Sādhus and Sādhvīs

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SĀDHUS AND SĀDHVĪS . The term sādhu (feminine, sādhvī ) derives from the Sanskrit root sādh (meaning "accomplish") and also has the general sense of "a good or virtuous person." More specifically, within the Hindu religious tradition a sādhu or sādhvī (a sādhvī is also referred to as mai and "Mātājī") is someone who, under a guru, has undergone a ritual of renunciation known as sanyāsa and formally abandoned family life and conventional worldly means for making a livelihood. The sanyāsa rite, which is preceded by a preliminary initiation rite, is usually performed at a Kumbha Melā, the preeminent festival for sādhu s. The rite is assisted by a guru and several Brahmin pait s, thereby relieving the initiate's family of any future responsibility in that regard. Sādhu s are usually buried in a seated position when they die, in distinction from the traditional Hindu practice of cremation.

The Hindu religious explanation for taking sanyāsa and becoming initiated as a sādhu is to "realize God" or obtain liberation (moka ), an objective considered to be difficult in worldly life. While some sādhu s claim to have experienced a direct religious calling to renounceoccasionally in old ageothers become sādhu s to escape legal, financial, personal, or family problems. In some instances an orphan is adopted and raised by sādhu s, and sādhvī s are not infrequently bereaved. Renunciate practices range from a primarily devotional approach to liberationthrough reciting mantra s or chanting and singing the names and praises of a personal deityto a path of austerities and asceticism (tapas, literally "heat") that may involve meditation and yoga. Within the Hindu mythological world, the practice of asceticism, which may range from dietary restrictions to extreme forms of mortification, is also believed to produce powers (siddhi s) of a supernatural kind, which are feared and considered to be real at a popular level. Sādhu s are revered almost as forms of a deity in some areas of north India.

After performing the sanyāsa rite, the lifestyle of the sādhu is, traditionally, thereafter that of a wandering mendicant. However, the rite also simultaneously constitutes an initiation into the renunciate sect to which the initiating guru belongs. An initiate receives a new name, a new religious identity, and enters the network of an alternative social world, with its own hierarchies and implicit codes of behavior. The names of renunciates are usually recorded by an official from the sect into which the candidate is initiated. Although most sādhu s live simplysome in remote placesfrom alms or local produce, an initiate into a renunciate order also has potential access to a network of āśrama s and maha s (monasteries), which can be extensive for the larger sects. These institutions often provide food and shelter for both resident sādhu s and those on pilgrimage to holy places. Many of even the largest āśrama s have developed over time from a simple dwelling constructed by a sādhu who settled somewhere, frequently after traveling for many years on pilgrimage throughout the Indian subcontinent.

There are currently around sixty Hindu (or semi-Hindu) renunciate sects of sādhu s in India and Nepal. Orders of sādhu s (or their equivalent) are also a constituent of several of the other religious traditions currently represented in India. They are to be found amongst Muslims, where, according to some schemata, there are fourteen orders of Sūfīs (also referred to as fakīr ); amongst Sikhs (in the Udāsin and Nirmala orders); and also amongst Jains, where sādhvī s significantly outnumber sādhu s. Within the Jain tradition there is a closer relationship between the sādhu and lay communities than in other Indian renunciate traditions. Buddhist monks, who are not very numerous in India, are represented in a few regions, but they are almost exclusively attached to monasteries.

All renunciate sects trace their origin to a revered founding guru, the sectarian identity of members being exhibited by a variety of means. These include specific ash or paste marks on the face and body, the kinds of beads or seeds used for a necklace (mālā ), accoutrements (such as a particular kind of staff), and also the type and color of clothing, which is frequently scant. Sādhu s of some orders, particularly nāgā s (who are traditionally naked, fighting ascetics), cover their entire body with ashes. Sādhu s have their head fully shaved during initiation, but some subsequently grow dreadlocks.

Amongst Hindus, while there are several relatively small sects of Tantric/śākta sādhu s, whose main deity is a form of the goddess (devī ), most Hindu renunciate sects are primarily vaiava or śaiva in orientation, and their main deity is a form of, respectively, Viu or Śiva. The two largest sects of sādhu swith several hundred thousand initiatesare the vaiava sect of Rāmānanda (known as Rāmānandīs or vairāgī s) and the śaiva sect of sanyāsī s (or Daśanāmīs, meaning "ten names"), founded, according to their respective traditions, by Rāmānanda in the fourteenth century and the advaita (nondual) philosopher Śakarācārya in the ninth century.

According to traditional Brahmanical norms, women are ineligible for sanyāsa. However, there is considerable historical evidence of ascetic women renunciates, and some women ascetics may be found in nearly all renunciate sects. Currently, more than 90 percent of sādhu s are men, though government census data from the early twentieth century indicate that at that time women sādhvī s comprised up to 40 percent of the renunciate population in some areas of India. It is not uncommon for women renunciates to have suffered bereavement and to have become sādhvī s to escape the difficult circumstances often experienced by widows in South Asia.

In most instances, women renunciates are initiated by male preceptors and do not have their own institutions wherein there is a lineage of authority transmitted from a female guru to a female successor. However, in a few orders there are branches that have their own female guru s. For example, amongst Daśanāmīsnominally an orthodox sectthere is a division of around a thousand mai s who are nāgā and are affiliated to the Jūnā akhāā (see below) but live entirely separately from their male counterparts. Similarly, there are two communities of women renunciates (the Śrī Śāradā Maha and the Śāradā Rāmaka [Ramakrishna] Mission) who are devotees of the nineteenth-century Bengali saint, Rāmaka Paramahasa, and his wife, Śāradā Devī. However, unlike the Daśanāmī nāgā women who occasionally travel to pilgrimage sites and attend festivals such as the Kumbha Melā, the women renunciates of the orders affiliated to the Rāmaka Mission reside most of the time in monastic institutions. As most renunciate orders have an ambivalent attitude toward female ascetics, it is also not uncommon for women renunciates to become independent guru s, some of whom attract a considerable lay following.

According to the traditional Hindu ideal, renunciates undertake austerities of some kind or other to purify the mind and body, food is collected by begging, and celibacy is maintained. However, a wide range of practice is evident both between and within the various renunciate sects. Being a renunciate does not necessarily entail asceticism, and limited regimens of asceticism are not infrequently practiced by householders. Some sectsnotably those of the vaiava devotees of Vallabha (14791531 ce), Caitanya (14861533 ce), and Dādū (15441604 ce)have both celibate and married initiates. Managers of one of the larger sādhu āśrama s have significant responsibilities for the maintenance of buildings, observance of temple activities, the welfare of visitors, and administrative affairs, which may include income derived from land-holdings. There is generally a hierarchy of authority and responsibility within the renunciate orders, with posts for cooks, security officers, secretaries, and property managers. Titular heads of monasteries may wield considerable influence, not only locally but even at the national level, as in the case of the Śakarācāryas, who head the Daśanāmī order. There are also instances of renunciates taking political office, a prominent example being Ūma Bhāratī, a sanyāsin who became a politician, and who was subsequently sworn in, on December 8, 2003, as the first woman chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh. While, at one end of the spectrum, sādhu s may be strict vegetarians who avoid all forms of intoxication, at the other end of the spectrum, some few sādhu s of the most radical orders, the Aghorīs, and some Nāths and Tantrics, may inhabit graveyards and exhibit extreme antinomian behavior, eating from human skulls and even consuming human flesh. Sādhu s of the more radical orders often consume alcohol and also large quantities of cannabis, which is either smoked with tobacco, or eaten or drunk in the form of bhāg, a prepared form of the leaves of the plant.

Scholars still do not agree on when ascetic renunciates first emerged on the religious landscape of South Asia. Some believe that semi-shamanic ascetics date back to the Indus Valley civilization (25001800 bce) or even earlier, and may be seen as the yati or muni, semi-mythological characters who appear in the gveda (c. 12001400 bce). This characterization is disputed by other scholars, who maintain that during the so-called axial age (fifthsixth centuries bce), economic and social developments provided the context for the development of a new worldview, the notion of renunciation, and the institution of renunciate religious sects, such as the Ājīvika, Jain, and Buddhist orders. One of the earliest available reports of a foreigner visiting India is that of Megasthenes (fourth century bce), who like many other visitors, records the activities of ash-covered philosophers (gymnosophists), some of whom were capable of extreme feats of endurance. Around this time were produced the earliest Sanskrit texts to include sections detailing the way of life of the renunciate sanyāsin as being within the scope of the dharma (religious rules and practices) of orthodox Brahmanical culture. Several of these texts, the Dharma-sūtra s, provide rules and procedures for those wishing to take sanyāsa, and renounce Brahmanical ritual life and the daily religious activitiesbased on the Veda incumbent upon all members of ancient Brahmanical society. Whatever the origins of Brahmanical religious asceticism, by around the beginning of the Common Era, sanyāsin had become the term generally used by the Brahmanical tradition to designate those who had renounced ritual life, preferably in the fourth and last stage (āśrama ) of life.

However, it appears that it was not only older people who had retired from Brahmanical ritual life who became ascetic renunciates. Perhaps the earliest reference to sectarian asceticism in South Asia is by the grammarian Pāini (fourth century bce), who refers to śaiva ascetics. These ascetics were most probably Pāśupatas, renowned for their antisocial behavior. They are the earliest known sect of "Hindu" ascetics, who survived into the fourteenth century. The earliest known monasteries (maha ) for Hindu renunciate orders date from the eighth century ce, and were of śaiva orders, namely the Kāpālikas (the predecessors of the Aghorīs) and the (less radical) Kālāmukhas, both of which superseded the Pāśupatas. Maha s of the influential Śaiva-Siddhānta order appear to have been first founded in the tenth century. Śakarācārya is reputed to have founded the first order of orthodox Brahmanical ascetics, the śaiva Daśanāmī-Sanyāsīs, though recent research casts some doubt on this. Several of the most important orthodox vaiava orders, which also have renunciate initiates, have preceptors dating to the early centuries of the first millennium ce: the Śrī sampradāya (order/sect) of the devotional philosopher Rāmānuja (traditionally dated to 10171137 ce), and the sampradāya s of Madhva (12381317 ce) and Nimbārka (twelfth century). Several more vaiava sampradāya s with both householder and renunciate initiates arose during the next few centuries. A number of sects were also established that have a partially vaiava religious culture, but whose adherents worship a formless (nirguī ) god. One of the best known of these sects is the panth (sect) of Kabīr (c. 14501525 ce). In distinction from nearly all śaiva and most vaiava sādhu s, renunciates of some vaiava sects do not perform the sanyāsa rite, but undergo a parallel rite whereby a special relationship is established between the renunciate and the deity of the sect.

Besides the monastic traditions of the renunciate sects, which have produced innumerable scholars and philosophers, sādhu s have also been periodically engaged in significant military and mercenary activities. Although as early as the eighth century Pāśupata ascetics were armed by guilds to protect trade, it was during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that nāgā (naked) ascetics from the Nāth, Daśanāmī-Sanyāsī (also called gosain ), Vairāgī (Bairāgī), Dādū-panth, Nimbārkī (Nīmāvat), and Rādhavallabhī sects first became organized as fighting units (akhāā, literally "wrestling ring"), primarily owing to state patronage. Initiation as a nāgā into an akhāā is nearly always performed subsequent to the sanyāsa rite. During the latter half of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuriesa time of great political instability in north Indianāgā s were employed in many instances as part of a regularly paid standing army of several thousand troops in service to māharājā s of Jodhpur, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Udaipur, Baroda, Marwar (western Madhya Pradesh), and Bhuj (the capital town of Kacch, Gujarat). At the height of their careers in the late eighteenth century, three prominent Daśanāmī nāgā sanyāsī s, namely Rajendra Giri Gosain (d. 1753 ce) and his celā s (disciples), the brothers Anūp Giri Gosain (Himmat Bahādūr, 17301804 ce) and Umrao Giri Gosain (b. 1734 ce), commanded forces of up to forty thousand horse and foot soldiers. They were highly regarded by the British as a fighting force, ranked alongside the Afghans and Sikhs, and were particularly renowned for their nighttime guerrilla operations. These nāgā s fought many campaigns, mostly on behalf of Mughal regents, but changed allegiances several times over the decades.

There are currently thirteen akhāā s extant in India; seven are Daśanāmī, three are Rāmānandī, and three are Sikh-related, namely the Nirmala and two Udāsin akhāā s. The nāgā members of the akhāā still train for fighting, but after the imposition of British rule in India their military operations were almost entirely curtailed. As a consequence of their mercenary activities many gosain s became wealthy, acquiring substantial property and trading enterprises. By the 1780s gosain s had become the dominant moneylenders and property-owners in Allahabad, Banaras, Mirzapur, Ujjain, and Nagpur, and they were major brokers in Rajasthan and the Deccan at places such as Hyderabad and Pune. Their influence declined during the nineteenth century, and since the beginning of the twentieth century, nearly all renunciate institutions, including most of the akhāā s, have been actively engaged in educational and social welfare programs throughout India. Being Hindu institutions, renunciate sects have also been periodically vocal in the politics of India. This was particularly evident during the 1990s, when the leaders of several renunciate institutions became more closely involved with the ruling, nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

In several regions of South Asia there are castes of Sanyāsīs, Nāths, and other renunciate sects, who exhibit some of the customs of the sect to which their ancestors were members, but having married and settled, are otherwise integrated into worldly society amongst a general hierarchy of castes.

See Also

Asceticism; Ashram; Gurū; Kabīr; Kumbha Melā; Madhva; Moksa; Nimbārka; Nuns, overview article; Ordination; Rāmānuja; Saivism, overview article; Sanyāsa; Śakara; Sārāda Devī; Vaiavism, overview article.


Although a considerable number of articles related to specific renunciate sects have been published, relatively few general studies of sādhu s and sādhvī s have appeared since the late 1970s.

Burghart, Richard. "Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia." Man (New Series) 18 (1983): 635653. This article provides a useful critique of a still prevalent anthropological notion of a "lone" casteless ascetic, illustrating hierarchies and marriage status amongst various renunciant sects.

Clementin-Ojha, Catherine. "Feminine Asceticism in Hinduism: Its Tradition and Present Condition." Man In India 61, no. 3 (1981): 254285. Having surveyed the historical situation of women sanyāsinī s, Clementin-Ojha presents three women renunciate guru s who have followers and āś rama s in Banaras.

Gross, Robert Lewis. The Sadhus of India: A Study of Hindu Asceticism. Jaipur, India 1992.

Hartsuiker, Dolf. Sādhus: Holy Men of India. 2d ed. London, 1993. Hartsuiker's book contains many excellent photos and a good introductory account of sādhu s.

Khandelwal, Meena. Women in Ochre Robes: Gendering Hindu Renunciation. Albany, N.Y., 2004. This is one of the few studies on Hindu women renunciates. It focuses primarily on two Daśanāmī women living in Haridwar, and relates their daily lives.

Lester, Robert C. "The Practice of Renunciation in Śrivaiavism." Journal of Oriental Research, Madras (Dr. S. S. Janaki Felicitation Volume ) 19861992, vols. 6172 (1992): 7795. Lester's article is an informative survey of the history and practices of the renunciate sect whose preceptor is Rāmānuja.

Lorenzen, David N. "Warrior Ascetics in Indian History." Journal of the American Oriental Society 98, no. 1 (1978): 6175. This article provides a compact, general survey of the topic.

Miller, David M., and Dorothy C. Wertz. Hindu Monastic Life: The Monks and Monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal, 1976. This study examines twenty-two monasteries of various sects in the city.

Olivelle, Patrick, ed. and trans. Sanyāsa Upaniads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation. New York, 1992. A comprehensive historical introduction to the development of the Brahmanical institution of sanyāsa precedes Olivelle's translation of a corpus of texts on asceticism and renunciation produced during the first millennium ce.

Olivelle, Patrick, ed. and trans. Rules and Regulations of Brahmanical Asceticism : Yatidharmasamuccaya of Yādava Prakāśa. Albany, N.Y., 1995. Olivelle provides a useful introduction and a translation of the earliest-known Brahmanical text (twelfth century ce) devoted exclusively to renunciation.

Sinha, Surajit, and Baidyanath Saraswati. Ascetics of Kashi. Vārāasī, India, 1978. Based on anthropological fieldwork carried out in Banaras in the 1970s, this book (somewhat difficult to obtain), on the various sādhu sects and institutions of the city, is one of the most generally informative.

Thiel-Horstmann, Monika. "On the Dual Identity of Nāgās." In Devotion Divine: Bhakti Traditions from the Regions of India, edited by Diana L. Eck and Françoise Mallison, pp. 255272. Groningen, Germany, and Paris, 1991. This article surveys the history and religious practices of nāgā s of the Dādū panth.

Tripathi, B. D. Sadhus of India: The Sociological View. Bombay, 1978. Tripathi was initiated into both Daśanāmī and Nimbārkī sects, and secretly undertook surreptitious sociological fieldwork in the state of Uttar Pradesh in the 1960s. He gives an insider's view and some interesting, though perhaps partial, statistics.

White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago, 1996. This book provides a comprehensive account of Nāths/siddha s in the medieval period, illustrating their complex roles in society.

Matthew Clark (2005)