Sadhus & Yogis of India
Intro Shiva & Shaivas Vishnu & Vaishnavas Sadhvis Tapas Shaiva
Tapas Vaishnava Kumbha Mela Foreign sadhus Notes & Biblio Old photos
There are some words (concerning se+) I cannot write in full or in the normal way anymore, because these generate unwanted interest via search engines on the internet.
Vishnu: Rama & Krishna
The Ramanandis The Tyagis The Sakhis
Vishnu is hardly worhipped as a god in his own right nowadays. It's his incarnations who are worshipped, especially Rama and Krishna. But as far as Vaishnava sadhus are concerned it's mainly Rama who serves as their inspiration.
On the poster below Rama and Sita are surrounded by the main characters of the Ramayana and the gods of the Hindu pantheon. Kneeling before them is Rama's faithful servant Hanuman, the monkey-god and general of the monkey army.
The epic Ramayana, with its many exemplary adventures of Rama, is the primary source of inspiration for shaping the attitude of exclusive, one-pointed devotion to Rama which is the hallmark of a Rama devotee.
Rama plays an important part in contemporary Hinduism. He lives in the hearts of the common people. He rules the lives of sadhus devoted to him. For many sadhus, memorizing, analyzing, and absorbing the Ramayana is a life-time pursuit, and some become professional exegetes, reciting and interpreting the texts to the public.
It is believed that just hearing the sacred words of the Ramayana is in itself liberating and will confer the grace of Rama. And in an even simpler way, continuous recitation of the name of Rama from the heart will enlighten the soul. In fact, in this Dark Age, Rama's devotees regard it as the only way to reach the Absolute.
And if enligtenment does not happen in one’s life, it may happen at the moment of death, that is, if one dies thinking of Rama and with his name on one’s lips.
As it is chanted by the mourners in funeral processions:
“Rama nama satya hai!”, “the name of Rama is Truth.”
The Ramanandis
In the beginning of the fourteenth century, a very successful ascetic sect was founded by Ramananda: the Ramananda Sampradaya, popularly known as the Ramanandis.
Nowadays, because of its dominant position, it is regarded as a separate organization, but officially it is still part of the Shri Sampradaya, for Ramananda started his ascetic career as a member of this sect. He remained loyal to the philosophy of its founder Ramanuja, but he choose Rama and Sita as personal gods, and made devotion to them the central feature of the sect's religious practices.
Generally speaking, almost all Vaishnava sadhus are Ramanandis.
There are quite a few different Vaishnava sects and they can be distinguished by the symbols painted on the forehead, but within a sect the marks are seldom entirely identical.
Most sadhus give it a personal touch. And some make more extreme variations on the fundamental theme.
0779 The result can be quite impressive, as is shown by Hanuman Hari Das (right).
An beautiful tilak does not necessarily imply a higher status. Nor does it, by itself, reflect a higher degree of spirituality.


Bhagwan Das' elaborate facial painting marks him as a follower of Lord Rama, or more specifically his wife Sita.
He has gone to Vaikunth.

The Tyagis
An important subdivision of the Ramanandi bairagis (those whose practice 'dispassion', 'non-attachment') is known as the tyagis ('renunciants, hermits'). This section is also referred to as tapasi shakha, or ‘penance branch’, since they perform extreme tapas. They often reside separately from other Ramanandis in (or near) khak-chowks, an open square reserved for the ash-covered (khaki) tyagis.
The mahatyagis or ‘great renunciants’ are the most extreme. They live without shelter and wear no clothing except a banana-bark loincloth; many keep silence, do prolonged fasts and practise hatha-yoga. Most tyagis keep a dhuni.
On the surface the difference between tyagis and nagas is negligible.
Baldeo Das (right), the founder of the Mahatyagi Kalsa, standing in front of his little hermitage, his hands in the tyaga mudra.
On both sides of the door hang potted tulsi plants. Evil spirits never come to place where a tulsi is planted; it is regarded as the meeting point of heaven and earth. Its tasty leaves—it is a kind of basil—form part of offerings and prasad, and out of its wood the beads of Vaishnava ‘rosaries’ (malas) are fashioned.
As a mahatyagi, or ‘great renouncer’, Seva Das (left) has taken a vow never to live indoors.
In his temporary ‘home’ at the Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, he is fully exposed to the heat of the day and the cold of the night.
The Sakhis
Vaishnavas, i.e. sadhus who have chosen Rama or Krishna as their deity, are characterized by a strong, sentimental devotion and total self-surrender to one of his earthly 'incarnations' as the god-king Rama or the divine cowherd Krishna.
The deity is regarded as a 'person' with whom the devotee can establish an intimate bond, which usually takes the form of a Master-slave relationship.
Some sadhus, however, dare to regard him as their Lover, and since the deity is a male, it follows quite logically that they have to play the part of 'mistress' of the Lord. They are designated as sakhis. They imagine having an erotic 'love' relationship with him. Some sakhis even go to the extreme of pretending to have regular se+ual intercourse with their Lord — except on the days when they're having their 'period'.

Obviously, the se+ual overtones of their behaviour make them rather suspect in the eyes of other ascetics, since repression of se+uality is the norm, not its projection. Even if this projection is aimed at a deity.

Nevertheless, it is a recognized way of expressing devotion to a deity — and devotion is a characteristic of all sadhus.

A sakhi, who regards Lord Rama as her Lover.
These transvestite sadhus are to be distinguished from another group of transvestites, or rather eunuchs, who practise prostitution and obnoxious forms of begging.
The hijras, as they are known, are completely castrated upon initiation into their order. They are regarded as 'neither man nor woman', but they dress like women and affect exaggerated female mannerisms. As in almost all things Indian, there is a religious meaning to their voluntary mutilation and subsequent behaviour.

During Rama-festivals hijras may masquerade as sakhis in order to collect money.

Much more info and many photos in my book Contact Dolf Hartsuiker