In Hinduism, sadhu is a common term for a mystic, an ascetic, practitioner of yoga. The sadhu is solely dedicated to achieving the fourth and final Hindu goal of life, moksha (liberation), through meditation and contemplation of Brahman. Sadhus are renunciates, who have left behind all material and sexual attachments and live in caves, forests and temples all over India and Nepal. A sadhu is usually referred to as ‘Baba’ by common people. The word ‘baba’ also means father, grandfather, or uncle in many Indian and Nepalese languages. There’re 4 to 5 million sadhus in India and Nepal today and they are widely respected.
Sadhus are not unified in their practices. Some live in the mountains alone for years at a time, eating a few bananas. Others walk around one hand in the air for decades. Still others partake in the religious consumption of hashish, and contemplate the cosmic nature and presence of God. There’re Naga sadhus, which are non-shaven and wear their hair in thick locks. Aghora sadhus may claim to keep company with ghosts, or live in cemeteries as part of their holy path. There’re two primary sectarian divisions within the sadhu community: Shaiva sadhus, ascetics devoted to the God Shiva, and Vaishnava sadhus, renouncers devoted to the God Vishnu and/or his incarnations, which include Rama and Krishna. There’re also female sadhus – known as sadhvis – in many sects. In many cases, the women that take to the life of renunciation are widows, and these types of sadhvis often live secluded lives in ascetic compounds.
The typical sadhu usually wears a distinctive mark on his forehead, and often carries a symbol of his sect. Becoming a sadhu is a path followed by few. It is supposed to be the fourth phase in a Hindu’s life, after studies, being a father and a pilgrim, but for most it’s not a practical option.