The Sadhus of India and Nepal
If you’ve been to Nepal or India, you’ve probably seen men wandering around who may have been almost naked or wearing saffron-colored clothing. Some may have had long dreadlocks and long beards. Some may have covered their skin with ash or painted their faces.
The men you saw are sadhus. Sadhu is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘good man’ or ‘holy man.’ The ash on their skin represents death to their worldly life. And the face painting is in line with the symbols of the god they devote themselves to.
They have rid themselves of possessions and renounced family, friends, and society in an effort to rid themselves of karma. For some men, becoming a mendicant sadhu is the fourth phase of life after being a student, raising a family, and retiring to the forest to meditate. In India alone, there are approximately four to five million sadhus.
It is very difficult to generalize about the clothing, activities, hairstyles, body decoration, or habits of sadhus because there are actually thousands of sects, but the two main sects are Shaiva sadhus who follow the teachings of Shiva and the Vaishnava sadhus who follow Vishnu.
Sadhu life is not easy. And some sadhus purposely make it even more difficult by undertaking extreme activities, such as standing for extended periods of time on one leg, standing with one hand in the air, not talking for years, sewing closed the mouth and consuming only liquids. They believe such severe practices will serve as penance to liberate them from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Sadhus are legally considered dead and may have to attend their own funerals before initiation. And it may take many years before a man is formally allowed admittance into a sect – first, he spends an extended time with a guru to learn the correct behavior for a sadhu.