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SYNONYMS: Baba, Jogi, Mahatma, Muni, Sant, Sanyasi, Swami, Tapasi, Tapsawi, Yati, Yogi


Identification. The term sadhu is applied individually to any one of the millions of mendicant ascetics informally affiliated with the disparate Hindu religious orders of India. Most of these wandering holy persons are male, but women (called sadhvin, feminine of sadhu) are also represented in their ranks. At one time only Brahmans were able to be admitted to these ascetic orders. Later, admission was granted to Members of any caste. Sadhus are expected to adopt ascetic practices, observe certain religious regulations, and teach or render service to those in need. Their ascetic practices include the departure from family and home, the application of bodily markings often associated with a particular sect, the wearing of attire associated with a particular sect (or being Partially or totally naked), the growth of hair only on five important bodily parts (the head, upper jaw, chin, armpits, and pubic region) or the complete shaving of the body, the adoption of a mendicant or sedentary life-style, and the dependence on the goodness of others for daily survival. Their religious duties include acts of self-purification, worship, participation in religious discourses, the study of sacred Literature, and the making of pilgrimages. The consolation of those in distress, preaching and teaching of religious tenets, the granting of assistance to the poor, and the opening of schools and hospitals are examples of the services that sadhus are expected to render to the larger society. Sadhus are found throughout India and Nepal and are not confined to any particular geographical locale. It is believed that there are some 5 million or more ascetics affiliated with several thousand "schools" or sects of sadhus living in various parts of South Asia. As mendicants, they do not form distinct communities.

History and Cultural Relations

There are three major Hindu religious orders: the Vaishnava, the Shaiva, and the Shakta. Of these, the Shaiva sect seems to have the largest number of devotees. These have spawned numerous subdivisions. It is believed by some that Shaivism represents the original religious faith of India, already in place before the arrival of the Aryans. The orders are much splintered, the result being the current existence of numerous "sects." Some are orthodox while others are reformist or radical. The roots of Hindu asceticism may be traced to the fourfold division of life outlined in Vedic literature. These stages are: brahmacarin (the life of the pupil) ; grhastha (the life of the householder, which includes marriage, procreation, and the practice of a craft) ; vanaprastha (the life of the forest hermit, resorted to when the transitory nature of worldly pleasures is realized); and sannyasin (the life of the wandering beggar who has renounced all worldly ties). One may claim to be an ascetic without having passed through all of the aforementioned stages of life. In modern times some ascetics have chosen to continue in the marital state. This represents a departure from earlier practice.


Sadhus live either in monasteries (called asrama, matha, or maudira ), if they have elected to lead a sedentary life-style, or at pilgrimage shrines as temporary residents. Each sect Usually maintains at least one of these religious centers. The monastic life-style is austere, emphasis being placed on the cultivation of self-control and discipline. The daily routine includes exercises intended to purify the physical body, elevate mental capacity (e.g., through the reading of sacred Literature), and enhance ecstatic experiences (e.g., through corporate prayer). Provision is also made so that the lay patrons of the monastery (who provide its chief means of support through bhetapuja, "honorific offerings") may receive the benefit of the spiritual counsel of the resident ascetics (by means of preaching and teaching). Monasteries have as their organizing concept the tradition (sampradaya ) associated with a particular teacher (acarya ) who first codified the belief system of the order. Monastic affiliation is usually indicated by the symbols applied to specific bodily parts, clothing color, and additional items in the ascetic's possession (e.g., rosary, water pot, and staff).


Sadhus are almost totally dependent on the alms of others for subsistence. In addition, they may also support themselves by engaging in any of the following activities: begging, serving as spiritual mentors to personal disciples, interpreting dreams, telling fortunes, reading palms, astrology, manufacturing amulets, performing exorcisms, casting spells, singing, conjuring, juggling, tattooing, or selling medicinal herbs and potions. Sadhus are particularly well known for the manufacture of the kavacha (talisman or amulet), which provides the bearer with protection from evil forces or guarantees the presence of beneficent ones.

Marriage and Family

The renunciation of family life and the married state are characteristic of the ascetic life. It has been suggested that marital breakdown is, in fact, one of the motivating factors in the adoption of mendicant life by some sadhus. Some may never have been married. An individual ascetic may, at his discretion, choose disciples who serve apprenticeships under him. Alternately, young children (orphans, runaways, and others) may be dedicated to the service of an order. After a period of training (which may last weeks, months, or years), they are sent out to fulfill their socioreligious duties within the context of the larger society. Yet a third route to socialization as a sadhu involves following the Vedic progression of life stages. An important part of the initiation process is the changing of the natal name. This may involve the addition of suffixes to it or the complete alteration of the name. In general, the new name identifies the place of the initiate within the order and as a votary of a particular god.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Generalizations with regard to the religious beliefs of sadhus are not easily made due to the heterogeneous character of Hindu asceticism. Their worship is directed to diverse gods of primary and secondary importance in the Hindu pantheon. Of the various sadhu religious rituals, that of the dhuni (sacred fire) seems more or less common to all sects. This fire is lit in a hollow pit wherever the ascetic camps. These sacred fires are also found in monastic centers and in the homes of household ascetics associated with certain sects. The liturgies, literature, and bodily adornment of the sadhu may be cited as manifestations of the artistic impulse within the rious ascetic communities of India. With regard to options for medical treatment, the following are available to sadhus: Ayurvedic, allopathic, indigenous, homeopathic, Tantric, and naturopathic. At least one anthropologist has noted a decided preference for Ayurvedic medicines, there being some belief that these decrease the chance of medical relapse.


Ghurye, G. S. (1964). Indian Sadhus, Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

MacMunn, George Fletcher (1932). The Religions and Hidden Cults of India. New York: Macmillan. Reprint. 1982. Delhi: Neeraj Publishing House.

Miller, David M., and Dorothy C. Wertz (1976). Hindu Monastic Life. Montreal and London: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Tripathi, B. D. (1978). Sadhus of India. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

Walker, Benjamin (1986). The Hindu World: An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism. Vol. 2. New York: Frederick Praeger Publishers.


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Sādhu (Skt., √sādh, ‘accomplish’). One who has controlled his senses, a Hindu holy person who has renounced the world, and seeks Brahman or God. The female equivalent is sādhvī. They are also known as sant or ‘saint’. Their life-styles and practices are extremely diverse.

In its most general sense, a sādhu is one who follows a sādhana (path): while he is still on the path, he is known as sādhaka; when he reaches the goal, he becomes a siddha.

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