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.