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South Asian success     stories
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Cultural feature
Sadhus - Holy Men of India
- Their Beliefs
- Their Sects



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the-south-asian.com                            February 2001

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Page  3  of  3

Sadhus – Holy Men of India


Dolf Hartsuiker


Holy Women

sadhus-_lady_sadhu.jpg (7466 bytes)
This graceful lady sadhu, Sobhna Giri, belongs to the Juna Akhara. She entered sadhu life when still a child and thus committed herself to life-long celibacy and other ascetic practices.

In contrast with the many young male sadhus, a beautiful young woman is but rarely seen in the brotherhood. About ten percent of sadhus are women, called sadhvis, but most of them are old, having become sadhvi after they were widowed. This reflects the marginal position of widows. Choosing the sadhu way of life was -- and still is -- about the only respectable way to escape from the 'living death' of widowhood.

Nevertheless, since time immemorial there have been female sadhus. And quite a few have, like their male counterparts, chosen the sadhu life in their teens, convinced as they were of their spiritual predestination.

Quite a few sects do not allow women because the celibates fear their 'corrupting influences'; some sects are mixed, but then female sadhus usually have their separate quarters; some minor sub-sects are all-female. Though generally speaking their position in the spiritual hierarchy is inferior to men, there have always been great woman-saints and female sadhus are treated with much respect -- being  addressed as 'Mataji,' that is 'Revered Mother'.

Foreigner sadhus

sadhus_-_american_sadhu.jpg (6910 bytes)
Rama-priya Das, an American who has been a sadhu for four years and
has even
attained the rank of Mahant, poses in a yoga posture. His body
and hair are covered with ashes from holy sadhu-fires.


Ever since the 'sixties', with an upsurge of interest in the 'mystic East' mirroring a growing discontent with the 'materialistic West', scores of young Westerners went to India searching for the meaning of life and often finding a guru.

Many became disciples of famous, international gurus such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Bhagwan Rajneesh, and Saï Baba, but others chose the more individualistic path of the sadhu and committed themselves to the hardships of the ascetic life. So today there are at least a few hundred foreign sadhus, male and female, some of whom have been sadhus for over twenty years, and it seems that their number is still increasing. They are formally initiated into various sects, receive their sadhu name, and in appearance and behaviour conform to the sadhu life-style.

Pious Hindus, especially those in rural areas, treat these foreign holy men and women with the same respect as they would Indian sadhu. Though most nationalities seem to be represented -- notably American, German and Japanese -- it is quite remarkable that most of these foreigners are of Italian or French extraction. Some foreign sadhus are 'part-timers', who time and again plunge into the adventure of sadhu-life but keep their ties to the home-front. Others burn all their bridges, as it should be done, and totally commit themselves to the realisation of the sadhu ideals.


Certainly, not all sadhus are enlightened. But believers regard them all as holy anyway, if only because of their radical commitment. And successful sadhus are even worshipped as 'gods on earth'. Believers only have to 'behold' a sadhu -- as a kind of living idol -- to receive a spark of his spiritual energy. They give donations to the sadhus -- regarded as offerings to the gods -- and get their blessing in return.

Thus, since time immemorial, has Indian society been organised to support the holy men, for they are not supposed to work. But in India the times are changing too. It must be recognised that in Hinduism all levels of religion -- from gross materialism to sublime spirituality -- can be experienced and expressed simultaneously.


Different sects of Sadhus



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