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The Holy Men of India
by Vikas Kamat and Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: May 21, 2000
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 or 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 mentorship (Guru).
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 India.
Table of Contents
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