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Spiritual adventurers, ascetic warriors, devout mystics, occult rebels or philosophic monks,
the sadhus are revered by Hindus as representatives of the gods,
sometimes even worshipped as gods themselves.

Text and photographs by Dolf Hartsuiker, author of the book "Sadhus, Holy Men of India".more info on the book


Holiness
Holiness is still common in India. In most Hindu households, shops and businesses are altars and shrines, and the day is routinely started with the worship of gods and gurus.
Many mountains, rivers, stones and trees are sacred. Dozens of cities are holy and, of course, the millions of temples and idols. Quite a few animals are holy -- the cow, of course, but also the bull, the monkey, the elephant, the peacock, the snake, the rat....
So it may come as no surprise that people can be holy too, though they have to become holy.
The Indian concept of holiness is quite different from that in the West. It is not necessarily (though often) associated with the "good."
In fact, some all-India saints, such as Ramakrishna or Chaitanya, would probably be considered lunatics in the West. There is a long tradition of 'divine madness' in Hinduism.

To Hindus, spiritual enlightenment has always represented the highest goal in life, the one thing that gives it meaning and purpose.
Moreover, enlightenment is a state of being that is in principle attainable by everybody.
The average individual, however, would need many incarnations to become enlightened, to see God, to become one with the Absolute, to merge one's mind with Cosmic Consciousness -- in short, to become holy.

Naga babas at the 1989 Kumbha Mela in Allahabad

But since time immemorial shortcuts have been available for people wanting to become enlightened in this life rather than the next.
Those who follow the fast track, mostly men, are the sadhus, the 'holy men' of India.

For thousands of years they have been around. Once they must have been more numerous, but even today there are still four to five million sadhus, constituting about half a percent of the total population.

Organised in various sects, they passed on the wisdom of old, the method of yoga, that is 'yoking' soul and Soul together.

Usually they live by themselves, on the fringes of society, and spend their days in devotion to their chosen deity.

Sunmarpan Das and disciples
Enlightenment
Some perform magical rituals to make contact with the gods, others practise intense forms of yoga and meditation to increase their spiritual powers and acquire mystical knowledge.
Certainly, not all sadhus are enlightened. But believers regard them all as holy anyway, if only because of their radical commitment. And successful sadhus are even worshipped as 'gods on earth'.
Believers only have to 'behold' a sadhu -- as a kind of living idol -- to receive a spark of his spiritual energy. They give donations to the sadhus -- regarded as offerings to the gods -- and get their blessing in return. Thus, since time immemorial, has Indian society been organised to support the holy men, for they are not supposed to work.

But in India too, the times they are a'changing.
1852
Janaki Jivan Sharan, a sadhu who was regarded as a jivanmukta, i.e. a 'soul liberated while still alive.'

More pages:
Shaivas Shaivas Sadhus belong to many different sects or orders.
These fall broadly speaking into two main groups:
The Shaivas: those who follow Shiva in one way or another;
The Vaishnavas: those who worship Vishnu in one of his incarnations, notably Rama or Krishna.
The allegiance of sadhus can be recognised by differences in the marks on their forehead, and the colour of their clothes.
In the past, there have been intense rivalries between the various sects, mirroring the rivalry of Shiva and Vishnu for the supreme position in the Hindu pantheon, which sometimes even lead to battle. But in essence all sadhus have the same roots.
Most sects are rather moderate in their practices, but some can be quite extreme.
Vaishnavas Vaishnavas
Sadhvis Sadhvis, female sadhus About ten percent of sadhus are female, called sadhvis, and they are to be found in most sadhus sects.
Austerities Shaivas Austerities by Shaivas The sadhus radically renounce 'the world' in order to focus entirely on the Higher Reality beyond. They abstain from se+, cut all family ties, have no possessions, no house, wear little or no clothing and eat little and simple food.
For an ordinary human being these 'basic' self-abnegations are already hard to comprehend. But almost unimaginable are the extreme austerities — even self-mortifications — by which a number of sadhus intend to speed up their enlightenment.
Austerities Vaishnavas Austerities by Vaishnavas
Kumbha Mela Kumbha Mela Kumbha Melas are undoubtedly the most important gatherings in the lives of sadhus. They are held in Allahabad, Ujjain, Hardwar and Nasik, in twelve year cycles, alternating in such a way that about every three years a Kumbha Mela takes place.
Foreigners Foreigners Ever since the 'sixties', with an upsurge of interest in the 'mystic East' mirroring a growing discontent with the 'materialistic West', scores of young Westerners went to India searching for the meaning of life and often finding a guru.
Many became disciples of famous, international gurus such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Bhagwan Rajneesh, and Saï Baba, but others chose the more individualistic path of the sadhu and committed themselves to the hardships of the ascetic life.
Notes Notes More info.
Bibliography Bibliography Useful books and links to excerpts on this site.

Some stories:.
An American Sadhu An American Sadhu
A true story, all facts.
Holy Extremists Holy Extremists
Fiction, based on facts.
Holy Smoke Holy Smoke
A true story, all facts


For comments e-mail to: Dolf Hartsuiker to top