face of a sadhu
Sadhus of India - the solution to western insanity?
24 March 2009

For the past few years I have been interested in the sadhu culture (the holy men of India) and their lifestyle. I read a couple of books on the subject and watched many documentaries. Generally speaking a sadhu is an ascetic and a practitioner of yoga who renounced the mundane way of life in order to focus on spiritual practice.

What I find especially interesting is that the Indian society allows such behavior - since there is no equivalent mechanism in the western culture that offers as much freedom. In the west, one could become a monk, but for many people the monastic life would probably be just as imposing as the regular western life. Yet the sadhu life is relatively free for someone who finds the mainstream cultural norms meaningless or a source of misery.

Estimates vary but there might be up to 10-15 million sadhus out of the 1.1 billion Indian population. How many are true sadhus (those who focus on spiritual practice) and how many adapted the sadhu life for other reasons seems unknown. In any case, I wonder: would 1-2% of the western population readily renounce their everyday life in exchange for a western equivalent to sadhu life? Since there is no easy way out of the western mainstream culture, could it be that many of those 1-2% westerners end up mentally and physically ill because of that, and at what social cost? Would a western equivalent of the sadhu culture act as a social safety valve and lower mental health problems, suicides, reduce terrorism and mass killings, and lower crime rates in general?

I'm not saying that the sadhu life is easy to practice or implement on a social scale. It has its negative and positive aspects, but for those who readily adapt such lifestyle (for whatever reason) it seems to offer an improved and more meaningful existence that potentially also offers more benefits (than drawbacks) to the rest of society.

The books I can recommend are Sadhus: India's Mystic Holy Men by Dolf Hartsuiker (has lots of photographs) and Wandering With Sadhus: Ascetics of the Hindu Himalayas by Sondra L. Hausner (more in depth). And a couple of interesting video documentaries are Naked In Ashes (2005) and ORIGINS OF YOGA: Quest for the spiritual (2005). (Photo credits: andycarvin and Sukanto Debnath)

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