For travels of Guru Nanak, see Udasis.
An Udasi shrine in Nepal
Udasi is a religious sect of ascetic sadhus centred in northern India. It is based on the teachings of Sri Chand (1494–1643), the son of Guru Nanak, the founder and the first Guru of Sikhism.
The Udasis were key interpreters of the Sikh philosophy and the custodians of important Sikh shrines until the Akali movement. They brought a large number of people into the Sikh fold during the 18th and the early 19th centuries. However, their religious practicies border on a syncretism of Sikhism and Hinduism. When the Singh Sabha, dominated by Khalsa Sikhs, redefined the Sikh identity in the early 20th century, the Udasi mahants were expelled from the Sikh shrines. Since then, the Udasis have increasingly regarded themselves as Hindus rather than Sikhs.
The word “udasi” is derived from the Sanskrit word udas (“detachment”), and may signify indifference to or renunciation of worldly concerns.Although Nanak emphasized the importance of a social life, his son Sri Chand propagated asceticism and celibacy
The Udasis gained prominence during the Sikh rule in northern India: before the advent of the Sikh rule, they had around a dozen centres; by the end of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign, the number had increased to around 250.The Udasis played an important role in propagating the Sikh philosophy, and during the 18th and the early 19th centuries, their teachings attracted a large number of people to the Sikh fold.
Before the emergence of the Singh Sabha Movement in the late 19th century, they controlled the important Sikh shrines, including the Harimandir Sahib.However, during the Akali movement of the 20th century, the Khalsa Sikhs expelled them from the Sikh shrines, accusing them of vices and of indulging in ritual practicies that were against the teachings of the Sikh gurus. The Sikh Gurdwara Reform Act, 1925 defined the term “Sikh” in a way that excluded the syncretist groups like the Udasis, the Nanakpanthis and Sanatanis.Subsequently, the Udasis increasingly identified themselves as Hindus rather than Sikhs.
The Udasis do not reject the Sikh Gurus, but attach greater importance to the line of succession from Guru Nanak through Sri Chand to the Udasi mahants. They interpret the message of Guru Granth Sahib in Vedantic terms. They do not abide by the Khalsa’s Rehat Maryada.
The Udasis also worship the panchayatana, the five Hindu deities: Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Ganesha, and Surya.
Traditionally, there were four Udasi centres (akharas or dhuans) with each controlling a certain preaching area; Nanakmatta, Kashmir, Malwa (Punjab) and Doaba. There is an Udasi gurudwara (temple) in Amritsar, near the Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple).
Today’s Udasi are predominantly located in northwestern India especially around Punjab Haryana, Gujarat and cities like Haridwar and New Delhi, they are divided into three major groups:
▪ Niya (New) Udasi Panchayati Akarda
▪ Bara (Big) Udasi Panchayati Akarda
▪ Nirmal Udasi Panachayati Akarda
Udasis are usually celibate and renounce worldly cares, but still regard themselves as Sikhs. Anand Ghan (see below) believed that Baba Sri Chand was an incarnation of God, and the only successor of Guru Nanak. Ghan also believed in many Brahmanical-cum-Hindu ideas that the Sikh Gurus did not advocate. These included the theory of the incarnation of God, Brahmanic rituals and practices and the belief in the necessity of renunciation, the practice of austerities, asceticism and celibacy, though most cut their hair. These largely Vedantic, philosophical beliefs led them away from Bhakti (loving devotion of the divine) to a knowledge and meditation of the divine, such that there was a shift from a personal God to an impersonal reality. Although they believe in the Adi Granth and pay it great respect, they do not believe in the householder (grihasti) of the Gurus, nor the doctrines of Guru Panth and Guru Granth, nor in the accumulation of wealth and property. Furthermore Guru Nanak’s definition of ‘udas’ was “to make use of all things in this world and not deem them one’s own, but only God’s property, and ever to possess a desire to meet Him in udas”. (See Foundation, Evolution and Transformation of the Sikh Panth entries).
The Udasis were founded by Baba Sri Chand (1494-1629), the eldest son of Guru Nanak. Udasi, from the root ‘udas’ means detachment, withdrawal from worldly life, solitary, sadness and grief, and so refers to one who renounces. Traditionally he is said to have opposed his father’s appointment of Guru Angad as the second Guru, and so he started his own order. He lived a celibate life of renunciation and asceticism. During the seventeenth century the Udasis grew in number and were respected by the early Sikh Panth. Early Sikh records show that there were ten major Udasi orders.
During eighteenth century, the Udasis (not appearing as Khalsa Singhs) escaped the persecution of the Mughal rulers. Since they considered themselves as Sikhs, this naturally led them to look after the Sikh shrines in the absence of Khalsa Singhs and the Akalis/Nihangs (see separate entries). Here they performed a key role in keeping Sikh teaching alive. Anand Ghan, an Udasi scholar of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, wrote commentaries on the Adi Granth from a largely Hindu-Vedantic perspective.
The Mahants (those in charge of the Gurdwaras) of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, frequently claimed an Udasi descent, though their life style had considerably changed. The crucial juncture in Udasi history came in 1921 when a Mahant of Nanakana Sahib Gurdwara, claiming to be an Udasi, orchestrated the massacre of a large group of Akalis (see separate entry) who were seeking non-violently to reclaim the temple. Today they are seen as Sahajdhari or Sanatan Sikhs as opposed to Khalsa Singhs (see respective entries).
No distinct restrictions on hair; some wore it long and matted, others short. The matted hair symbolises their renunciation of worldly life. To this extent many go around naked and smear ash on their bodies, again symbolising their death to the world of family relations business and caste.
There were more than a dozen orders at the end of Sikh Rule in 1849. The number of establishments rose dramatically from the 1790s to the 1840s. They had more than 250 centres (akharas) spread across the Panjab and even beyond. In the 1891 Census 10,518 Hindus and 1,165 Sikhs returned themselves as ‘Udasis’. (Census of India, 1891, Vol.XX and Vol.XXI, The Punjab and its Feudatories, by E.D. Maclagan, Part II and III, Calcutta, 1892, pp.826-9 and pp.572-3.) However, there are no official contemporary numbers, (see also the note at the end of the Explanatory Introduction).
There were four Udasi centres (akharas or dhuans) each controlling certain preaching areas. These were eastern India (with the main centre at Nanakmata), western Panjab and Kashmir, Malwa and Doaba.
Over 10,000 men are being ordained as Naga sadhus during this Kumbh, many of whom have left the prospect of flourishing careers in engineering and management to turn a renunciate
HARIDWAR/PRAYAGRAJ: Rajat Kumar Rai, 27, from Kutch in Gujarat, has a diploma in marine engineering. But instead of pursuing a career on the high seas which would have got him a fat pay-check, he has decided to instead renounce the world and become a Naga sadhu, one of the toughest streams of asceticism to pursue. It’s a similar story for Shambhu Giri, 29, a management graduate from Ukraine, and Ghanshyam Giri, 18, a class XII board topper from Ujjain, both of whom prefer to use their post-initiation names only.
Last week, at a mass initiation ceremony during the ongoing Kumbh mela at Prayagraj, the three along with thousands of others had their hair chopped off (leaving only a tuft or ‘shikha’ at the back of the head), performed their own ‘pind-daan (after-death ritual) and participated in a night-long sacred fire ceremony after which they were inducted into the ancient order of the Naga sadhus.
Initiation ceremony at Kumbh for Naga sadhus
The Naga sect, often the centre of attraction at the Kumbh melas, is known for its seers performing extreme penances by pushing their bodies to the limit and staying naked with ash smeared on them as part of their practices to achieve spiritual growth.
Despite the hardships and tough regimen associated with the sect, it is estimated by the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (ABAP), apex body of the country’s akharas (sect of seers), that over 10,000 men and women are taking deeksha (initiation) and becoming Naga sadhus this Kumbh. Of these, around 1100 were initiated by the Juna akhara, largest of the 13 akharas in the country last Sunday. The Juna akhara has planned a few more mass initiations this month as have other major akharas like Niranjani and Mahanirvani.
Thousands renounce the world in their bid to become Naga sadhus
According to Mahant Hari Giri, chief convener of Juna akhara and general secretary of ABAP, the initiation ceremonies are held only during the Kumbh, and the number of those being initiated is “in the thousands on every occasion.” As for the backgrounds of those becoming Nagas, he says, “Any person who has a strong desire for vairagya (detachment) irrespective of caste, colour or religion is eligible to become a Naga. Many Muslims have been accepted as have several Christians and people from other religions. So have people who have earlier been doctors or engineers.”
Once accepted by the akhara, the path to becoming initiated is a tough one. “We test aspirants for years to conclude whether they are here to stay or have just decided to become a sadhu either due to a whim or after a crisis in life. Only when they prove themselves after being put through rigorous tests, and we are satisfied, are they ordained as a Naga,” says Giri.
Initiation process for Naga sadhus at Kumbh
The process, from being accepted by the akhara, to finally being ordained, can take anywhere between a couple of years to even a few decades. According to Ghanshyam Giri, the key is to remain focused on the goal. “After I had cleared my board exams, I realised what my aim in life was. I was 16 when I moved into the ashram of my guru, Mahant Jairam Giri, in Ujjain. By his grace, I was able to receive initiation as a Naga after just two years, during this Kumbh.”
Rai, now known as Nityanand Giri after his initiation, adds, “I had a dream many years back in which I saw myself dead and meeting God. It was then that I decided to become a Naga. The journey has been tough but I would have it no other way,” he says with a beatific smile.
Ask them what was the toughest part of their regimen and Ghanshyam says that it would have to be the practices which are designed to “eradicate sexual desires and kill the ego.” The Nagas as part of their practices perform ‘kriyas’ which involve lifting of weights using their private parts and other similar exercises which for a lay person, seems unthinkable to perform.
Nityanand says that giving up all attachments is a big challenge. “One has to do his own pind daan as well as that of his family members who are still alive in order to be fully dedicated to this path.”
Initiation ceremony begins with aspirants living a celibate life
The journey after initiation is no less difficult. Depending on the instructions of their guru, the newly-inducted Nagas either spend time mediating in the Himalayas, or perform jan-seva (social work). Nityanand’s guru, Mahant Amrit Giri, has ordered him to return to Gujarat and devote himself to public service. He says he is now looking forward to “improving lives of people in whatever way I can by putting into practice all that I have learnt.”
HISTORY OF THE NAGAS
The tradition of the Naga sadhus dates back to thousands of years — references to digambar (naked) seers are found in several ancient Vedic texts. According to Haridwar-based author Vishnu Dutt Rakesh, who has written extensively on Hindu religious traditions, the Nagas were first organised into militant groups by Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century A D. “Adi Shankaracharya set up the Dashnami Sanyasi order which comprised of seven akharas —Niranjani, Juna, Mahanirvani, Atal, Agni, Anand and Awahan. They were called akharas as their members bore arms and were ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their country and religion,” says Rakesh.
The spear was adopted as the symbol of the akharas which is still worshiped by Naga sadhus before they take part in the ritual dip in the Ganga at the Kumbh mela.
Naga sadhus carrying spears at shahi snan, Kumbh (File photo)
The Nagas took part in several battles as warriors of Hindu armies. When Aurangzeb’s general Mirza Ali Turang attacked Kashi (Varanasi) in 1664, thousands of Nagas battled his army and helped safeguard the Kashi Vishwanath temple. When Aurangzeb’s army attacked Haridwar in 1666, the Nagas came forward to resist them.
INITIATION AS A NAGA
The process of deeksha (initiation) begins with an aspirant living a celibate (brahmachari) life sometimes for several years and undergoing severe practices in order to condition his body and mind. When he is ready to be initiated, a ‘panch sanskar’ ceremony is done in which five gurus perform different rituals for him. These include pramukh guru cutting off his shikha (hair), bhagwa guru giving him saffron clothes and rudraksh guru offering him rudraksh beads. Vibhuti guru applies ash on his body while langot guru takes away from him the last cloth on his body.
A celibate life spans for several years to condition body and mind
A ‘viraja hom sanskar’ is then conducted by the acharya mahamandaleshwar of the akhara. The aspirant has to perform his own pind daan besides that of his ancestors from both the mother’s and father’s sides. The last ritual called naga diksha is conducted by his sixth guru under the akhara dhwaj (flag) after which he is declared a Naga.
Over the years, as their spiritual practices progress, the Nagas are elevated within their akharas to becoming a mahant and thereafter mahamandleshwar and finally acharya mahamandleshwar, which is the highest position in their hierarchy.