Friday, October 3, 2014

Why the British were wary of Sadhus

Saffron-clad itinerant sadhus are a standard feature of Indian pilgrimage towns today. However, the British were uncomfortable with these sadhus (and with with nomadic people in general).

As early as the 1830's, William Henry Sleeman (who created the Department of Thugee and Dacoity), argued that "Three-fourths of these religious mendicants, whether Hindoos or Muhammadans, rob and steal, and a very great portion of them murder their victims before they rob them...There is hardly any species of crime that is not throughout India perpetrated by men in the disguise of these religious mendicants".

In medieval India, Sadhu akharas (sects) were not just loose bands of itinerant ascetics. They were an important component of the military labor market. Sadhus carried tradeable items on behalf of merchants and developed fighting skills to protect their cargo. Some sadhus, such as the well known Anup Giri became military adventurers and warlords. The kumbh melas became staging grounds for the mobilization, recruitment, and mercenary employment of the armed akharas. These martial characteristics of the sadhus made them dangerous from the British point of view.

Sadhus could move freely through the countryside, and had easy access to villages. They were usually constantly on the move, staying in temporary camps. This made it impossible for the British to police them. They had no permanent home, no land, no family, and no material possessions using which any pressure could be brought upon them. The were part of esoteric sects, and loyal only to their sect leaders. Many myths and super-natural powers were often attributed to sadhus in popular imagination; because of which they enjoyed the support of the local populace. 

During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British record of events in Kanpur speaks of significant numbers of gosains, or Saiva soldier ascetics, taking part in the insurgency. The leader of the Kanpur gosains was named Lalpuri Gosain, and the records say that he appeared during the hostilities on elephant-back with a military banner on display.

In the first half of the 1900's, with the World Wars, and the increasing anti-colonial movement in India, the British were worried that sadhus were preaching sedition. In fact, British fears in this regard were not unfounded. In 1920, Naga sadhus came in considerable numbers to the Nagpur Indian National Congress conference, to see and listen to Gandhi, as he launched the Non-Cooperation Movement. British intelligence reports say that Gandhi spoke to the sadhus, advising them to visit military cantonments, to spread the message of non-cooperation.

During the first half of the 1900's  there were also several stories of freedom fighters dressing up as sadhus in order to be able to move freely. For example, the noted freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad (1906 - 1931) is said to have disguised himself as a sadhu and a temple priest, to evade capture.

There are several interesting books and articles on the sadhus and their role in history. However, nothing about sadhus is taught in Indian history books. Children grow up knowing nothing about them. We see sadhus today only as strange relics of a past era, or as practitioners of arcane rituals, or as godmen with eerie powers.


  1. Great article Deepa!

  2. Well worth a read, they appear like James Bond without the parkour