Sadhus: The Great Renouncers

Features Issue 27 Aug, 2010
Text by Tim Bradford

The morning was cold and foggy in Kathmandu Valley. As I descended the road down to the Bagmati River and the temple of Pashupatinath, I heard the chants, devotional music, and bell ringing associated with temple sites in South Asia. The road was already lined with beggars, many missing an eye or arm or leg, who sought alms from the festival crowd, and below, near the unfortunately polluted river, I could see hundreds of devout Nepalis busy with their morning worship. I could also see the smoky campfires of the bands of sadhus who had come to this sacred location to celebrate the festival of Maha-Shivaratri, or “great night of Shiva.” They were the ones I had come to meet.

A longing for unification with the cosmos, a state beyond bodily existence with its birth, suffering, and death, has been the primary quest of numerous magic and religious pratices in a wide variety of cultures and epochs. Although it is fashionable nowadays to focus on Eastern religions when searching for similar modern-day paths, the tradition of the shaman or spiritually devoted is not foreign to any culture.

Siberian and Native American shamans as well as the magio-religious practices of Christian saints as recorded in hagiographies, or life records, attest to this. Nonetheless, few cultures have an unbroken record of these practices extending as far back as those of the Hindus of South Asia.

Who are the Sadhus?
The sadhus of today’s modern India and Nepal differ very little from the earliest known historical accounts of them from around 600 A.C.E. (After the Common Era, also known as AD). Various Hindu religious texts from as far back as 1500 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era, or BC) suggest similar practices and ideas. In short, sadhus represent one of the oldest and best-established spiritual paths in the history of humankind. The word sadhu comes from the Sanskrit root sadh- meaning “to accomplish” and thus could be interpreted as “one who follows a certain path to completion”. The physical yoga, the mediation practices, and the worship of deities all comprise a sadhu’s sadhana, or path. Sadhus are know by a wide variety of other names including: sannyasi, or renouncer; tapasvi, or one who develops inner heat and light; yogi, which really refers to a specific sub-sect of sadhus; and babaji, an honorific term for a father. Although they are far less numerous than men, female renunciants exist and are called, in relation to the above terms, sadhvi, samnyasini, tapasini, yogini, and mataji. Of India’s one billion people, sadhus and sadhvis make up approximately 8 to 15 million, but despite their small numbers, they play a very large role in the spiritual and social life of India and Nepal.

Although there are some historical traces, as previously mentioned, no one knows for sure the origin of sadhus. Historians and anthropologists guess they have roots in the two original groups that combined to form Indo-Aryan culture: the indigenous people of the Indus Valley and the invading Aryans. In the indigenous Indus Valley cultures as represented by ancient cities such as Mohenjodaro and Harappa, there is evidence of an ascetic tradition. These stable and agrarian societies existed from about 2500 B.C.E. until the Aryan invasion around 1500 B.C.E. Archeological fragments indicate they worshipped nature, animals, and the regenerative power of the female principle. A seal with a prototype of the Hindu deity Shiva, referred to as “the horned god”, has even been discovered in their ruins. The invading Aryans contributed a shamanic fascination with the use of fire rituals to affect change and even control the weather. Although the Aryans conquered the indigenous people, the resultant culture was more of a blend than completely Aryan in nature, and this dual inheritance can still be seen in the practice of contemporary sadhus-they live close to nature but aspire to visions of the ethereal and absolute.

In addition to these vague historical roots, contemporary sadhus have a paradoxical reputation surrounded by numerous myths and legends. For example, most people in South Asia both revere and fear sadhus. They are deemed worthy of reverence because they most completely embody the Hindu ideal of complete devotion to the Divine, but they are deemed worthy of fear because they live outside the norms of society and are thought to know magic. Parents even tell misbehaving children, “If you don’t behave, the babajis will come get you,” reinforcing the myth that sadhus steal children to add to their ranks.

As a Westerner attending Maha-Shivaratri, I was no less immune to the plethora of stories surrounding these fierce-looking renunciants. On the one hand, I had been told to expect generous hospitality from most sadhus including a spot around their sacred fire, or dhuni, a bit of the food, and potentially some marijuana or hashish. On the other hand, I was warned by Westerners and Nepalis alike to look out for both “crazy” and “fake” sadhus. Both were deemed capable of unpredictable and potentially violent behavior, the “crazy” ones acting this way due to strange or misguided spiritual practices, and the “fake” ones acting this way because they use the guise of a sadhu to commit robbery or worse. These conflicting preconceptions kept flitting through my mind as I walked up and down the riverbanks looking for an approachable group. Although I had met a handful of sadhus both on the road and at various temple sites around South Asia, I had never had the chance to see so many all in one place.

The Shiva Connection
Pashupatinath is considered one of the three most auspicious spots in all of South Asia for the festival of Maha-Shivaratri (the other two being Benares and Junagadh in Northern India) and Maha-Shivaratri, or the “great night of Shiva,” is considered one of the sadhu festivals par excellence. It is celebrated once a year around February or March depending on the lunar calendar, and it is one of the most important religious holidays for sadhus because it is the primary festival to honor their prototype – the Hindu deity Shiva. Although Hinduism is a neat label for an ancient and complex pantheon of spirits, demons, gods, and goddesses, most contemporary Hindus recognize Shiva as one of the three primary deities. In this system, Brahma, an older and now less popular deity, is recognized as the creator. Vishnu is recognized as the sustainer. Shiva, paradoxically, is recognized as both the destroyer and regenerator. In this role, Shiva is seen as the ur-sadhu who transcends the strict orthodox rules of Hinduism due to his tremendous asceticism and yogic practices. In this form, Shiva is represented as naked or nearly so. His body is covered with ashes from the burning pyres of the dead, he wears cobras around his arms and neck, and his long hair catches the Ganges River as it falls to earth. He carries a trident, or trishul, as his weapon, a two-headed drum called a damaru as his instrument, and his forehead bears a third eye capable of omniscient vision or rays of terrible destruction. Despite these signs of ascetic power through renunciation, Shiva is also associated with fertility and sexuality. In this role, he is portrayed as the yogic lover of the goddess Paravati whose sexual ecstasy is transmuted into divine bliss and illumination. In myth, Shiva’s bull Nandi overheard their secrets of love-making while they were engaged in a cave in the Himalayas, and this information was passed on to become the Kama Sutra. The Shiva linga, a stone representation of his ever-erect phallus, is the most common way to represent this powerfully creative and sensual side of Shiva. Shiva lingas made of stone are found all over the Indian sub-continent, and twelve of them  are said to be representative of the jyotir-linga, or divine shaft of light, which Shiva presented to Brahma and Vishnu to prove his superiority. Although this aspect of Shiva is openly recognized and worshipped, almost all sadhus are celibate or have taken vows to be. Among sadhus, sexuality is something to be transcended or denied, and it is only among secret practitioners of left-handed tantra that the sexual side of Shiva would be literally embraced.

As I walked around looking for a group of approachable sadhus, a group of four around a small smoldering fire quite unexpectedly chose me. Through a mixture of English, Hindi, and hand gestures, they motioned for me to take a seat around the fire. They looked friendly and sane enough, and unlike many of the other sadhus at the festival, they wore clothing appropriate for the cold weather. The appearance and dress of a sadhu tells a lot about them. For example, these sadhus were wearing loose robes and sackcloth of no particular color, and they wore three horizontal bands of ash across their foreheads. The first detail means they were not from some of the more extreme sub-sects such as the Naga sadhus who are famous for wearing little more than ash. Furthermore, their lack of colored and uniform robes shows they were probably not closely affiliated with one of the some 300 sampradayas or groups, although their forehead marking, called a tilaka, showed them to be devotees of Shiva. After sitting down and answering some perfunctory questions: “Where are you from? Why are you here? How did you learn Hindi?” I sat in silence as they attended to the fire and potatoes roasting in the ashes on the side. Then, after a small breakfast of roast potatoes and salt, one of them began filling a straight black pipe known as a chilum with a mixture of hashish and tobacco, sometimes referred to as charas. Although I normally do not smoke such substances, I had made a pact with myself to consume without discrimination any food, drink, or substance offered. It was my simple way to honor Shiva, a deity outside my tradition that I nonetheless respected a great deal. One of them lit the pipe with a coal from the fire, offered it up with a quiet prayer, and took a huge draw. Then, he passed it to me, and I followed suit. The smoke was mild and brought a sense of warmth, confidence, and well-being to my body and mind.

Traditions Old and New
More historical traditions of sadhus are fairly well documented, and for the most part these guidelines are far stricter and more conventionally Hindu in character than those followed by contemporary sadhus. The Manusmriti and Visnusmriti specifically limit the renunciation of worldly life to the highest caste, the Brahmins, and only after fulfilling their duties as students, householders, and hermits. Among Hindus practicing a Vedic, or “pure” lifestyle, drugs are mere distractions or worse. Despite these conventional prohibitions, sadhus now come from all classes, and drug use is common among many. Despite the Vedic prohibitions, a precedent exists in the mention of the mysterious soma, a now-unknown psychotropic drug thought to induce visions of the Absolute. In addition, the Indus Valley god of the beasts that developed into the contemporary deity Shiva is known for his prolific drug use. This is explained by way of his ability to transmute all harmful agents into divine energy and bliss. In this way, the contemporary sadhu smoking marijuana, hashish, or opium becomes a living embodiment of Shiva as they try to use the altered awareness to attain further divine insight or bliss. Among some of the extremely non-conventional sects such as the Aghoris, this method of transmuting what could conventionally be harmful or fatal is taken to the far extremes of drinking urine and eating feces or corpses.

Although I felt comfortable and welcome with this first band of sadhus, I also was a bit disappointed in their lack of fiery appearance or demeanor. After half-an-hour or so, I wished them well, donated some rupees to their cause, and set off. As I walked along the river, I saw my goal on the opposite side. Behind the burning pyres for the dead in a large room with open grillwork on the front, a group of about ten sadhus sat around a very lively fire. They wore little in the way of clothes, but they were well marked and adorned for the festival with various body paints indicating their sampradaya or sectarian status. One of them wore his matted locks tied up in a bun with a large length of red cloth. He seemed to be the leader/teacher or guru. The ash from the burning pyres slowly rained down on them, but they were completely oblivious to it as they tended to the their morning rituals and worship.

One of the reasons sadhus seem oblivious to death is that they have already “died”. In other words, when an initiate takes the vows to become a sadhu, this is often accompanied by death rites for their former life. Furthermore, they give away all their possessions, shave off all their hair, and then throw both their hair and old clothes into a river after donning the new robes of their sect or sub-sect. Symbolically, they kill themselves in order to be born again into a world that values the spirit over the material. By doing so, the sadhus experience their second birth and avoid any final death, becoming deathless, unified with the complete and, in Hindu cosmology, never ending cycle of being. For this reason, sadhus’ bodies are not burned after death as is the custom for most Hindus, but rather they are either buried or tied with stones and thrown into a river.

After crossing the bridge to their side, I entered the room with my head bowed and my hands together in the respectful gesture of ‘namaskaar’. The welcome I received was even warmer than with the first group, and before I could absorb the magnitude of my surroundings or the holy men welcoming me, I was seated next to the magnificent and noble sadhu with the red cloth in his hair. Then, a stainless steel cup with what looked like milk was placed before me. Sadhus often have such a grounded and powerful presence that traditional conversation and greetings seem superfluous. I found it wise to respect their silence and only ask questions when absolutely necessary, but the contents of the drink before me seemed to necessitate a question. “Kya hai?” I asked in my broken Hindi pointing to the cup. “Prasad,” the leader replied. Prasad means anything offered up to the deity before consumption, thus giving it power and additional blessings. I laughed out of nervousness. A bit of paranoia crept into my head, but further attempts to find out the cup’s contents in detail were waved off by the leader in a playful manner. “Piyo!” he said with enthusiasm, reinforcing it with a drinking gesture, and remembering my pact, I drank it all down. As the festival-goers surged by the room throughout the morning, I fell further and further under the spell of the cup’s contents, which were revealed to be opium, crushed marijuana leaves or bhang, and sugar in milk. My earlier mild sensation turned into something quite different - more like a wild animal in its energy and activity - yet I found that by tuning my attention to the sadhu beside me, I was quite blissful and at peace. He sat with beautiful posture on his brown blanket, blinking little as he slowly turned his head from side to side to survey the group. Another sadhu lit up a chilum, and I watched in amazement as they offered the pipe up to Shiva with loud cries and took enormous draws. When it came to my turn, I followed as best as possible. “Bum Shankar!” I cried, and I truly felt part of the divine intoxication of Shiva.

Photographing the Living Questions
Thomas L. Kelly

Sadhus are an enigma to me, living the mystery of ancient questions that have no an  swers. Tricksters, derelicts, madmen, charlatans, wanderers, mystics and yogis, their boldly painted bodies confront us with essential questions at the heart of existence. I found them wandering through crowded polluted urban centers begging, on their way to villages and what is left of forest and mountain pilgrimage trails. Like walking mysteries of the human soul, for me, sadhus provoke the question, who am I? What do I need, what really is important? What is this ancient desire to wander in search of god? Most importantly, sadhus remind us that the answer for all things lies only within our own elusive hearts.

In my adopted home of Kathmandu, some sadhus survive primarily off alms made from allowing tourists to photograph them. They are a spectacle and love to play their assigned role in the illusion or drama of society. Their masks are thickly painted on their naked bodies. Sadhus have formally abandoned conventional time; their world is dense with its own complex politics, social hierarchy, taboos and customs, often making access challenging.

Volatile and unpredictable, spontaneous photography of sadhus can actually be dangerous. You can easily be trampled or attacked if you immerse yourself in a naga baba (naked sadhu) procession after a mass Khumba Mela (grand gathering) bathing. Or, without permission to work inside an Akhara, be accused of being a spy and have to answer to a sadhu tribunal. There’s no such thing as achieving photographic acceptance within the sadhu mandala.  For me, photographing at ritual time is always the most dynamic and fluid. Once rapport has been established, a camera is tolerated, often with a sense of lila, or maya, play and illusion. It took repeated visits over many seasons and melas, to occasionally reach this level.

My initial inexplicable attraction to the sadhu world was mostly visual. As a photographer, I loved how they allowed their bodies to become symbols of the sacred- from walking around naked to remind us of our naked selves, to wearing ash to remind us what our bodies become, to dreadlocks to remind us of our natural wild natures devoid of social convention. Their bodies were texts, which spoke volumes regarding sacred symbolism.

A sadhu’s body is a map of the Hindu universe, for the body is a microcosm of the cosmos. Like a canvas, the color and painted symbols aid in purification, inspire, and remind of the timeless divine beyond body and form. The body is used to tell stories. As the sadhu works towards an egoless state, he becomes the very symbols he’s painted - whether it be Shiva, Vishnu, or  Rama. The colors refer to esoteric inner visions and possible alchemical states of consciousness. The real goal of a sadhu is to achieve an attitude of non-attachment and transcendence of the physical body.

As a photographer, I sometimes like to hide behind my lens, become invisible. Yet for sadhus, it is their very outlandish visibility, the powerful symbols of the divine they paint on their bodies, which help them not to become invisible, but to transcend self. Disturbing, annoying, inspiring, exasperating, irrational, wise and powerful, photographing sadhus is like photographing a living question that people have forgotten to ask. 

Sadhus: The Great Renouncers
A photographic exhibition by Thomas L. Kelly is opening at Indigo Gallery on
February 13, 2004 at 5.30 pm and will continue till February 29. Cosponsoring the exhibition are Photo Concern Pvt.Ltd, New Road: 4223275 and Hill-Side Press Pvt.Ltd, Kalimati: 4271755.

For details: 4413580 or e-mail at