What the heck is a Sadhu? by Marc O’Bryan

In the context of Hinduism, a Sadhu is a spiritual “holy man” who has given up all worldly possessions in order to achieve the highest level of enlightenment. They are nomadic monks who strive for a minimalist way of life in order to focus entirely on achieving a “higher reality” beyond the physical realm of understanding. These incredibly devoted ascetics renounce the physical world, cut all ties to family, have no permanent residence, and eat very simple foods. Through intense daily meditation and contemplation, the Sadhus attempt to understand the “true” reality, which is regarded as the highest level of spiritual enlightenment by Hindus. Many Hindus, however, believe that it requires multiple lifetimes and several reincarnations to truly achieve this type of spiritual enlightenment. Becoming a Sadhu can be thought of as the fast track to attaining this goal. Living on the far-flung end of society, these immensely devoted holy men perform rituals and spend hours praying each and every day.

Despite their seemingly undesirable way of life, the Sadhu membership has grown to between four and five million followers. These millions of Sadhus are divided among various sects, each of which has their own particular practices and nuanced philosophical beliefs. The Sadhus do not work because they are considered holy men in pursuit of enlightenment. Consequently, they are supported primarily by donations from Indian society, many of whom view the Sadhus’ self-denying practices as a spiritual benefit to society. While many Indians respect the Sadhus as holy men, there is a growing sector of the country’s population who don’t think as highly of them. Particularly in India’s urban areas, a growing number of people are viewing the Sadhus with mistrust to a certain extent. In some cases, desperate beggars pose as Sadhus simply to get free donations to support themselves. For the most part, Sadhus are genuine about their ascetic lifestyle and pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.

If you are thinking of becoming a Sadhu, you’re not the first young Westerner to do so. Since the sixties, when the hippie culture really took off in the U.S., hoards of Westerners have flocked to India to escape the “materialism” of the West. They come to India in search of a guru to teach them the ways of spiritualism and minimalism.  So if you are sick of all your material possessions and worldly troubles, head to India and seek a little enlightenment… It worked for Steve Jobs.

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One Response to What the heck is a Sadhu? by Marc O’Bryan

  1. Stephen Allison says:

    I have mixed opinions about Sadhus. On one side, I know how desire and wanting can be a source of anxiety. “Wanting” implies that you do not have something that you want, and the desire to have “it” can drive you mad. But when you do gain what you desire, do you really feel any better? Or does your “Wanting” just focus on something else? We can always find something missing from our lives. Wanting to fill what is missing will never go away.

    Sadhu’s renounce wanting and desire. They seek “enlightenment” through austerity in the physical world. However, the physical world is what connects people and allows for change. By choosing to live in one’s own mind, we imprison ourselves in a vacuum, shut off from outside influences. The best “higher reality” we can hope for is an understanding of our present selves, but without connections to the physical world we lose the ability to become our future selves or to help others become their future selves. We become stuck while the world passes us by.

    For the record, Steve Jobs spent 7 months in India and concluded from the experience that he belongs in the world of the physical:

    “Clearly, Jobs’ peregrinations in the India of the 1970s were less than enlightening. He was probably psyched by the extent of poverty and chaos he found here. His biography says he found India “intense and disturbing,” and his search for enlightenment ended abruptly.

    After his India trip, he concluded: “We weren’t going to find a place where we could go for a month to be enlightened. It was one of the first times that I started to realise that maybe Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and Neem Kairolie Baba put together.”

    That statement tells a lot about who Jobs really was – and why his Indian connection never really happened beyond a broad interest in Buddhism. If Jobs believed that what you do helps others more than all the giving philosophies of the world (as the reference to Edison exemplifies), he well and truly lived the life that only he could live.”


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