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sadhu (साधु)

Sanskrit. ‘Good man’ or ‘holy man’, ‘sage’, and ‘seer’, though sometimes translated ‘beggar’, and as an adjective it may also mean ‘leading straight to a goal’ and ‘effective’ or ‘efficient’, as well as ‘virtuous’, ‘peaceful’, ‘kind’ and ‘honest’. The term is used to refer to someone who renounces the secular world and strives for a religious life. The sadhu's aim is to achieve moksha through ascetics, meditation and contemplation of brahman. Becoming a sadhu is often considered the fourth and last phase in the Four Stages of Life, which is also known as Brahmacharya, i.e. the celibate stage. They often wear saffron or ochre-coloured clothing, which both in Hinduism and Buddhism symbolizes renunciation. Many sadhu wear a tilaka on their forehead, generally a certain sectarian mark, known as pundra. These so-called holy men or mystics usually have long beards and dreadlocks, that are matted with cow dung and rubbed with vibhuti (fig.), i.e. sacred ash, that is taken either from a temple flame or from a cremation fire. Besides this, sadhu also cover their body and face in ashes. The ash, which is considered food from Agni, the god of fire (fig.), symbolizes the conquest over death, as well as the destruction of ones karma in the fire of austerity. In order to emphasize their celibacy, to destroy sexual desire and lust and to demonstrate their renouncement of sexual pleasure, some sadhu will lift heavy weights, such as a large stone block, with their genitals. Florence Riddle, a British army wife who lived in colonial British India in the first half of the 20th century, described the sadhu as a strange bundle of dirty rags’, noting also that ‘extreme dirt seemed to accompany extreme holiness’. The most fearsome of the sadhus are members of the Aghori sect. They dwell on Hindu cremation and charnel grounds, eat leftovers from human dead bodies, drink and eat from a kapala (fig.), i.e. a bowl made from a human skull, and it are especially members of this group that smear the ashes from human cremation pyres on their bodies (fig.). Followers engage in morbid and gruesome occult practices that date back to the 5th century AD and are related to Tantrism. They are followers of Shiva in his manifestation as Bhairava, and of Durga. They claim to live in a natural state of no fear and no disgust, hence the name Aghori, which derives from the Sanskrit word aghora (अघोर), an euphemistic title of Shiva, that means ‘not terrific’ or ‘not terrible’, yet which is usually translated as ‘one who has no fear’. Besides cannibalism, the Aghori also indulge in the smoking of gancha (marihuana), the drinking of alcohol and human urine, and the eating of animal feces and decomposing meat for which they scavenge in garbage, etc. They also practice rituals of animal and human sacrifices. The female term for sadhu is sadhvi. See also rishi and chillum.