Article Info

published: 1/29/07

Hindu Asceticism and the Holy Man




Sadhu, Hindu holy man
A Hindu holy man, or sadhu.


Sadhu at Shiva temple
Sadhu caring for a Shiva temple at Pampassar.
Photo: Eli.


Hindu holy man
Holy man in Kathmandu. Photo: Dey Alexander.



A female sadhu (sadhvi) in Varanasi. Photo: Eli.


Holy man at Ganges River
Holy man along the Ganges River at Hardiwar.
Photo: Mario Lapid.


Sadhu
Sadhu in Varanasi. Photo: Eli.


Sadhu with human skulls
Shaivite sadhu with human skull, prayer beads and top knot. Photo: Eli.


Shaivite Sadhu
A Shaivite sadhu with a Shiva danda. Photo: Eli.

What is Sadhu?

One way of life in Hinduism is renunciation of the world and asceticism, which is the path of the sadhu or Hindu holy man.

Types of Sadhus

The term sadhu comes from the Sanskrit for "accomplish" and can refer to any religious ascetic or holy man. They include saints of various traditions, men (and occasionally women) who have left their homes to concentrate on physical and spiritual disciplines, and also hermits, magicians and fortune-tellers (some of dubious religious intent).





The term swami is more specific and usually refers to an ascetic who has been initiated into a specific religious order. In recent years, it has come to be applied particularly to monks of the Ramakrishna Mission. An ascetic who practices yoga in order to achieve his spiritual goals is a yogin or yogi.

A Saivite (follower of Shiva) sadhu is generally referred to as a sannyasi or dasnami sannyasin, while a Vaisnavite (follower of Vishnu) ascetic is often called a vairagin.

Sadhu Ways of Life

The sadhu way of life can take a variety of forms. Sadhus may live together in monasteries (mathas) belonging to a particular order or isolate themselves in small huts or caves, but many wander throughout the country alone or in small groups.

Sadhus generally congregate on important religious occasions, such as lunar eclipses or melas (fairs), and throughout the year are found in large numbers in sacred cities such as Varanasi (Benares) and Haridwar, India.

Their dress and ornaments differ according to their sect but they usually wear yellow/orange robes. They might shave their heads, allow their hair to lie matted on their shoulders, or twist it in a knot on top of their heads, but a normal haircut is rarely seen.

Sadhus generally take vows of poverty and celibacy and depend on the charity of householders (laymen) for their food. Sadhus usually have only the possessions they carry with them: a staff (danda), a waterpot (kamandalu), an alms bowl, a rosary, and perhaps an extra cloth or a fire tong.

Symbols and Ritual Items

The typical Hindu ascetic (sadhu) usually wears a distinctive mark (pundra) on his forehead and often carries a symbol of his sect.

If the sadhu is a Vaishnava he might have a discus (chakra) and a conch shell (sankha), replicas of Vishnu's flaming weapon and his instrument of beneficent power and omnipresent protection, or a salagrama stone or a tulasi plant, which represent, respectively, Vishnu's essence and that of his spouse Laksmi.

If he is a Saiva, he might impersonate Siva and carry a trident (trisula), denoting empire and the irresistible force of transcendental reality; wear a small lingam; carry a human skull, showing that he is beyond the terror inspired by the transitoriness of the world; or smear his body with apotropaic (supposed to avert evil) and consecratory ashes. These emblems are sacred objects of worship because the divine presence, when invoked by mantras, is felt to be in them.

Role of Sadhus in Hindu Society

Sadhus and swamis are not Hindu religious officials. Compared with Christianity, they are the counterpart of the hermit monk, not the minister. In fact, it is considered inauspicious (unlucky) for a sadhu to show up at a Hindu wedding, for he represents celibacy and infertility.

The Hindu attitude toward asceticism has always been ambivalent. On the one hand, there is a genuine regard for hermits and wandering ascetics and a desire to gain spiritual merit by feeding religious mendicants. On the other hand, the fact that fringe members of society may find a sort of respectable status among Saiva ascetics often led to a decline in the moral reputation of the latter.




Sources

  1. "Hinduism." Encyclopædia Britannica (2007). Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  2. John Bowker, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (2000).

More Information