An Ochre Robe and a Journey to Nowhere: the Life of a Sadhu

‘Sadhu’, or ‘sannyasin’ in Sanskrit, is the common term in Hindi / Urdu for one who has left society to live as a wandering mendicant. The oldest reference to such persons occurs in the Rig Veda, which is from about 1700 BC. The monastic community formed by the Buddha circa 500 BC was a formal community of such persons. In the Western tradition, Jesus himself made retreats to the desert for periods of contemplation, and so did Muhammad, to a cave in the mountains, up to the time the Qur’an was revealed to him. In the centuries following Jesus, there was the phenomenon of the ‘Desert Fathers’ in North Africa, men who lived away from society to pursue their existential search. They became the precursors to the various monastic orders that flowered in the later Christian tradition and continue till today, each with a different proportion of work, study, prayer and involvement with the world going in to create the unique life of that monastic order.

Here we see a glimpse of a particular manifestation of human potential that has been noticed across religious and geographical boundaries – the inclination of a small minority, but always an elite and respected minority, to leave aside their involvement in the life of work and relationships to seek that from which all work and all relationships emanate – the Absolute, whatever may be the name for it in a particular religious tradition. This is the spirit of “nothing matters but That” which motivates such activity and which strongly attracts some and repels many other people.

Of all the above versions of the kind of person who embarks on such a path, the sadhu is perhaps the most primordial. The Buddhist monk usually still has his community to live with. The Christian monk, although giving up his former life, builds an alternative “life in God,” a life with new kinds of work – such as farming to sustain the monastery and new kinds of relationships – such as those with his Spiritual Director. The sadhu, however, is to have no work, nor any relationships.

His only possession being the ochre robe covering his body, the sadhu becomes a sadhu when he attends his own symbolic cremation. He may have a guru, but he abandons this guru after sufficient spiritual development. The sadhu is not allowed to spend more than one night in one place and hence, does not develop any lasting relationships. Does he feel lonely? Perhaps he does. But how does the lack of other human beings matter to him who is in search of the source of all beings?

He may not have any form of work to earn a living and can only beg for food, preferably merely once a day. The sadhu does not know where his next meal will come from, or if it will come or not. And why should this worry him? To worry about this would be to hanker after one’s own security, while the sadhu is on the search for that which is beyond security and insecurity. That, of which the Bhagavad Gita says, “Weapons cannot cut it, fire cannot burn it, wind cannot blow it away, water cannot moisten it..”.

“What about common human desires?”, one may ask. The sadhu, too, like some of us, may feel the desire to write a song in praise of the sunrise, or to go and meet his mother.  But he does not act on these. For the sadhu, this is just how nature manifests itself through him, in longings, in aversions, in doubts. “Let is be,” he says, and moves on, neither suppressing it nor encouraging it. No particular activity has any importance. The lifestyle of a sadhu is not a carefully constructed regime but rather the opposite. It is the condition of man before the desire for action and building a civilisation cement his involvement in the things of life. In one sense, the sadhu is not doing anything, he just is. He is not living in order to attain a goal. Even the goal of moksha – deliverance – is something one ends up clinging to. In the final sum of things, it doesn’t really matter whether the sadhu attains moksha or not. The universe just goes on, and so does the sadhu. He is living because there is no reason to die. This is total independence from everything, and that is moksha.

Of the multitudes of sadhus who dot the landscape of India, not all follow the above lifestyle. Many have, perhaps with good reason, organised themselves like their Buddhist and Christian counterparts. Others have few spiritual aspirations and spend their time sleeping or smoking marijuana. Yet others exhibit mindless acrobatics. But there are some who are on a genuine spiritual path.

The sadhu is constantly on the move, traversing the length and breadth of India, as his predecessors have done for the last 4,000 years, etching out a prominent place for themselves in the Indian psyche. On the outskirts of Rishikesh, you can see the Ganga coming down from the short, green foothills of the Himalayas to the flat riverbed of the plains. From the opposite side, in the evenings, the sun shines on the river, making the water glisten quietly. On the other side of the river, one sees figures in ochre robes quietly walking by, or stopping and sitting by the river for a while and then moving on. This could be 2010 AD, or 1000 BC, or 2000 BC.. the river, the sun and the sadhus have not changed while the rest of the world has moved exponentially. What was yesterday is not today, what is today shall not be tomorrow. But the sadhu attaches himself to the eternal and the perennial. That sums up what the sadhu is all about. One day, you and I will die. The earth will freeze because the sun will cool down, and then all the planets will be swallowed up by the dying, expanding sun. What will remain is what was there before it all started. The sadhu is looking for that, and perhaps one in a million finds it.

“Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un”

(Surely, we belong to God and to Him we shall return)

– Qur’an 2:156

This beautiful, folksy song by S. D. Burman expresses all of the above and more:

~ by tdcatss on September 16, 2010.

2 Responses to “An Ochre Robe and a Journey to Nowhere: the Life of a Sadhu”

  1. La Ilaha Illallah. Ana al Haq. You did not mention the Sufis who are pretty much similar to Sannyasis/sadhus. Am I right? :-)

  2. yes… i suppose there are many similarities.. but the sufis are more organized and active.

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