Sadhu, the Extreme Life of the Holy Men of India

  • 16 Jul 2019

One of the most interesting and mysterious aspects of India and Hinduism would be the sadhus or holy men.

These men are Hindu ascetic, leaving behind all Earthly attachments- material objects, family, social position, money and sexual attachments; and choose instead to live in caves, forests, mountains and temples in pursuit of enlightenment.

Sadhus occupy an important place in Hindu society, particularly in the villages and small towns. A Sadhu in India is also referred as 'Baba' by society and most sadhus rely on the donations. There are female sadhus as well - known as sadhvis.

The life of a sadhu is insanely difficult. They exercise and endure the most extraordinary ritualised self-abuse in an attempt to free their minds and bodies.

These physical and mental endurances can be so extreme and leave permanent disfigurement, as in the case of the Sadhus who hold their arm above the heads for up to twelve years. Through lack of use, the arm will wither away and become useless. Sadhus believe that the closer the arm is held to the head the better. It has been known for some to hold both arms above the head. This austerity is only considered complete if the arm is slowly brought back down again. It has been known to induce insanity or even death if not performed properly.

The austerity chosen by a sadhu is personal, especially chosen to increase his progression to enlightenment. This could mean refusing to ever speak, or keeping a very simple diet such as two glasses of milk a day for the rest of his life, which is a popular choice among them.

The most extreme type of austerity is standing for up to twelve years because the number twelve is a holy number. The rules are no sitting, squatting or lying down is permitted for the duration and no cheating. For sleeping, they are allowed to lean on a type of swing. The standing will eventually create sores and swelling in the legs. However, no sadhu is disrespected for not doing the full twelve years. What matters is that they tried.

Sadhus believe that through the endurance of severe hardships, they can strengthen their minds and thus, gain enlightenment in this life. Newer Sadhu communities are divided over the benefits of such extreme austerities and now, many Sadhus perform more passive rituals such as sitting in water that comes up to the chin for many days. Meditating in the winter because it is the coldest time; during the summer, the heat of the sun at midday is increased by surrounding themselves with a ring of fires.

Many Sadhus will perform a daily ritual of yogic positions whilst surrounded by fires of smoking cow dung. Fortunately, the most dangerous of all austerities, 'Samadhi' has been discarded. 'Samadhi' refers to a state of suspended animation, which is effectively a virtual death that might last a couple of weeks.

Some chose the life out of religious devotion, others by the unique life of becoming a mystic religious philosopher, and some were rebellious youths who ran away from home. There is no age limit, but those that started as children were usually adopted as orphans.

To become a sadhu, a new person has to follow a guru for many years, serving him by doing menial tasks until acquiring the necessary experience to leave his leadership. Naked holy men belong to Naga group of sadhus - they never wear any clothes even in severe winter. Most of them smear their bodies with ash and have long matted hair. Aghora sadhus who live in cemeteries have company with ghosts, they practice cannibalism, eating rotten dead meat and meditating on human corpses.

You can find Sadhus in ashrams, temples in the midst of major urban centres, in huts on the edges of villages, in caves in the remote mountains or in the jungle. But you can't find sadhu always at one place, they are always on their way to move from one place to another, Sadhus worship The Lord Shiva. They are generally allowed free passage on the trains to go anywhere is India or Nepal.

The Maha Kumbh Mela: The Kumbh Mela is the Biggest religious gathering in India, the last Kumbh Mela was the largest gathering anywhere in the world in recorded history. It is a pilgrimage that happens four times in every twelve years, once at each of the designated four locations in Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain, being one of the oldest living city in India. They would gather together to bathe in the holy river of Ganges and to bless the people. Hundreds of foreigners would join these holy men too.

Source: Walk Through India
Photo Credit: Reuters

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