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Holy Men of India

Published by Inner Traditions
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

About The Book

An in-depth photographic study of the ascetic holy men of India

• Includes more than 100 striking color photographs of Sadhus, their extreme austerities, and their holy festivals, including the Kumbha Mela

• Examines the practices and beliefs of Sadhus from several different sects

• Traces the historical and mythological roots of the Sadhus and shows how they have fundamentally shaped Hinduism since remote antiquity

Spiritual adventurers, philosophical monks, naked ascetics, or religious transvestites, the Sadhus of India form a vital and unbroken link between the birth of yoga millennia ago and its present-day expression. Numbering in the millions, these mystic holy men are worshipped by the Hindus as representatives of the gods, yet they remain largely unknown in the West because they often live in far-off places, hidden from everyday life.

In this full-color study of Sadhus more than 20 years in the making, photographer Dolf Hartsuiker illustrates the Sadhus’ world of ancient magical rituals, religious symbols, and ascetic practices. In his photographic quest across India, the author visited many holy places, attended religious festivals including the Kumbha Mela, and encountered and photographed thousands of Sadhus, befriending several as he was drawn into their inner circle. Sharing more than 100 striking color photographs from his travels, he reveals the Sadhus’ utmost devotion to their spiritual path through meditation practices, yoga exercises, penance, and austerities--sometimes taken to the extreme of prolonged self-imposed silence, bodily mortification, such as holding an arm above the head for years, or even ritual suicide--as well as their profound involvement with the mundane world as healers and teachers or magicians and sorcerers. It is a path of knowledge and devotion, renunciation and realization, sexual energy and spiritual power, divine intoxication and mystical union.

The author examines the different beliefs and behaviors of each Sadhu sect, including the “sky-clad” Naga Babas, and traces their historical and mythological roots to show how they have fundamentally shaped Hinduism since antiquity. Revealing the powerful “otherworldliness” of the Sadhus, the author also exposes the mystical beauty that emanates from those who have chosen the path of asceticism in pursuit of knowledge of the Absolute and liberation from all earthly bonds.


1 Inner Light

Enlightenment is the real purpose of life. That is still the basic concept of Indian culture, in which mystics, who devote themselves to the full-time exploration of the ‘inner light’, are very highly respected.

The ‘inner light’ is the core of one’s consciousness and is identical with or part of the Absolute, the Cosmic Consciousness, though that is unknowable to the ordinary human mind.

The intellect, trying to picture what cannot be grasped, or - if it has been able to ‘see’ - trying to express what can only be approximated in the language of mortals, must resort to symbolism, art and poetry.

He who knows the first vital thread,
binding all the things formed in shape,
colour and words, knows only the
physical form of the universe, and
knows very little.

But he who goes deeper and perceives
the string inside the string, the thin
web binding separate life-forces with
cords of unity, knows the real entity.

Only he knows truly the mighty
omnipotent and omnipresent Brahman,
Who is within and beyond all
formulated entities of the vast universe.

The Brahman, understood as ‘the Absolute’, is the highest, the most abstract and the least comprehensible God, and is therefore generally approached through personal deities one level lower in the pantheon. This consists of thousands of gods and goddesses, but the most important are Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer and Vishnu the Preserver.

4 The Life

No doubt the main motivating factor for joining the brotherhood of Sādhus is the desire for spiritual enlightenment, which is still strongly felt in India, where life is inextricably intertwined with religion, and where frequent encounters with holy men, who promise fulfilment of that desire, are part of growing up. But other, more mundane factors also play a role.

Asceticism, especially in its ‘romantic’ aspect of the powerful shaman or medicine man, can be regarded as an attractive option for the more adventurous, a challenging alternative sanctioned by ancient traditions. Another traditional aspect of the Sādhu - that of the philosopher–saint - may explain the attraction of an ascetic career for young students of Indian philosophy, the promise of a carefree life devoted to study.

For members of the lower castes who rebel against the confines of their status, becoming a holy man is one of the few ways to transcend it: to gain respect and to lead a comparatively free life. Some independent- minded youths rebel against the shackles of family life and marital obligations. The respectable way out is asceticism, renouncing the family and its worries. These adventurers and rebels, boys in their puberty or early adolescence, run away from home and start looking for a Guru.

The decision of older men, already weary of worldly life, to join a sect is often caused by traumatic events, such as the death of a family member, the loss of property or job, or an almost fatal accident. These are seen as a divine signal, the hand of God. Or they may just follow the ancient injunction to devote the fourth stage of life to renunciation and contemplation.

There is an old and persistent rumour that Sādhus steal children to turn them into disciples, but there is no hard evidence to support this accusation. The rumour is kept alive by parents who use the Sādhus as bogeymen, warning their children that if they do not behave properly, a Bābā will take them away in his Sādhu-bag.

Sādhus do, however, take in foundlings and orphans, while some parents will give their son to a Sādhu as part of a ‘deal’ they have made with a deity for receiving some boon; or when the child shows certain symptoms (astrological, physical, mental) of predestination for spiritual life.

Asceticism is predominantly a male affair. Less than ten per cent of all Sādhus are female and most of them are widows. Traditionally, widows occupy a very marginal position in Hindu society, a remnant of the ancient belief that a woman does not deserve to live after her husband’s death and should in fact have immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Quite a few sects do not allow women because of their ‘corrupting influences’; some sects are mixed, but the female Sādhus, called Sādhvīs, usually have their separate quarters; and some minor subsects are allfemale. There have been great female saints, but generally speaking their position in the spiritual hierarchy is inferior to men. On the personal level of Sādhu to Sādhvī, the women are treated with respect, but the popular belief is that Sādhvīs have to be born again as men before they can be liberated.

Many Sādhus today possess ‘luxury’ items by ascetic standards, such as watches, transistor radios and cassette recorders; and they use modern conveniences including electricity, telephones and public transport. However, their basic lifestyle has retained many archaic characteristics from the Stone and Bronze Ages. As a result, joining the brotherhood of Sādhus is like going back in time, being reborn in a semi-nomadic ‘tribe’ of the pre-agrarian age. It reflects a nostalgia for humanity’s roots, for the simple, harmonious existence; alternatively, it might also be called an escape from the misery, pressures and complexities of this age.


The tribulations of the search for the right Guru form a recurring theme in folk tales and legends, along with his acceptance of the disciple, usually involving some kind of ordeal. In real life it is not much different. But there are Gurus who would accept almost anyone, since having disciples increases one’s status, possibly one’s income and certainly one’s leisure. Starting as a disciple (chelā) with the Guru should mean behaving like his obliging son, but often entails working as an obedient servant, almost like a slave. If the apprentice is deemed fit for the ascetic life, he will receive preliminary instructions and be prepared for the initiation.

There are quite a few differences in initiations between sects, but they all centre around the symbolism of rebirth. At the moment of initiation the chelā severs all ties with family, clan or caste. He ‘dies’ from his former earthly life and is ‘reborn’ into the divine life. Any talk or thought about the former life is discouraged; it is irrelevant now and age is reckoned from the new birthday. The visible symbol of this rebirth is the shaven head, bald as a baby’s.

About The Author

Psychologist, artist, and traveler, Dolf Hartsuiker holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of Utrecht. He divides his time between Utrecht, Holland, and India.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Inner Traditions (October 9, 2014)
  • Length: 176 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781620554029

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“A masterful presentation of a complex but fascinating subject. . . . Highly recommended.”

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