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.

Holiness is still common in India. In most Hindu households, shops and businesses you will find altars and shrines, and the day is routinely started with 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.

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. 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 Supersoul together. The sadhus radically renounce ‘the world’ in order to focus entirely on the Higher Reality beyond. They abstain from sex, cut all family ties, have no possessions, no house, wear little or no clothing and eat little and simple food. Usually they live by themselves, on the fringes of society, and spend their days in devotion to their chosen deity.

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.

For an ordinary human being these ‘basic’ self-abnegations are already hard to comprehend. But almost unimaginable are the extreme self-mortifications by which a number of sadhus intend to speed up their enlightenment. There are those who keep their right arm straight up until it degenerates into a kind of stick. Some do not sit and lay down for years on end, or keep silence for many years, or wear a ‘chastity-belt’ forever, or fast for a long time…

Most sadhus, however, take it a lot easier. And for many the main ‘self-mortification’ seems to be the smoking of hashish. According to age-old tradition they follow the example of Shiva in this respect. To them Shiva is not only the Lord of Yogis, but also the Lord of Hash, the hash smoking god, forever High. Shiva is the god of Destruction as well as Creation, which in a perpetual cyclical movement follow one another. His body is covered with ashes, symbolic of death and regeneration.

Shiva is always naked, which symbolizes his primal condition, his non-attachment to the world. His body shows feminine characteristics, like soft rounded contours and no beard, which is symbolic of his transcendence of opposites, the primal unity of polarities.

With half-closed eyes he is immersed in meditation, in divine bliss. The Ganges springs from his long hair, his jata, as a fountain, splashing in the Himalayan mountains in the distance. The crescent — the new moon, ‘Shiva’s moon’ — on his forehead, the cobra around his neck, the white bull Nandi, the river Ganges, and the full moon form a symbolic cluster which indicates Shiva’s function as a fertility deity, a moon god.

On his forehead are three horizontal lines, painted with ashes, representing the three main gods, the three ‘worlds’, etc. Around his neck is a garland of 108 beads, the 108 elements of material creation, and in his hand a rosary of 50 beads, the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. The two large rings through his ears are indicative of his extra-sensory perception. He is seated on a tiger skin, a symbol of power, showing his mastery over the animal world.

In appearance sadhus try to resemble the gods as they are known through ancient stories and popular legends, especially Shiva. Though Shiva is popularly known as the God of Destruction, for sadhus he is foremost the Master of Yogis.

Many sadhus wear extremely long hair (jata), again in emulation of Lord Shiva, whose long strands of hair are regarded as the ‘seat’ of his supernatural powers.

Other deities besides Shiva are worshipped too, such as Rama or Krishna, who are both incarnations of Vishnu, a god who rivals with Shiva for the supreme position in the Hindu pantheon. Or one of the many goddesses, like Kali or Durga. 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, even leading to battle. But in essence all sadhus have the same roots.

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.

Sadhus belong to many different sects or orders. Upon joining a sect, an apprentice-sadhu must undergo an initiation-rite, which is regarded as a symbolic death — and a rebirth. He dies from his former, earthly life and is reborn into the divine life. The visible symbol of this rebirth is the shaven head of the novice, bald as a baby’s.

After initiation, any talk or thought about the former life is discouraged; it is irrelevant now and age is reckoned from the new birthday. The bond with the guru is now all important. He is the ‘dispeller of darkness’, the guide for piercing the Veil of Illusion. The guru is father, mother and teacher — and the disciple worships his guru as god incarnate; he will please him any way he can (in the ideal case, anyway). Most sects are rather moderate in their practices, but some can be quite extreme.
The Naga sadhus or ‘warrior-ascetics’

One large and prominent Shaiva sect consists of the ‘warrior ascetics’, or Nagas (the ‘naked’), who have existed since the prehistoric past.

Though sadhus in general can de characterized as peace-loving, the Nagas used to be extremely militant, fighting with rivalling sects, the Muslims and later even the British. They were excellent fighters for they had no fear of death.

Traces of this ‘macho’ attitude are still discernible today. The Naga sect is subdivided into Akharas, i.e. ‘regiments’, like an army.

Their bellicose past is visible in their display of weaponry — sticks, spears, swords and especially the trident — but nowadays these have a mostly symbolic function.

Among the Nagas — as this name would lead us to expect — we still find many sadhus who walk about naked. In other respects as well they represent the ideal image of the sadhu as it was created thousands of years ago.

The Gorakhnathis or Jogis

The Gorakhnathis are commonly referred to as Yogis or Jogis. Although in outlook very similar to the sannyasis, the Jogis do not follow the Vedantic teachings of Shankara, but adhere to the Tantric way taught by their Guru-founder Gorakhnath. Still, they are devotees of Shiva, albeit in his manifestation as Bhairava, and they worship Hanuman and Dattatreya.

Gorakhnath, being an incarnation of Shiva, is worshipped as a deity by the Jogis, and has a number of temples dedicated to him. The Jogis are therefore often designated as ‘Gorakhnathis’, or more simply ‘Nath-Babas’.

The Udasin

The major sect of Udasin ascetics was originally not Shaiva — nor even Hindu — but belonged to the Sikh religion. It was founded in the sixteenth century by a son of Guru Nanak — himself the founder of Sikhism — called Shrichandra. The Udasin are therefore also known as Nanakputras, the ‘sons of Nanak’, and they revere the Grantha Saheb, the sacred book of the Sikhs.

They were excommunicated by the successor of Guru Nanak and gradually turned to Hinduism. The Udasin worship panchayatana, a combination of five deities, namely Shiva, Vishnu, the Sun, goddess Durga, and Ganesh; moreover they worship their founder-Guru Shrichandra.

Their philosophy is basically the monistic Vedanta as set forth by Shankara, and in other respects as well they closely resemble the Shaiva sannyasis.

The Aghoris

Holiness cannot only be macho, but even ‘crazy’, god-possessed, as it is shown by the members of a rather obscure and small sect, the Aghoris.

They emulate the most extreme characteristics of Lord Shiva as the Conqueror of Death: his favourite haunt is the cremation-grounds; he bathes in cremation-ashes; he wears a garland of skulls and bones; he keeps spirits and ghosts for company; he is continuously intoxicated; and he acts like a madman.

The Aghoris willingly transgress all ascetic (and Hindu) taboos, convinced as they are that by ‘reversing all values’ they will speed up enlightenment. While all sadhus are supposed to be vegetarian and teetotallers (like all ordinary Hindus for that matter), Aghoris eat meat and drink alcohol.

Even more horrid habits are attributed to Aghoris: they eat the putrid flesh of corpses; they eat excrement and drink urine, even of a dog; and they meditate while sitting on a corpse. It is questionable whether all this is regularly done, but it seems quite certain that at least occasionally, and then in a ritual context, as a kind of ‘eucharist’, these cannibalistic and other ‘inhuman’ acts are still taking place.

Aghoris preferably live on cremation grounds and surround themselves with artifacts of death, like human skulls out of which they drink and with which they perform magical rituals. Nonetheless, the Aghoris represent a tradition that is thousands of years old, and there have been times that the sect was quite numerous.

The Ramanandis

In the beginning of the fourteenth century, a very successful ascetic sect was founded by Ramananda: the Ramananda Sampradaya, more 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.