Sadhus Meaning and Significance


by Jayaram V

Becoming a Sadhu is one of the highest goals of Hinduism. Sadhu means a good person, an accomplished person or a person of excellence, purity, virtue, perfection, completeness, righteousness, honor, nobility, etc. One becomes a Sadhu through the practice (sadhana) of devotion, worship, Yoga, renunciation, or spiritual transformation, using the means (sadhan) of accomplishment and skillfulness. In the Rigveda (6.15.16) the word Sadhu is used to describe Savitr as the one excels in performing the sacrifice with perfection.

Sadh means the goal. In spiritual parlance, it is the highest goal (parandhama) of liberation. Sadhana is the means to reach that goal. Sadhanatvam is the ability to reach that goal, which arises with practice. A Sadhu is one who succeeds in reaching that goal. Sadhus may be both male or female. A female Sadhu is known as Sadhika. As a mark of respect, she is also often addressed with the title of Sadhvi, meaning a pious woman or a woman of virtue, chastity and honor.

A Sadhu is thus an epitome of human virtue, excellence and greatness. He or she is an accomplished person who has crossed the hurdles and stabilized in the perfection and completeness of the Self. All our saints, seers, yogis, pious people, renouncers (sansyasis) and enlightened masters are considered Sadhus irrespective of the paths they choose or the methods they practice.

In common practice, all people who take up the life of renunciation (sanyasa) are considered sadhus, even if they have not reached the goal of perfection. Sadhus may also go by other names such as Bairagi, Shakta, Aghori, Kapalika, Jogi, etc. They may also wear different color robes and marks on their bodies according to the sect, path or teacher tradition (sampradaya) to which they belong.

Sadhutvam in itself is a highly venerable quality. It is devoid of anger, deceit and violence and bestows peace and equanimity upon those who take refuge in it. Association with it is association with truth (sath) itself, and leads to the predominance of sattva (purity). Hindus worship cows because they consider it a gentle animal (sadhu prani or jivi). They also respect people who possess that quality, even if they have not renounced the world. Thus, Sadhutvam, the nature of a Sadhu, is a divine quality, which is worthy of veneration and worship, whether it is found in humans or animals or gods.

In worldly matters a sadhu represents gentleness, sattvic nature, purity, amiability, humility and equanimity. Being nonviolent by nature, he is not easily disturbed and does not disturb others. Sadhus are therefore highly venerated in Hinduism and their blessings are sought by people for healing, absolution and purification. The concept of Sadhu is not confined to Hinduism only. The Jain monks are also known as Sadhus.

It is also true that since India has millions of Sadhus, who follow different paths, and since some don the appearance of a Sadhu to make a living or deceive people, not all of Sadhus are equally treated or venerated. Sadhus of secret sects, who may follow the left-hand practices may also be treated with distrust, derision and suspicion partly because of their repulsive appearance and partly because of their eccentric behavior, which is often contrived to earn disrespect and subdue the ego. Some sadhus may also deliberately engage in aggressive behavior to discourage people approaching them or stay aloof from public attention.

A person may become Sadhu by choice or by initiation. The latter is the commonest practice. The initiation is usually done a teacher or an adept Sadhu who is already initiated and who has reached the state of perfection. Each tradition follows its own procedure to recruit new Sadhus or train them on the path to perfection. Hence, Sadhus mostly belong to groups and communities and appear in groups in public, although they may live in seclusion and practice aloneness as a part of their practice.

You will find Sadhus in public mostly at religious places, during important festivals such as Kumbhmela or while going on a pilgrimage. When they travel on foot, they may carry a few belongings and choose to stay at odd places where they can have privacy to practice and rest. Usually, they stay at temples, caves, forests or groves, on the banks of rivers, lakes or canals, under shady trees, in ruined houses or at abandoned places or secluded places.

On such occasions, they go out for begging and engage in fortune telling, magic, etc., to attract people and seek alms. Some Sadhus may appear naked in public or with ash smeared bodies. Some may also smoke pot or take opiate drinks to experience altered states of consciousness. The Sadhus of today are remnants of the Sramanic and renunciant traditions of ancient India. They have played a significant role in the evolution and development of India’s religious, spiritual and philosophical systems. Their numbers are on decline due to the pressures of urban life and the difficulties in finding public support or patronage.

The Sadhus of India mostly lead peaceful and spiritual lives. However, it appears they were also often rebellious and engaged in righteous aggression, which is justified in the Bhagavadgita. For example, the Fakirs and Sanyasis of Bengal and Bihar rose in rebellion against the British in the latter half of the 18th century, which according to a paper published by Ananda Bhattacharya continued for a half century. The author states that the Sanyasis in the Bihar region were trained in warfare. Some held land owning rights. They also engaged in commercial, trading and mercenary activities and money lending business.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Sannyasi and Fakir Rebellion in Bihar (1767-1800), Ananda Bhattacharya

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