The Holy Men of India
by Vikas Kamat and Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: May 21, 2000
Last Updated: January 01, 2015
Introduction and Classification
Since the visit of the Alexander the Great, the holy men of India
have held a mysterious position to the westerners. Indeed, within India
itself, their role is often misunderstood, although commonly revered.
The Naga Sadhus who descend the Himalayas during the Kumbh Mela are not
the same as those worshipped as deities! The former, practice cult
religions such as Shakta or Naga and are typically known as Sadhus
ascetics. They are detached from life, although not necessarily devoid of
its pleasures (like narcotics, sex etc.) The Sadhus practice rituals involving
fire, water, yoga, and meditation, and beg for a living, following the lifestyle
of Lord Shiva.
The Rishis or sages are regarded as the bearers of the
ancient Vedic values. It is believed that the Rishis who were Hindu
scholars and practiced metaphysics were the originators of the Vedas and
the Hindu codes of conduct. They are revered as writers of Hindu epics
such as Ramayana (by Sage Valmiki) and Mahabharata
(by Sage Vyasa). The Rishis sought moksha through the way of
knowledge (jnanamarga) and are believed to be blessed with divine
knowledge. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Adi Shankaracharya, and
Sahajananda are some of
the well-known sages and prayers are offered to them.
The three great Acharyas or preceptors, Shankaracharya,
Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya revived and reinterpreted
different traditions of Sanatana Dharma. They preached Advaita
(non-dualism), Visishtadvaita (Qualified Monism) and Dvaita
(Dualism) respectively, which advocated soul-body relation and refining of the
soul. The teaching
of great acharyas was restricted to upper castes, as the medium of
their teaching was the Sanskrit language.
In medieval India, a profound social movement took place
that was to shun practices based on caste system and reform Hinduism. Collectively, the
proponents of this movement (see: Bhakti Movement) are called as
santas (saints) and they showed a new
way to reach God -- through devotion (bhaktimarga). These servants
of God composed brilliant music, created masterpieces of poetry and sang
the Lord's glories.
The Swamijis widely followed by Hindu religious devotees
are heads of sects or religious schools of thought (muthas or mathas;
see The Institution
of Mutha). The Swamis are
typically scholars initiated into religion from a young age and are
philosophers. They run educational and social institutions, engage in
philosophical debates and on occasion provide political directives.
It is common to depict the Swamis (who are elevated to the
status of deities), engaged in worship of yet
another deity. This is consistent with Hindu philosophy and
thought which puts great emphasis in peer respect and
Some of the Swamis who perform miracles gain divine
status and a very devout following. For instance, Sai Baba and Raghavendra Swami are widely worshipped all over the world.
Then there are the pujaris or priests. They are the
professional god-men and lead family life living in (typically) temples.
They perform the Hindu rituals such as birth & death ceremonies, fund
raising, daily and festival worships. They are typically (but not
necessarily) Brahmins, and have inherited the profession.
The following a potpourri of pictures on the holy men of
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