Life of sadhus - The ultimate freedom

Alexandre Sattler documents sadhus that didn't remain unknown to men before they unite with the Universe, during Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of humanity on earth.

Since the dawn of time and still today, Indian society allows everyone, man or woman, to abandon everything definitively, their family, their friends, profession, and comfort, to leave to live on the path in search of the divine by becoming a sadhu.
The sadhus are no longer accountable to society. They are "dead to the world”, and they form a parallel universe with its own codes.
They fascinate and sometimes scare, but they are real "heavenly tramps".
These strange characters that we meet almost everywhere in India, but especially in holy cities and places of pilgrimage, marvel or disturb travellers.
They are very recognizable. They often wear long braided hair, much like Rastas, but much longer and more tangled.

Bathing in the Ganga river.

The Kumbh Mela 
Kumbh Mela (the festival of the sacred Pitcher) is the largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth, during which participants bathe or take a dip in a sacred river. Devotees believe that by bathing in the Ganges one is freed from sins liberating her or him from the cycle of birth and death.
In 2019, the Ardh Kumbh Mela was held in Prayagraj, India. This gathering brought together millions of people from the subcontinent and beyond.

The Ardh Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj.

The Kumbh Mela is the great festival of sadhus. It's an extraordinary moment that babas of all types, of all schools, come from all over India to attend.
Thousands of sadhus, sometimes hundreds of thousands, reunite. They parade, exchange, celebrate and compete. Millions of curious come to watch the show.
The Kumbh Mela takes place alternately and successively every three years in the holy cities of Haridwar (where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas), Nashik (located in the state of Maharashtra, on the banks of the Godavari River), Prayagraj (where the two holy rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna meet), and Ujjain (on the banks of the Shipra, a tributary of the Ganges, where Shiva defeated the asuras). This represents an entire cycle of twelve years.

Prayagraj, 2019

The time of the festival depends on the zodiac. It is set by astrologer sadhus. The first Kumbh Mela of the cycle, that of Prayagraj, takes place when Jupiter is in the sign of Aries, inaugurating a cycle of 12 years since Jupiter takes 12 years to complete the full circle of the zodiac.
Legend has it that each of these places is sanctified by a drop of the divine nectar fallen on earth. One of the myths (there are several) says that one day, the war between gods and demons, suras and asuras, ended. Peace was concluded.

Hindu warrior

However, both parties wanted to take advantage of the ocean of milk from which comes the multitude of beings and things. The gods and demons participated together in the churning of the sea of ​​milk,  which creates the universes. This difficult exercise went on for a long time, and one day, the goddess Lakshmi appeared, soon followed by a vase filled with nectar.
The gods and demons resumed their war for the possession of this nectar of marvellous power. As the battle took on cosmic proportions, Lord Vishnu saw that it was time to intervene with one of those tricks the gods are customary for.
He materialized a woman of great beauty.
Dazzled by her wonderful body, the demons forgot the nectar they coveted. They searched for the woman, leaving the gods in possession of the nectar. The latter immediately seized the unique chance they had to escape the demons, and they left carrying the precious vase. Only in their haste they spilt a few drops of nectar which fell to Haridwar, Prayagraj, Ujjain and Nashik.

Ganga Das Baba, well know in Pasupatinath, Nepal.

What is a Sadhu?
To study and understand the life of the sadhus, it is necessary to let go of many of our preconceptions about spirituality.
We often have an image of religion as a bit cutesy, non-violent, "nice", and tolerant. An idealized image that corresponds to the decadent Catholicism that we have known or to a certain Protestantism which reduces religion to moralism.
However, if we study the Christianity of the Middle Ages a little, we see that religion was quite different.
It gives an impression of the vitality of freedom and a cheerful mix of the greatest depth with superstitions which seem absurd to us. We danced in the churches, celebrated Feasts of Fools, also called the Donkey festival, and overthrew ecclesiastical hierarchies. They named a bishop of madmen and even a pope of madmen. The priests in disguise danced and sang obscene songs. This Christianity of the French Middle Ages gives a fair enough image of what is, till now, religion in India.
A curious mix of kitsch and metaphysics of great depth. A “living” world that integrates all dimensions of life and human nature, the dark side of the world.
The Hindu religion is both compassionate and violent, gentle and ruthless, tolerant and bigoted. Because a living religion is a whole that covers all aspects of existence, one can not remove religion from what makes life. All forms of what we consider superstitions are necessary to some devotees. A living religion is contrary to all fundamentalisms, which always want the greatest purity and, for this, destroy what does not correspond to their ideal, as Pol Pot wanted to destroy what did not correspond to his ideal of communism.
The universe of the sadhus is the expression of this rich and complex world of the Hindu religion.
Like all marginalized people, sadhus are feared. They can scare and fascinate, and the Indians attribute mysterious powers to them.
Does this reputation correspond to reality? Without a doubt, partially.
In her book, Sondra Hausner speaks of an Aghori baba who was consulted often by local families for his always relevant opinions and especially for his clairvoyance.
Sadhus would also have the power to cast a curse or heal thanks to the mantras, these rather mysterious words in Sanskrit, which the Hindus willingly believe. In this regard, her week know story in India.
"One person was very sick. She had a strong fever. Maybe cholera. A sadhu came to beg for food. They told him about the patient. He asked for a glass of water, recited a mantra over the glass, blew on the water and gave it to the sick man to drink. The sadhu left, and the next day the patient was cured."
Some Sufi masters treat exactly the same way, except that they use Quran words instead of mantra.
Since the beginning, they have wandered from one place of pilgrimage to another, walking the dusty roads of India. During the rainy season, they live in small huts or under canvases fixed on the banks of the Ganges, the Yamuna, or other sacred rivers. For food, they depend on pious Indians or temples.
These wandering monks are an essential component of Indian society. Before the English rule, these men, who had nothing, were more respected than kings.
And we can wonder about this culture, where the people we admire are not the "good citizens", the law-abiding individuals, as in Roman or Jewish civilization, for example, but marginal people, beings who escape the rules of the society completely.
Origin of Sadhus
The word sadhu comes from the Sanskrit root "sadh", which means “to exercise”, “one who acts”.
Curiously the etymology is exactly the same as that of the word asceticism which comes from the Greek and also means “to exercise”. Other words are used as synonyms of sadhu as, for example, sannyasin, sant, muni, swami, tapyasi, baba, etc., but they do not always have exactly the same meaning.
For example, the word sant is related to a tradition of devotion born in the Middle Ages and flourished with people like Namdev or Kabir.
Sadhus have their roots in the most distant past of Hinduism.
They constitute the centre, the heart of this religion, since they are the expression of the highest ideal of life described in Hindu texts. They are the "men of the forest", these naked ascetics of which the Upanishads speak and are entirely devoted to the spiritual quest.
Atharva Veda already says : "According to the path of immortality, this path is that of renunciation. In the Gita, the "men of the forest" are opposed to heads of families who are content with rituals. Their posthumous destiny is solar whereas that of the "masters of house" is lunar and implies a return to the world, a rebirth.
Originally, the state of sadhu was the final stage in the life of a Brahmin. The existence of this caste of priests had four stages called ashramas.
The first was that of a student, the Brahmachari, who lived near his master shortly after the initiation ceremony, which took place at the age of eight years of age.
The second was that of a married man who occupies a place in society and practices a profession. After the children became independent came the third stage, where the man retired to a cave or hut. He was often accompanied by his wife. Finally, the fourth stage was that of a Sannyasin, where the man renounced the world entirely. He became a sadhu, a wandering monk.
With this fourth state, the cycle was completed. The man was preparing for death gradually moving away from the world. It followed the natural curve of all life instead of attempting to artificially prolong one's youth as seen in our societies.
"Sadhus nowadays "
The sadhus are the tangible presence of the ideal of life described by the sacred texts of Hinduism.
They are these "men of the forest" detached from the property of the world who wander in search of the divine. They constantly remind humans settled in society of the relativity of their way of life based on possessions, money, and family. And it is perhaps one of the meanings of their wandering.
Visibly show that the purpose of life is not to settle in the world to build "houses of stone". Every time one sees a sadhu, a Hindu understands the derisory aspect and even – in a certain way - illusory of the "values" that animate ordinary humans.
As the jester defuses the seriousness of the court, they undo the childish dreams of men. They are the visible expression of the only reality, of the only quest necessary vis-à-vis which all our aspirations are nothing but a series of dreams.
One of the realizations that accompanies an experience of enlightenment, is the clear vision of the grotesque character of our existence, the swindle of the Maya, the Great Illusion, of which Kabir, the mystical poet, spoke.
We are victims of the great cosmic juggler who casts his veil over the world and the sadhus, by their way of life, are witnesses of the profound freedom of those who escape the illusory dreams of men. They are the expression of the laughter of the gods, of their fantasy. Their bodies covered in ashes show us the true face of life, the presence of death, behind the towers of magic of the great creator of illusion.
The sadhus, who wear make-up and sometimes dress like clowns, go to the end of their "madness" and thereby defeat the serious pseudo in which we live.
Now, of the five million sadhus on the Indian continent, how many are spiritually realized beings? Or, even more simply, beings fully focused on the inner quest?

Sadhu, smoking ganja in his shilöm.

The fate of many of these men and women is certainly very big.
Even if they weren't motivated at the start, they become so in contact with this life made of renunciation. Those who can climb in the Himalayas in sandals, dressed in a simple cotton robe, a blanket on the shoulder, a small cloth bag slung over the shoulder, to live in the cold, in the middle of ice, snow, bare rock, are no longer ordinary men. It takes real inner strength to persist on this path.
However, "spiritually realized" sadhus are certainly rare. Most of the time, they remain unknown to men. They are united with the universe. They do not feel the need to speak, convince or even testify. The ego is gone. In their eyes, everything is perfect. Hence the difficulty in meeting them.
But apart from these exceptional beings, many sadhus have found happiness, a joy, that one rarely experiences in worldly life.
About the photographer Alexandre Sattler :
Alexandre Sattler met my first sadhu in 2004 during a trip to Nepal. I was fascinated by these men who made the choice of asceticism, whereas, in our social environment, the illusion of material happiness prevails.
Travel and cultural immersion occupy a primordial place in the photographs produced by photographer and author Alexandre.
During his many voyages, Alexandre has always striven to share his experiences by means of photography, video documentaries and radio broadcasts.He has published a number of works on the theme of the environment, solidarity, spirituality and education.
Discover his photographic work on

Amrit Babji (the sadhu) and Alexandre Sattler (the photographer).

Want more from  ?

Join azylo to get the latest stories from the author in your feed. Don’t miss a single story.

Recomended for you

View All