Its many codes are not maintained / governed by a central body but by its practitioners. Sadhus and Sadhavis play their part in preserving a part of this "way of life", retaining and passing on the knowledge of yoga and helping people to deepen their understanding of life.
The same sacred scriptures of Hinduism as the oldest Vedas are said to have been the product of a life of solitude and meditation in remote places, where they developed an awareness that made it easier for them to 'hear' the truths of the Universe.
To learn more about sadhus you are invited to watch the following videos.