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Sadhus – The Spiritual Wanderers Seeking Salvation

Sadhus-the solitary spiritual wanderers in search of the ultimate salvation can be seen all over the country. Free from the norms of conventional society, they follow a rigid discipline of their own.

Mind nor intellect, nor ego, feeling;

Sky, nor earth, nor metals am I.

I am he, I am he, blessed spirit, I am he!

No birth, no death, no caste have I;

Father mother, have I none.

I am he, I am he, blessed spirit, I am he!

Beyond the flights of fancy, formless am I,

Permeating the limbs of all life,

Bondage I do not fear; I am free,

Forever free.

I am he, I am he, blessed spirit, I am he!

Sanskrit chant of Adi Shankaracharya (8 AD)

Sadhus are a unique manifestation of India’s age old spirituality. Older than even the Vadas, the oldest Indian scriptures, which refer to them as a distinctly different class of holy men- “The silent ones (munis) who wear the wind as a girdle and whom drunk with their own silence, rise on the wind and fly to where only the Gods can. The Muni knows all men’s thoughts, for the has drunk from the magic cup of Rudra (Shiva) which is poison to ordinary mortals.”

The status and nature of Sadhus has never been wholly clear. They are obviously beyond the purview of conventional society, yet critical to its composition. It is widely recognized tat it is through Sadhus rather than orthodox sacrificial priests, that spiritual teachings are developed and spread amongst the masses. Their patron deity is Rudra, who is usually depicted as lurking in horrible places such as battlefields and cremation grounds. He wears snakes as garlands and is surrounded by ghosts, evil spirits and demons. He is Mahakal, master of time and space! He is also the greatest ascetic. It is through his (and that of his follower’s) meditation, that the cosmos is maintained.

Many of them are solitary recluses who live in forests and suffer terrible self-inflicted tortures of hunger, thirst, heart, cold and rain. Many others live on the outskirts of towns and indulge in such fantastic self tortures as sitting in the midst of blazing fires under a hot sun, lying on beds of thorns or spikes, hanging for hours head downwards from the branches of trees, or holding their arms motionless above their heads until they atrophy.

The self torturing Sadhus are obviously not the ones who bring about new developments in spiritual thought. Their motive is purely personal; acquisition of magical power-not to be used for material gain but for evolving to a perfect, blissful state, where all the mysteries of the universe are solved and they become one with the supreme creator. New developments in thought are largely the work of less austere Sadhus who confine themselves to mental and spiritual exercises of meditation. They wander from place to place, subsisting entirely on alms and proclaim their doctrine to all who care to listen to them, often engaging those who dispute them in lively debates.

At least one set of Sadhus, the Naga Sadhus, have even been known to go to war in defence of the community they have adopted. In the early part of this millennia, they were constrained to suspend their spiritual pursuits and engage in military combat with the invaders. Their hermitages became akharas or gymnasiums, where the novices were formally trained in martial arts. So successful were they, that they are to this day held in as much awe as reverence.

There are hundreds of thousands of Sadhus, spread all over India. Barring the rare exception, each of them is answerable to a Mahant, an elder Sadhu, who might have anything between a score to several hundreds of Sadhus under his wing. The Mahants in turn are answerable to an executive committee of seven leaders who represent the seven different sections, that the country has been divided into. Although free from the norms of conventional society, they are clearly not anarchists. In reality, they conform to the norms of another society, with a much more rigid discipline. Each one of them is formally initiated and made to take certain vows that include celibacy, poverty and absolute obedience to the head of spiritual authority. In addition to observance of personal discipline, the novices are imparted a knowledge of the scriptures and the various rituals they might be required to perform in the course of their evolution. Very often the Mahants use seemingly bizarre techniques to develop their wards. Magical plants are eaten or smoked to help liberate the novice from his former wrongful conditioning. Severe penances are performed to understand a concept in the body instead of the mind alone.

In addition to the solitary recluses and the martial Naga Sadhus, there are also a variety of other freewheeling Sadhus, who don’t belong to any Akhara and are not answerable to any Mahant. These uninitiated Sadhus are often of dubious merit and indulge in activities which often give the cult a bad name causing a large section of society to view them with a certain amount of suspicion. Fortunately there are enough of the real ones, within easy reach, to reinstate the reverence the cult has always commanded from the masses of India.

Not all of these freewheeling Sadhus are fakes, some of them are genuinely following the Manu Smriti, an ancient treatise on the Hindu code of conduct, which says “A twice born man (of the three upper castes) who seeks final liberation, without having studied the Vadas, without having begotten sons, and without having offered sacrifices sinks downwards. Having performed the Ishti (sacrifices) sacred to the lord of creatures where he gives away all his property, he may depart from his house as an ascetic. Departing from his house fully provided with the means of purification, let him wander about absolutely silent and caring nothing for any enjoyments that might be offered on the way.

Let him always wander alone, without any companion, in order to attain final liberation, fully understanding that the solitary man who neither forsakes nor is forsaken, gains his end. He shall neither possess a fire, nor a dwelling. He may go to a villager for his appointed time, as a servant waits for the payment of his wages. Delighting in what refers to the self, sitting in the postures prescribed by Yoga, independent of external help, entirely abstaining from sensual enjoyments, with himself for his only companion, he shall live in this world, desiring the bless of final liberation! By deep meditation let him recognize the subtle nature of the supreme self and its presence in all organisms.” This is an excerpt from the translation by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan.

The magical powers that conventional sacrificial priests claim by virtue of their birth in the highest caste, can be acquired through ascetism alone by the other castes. The Sadhu cult knows no barriers of caste or creed. Whereas sacrificial mysticism is a means of obtaining wealth, long life and rebirth in heaven. Ascetism on the other hand rises far above these modest goals. It sustain they very cosmos.

Even on the material plane, the Sadhu has much to look forward to, in the form of honour and respect which as an ordinary man he could never hope for, an complete freedom from worldly cares. As he advances in his training, the Sadhu acquires powers far beyond those of ordinary mortals. He can see the past, present and future; mount the heavens, and be graciously received at the courts of the Gods, while divinities descend on earth and visit him in his hermitage. By the magical power acquired through his ascetism, he can work miracles. He can crumble mountains into the sea; if offended; he can burn up his enemies with a single glance of the eye, or cause the crops of a whole people to fail. If respected, his magical power can protect a great city, increase its wealth and defend it from famine, pestilence and invasion…. And these are just some of the lower manifestations of the power that the Sadhu aims to achieve.

On the spiritual plane he can achieve even greater heights. As his mystical exercises progress, he develops psychic faculties and begins to fathom the mysteries of the cosmos, a progress hard to understand for unregenerate men. His soulenters realms far beyond the comparatively tawdry heavens, where the Gods dwell in light and splendour. Going from darkness to keeper darkness, he solves the mystery beyond all mysteries. He understands fully and finally, the nature of the universe and to himself and reaches a realm of truth and bliss, beyond birth and death, joy and sorrow, good and evil. And with this transcendent knowledge comes another realization, that he is completely, utterly, free! He has found the ultimate salvation, the final triumph of the sould. The ascetic who has reached the goal of his quest is a conqueror above all conquerors. There is none greater than he in the whole universe.