The Sadhu (also known as yogi and sanyasi), is a Hindu ascetic who has renounced caste, social position, money and authority, and occupies a special place in Hindu society. As one who seeks the Universal Soul in order to be absorbed in it, the Sadhu is set apart from the orthodox priesthood as renunciation is considered superior to the rituals of the priests.
The concept of the Sadhi traces its origin to the earliest images of Shiva himself, with his matted hair and the body covered with ash. A Sadhu does not have any caste and is free to attach himself to any strata of the social structure. The Sadhu is credited with much of the development of Indian culture, art, architecture, music, poetry and literature, influencing and forming the very world he has abandoned with his endless travels from one sacred site to another, singing songs and reciting poetry and carrying icons, paintings and other sanctified objects.
The Sadhu usually wears on his forehead the three lines of the god’s trident drawn in ash or sandalwood paste which may be vertical or horizontal. Endless variations of these sectarian marks, depending on the sect, are possible. They may decorate their bodies with various lines and markings, cover the entire torso with ashes, carry a metal trident and wear rosaries. The hair and the beard are uncut and matted.
Shaivite Sadhus are followers of Shiva and are divided into various sects. The Dasanami (monks with ten names) sect has about ten branches scattered all over India. They each have an armed militant branch called the Nagas. They follow Tantrism and Shaktism, eat meat, take stimulants and are often criticized for their erotic practices. The Gorakhnath is wear large earrings. The Aghori Yogis are notorious for their rites involving r e dead. The Lingayats centre their worship on the linga as the symbol of Shiva.
Vaishnavite Sadhus are devoted to Vishnu and are a later development than the Shaivite. Commonly called Vairagi (detached ones), they are members of various schools of Bhakti (devotion). They do not emphasize the ascetic extremes of the Shaivites. Their common identifying mark is a white V drawn on the forehead, with an added line in either white or red in the centre. They normally wear white and carry beads of the tulsi (sacred basil). Unlike the common Hindu who is cremated, the Sadhu is buried, usually in the sitting position. The burial site normally becomes a place of worship.