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,
Sky, nor earth, nor metals am I.
I am he, I am he, blessed spirit, I
No birth, no death, no caste have
Father mother, have I none.
I am he, I am he, blessed spirit, I
Beyond the flights of fancy,
formless am I,
Permeating the limbs of all life,
Bondage I do not fear; I am free,
I am he, I am he, blessed spirit, I
Sanskrit chant of
Adi Shankaracharya (8 AD)
Sadhus are a
unique manifestation of Indias 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 mens 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 followers) 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.
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.
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 dont 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.
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 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.