Hinduism and its spiritual ideologies are very complex and multidimensional when compared to the other religions of the world. That might be the reason why most people presume Yogis, Rishis, Sadhus, and Saints to be the same, as they appear very similar to each other.
But in reality, they are very different on so many levels. Even their core beliefs, practices, eating habits, clothes and ritual priorities are totally different from each other. However, despite all the dissimilarities they have, one thing in them stays the same.
That is, they all are seen with great respect in every hindu society, and since ancient times they are said to be the only true guides of sanatana dharma (hinduism).
They used to, and still serve the society with the eternal knowledge and power gained from their intense ascetic practices. These Sadhus, Saints, and Yogis can be seen in various places depending on their certain spiritual practices, and other activities which they are involved in.
From far reaches of Himalayan mountain caves, forests, crematorium to ashrams, temples and other pilgrimage places, their presence can be spotted almost everywhere in India. In this article we are going to learn a little more about them, so that you can effortlessly differentiate them from each other.
Who Are Rishis?
Rishi is a title given to an enlightened person. They are said to be the authors of original vedic hymns, however from the post-vedic tradition of hinduism to the present day of 21th century, people often see them as the “great yogis” or “sages” who have attained enlightenment and realized the eternal truth after an intense austerity of many years.
The title of “Rishi” is itself a Sanskrit word that has many contradicting meanings, but the most accepted one is – “one who reaches beyond this mundane world by means of spiritual knowledge”. Some of the earliest mentions of Rishis are found in Jaiminiya Brahmana and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
In Hinduism, people often term Rishis as the one who have already triumphed over their human emotions; such as anger, greed, attachment, ego and jealousy etc. and could see the supreme reality beyond the material world.
Can Only Brahmins Become Rishi?
In ancient times anyone with the determination to realize the supreme truth could become a Rishi by following and practicing a certain type of intense meditation for many years. It’s important to note that the title of Rishi used to only be given by their gurus, and no one had the right to self-proclaim it. Thus, it does not have anything to do with Brahmin casts.
The ancient caste system of India which is widely known today is very inaccurate and misleading. For example, in the pre-vedic to post-vedic era, caste hierarchy was solely based on the type of one’s profession and not on birth.
To give you a few examples, one of the great Rishis of all time, Vishwamitra, who wrote the famous Gayatri Mantra, was in fact a kshatriya (or, warrior caste), and Valmiki, the original author of Ramayana, was from a hunter tribe (a lower caste in a sense).
Who is Maharishi and How do they Become one?
Maharishi or Maharsi is an honorary title given to a Rishi when he reaches the highest level of their knowledge and austerity. Most of the time they are involved in studying and interpreting the deepest and complicated knowledge of vedic scriptures.
In hindu beliefs, they are born very rarely, often one or two in a century. So, earning the title of a Maharishi is not something that a normal yogic guru is capable of. The last known Maharishi was Dayanand Saraswati, who was the founder of Arya Samaj and the author of Satyarth Prakash.
Who Are Called Muni?
The word “muni” comes from the word “mounam”, which literally means to keep silent. Thereby, a person who is able to control and silence his nonsensical thoughts is called a muni. In various other texts and scriptures of hindu pantheon, they are also identified as the one, who interprets and contemplates on the meaning of the vedic hymns and mantras.
Many people often think that Munis don’t speak in their life as they are said to be taking a vow of silence. While it’s sometimes true, but not 100% correct. I mean if you’ve heard about the famous Narada Muni from various hindu epics and scriptures like Ramayana and Puranas, he is clearly seen there talking with devas and gods. Heck, even he sometimes talks too much in my opinion.
So the first interpretation is not entirely accurate. Basically, munis are one type of philosopher, thinker, and introverted person who usually lives in retirement, meditates and maintains the vow of a noble silence (or, mauna). They typically live alone and normally do not impart knowledge with others, but are busy in their own quest of finding the self.
Who Is A Sadhu And What Does It Mean?
The word Sadhu literally translates to anything that is good in Sanskrit. Therefore a sadhu is practically the one who is very good in nature. However it is a very broad term to interpret their characteristics upon.
Sadhu is also used to call or identify holy men who are on the path of seeking enlightenment. Most westerns only have heard of the Aghori Sadhus or Naga Sadhus, but there are many other sects of Sadhu as well practicing various esoteric rituals in India.
Sometimes their customs and beliefs are very different from each other, and one with no knowledge of sadhuism can easily get confused, but pretty much all of the sects of sadhus follow a similar kind of ascetic life.
Most sadhus other than aghori ands naga, can be found throughout India and Nepal. They often wander around cities and walk along roads with a begging pot and other stuff. Most sadhus are very respected among people believed in Hinduism, and other of its sister religions like Sikhism and Jainism.
Can Only Brahmins Become Sadhu?
According to many old folk stories of India, it suggests that in ancient times only brahmins were allowed to be a sadhu, however from the last 2000 – 3000 years sadhuism has been regarded as the highest form of religious life, and everyone has the right to practice it.
Thus, nowadays anyone from any caste can follow sadhuism and become a sadhu. It’s a straight-forward process, although depending on the sect it could easily become very difficult to follow certain rituals. To become a sadhu one needs to take a vow of chastity and poverty.
They are expected to cut ties with their families, and wear certain markings and clothes associated with the sect they belong to. There are believed to be around five million Sadhus belonging to several thousand schools and sects in India. Most sadhus are males, however, there are also a few sects of female sadhus as well, which are called Sadhvis.
Who Is Called Sanyasi?
According to hindu beliefs, a person is called Sanyasi, when he renounces the world by performing his own funeral to live a meditative life. They do this to live a life without the toxicity of having money, power, prestige, and any kind of family bonding – basically by detaching themselves from society.
Sanyasi believes that the world is an illusion or maya played by the Paramatman (the supreme soul of the entire universe). According to them, all the joy and pleasures that come from the material world are toxic and don’t ever last.
A person thus follows the path of living a sanyasa life to seek the truth. They can see and realize the truth of the material world, that it never fulfills nor it ever can. Sanyasis can be seen begging from door to door in India, only for their survival needs. They master the art of living without any desire for material pleasure while enjoying life as it is.