The Sadhus of Pashupatinath, Nepal
Sadhus reject worldly society in search of liberation through hardship
A “sadhu” is a Hindu holy man or woman who has given up worldly possessions to be with god. This includes renouncing one’s family and one’s caste. Typically, a sadhu carries no money and holds no personal connection to the material world. Sadhus meet their basic needs by relying on temple donations, the government and devotees. Although many Nepalis believe sadhus choose their path due to anxiety or depression, this is not normally the case. While data is hard to come by, in India (where sadhus are also common), around 10,000 university graduates opted for a sadhu life in 2019 alone. Nepal, a much smaller country, has an estimated 30,000 sadhus. Many choose this path out of a desire for peace and spiritual connection, primarily to Shiva.
Of the various gods and goddesses that make up the Hindu pantheon, sadhus in Nepal have the deepest connection with Shiva. Shiva’s principal temple in Nepal is Pashupatinath, where many sadhus gather. For most of the year, Nepali sadhus tend to live in India, where they are better cared for. In India, organizations such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad provide year-round welfare to the sadhu community. Pashupatinath is nevertheless an important pilgrimage site for Nepali and Indian sadhus, and they can be found at the temple complex throughout the year, particularly in February or March during the Maha Shivaratri festival which celebrates Shiva’s birthday. At Pashupatinath, sadhus usually sleep on the temple floors, and start their day early by washing their body in the Bagmati River which runs through the temple complex. The day is then typically spent in worship, which can take a multitude of forms including listening to “bhajans” (worship songs), reading religious scriptures, meditation or yoga. In the afternoons, sadhus might continue to meditate or may wander the streets to gather food. Some sadhus also offer blessings to their devotees and share religious insights. Some Nepalis like to argue that sadhus choose their lifestyle in order to avoid work, sit around and smoke marijuana. But the majority of Nepalis revere sadhus and find solace and comfort in their counsel and dedication. Note that while marijuana is occasionally consumed (Shiva is known for his prolific drug use), it’s not the primary motivation for sadhus. Shiva’s drug consumption was a way for him to transmute harmful agents into divine energy and bliss – when sadhus smoke, they are trying to do the same.
Sadhus usually wear a “rudraksha” necklace, which is a prayer bead in Shivaism. They also wear metal rings and carry a “trishul,” a short-handed weapon with a trident atop, similar to that which Shiva holds. Some sadhus cover their body with ash, imitating Shiva whose body is often represented covered with ashes from the burning pyres of the dead. The vast majority dress in an orange or saffron sarong and robes. In Hinduism, orange, like red, is considered holy for its proximity to fire, which burns away impurities. Other sadhus dress in black – a more practical color when sleeping rough. These are the Aghori sadhus, who worship both Shiva and Kali, the goddess of death and violence. They are considered experts in black magic. Some believe their black robes mark a connection to tantric practices. The most ardent of sadhus abandon their clothes altogether in an effort to attain spiritual growth through complete detachment from the world. Such practices are easier in India, where it’s warmer – Nepal can get quite cold.
Despite robust debate among religious leaders, there is no specific path in Hinduism for achieving “moksha” or liberation from “samsara,” the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. This can lead to sadhus pursuing seemingly eccentric or extreme activities. Some sadhus live in trees for years without talking, while others stare at the sun for hours. There are different theories on why these sadhus choose such activities. Most theories boil down to the scriptural belief that performing “tapasya” – the continued pursuit of an action for years despite hardship – brings you closer to the gods, thereby achieving moksha.