In holy cities like Varanasi and Kathmandu, some holy men (Sādhus) are quite conspicuous because of their eccentric appearance, which symbolizes their ascetic status and their renunciation of material desires (sannyāsa). This post sheds some light on why some ascetics dress and act the way they do, and dispels some myths about some of their notorious practices.
There are two broad groups of Hindu sādhus, based on which mythical deity they follow. Sādhus who worship Lord Shiva are called Shaivas, while followers of Lord Vishnu (or Krishna) are called Vaishnavas. The relationship between Vishnu & Krishna varies greatly in texts and beliefs, but in essence they are the same.
Sādhus are also divided into followers of the unorthodox ‘left-hand’ path (tantric pleasures, hedonism, ecstasy), or those who follow a ‘right-hand’ path of ascetism and hatha yoga. There are also some who combine elements of both tantric and ascetic practices.
The Semiotics of Sadhu Street Fashion
Wardrobe colors for Sādhus in some sects include shades of red, orange, ochre and saffron, representing the rising sun, blood, and fire, while other sects like Jains wear white to represent purity or surrender. Two of the more extreme Shaiva sects (described below) include the notorious Aghorīs who wear black to represent their death in this world, and the Nāgās who wear only a small loin cloth or remain naked to symbolize their commitment to asceticism (especially in severe weather).
Face paint usually involves an important daily ritual of applying markings on the forehead (tilak or tilaka, derived from the sanskrit root ’til’ meaning sesame seed) because the forehead is where divine energy is channeled. The tilak can be very individualized, but two basic types indicate which deity is worshiped, the Urdhva Pundra or Tripundra (sanskrit ‘punDra’ means enforcing discipline).
Vishnu devotee’s tilak is called a Urdhva Pundra and symbolizes the devotee as Vishnu’s temple. It is applied with white or yellow clay or sandalwood paste (not sacred ash) shaped like the letter ‘U’, representing the deity’s footprint. A red vertical line or dot drawn inside the U is called a chandlo, representing either the devotee or the deity’s consort).
Shiva sects use a tilak called a Tripundra which is 3 horizontal lines applied using sacred ash (vibhūti), and represents both Shiva’s trident and the trinity (Shiva, Vishnu and Brahmā).
An optional red or black line or dot (bindu) is applied in the middle, signifying Shiva’s 3rd eye.
Body paint can involve a tilaka painted on exposed skin (photo above right) and smeared sacred ash (vibhūti), symbolizing Shiva’s role as the destroyer. Vibhūti ashes are considered nourishment from the god of Fire, and symbolize immortality for the sadhu. The ashes are taken from sacred fires that the sadhus maintain themselves or from temple fires, but some ascetics, including all Aghorīs, only use ashes from cremation fires.
Hairstyle carries meaning, and the long hair resembling deadlocks (jatā) is a nod to Lord Shiva, representing Shiva’s mythological source of the sacred Ganges River. The length and thickness of their jatā demonstrates how long they have lived the renouncer life and somehow indicates their religious power.
Other monks are clean shaven, and some Vaishnavas (those who follow Vishnu/Krishna instead of Shiva) leave a small tuft of hair on the back of their head. For those adherents who keep long hair, the Junā sect (see nagas below), one of oldest sects in India, wear their bun on the left, the Nirvānī sect wear their bundle of hair on the right side of their head, and the Niranjanī wear their bun in the middle.
Accessories used by Sādhus represent emblems of their respective deities. Many Shaivas carry a trident (trishūl) which represents Shivas mythological weapon that destroys evil, and a spiritual connection to heaven. Vaishnava (Vishnu followers) rarely carry weapons, but if they do it would be their deity’s symbolic mace or battle-axe. All members of the Nāgās sect supposedly carry the trident, but it is optional for other Sādhus.
Some Sādhus carry a staff or stick (danda) symbolizing mystical power. For Shaivas, it is a single stick but for Vaishnavas it is 3 sticks tied together representing control of body, speech and mind.
Practically all sādhus have beaded strings (mālās) worn as a necklace or amulet or headband, or carried in a bag. Some sādhus wear necklaces of bones carved as small human skulls, as pictured above, while some go all out wear real skulls (see aghoris section, below).
Vaishnavas use beads of the sacred tulsī plant, a type of basil. Shiva followers use beads made from dried rudrāksh fruit from the Elaeocarpus tree (pictured below). Rudraksha fruit have holes used for threading onto a string, and natural exterior grooves and interior seed segments (muhkti). Their ‘supernatural’ and mystical healing powers are much hyped, along with attributes of sacred geometric energy and planetary alignment specific to the number of muhkti.
The mālās symbolize protection against evil elements, but are mainly used as prayer-beads, especially by Vaishnavas who consider the endless repetition (japa) of their deity’s name to be a key to spiritual salvation. The number of beads can range from about 50 to 1000, with the holy number 108 being most common.
A small water container (kamandal) is used by all sadhus in rituals and for drinking. It is cleaned every time a Sādhu takes a bath, usually by scouring it with sand or ashes. The pot can be made of brass (Shaivas), stainless steel or aluminium or from coconuts shells.
Musical paraphernalia may include small finger cymbals, a conch shell for blowing into, a small two-sided drum called a damaru which symbolizes the mythical drum Shiva used to produce the primordial sound of creation. Small tongs (chimtā) which are usually used for tending a sacred fire can be played rhythmically like castanets or ‘spoons’ in Acadian and Celtic folk music.
An Absurdly Brief History of Sadhus
While the exact origins and dates are disputed by scholars, some propose there is archaeological basis for assuming Hindu asceticism and yoga are linked to shamanistic elements of the Indus Valley Civilization from 2,500 BC. Others propose ascetics and yoga are first mentioned in India’s Vedic earliest sacred texts from around 1,500 B.C. (believed to be the world’s oldest religious texts). And some think the earliest date of their mention is only around 300 B.C.
What we do know is that around 900 BC, an increased religious and legal importance was placed on the Hindu priest class (Brahmanism) and after 800 B.C. some ascetic movements formed to reject the authority of the Brahmin priests. These movements (the śramaṇa movements) also opposed Vedic ritualism and the strict reliance on sacred texts. Eventually, between about 700 and 450 BC., some elements of śramaṇa transformed into the Cārvāka (also called Charvaka or Lokāyata) in the Hindu tradition, and into Jainism and Buddhism. Some śramaṇa elements were also re-absorbed into Vedic literature.
Around 800 AD, a theologian reformer named Shankara (Śaṅkara) promoted his monistic view of Hinduism and helped bolster it against the rising popularity of Buddhism and Jainism by organizing and guiding the disordered followers of Shiva into 10 named divisions (dashnāmīs) and 4 monastic centers all around India, still active today. Shankara’s monistic philosophy united the principal deities as all having equal status but different forms of the ultimate reality called Brahman.
After 1200 AD, similar reformations occurred for Vaishnava sects, starting with the Hindu philosopher Rāmānuja, who guided some ascetics to follow the more ‘personal’ deity Vishnu instead of Shiva, claiming the latter was too abstract to know spiritually.
In Hindu culture a sadhu is usually referred to as baba (father, grandfather, or uncle).
A fascinating but sparsely researched topic relates to Indo-Iranian religious rituals involving the psychoactive elixir called soma (haoma in Persian). This entheogen is presumed may have nurtured the development of ancient mystical concepts like “altered states” or “expanded consciousness” and “self-transcendence” which prevailed in Zoroastrian (Persian) and early Hindu religious beliefs.
Examples of some sadhu sects and practices
The precise origins and lineages of various Hindu asectic sects is uncertain. However most scholars agree that present day ascetic sects evolved from the śramaṇa movement mentioned above, which spawned the atheistic Charvaka (Lokāyatika) tradition, which embraced Hindu materialism before branching into Buddhists, Jains, and Kāpālikas.
Kāpālika Sect – the skull carriers
The Kāpālikas are an ancient and extinct tantric sect of Shiva devotees whose name is based on kapāla meaning skull. Historically the Kāpālikas are derived from the older Lākulas and Pāśupatas but some scholars suggest the term Kāpālikas was loosely applied to any ascetics engaged in skull-related practices (kapālavrata).
The last Kāpālika: Although the Kāpālikas are considered extinct, in a 1978 research census of sadhu sects in north India (Appendix 1 of Mathew Clark’s PhD thesis, see “sources” below), there was one sadhu who still listed himself as Kāpālika.
The most notable of Kāpālikas practices includes using the human calvaria, which is the top part of the skull, and multiple scholars confirm that this practice of using the human calvaria and skull for alms bowls and drinking persists among Aghori ascetics in present-day India,.
Calvaria have been used ritually long before their use by Kāpālikas. The oldest one is from 12,000 BC found in England.
Kāpālika practices also include a skull-on-a-stick (khaṭvāṅga), wearing threads woven from corpse hair and necklaces fashioned from human bone.
The origin of the Aghorī relationship with human skulls derives from the mythological Bhairava (Shiva’s ‘fierce’ avatar) who was the first Kāpālika, and described in the myth below:
Kāpālika Myth: Bhairava cut off one of Brahma’s heads, and the penance for this misdeed was to live as an ascetic recluse, beg for food and alms, drink from skull cup (calvaria), and carry Brahma’s severed skull on a stick (khaṭvāṅga) or in his hand, which he did until the skull spontaneously dropped off when he arrived in Kashi (Varanasi) after twelve years.
Aghoris – the sensational(ized) sadhus
The notorious Aghorīs name means “what is not terrible” but most of their ritual practices are considered societal taboos: urophagia, coprophagia, necrophilia and cannibalism. To the Aghorīs any sense of aversion, fear, hatred, disgust, or evil is illusory. This behaviour makes the Aghorīs subject of many inaccurate travel blogs and sensationalized articles.
Aghorī origins are drawn from much older shamanistic practices, including the Kāpālikas (above), and hence they ritually use human skulls in their practices, and wear skull necklaces, either real or carved from bone. Their founder is Baba Kinaram, and their doctrine is described in one of his books called Viveksar from around 1600 AD.
Aghori rituals and practices
The practices of Aghorīs are dictated by their doctrine called Advaita Vedānta, through which Aghorīs try to attain a psychospiritual state of consciousness known as Aghor. To achieve complete liberation (moksha) they must remove self-ignorance, looking beyond the illusory dual nature of reality. In order to ‘shock’ the perceptual framework and free the mind from social norms, many Aghorīs engage in the following practices:
Advaita Vedānta (non-duality): the world has no separate existence apart from the ultimate god and single fundamental reality underlying all objects and experiences (Brahman). Since an individual’s soul (atman) and perceived self is not different from Brahman, then any perceived plurality of existence is due to ignorance of our true essence. Following this non-dualistic doctrine to its extreme, for the Aghori, there is no difference between good and bad, between desirable and disgusting, or between eating fish or feces. Advaita Vedānta has been one of the most influential schools of spiritual Indian philosophy.
Coprophagia and urophagia: consumption of feces and bodily fluids including urine and menstrual discharge (if consumed at all) would be performed as part of a ritual to reinforce the non-dualism of Advaita Vedānta described above, not part of a daily diet.
Human Skulls: rituals with skulls are used to partake of the dead person’s life-force. To maximize tantric powers, it is thought that selection of a skull from a violent death or a decapitation is ideal.
Cannibalism: We were told by our guide that the Aghori do not eat the flesh from cremated corpses, they only use river corpses, floated there when families too poor to afford the price of wood for a cremation (see our post on cremation). But we have since read conflicting descriptions.
Cremation grounds and necrophilia: Aghorīs consider cremation grounds as especially conducive for sādhanā, and they will medite while sitting on a corpse (the śava-sādhanā rite). The cremation grounds are not a theatrical prop but a way of life and source of identity with Shiva.
Esoteric cremation ground practices have been around since the time of Buddha (presumed to be 500 B.C.). See Buddhism section below.
Some, but not all Aghorīs are linked to the Nāths (see below), and those Nāths still carry skulls. But there are some independent Aghorīs who don’t belong to any sect and may not use skulls.
Aghorīs never wear the traditional orange or yellow garments; some wear black robes and others smear ash on their semi-naked bodies. On the other hand, black robes are also worn by non-Aghorīs, like worshipers of Dhumavati.
An Aghorī monk who has mastered all stages of Aghor is called an Aghoreshwar, and traditionally would return to society and engage in selfless service (sevā). Examples include members of the Shri Sarveshwari Samooh foundation which helps the poor and the Awadhut Bhagwan Ram Ashram, which treat leprosy in Varanasi.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS: Our guide (and native of Varanasi) said a genuine Aghori would probably not perform any of the above practices for a photograph, while fake sadhus will ask for some compensation for a photo. A discreet telephoto lens is your friend; many sadhus watch out for camera-toting tourists. us from the corner of their eye if we were carrying a camera. Aghor adherents are more active at night, and especially during a new moon. In Varanasi, rituals and ceremonies occur across the Ganges on the beach (see below).
The Nāths are closely related to the Aghorīs and the Kāpālikas. The word Nāth means ‘Master’ and Nāth Yogīs (Jogīs) are sometimes known as Gorakhnāthī, named after the sage Gorakṣa, who lived some time between 1000 and 1300 AD (the exact date is disputed). Gorakhnāth refined the philosophy of an earlier sage called Matsyendranāth and both of these historical figures are considered the founders and supreme Nāths.
Gorakṣa consolidated a group of tantric “yogīs” who had been focused on magic and supernormal powers (siddhīs) and who believed that humans could transcend their mortal status. The Nāth sect and its sub-sects quickly became popular because it ignored caste barriers. There are various opinions on whether the Nāth sect is associated with the development of Hatha yoga.
- Some Gorakhnāthī sadhus in Kathmandu (and possibly elsewhere) practice corporal mortification by tying a heavy stone to their penis, with the intention of destroying erectile tissues and sexual desires.
- many snake-charmers in northern India today are from the Sapera Nāth caste, but they are not linked to the Nāth yogīs, even though the snake-charming practices of the saperas do have a socio-religious element.
- Nāth Jogi is not cremated and his bones cannot be sent to the Ganges. Instead his nails are removed and taken to Haridwar.
Naked ascetics – Digambar Jains and militant nāgās
Greek texts from around 400 BC described naked Hindu ascetics, so naked asceticism is an old tradition.
The Hindu word nāgā means naked, and is usually associated with the eponymous nāgā sect, although not all nāgās go around in a naked state these days.
Sometimes any scantily clad or naked ascetics are mistakenly called nāgā. For instance, Jain monks from the Digambar sect are always naked but they are not nāgās.
The nāgās were organized into pseudo-military schools (Ākhārās) between 850 AD and 1750, apparently in partial response to the Muslim invasions. Nāgā sadhus today abandoned their warrior function but some monks carry symbolic weapons like canes or a trident. Some schools are reknowned for wrestling and some still practice a martial art style called Kalari-payattu which originated around 300 B.C.
Nāgās are followers of Shiva, except the Junā school who follow a blended Shiva/Vishnu deity (Dattātreya) and enthusiastically consume cannabis.
Buddhist and Jain sadhus
As mentioned above, Jainism and Buddhism emerged around 700 to 550 BC. There are many similarities between these two religions, but Jain sadhus of the Digambara sect are the most extreme (see below).
Buddhism’s founder is Gautama (a.k.a. The Buddha).
The Buddha preached his first sermon at Sarnath, just 15 minutes north of Varanasi. The Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath (pictured above) commemorates the Buddha’s activities in the Varanasi area.
Buddha adopted some of the cremation ground practices adopted by the Kāpālikas (and their predecessors), although some sources say it was Buddha who introduced these practices to the Kāpālikas. Regardless, while both Buddhists and Aghoris might visit cremation grounds, the Buddhist might simply observe the corpses and meditate on that vision, while Aghoris would touch or interact with the corpse while meditating.
Jainism’s acknowledged founder is Mahavira.
Jainism has two major sects: the naked Digambara sect and the Svetambara sect.
Svetambara sect members always wear white.
Digambara sadhu is allowed only 3 possessions: a feather broom to gently whisk away insects so they’re not stepped on, a water gourd and sacred Jain texts. The Digambara can’t sleep in a bed, can’t bathe, must eat and drink only once daily (with hands only, no utensils) and only while standing. Wait, there’s more: they must always remain naked and celibate.
Christian holy men and Sadhus compared
Christian beliefs share many religious beliefs and practices found in India and Nepal: a belief in a supreme entity, universal truth, immortality of the soul, a holy trinity (sort of), and the belief that asceticism can lead to a higher spiritual state.
Christian asceticism can be traced to both the Judaism’s Essene sect (200 BC) and to the Greek Stoics (300 BC). In fact, it is the Stoics who adapted the term ascetic to refer to moral discipline of a sage, and Plato also used the term to mean the denial of “lower” sensual desires in order to cultivate “higher” spiritual traits.
Unlike the Hindu belief that an individual’s soul is the same as the ultimate universal god (non-duality), modern Christians believe an individual’s soul is separate from their supernatural entities like God, Jesus, angels, archangels, devils, etc. However, some early Christians, like the Carpocratians (150 AD) believed that Jesus was a mortal man (not a divine being and not of virgin birth), who ascended to a high spiritual plane. Like sadhus, these early Christians understood the goal of the believer was to escape from the cycle of reincarnation.
While most Franciscan or Dominican monks dress in modes brown or gray robes (above, center), most prominent Christian holy men are fond of necklaces, headgear and more ornate wardrobe than their sadhu counterparts.
Below are a few other examples of beliefs and ascetic practices shared by some Christians and their Hindu counterparts:
Sādhus perform rites and believe in spirits, special and mystical powers
Christians believe in miracles, perform rites (sacraments) and believe in demons and exorcism.
Sādhus are mostly celibate but some sects like the Ramanandi and Dadu allow marriage
Most Christian holy men are not celibate, Catholic clergy being the exception.
Sādhus meditate to achieve an altered state in their perception of reality, called samadhi, or nirvana, or satori
In Christianity this theistic mystical state of consciousness is called unio mystica
Some Sādhus use intoxicants as a path to spiritual insight. Charas for example, is cannabis in form of hashish, smoked ritually by Naga Sadhus, Aghoris and Tantric Bhairav, or consumed in the form of bhang (a liquid preparation). With each toke, the holy man intones Bam Shankar which means “I’m Shiva”
When some Christian holy men consume sacramental wine ritually during mass, they believe they are drinking the blood of Christ (see transubstantiation), not just symbolically drinking it. Some protestant sects don’t believe in transubstantiation.
Sādhus smear sacred ashes (vibhūti) on their body symbolizing immortality and regeneration
Christians smear sacred ashes on their forehead on ash Wednesday to symbolize death and repentance.
Some Sādhus perform extreme mortifications including tapasya, keeping the right arm up years at a time) and some never sit down (khareshwari), like Mahant Bhagawan Das, who remained standing for twenty-eight years.
Some Christians self-flagellate, especially around Easter, a practice established by bishop Damien in the dark ages. Others wear a metal or cloth cilice (sackcloth), or beat their flesh with a spugna, a round disk with spikes.
Mondisti Trip Tips for Kathmandu and Varanasi
- Some sadhus are open to being photographed. Just ask and they normally say yes and ask for a tip. Most want about 500 rupees ($5) for a few photographs, which for a couple minutes of posing, seems like a lot. They are open to negotiating and most were happy with receiving 100 rupees.
- Pashupatinath temple complex was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1979. The best times to visit are early in the morning or around 6 pm during evening prayers. The entrance fee is 1000 rupees (USD $10). A taxi from Thamel costs about 400 rupees (USD $4).
- Kumbh Mela: The holy grail of sadhus, pilgrims and photographers is a mass gathering every 3 years at one of four locations on the banks of sacred rivers in India. Apparently millions of non-sadhu pilgrims also attend the festivals, and is the largest gathering of human beings for a single religious purpose on the planet.
- Don’t waste time on fake rudrāksh beads around the temples or in the shops, and don’t rely on the easily faked water or copper coin tests for authenticity.
- In Nepal, the most important temple of Vishnu and Vaishnavite ascetics is Changunarayan. Likewise, the most important temple for followers of Shiva is the temple at Pashupatinath Temple located on the banks of the Bagmati River (see our post on Kathmandu cremation ghats here).
- In Varanasi, bring your camera (and trusted guide) to the other side of the Ganges River where the sand beach is and where many aghori hangout.
- Aghoreshwar Bhagawan Ram and the Aghor Tradition. Ph.D. Thesis (Jishnu Shankar, 2011)
- An Introduction to Hinduism (Gavin Flood, 1996)
- Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups (Silvia Bello, et al, 2011)
- Kapalikas: in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism vol. III (Judit Törzsök, 2011)
- Sinister Yogis (David Gordon White, 2009)
- The Dasanami-Samnyasis. Ph.D. Thesis (Matthew James Clark, 2004)
- The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas: Two Lost Saivite Sects (David Lorenzen, 1972)
- Asceticism refers to self-restraint and abstinence in the pursuit of enlightenment and other personal, cultural or spiritual goals (dharma ), and can range from occasional mild ascetic practices in religious households everywhere, to more extreme forms practiced by renouncers.
- Dharma is a complex concept that varies with the historical and religious contexts within which it is used, but generally refers to the moral, natural and cosmic laws, spiritual discipline and all the codes of conduct, written or unwritten that prevent chaos, secure world happiness and eternal bliss.
- Moksha (or mukti): In Hinduism, moksha refers to freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth. In Jainism moksha is a blissful state free from karmic bondage and saṃsāra, while for Buddhists, moksha is the enlightened state of inner peace and wisdom that called nirvana. For Sikhs, moksha is attained by meditation to conquer the five thieves of ego, greed, attachment, anger and lust.
- Renouncers and renunciation (sannyāsa) in this post generally refers to ascetic individuals who undergo a type of formal initiation (dīkṣā) and abandon the materialism of everyday life in the spiritual pursuit of enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of life (saṃsāra). This spiritual liberation is known by different names, including mokṣa, nirvāṇa, mukti, etc.
- Sādhanā refers to the daily spiritual and physical method (celibacy, renunciation, meditation, fasting, asceticism, tantric or hatha yoga, etc) of achieving the spiritual goal of a Sādhu. It is found in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions.
- Sādhus in this post refers to renunciates who have committed to radical lifestyle changes. Their name derives from sādhanā (above). They believe the soul is tainted with karma from previous lives and must endure the cycle of death and reincarnation repeatedly until the soul’s residual karma is fully purged. An authentic spiritual liberation (moksa) completely cleanses the soul of karma and therefore removes the need to be reincarnated, thus ending the cycle of life.
- Sannyāsa (ascetic renunciation) Renouncers in India are sometimes referred to as sannyāsīs (male) or sannyāsīni (female).