The Sadhu – The Holy Men and Women of India

In the early 1970’s a man laid on a bed of nails, with nothing more to cover him than a dhoti, a bright white loincloth, wrapped around his nether regions. With his bronzed, bare skin pressed against over three hundred metal nail heads, he made those of us watching, wince.

No place on earth has such a prominent array of the most varied and colorful sadhus, than in India, Some call them insane, and others call them saints.

Pain for the Promise of Bliss
The host laughingly put a finger to a single nail’s point to confirm that it was indeed sharp, even painful. The man laid on the bed of nails for the entire show, over an hour’s duration, and rose finally to the sound of thunderous live-audience applause, at which time he bowed and was likely ushered off stage before the next commercial was to be aired, just another circus act for a voracious crowd and eagerly-sought Nielson ratings. We were smitten with acts like this as mere novelties then, but did seeing such things awaken in us, a curiosity that is much deeper?

The archetype of the seeker, or the martyr is woven silently into our collective psyches. We may have even played the role ourselves at some juncture in life, facing otherworldly pains in order to survive, or even to help the people we love. No matter what tribulations we have faced, few of us would say that we willingly seek penance, even pain, as a means to get closer to God. This is the job of a sadhu. There are approximately 5 million true Sadhus on the planet today, actively burning off their karmic debts with penance.

What Do We Have in Common With the Sadhu?
No place on earth has such a prominent array of the most varied and colorful sadhus, than in India. Sadhu – literally means Holy Man. Some people call them insane, and others call them saints. The holy men and women who shun societal norms, leave homes, jobs, families, and all the luxuries we have grown accustom to in our modern lives are a fascination for us, in part, because we can’t understand what would compel them to do such a thing, but also, we can. After all, each and every one of us will leave these things behind at the end of our lives. No person or material object can go with us when we die.

Sadhus also burn the karma of the communities they live within, actively acting as bodhisattvas, or angels willing to delay their next life in eternal bliss in order to help sentient beings here and now, in this life. For this reason they are looked upon, most often, in a positive light and are offered food and shelter when needed for this service.

Shocking, Insane, Beautiful and Reverent

“Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.” John 4:48

In the epically popular book, Autobiography of a Yogi, written by Paramahansa Yogananda, there are numerous mentions of sadhus, but one stands out in particular. It describes a holy man whose arm is severed mistakenly, when it is chopped with an axe, and dangles precariously from its socket . . .

“Without outcry or any glance at the ghastly wound, the stranger astonishingly continued his swift pace. As we jumped in front of him, he spoke quietly. ‘I am not the murdered you seek.’

“I was deeply mortified to see that I had injured a person of a dvinie-looking sage. Prostrating myself at his feet, I implored his pardon, and offered my turban cloth to staunch the heavy spurts of blood.”

“ “Son, that was just an understandable mistake on your part.” The saint regarded me kindly. “Run along, and don’t reproach yourself, The Beloved Mother is taking care of me.” He pushed his dangling arm into its stump, and lo! It adhered; the blood inexplicably ceased to flow . . .”

This is not the only seemingly impossible act to have been achieved by a sadhu. If one is considered worthy of such demonstrations, the sadhu will show a spiritual seeker what he knows to be true, and often this will defy our understanding of reality. Upon just catching the eye of a holy man, you can sense he knows something that you don’t. His awareness is tuned to a different radio frequency, perhaps an unearthly one. With a single glance, and an open mind, you can feel your heart open in their presence, your armor to the world start to fall, crumpling at your feet like so many flower petals. If you don’t believe in their world, that is acceptable. They don’t believe in yours. Theirs is the devaloka, a Sanskrit term meaning “world of the Gods.”

Other, more easily digestible tales about the jaw-dropping acts performed by sadhus can be witnessed every day in the streets of India, Tibet and Nepal. Sadhus perform sundry acts from hanging themselves upside down from a tree, to refusing to eat, or sitting in caves in deep meditation for many years, so long in fact, that they go blind, their eyes atrophying from the lack of light.  They have been known to walk hundreds of miles with little food, or water, performing ritual pujas and other acts of devotion, like praying for the sick, circumambulating holy relics performing hundreds of prostrations, until their hands and knees bleed. Still other sadhus have been known to sit before blazing fires in the heat of summer, and others, suffered extreme cold, frost forming on their long beards as they sit in the heights of the Himalayas contemplating God with hardly a stitch of clothing around them to protect them from the harsh wind and oxygen-poor air.

There are parables claiming sadhus have tamed tigers and made cobras of the jungle retreat. They have healed the sick and given hope to the infirm, though they could be mistaken for a vagrant if you aren’t acquainted with their lifestyles. They are divine wanderers and ambling priests. They take no donations except for meager offerings of food and water, and no more. Gypsies seeking God, they are painted in ash, or brightly colored chalk paint in accordance with the deity they revere: Shiva, Vishnu, Rama . . . Their nakedness and artful aesthetic is a reminder that we are wild and beautiful, like the Universe, herself.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned outrageous acts, other sadhus take vows of silence, or refuse to say anything but the names of God. They relinquish materialistic life, but realize that as long as one has flesh and bones there is no renouncing life completely, even in the caves of high mountains or the canopy of trees in the jungle, where they often retreat to find silence, and to be left alone to contemplate things besides taxes and paychecks, fashion, commerce and the other ill-notions of humankind.

Their primary aim is to free themselves from worldly desires. They seek jnana, or wisdom, and find no peace in the illusions of maya, though the fantasy of “real” life may indeed be convincing. They see even the need of food and want for thirst as illusions to be overcome – boulders standing stubbornly in the way of their one true desire – to join with the Atman, the essence of breath of the Universe. The way many of us thirst for water, they thirst for this divine understanding, and it cannot be quenched with ordinary means.

What Religion Does a Sadhu Follow?
These men and women are spiritual, not religious, though they are Hindu, Sikh, Sufi, Buddhist and Jain. I mean this in a way that most people would have difficulty understanding without being in the physical presence of a sadhu. They all hold the Infinite Wisdom far supreme than any manly Priest, King or President. Titles, fame, money and power are laughable to the Sadhu. These are mere costumes we try on in the never-ending act of a never-ending play. They come from India, Nepal, China, and Tibet. They roam from temple to cave to forest, and back again. Many smoke hashish as a means to commune with their Gods, and none are begrudged the habit, even in areas where it is otherwise illegal.

The sadhu may seem to perform unbelievable, even ridiculous feats, as if poking fun at the existential pangs of others, but we may have more in common with the Holy Man or Woman than we realize. Theirs is an attempt achieving non-attachment. They are an enigma to us; we call them divine tricksters, shaman, yogis, derelict holy men and women, extreme pilgrims, vagrants with a divine calling, mystics and wandering light-bearers. If you run into a sole sadhu in Kathmandu or the Juna Akhara Naga Sadhus at a Kumbh Mela, or even in the streets of Varanasi, their presence is the same, shocking and comforting, intriguing and wonderful. I hope you have the fortunate experience of meeting one.


Paramahansa Yogananda. Autobiography of a Yogi. Self-Realization Fellowship. Los Angeles, CA, 1946.



  1. Pam Brown says:

    Interesting and informative article about Holy Men and Women of India, I’d love to read more from you on this topic.

  2. Beautiful photo and well written article about Holy Men and Women of India.

  3. Interesting info about Holy Men, nice photo too,
    Did you visit India recently?

  4. Swati Jaiswal says:

    why most of the priests and sadhus wear rudraksha ?

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