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Yogis, Holymen, Warriors

Sadhus are religious ascetics, mendicants (monks) or any holy person in Hinduism and Jainism who has renounced the worldly life. They are sometimes alternatively referred to as sannyasi or vairagi. Sadhu literally means one who practices a ″sadhana″ or keenly follows a path of spiritual discipline. Although the vast majority of sadhus are yogīs, not all yogis are sadhus. The sadhu is solely dedicated to achieving mokṣa (liberation), the fourth and final ashrama (stage of life), through meditation and contemplation of Brahman. Sadhus often wear simple clothing, such saffron-colored clothing in Hinduism, white or nothing in some sects, symbolizing their sannyasa (renunciation of worldly possessions). A female mendicant in Hinduism and Jainism is often called a sadhvi, or in some texts as aryika.

Sadhu Blessings are a profound experience and a peak part of the Post Retreat Tour in Varanasi. Varanasi is a very important place to many sadhu sects, but especially those devoted to Lord Shiva, or known as shaivites. These sadhus will have three horizontal white lines on their forehead made of cremation ash or vibuti. When approaching a sadhu be sure that he or she is welcoming. Raise your right hand and face your palm to the sadhu as if to say hello. If the sadhu returns that gesture you may approach. Most will not say anything because they do not speak English, however your guide may translate, or simple non-verbal communication is often enough to express appreciation. To receive a blessing from the sadhu, simply move towards them slowly, lower you head, close your eyes and place your hands together at your heart in anjali mudra. The sadhu will place their hand on your head and bless you.

Female Sadhus are called sadhvis. Only ten percent of sadhus are women,  most of them older, having become sadhvi after they were widowed. Though this is changing rapidly, it still reflects the generally subordinate position of women in traditional Indian society — the popular belief being that women have to be born again as men before they can be spiritually liberated — and the even more marginal position of widows. Choosing the sadhu life is a respectable way to escape from the ‘living death’ of widowhood. Since time immemorial there have been many famous female sadhus. Quite a few chose the sadhu life in their teens, convinced of their spiritual predestination. Quite a few sects do not allow women because celibate males fear their ‘corrupting influences’. Some sects are mixed, where female sadhus have separate quarters, and some sub-sects are all-female.

Naga Warriors are a naked (naga) sect of armed sannyasis organized centuries ago to protect Hindus from the tyranny of the Mughal rulers. These virya warrior-ascetics could be found in Hinduism as early as the 1500s, although tradition attributes their creation to Sankaracharya. The naga sadhus generally remain in the ambit of non-violence presently, though some sects are known to carry weapons such as swords, while others practice the sport of wrestling. The Naga Sadhus have unique characteristic features drawing inspiration from Lord Shiva: they are always naked, they hold tridents crowned with human skulls, their bodies are smeared in thick cremation ash and they wear dreadlocked hair. These saints remain completely naked even during biting cold. The Naga Sadhus renounce the materialistic world and practice celibacy to escape from the cycle of birth and death and to attend salvation.

The Aghoris

Aghoris are devotees of Shiva manifested as Bhairava. They are monists who seek moksha from the cycle of reincarnation or samsara. This freedom is a realization of the self’s identity with the absolute. Because of this monistic doctrine, the Aghoris maintain that all opposites are ultimately illusory. The purpose of embracing pollution and degradation through various customs is the realization of non-duality (advaita) through transcending social taboos, attaining what is essentially an altered state of consciousness and perceiving the illusory nature of all conventional categories.

Aghoris believe that every person’s soul is Shiva but is covered by astamahapasa “eight great nooses or bonds” – sensual pleasure, anger, greed, obsession, fear and hatred. The practices of the Aghoris are centered around the removal of these bonds. Sadhana in cremation grounds destroys fear; celibacy provides release from sexual desire; being naked destroys shame. On release from all the eight bonds the soul becomes sadasiva and obtains moksha.

Aghoris base their beliefs on two principles common to broader Shaiva beliefs: that Shiva is perfect (having omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence) and that Shiva is responsible for everything that occurs – all conditions, causes and effects. Consequently, everything that exists must be perfect and to deny the perfection of anything would be to deny the sacredness of all life in its full manifestation, as well as to deny the Supreme Being.