Apart from their participation in the Kumbh Mela, Sadhus usually live rather solitary lives, renouncing society and leading a monk-like existence, with basic food provisions and few possessions. Most Sadhus wear distinctly coloured clothes, to set them apart from the civilian population, while a number of Sadhus decline to wear clothes altogether, as they all used to do traditionally. Their distinct clothing, or nakedness, symbolises their renunciation of the mortal world and their dedication to a new spiritual existence. In a similar vein, on becoming a Sadhu, the holy man renounces his old name and receives a new one, indicative of his affiliation. Most often, however, they are referred to by the term Baba, which means, old wise man.
The Sadhus spend their time in devotion to their chosen deity, the most popular of which is Lord Shiva, the Destroyer (Shaivite devotees). Vishnu, the Preserver, or rather his incarnations (Avatars) like Rama or Krishna, are the other most followed deities (Vaishnavite devotees).

Followers of Lord Shiva, as well as of Lord Rama, may adopt Shiva's long dreadlocks. Lord Shiva is the longhaired god, who uses his long matted strands of hair, his powerful jata, to temper the potentially catastrophic force of the river Ganges - the goddess Ganga descending from heaven.

Apart from their differences in clothes, almost all Sadhus have distinctive markings painted on their forehead to demonstrate their allegiance to their sect and chosen deity.

Most Sadhus lead a life of austerity (tapasya) and a number wear heavy wooden and metal chastity belts to highlight their chastity. Some will go to extremes in self-inflicted suffering to speed up their way to enlightenment. The most unbelievable to watch are those who remain standing for 24 hours a day for years on end or who hold one arm aloft until all feeling is lost and the muscles atrophy, leaving the Sadhu permanently disabled.

Others believe in easier routes to enlightenment; viewing Shiva as the Lord of Hash, some strive to be permanently intoxicated. This results in a number of rather red-eyed Sadhus spending their days smoking marijuana, which is admittedly a little easier than standing for twelve years, and would explain why smoking Sadhus are in abundance.

Sadhus are at the heart of the Kumbh Mela. Apart from taking a holy dip in the Ganges, the aim of the Hindu pilgrims is to have the Darshan ("vision") of a Sadhu in order to receive their spiritual energy. Believers regard them as holy because of their radical commitment, and the most devout Sadhus are worshipped as Gods on Earth. Followers and disciples hope to gain spiritual merit or perhaps even enlightenment by touching the Sadhus' feet or listening to them - the ones not under vows of silence that is. Sadhus are also thought to transmit spiritual energy through Prasad. Pilgrims offer items such as food and flowers to Sadhus, and the ones not kept or sacrificed are distributed as Prasad, which literally means food from the Gods.

Tens of thousands of Sadhus will gather at the Kumbh Mela where the different Sadhu Akharas (orders) will maintain their own camping areas. In the past there was intense rivalry between the Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects, mostly about the order of precedence in the bathing processions, which sometimes resulted in bloodshed, and even today some of that competitive spirit still lingers.