Category Archives: Noteworthy Figures in Contemporary Hinduism

Dasanami Samnyasins

The development and the components of Hindu monasticism may appear complex. Sankara, the famous Indian philosopher, founded a Hindu monastic federation referred to as the Dasanami Order (Wade nd). Hindu monks, known as samnyasin, were divided into ten lineages which trace back to Sankara and compose the Dasanami Order. The ten different monk/renouncer groups were then divided up among the four monasteries founded by Sankara (Clark 2). The four monasteries (mathas) are located in the east, west, south, and north of India and they are respectively called Govardhan, Sarada, Srngeri, and Jyotir (Clark 115). This order is the most respected and influential in the Hindu tradition (Werner 148).

Historically, it has been viewed that the four monasteries are representative of Sankara’s travel and his spiritual authority. Sankara’s life is regarded as somewhat legendary. He lost his father at a young age and he was an admirer of the samnyasin life style. Sources claim that at the age of eight, Sankara was captured by a crocodile while he bathed in a river. Sankara told his mother that if he did not receive her blessing to become a samnyasin the crocodile would have taken his life (Pande 31). Historians believe that three factors contribute to why Sankara is held in the highest regard. It is said that Sankara was an incarnation of Siva (Pande 73). His strong connection to and the belief in his embodiment of Siva could be due to Sankara’s connections to miracles. Secondly, the implementation of authentic practices was to emphasize the social and spiritual claims of the reorganized monasteries. The final aspect which made Sankara legendary was the expansion of the Advaitic and non Advaitic schools (Pande 73). The rationales behind legends of his incarnation have been to fortify the Vedic faith and help spread the spiritual way of living across India (Pande 82).

Samnyasin (renouncing) is the final stage of one’s life. One may renounce after they have completed the householders’ stage grahastha (Miller 3). However, some Hindus enter renunciation earlier, once they have completed their education, though such young renouncers are less common. A renouncer is considered to be a wise holy man. He is expected to withdraw from society. From that point on, his life is dedicated to the attainment of moksa (Werner 147). A renouncer’s withdrawal from society is theoretical because, he may live in close proximity to society and interact with its members however, physical detachment is essential (Olivelle 272). One must leave their family and possessions in order to discover the meaning of life and gain inner peace (Burghart 635). Renouncers are placed outside of the caste system and are highly valued. A renouncer who receives offerings and praise from Hindus is not uncommon.

Once Hindu monks formally renounce, they are categorized in relation to the method of initiation and their way of life (Wade nd). Renouncers may fall into one of three distinct categories: the dandis, nagas, or paramahamsas. However, all Dasanami consider themselves as Siva (Clémentin 2). Many Dasanami renouncers decorate themselves with rudrāka beads and put three white horizontal stripes on their forehead to embody the symbolism of Siva and Visnu (Clémentin 3). Each type of renouncer group is affiliated with one of the four monasteries. To formally renounce, a monk must attain a new identity. He is given one of the ten surnames which made him a part of that particular spiritual lineage. The name one receives is linked to the monastery they are associated with and reflects their caste as well as their renouncing lifestyle. The monasteries from the south and west are mainly composed of dandi renouncers. The lineages commonly assigned to these monks, once they formally renounce include: Bharati (speech), Sarasvati (learning), Tirtha (sacred bathing), and Asrama (hermitage). Puri (town) and Giri (hill) are lineages linked to naga renouncers. Other names, sometimes received by all types of renouncers include: Vana (woods), Aranya (forest), Parrata (mountain), and Sagara (ocean) (Dazery na). Receiving a new name is significant because it symbolizes the relationship one has under a guru which acts as an investiture. An opportunity for the new renouncers to teach and ordain followers is given (Clémentin 16). Once a name is received, one is able to initiate another person into the samnyasin stage of life. All three branches of the Dasanami (dandi, nagas, and the paramahamsa) have networks of mathas (monasteries) spread across India.

The dandis traditionally come from a high caste background and hold knowledge of the Sanskrit language. They are the wanderers who usually carry a staff. The staff may be embellished with a saffron cloth with an axe head under it (Clark 28). Generally, dandi renouncers were previous householders, have short hair, and believe that they are the true samnyasin (Clark 41). Their initiation ceremony is completed by a guru and the name given depends on what matha one is affiliated to (Clark 41). One of the four brahmacari names is given at the ceremony either being Svarup, Prakasa, Ananda or Caitanya (Clark 42). The second ceremony a dandi partakes in is called the viraja home (Clark 89). A short sacred utterance that presumably encapsulates the essential wisdom of Vedanta from the monk’s monastic lineage is spoken (Wade nd).

Renouncers, who fall under the paramahasa grouping, discard all belongings including their staff, perform the most asceticism and obtain the highest amount of respect (Clark 102). They more frequently live in mathas and are affiliated to an akhara. However, paramahamsan monks are not deeply connected to the akharas life compared to the nagas (Clark 42).

Lower caste members form the naga renouncer group (Clark 39). Some scholars refer to them as “naked fighting monks” (Wade nd).  The naga have been known to travel nude and they cover their entire bodies (sometimes just their private areas) in ash, especially on festive holidays (Clark 35). The nagas are organized into seven akharas (Clark 48). To be initiated into the akhara as a naga, one must go through a third process referred to as the tang tode (Clark 98). This is a unique initiation among the three groups.

Typically, males are the ones who enter the stage of renunciation. However, women renouncers have recently been reported. About ten percent of female renouncers belong to the Dasanami (Clark 31). However, women may become brahmacarini, but they cannot enter the second stage of initiation in becoming “full” samnyasin (Clark 33). Women remove all jewelry as a symbol of their renunciation. The majority of women belong to the paramahamsa renouncer group. Two known monasteries exclusively admit women. The least number of women belong to the naga group (Clark 34).

A life apart from society cultivates detachment through a community which shares similar perspectives (Clémentin 2). Some renouncers may choose to join a monastic community (Tambiah 300). Monastic communities provide a shared living space between many samnyasin monks. It is where asceticism is ingrained through tradition (Clémentin 2). This concept of communal settlement was introduced by Sankara, and is referred to as the matha system (Miller 4). The purpose was to create a sense of solidarity through group support. The matha was a larger unit comprised of temples, a traditional Sanskrit school, a library, and a shelter for lay followers (Clémentin 4). The caste system was embedded into the institution. Individuals were born to specific gurus. Gurus raised money to support children’s education for their caste (Aya 58). Donations from patrons allow for monks to teach, provide medical care, and help feed the community (Miller 5). Service to the community was viewed as important and resembled Hindu cohesion. Monks may continue traveling, but if they remain in a community for an extended period of time they are less respected, except if it is the rainy season (Olivelle 271).  Clémentin addresses that, “the important point to stress is that they do not owe their allegiance to a monastery, but to a lineage of spiritual succession” (3). Sankara’s successor, a Sankaracarya (head of 1 of the 4 monasteries) essentially becomes “the teacher of the world” by representing the founder of his lineage (Clémentin 6). Sankaracaryas have substantial spiritual power and settle disputes within the matha by helping with court cases (Clark 79). For example, cases may include initiation and personal affairs, adultery, abuse, and caste pollution. Sankaracaryas help decide the punishment of a fine, a fine, forms of social exclusion, and sometimes even excommunication ceremonies (Clark 80).

The origins of the Dasanami Samnyasin illustrate the prominence of Sankara’s philosophical influence in creating the order. Spiritual lineages of the samnyasin monks are traced back to Sankara. The samnyasins aquire a new religious identity in which they abide by certain roles, codes, and practices (Clark 2). The different groupings of renouncers across the four cardinal directions are symbolic of Sankara’s spiritual journey and the prominence of Brahman (Wade nd). The caste system is significant to the Dasanami Order because it allows for different renouncer groups to exist. Subtle differences exist among the samnyasins such as, their appearance, initiation process, status, and their affiliation to a distinct lineage (Clark 39). The matha system was important for the development of education and philosophical ideas for the samnyasin and their lay followers (Clémentin 4). Life consisted of days of expressing bhakti in prayer, meditation, and lectures (Werner 147). Overall, evidence suggests that the Dasanami Order has been very influential and is a representation of Sankara’s philosophy. 


References and Further Recommended Readings

Burghart, R., (1983) “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia”. Man18(4), 635–653.

Clark, Matthew (2006) Dasanami Samnyasis. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Clémentin-Ojha, C. (2006) “Replacing the Abbot: Rituals of monastic ordination and investiture in modern Hinduism”. Asiatische Studien, Etudes Asiatiques, Vol.60, 535- 573.

Ikegame, A (2012) “The Governing Guru”. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London & New York, NY: Routledge 5, 46.

Miller, D. M., & Wertz, D. C (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

 Olivelle, P. (2001)”The Renouncer Tradition”. In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism,  G. Flood (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing  271-287.

 Pande, G. C (1994) Life and thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

 Tambiah, S. J. (1982) “The renouncer: his individuality and his community”. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 15(1), 299-320.

Wade, D. (2012) “Dasanamis.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from < hinduism/dasanamis-BEHCOM_9000000043>

Werner, Karel (2013) Love Divine: Studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism, London & New York, NY: Routledge 147-152.


Topics for Further Investigation

The Ramanadi Order



The Four Monasteries




Noteworthy Websites


Article written by: Miranda Deringer (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888 – 1975)

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a philosopher, politician and academic and was considered one of the greatest Indian thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was born on September 5, 1888 and lived to age 86.  Throughout his adult life he was a well known public figure in his native India, serving as both Vice-President and President. In addition to his political career, he was also a renowned writer on Hindu philosophy. Radhakrishnan is known to some as a “bridge builder” between the East and the West for his efforts to expand Western society’s knowledge about India and their understanding of Hindu thought and religion. He showed that the philosophical systems of each tradition are comprehensible within the terms of the other (Behur 1-4). One is hard pressed to find Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s own words about his life story since he steadfastly refused to write an autobiography (Braue 1-2).

Early Life

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born during a time when Hinduism was in the midst of being renewed and restored in the hearts of millions of Indians (Harris 2-3). He was the second of five sons and one daughter born to Sarvepalli Veeraswamy and Sitamma, poor Brahmins living in the town of Tirutani in Tamil Nadu state.  Tirutani had a population of about 170 000 and was considered a pilgrimage destination due to its major Subrahmanya temple (Minor 4). Radhakrishnan’s family kept the name Sarvepalli as an indication of their place of origin. In the middle of the 18th century the family moved from Sarvepalli to another village located in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. All were devout Vaisnavaties and worshipped the well-known god Krsna (Minor 3-4).  Radhakrishnan’s early life was spent in the religious centers of the small towns of Tirutani and Tirupati.  His father was employed as a subordinate revenue official in the service of the local Zamindar [landlord] and with limited income the family lived in relative poverty.


Radhakrishnan grew up in a traditional Hindu atmosphere (Harris 3). His parents were very orthodox and his father did not want his son to learn English [his mother tongue was Telugu] and pressed his boy to become a priest. However, despite their orthodox views, his parents sent him away to several Christian Missionary Institutions – the Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati (1896 – 1900), Voorhee’s college, Vellore (1900 – 1904) and Madras Christian College in Madras (1904 – 1908) (Kohli 38-39). Sarvepalli was an excellent student and was awarded multiple scholarships which helped sustain him throughout his academic career.

In 1906, he received a B.A. with honours in philosophy, and in 1909 obtained an M.A. and was a most distinguished alumni. He main interest was in the Vedas and Upanishads and spent much of his time specializing in these subjects as well as studying Hindi and the Sanskrit language. He wrote his thesis for his M.A. on the ‘Ethics of the Vedanta and its Metaphysical Presuppositions”. At only age 20 his thesis was recognized and published. Radhakrishnan’s passion for philosophy developed more by chance than choice. A cousin, recently graduated from the same college, was kind enough to pass on his textbooks in philosophy.  This generosity decidedly influenced his academic path (Kohli 40-41).

Marriage and Family

In 1903, at age 16, it was arranged by his family that Radhakrishnan was to be married to Siva Kumaramma, his 10 year old first cousin (Minor 4). The couple had their first daughter together in 1908, the first of six children over the proceeding fifteen years. Their family included four daughters and two sons, one of which died shortly after birth (Kohli 39). Their youngest son, Sarvepalli Gopal, would go on to become a distinguished and notable historian and biographer (Braue 4). Radhakrishnan’s devoted wife, Sivakamu, died on November 26, 1956 and their marriage was “the end of a long chapter”, as he put it.

Teaching Career

Sarvepalli’s education had shaped a most disciplined mind and strong individual, acquiring many qualities of a potentially great leader. Spanning from 1909 to 1952, his career had three notable phases, teacher of philosophy, leader in higher education and finally politician and statesman.

In 1909 he accepted a teaching position at the Madras Presidency College in the Philosophy department where he spent seven years teaching and researching in the area of Indian Philosophy and Religion.  In 1916, he advanced to a full professorship (Braue 4).  He impressed the senior professor of philosophy so much that his mentor actually ended up asking him to lecture his classes. Radhakrishnan was endowed with a great intellect and gifted with an amazing memory enabling him to employ a vast vocabulary and eloquent communication style, to great advantage (Kohli 38-40).

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calcutta took notice of this extraordinary academic mind and offered Sarvepalli the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science, a prestigious position which he occupied twice – from 1921 to 1931 and again from 1937 to 1941.  He was clearly honoured by this appointment and described the position as “the most important philosophy chair in India”.  As chair, he represented the University of Calcutta at the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire and the International Congress of Philosophy at Harvard in 1926.  Radhakrishnan also presented many lectures at numerous universities: Chicago, London, Manchester and Oxford.  He then accepted a position at Manchester College in Oxford in addition to teaching comparative religion at the University of Oxford (Braue 4).

In 1931, he was knighted by England for his great services to education and subsequently stepped down as the King George V Chair in order to accept the Sir Sayaji Rao  Gaekwad Chair at Banaras Hindu University. Later in his academic career he also occupied the Spalding Chair in England until 1952, when he was appointed Professor Emeritus at Oxford. (Braue 4-6).

The second key phase of Radhakrishnan’s life, as a leader in higher education, spanned from 1931 to 1962.  He was made the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University and served as a member of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. Throughout this time he delivered many presentations at universities all over his native India.

During World War II he also toured and lectured in China (Braue 6-7), and from 1953 to 1962 he held the post of chancellor of Delhi University.  In 1940, he achieved a milestone by being the first Indian to be elected as Fellow of the British Academy. As a professor, he was always very popular with his students and was loved and respected as a remarkable teacher. The genesis of his popularity was his genuine empathy and his great ability to engage people of all ages. This combination of attributes and skills continued to win him respect throughout his long and memorable public life (Behura 3).

Rise in Politics and Political Career

After the end of the Second World War, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan began a shift from his academic career with a view to apply his philosophy and religious studies toward political and social development.  He served as head of the Indian delegation to the UNSECO conferences held in Paris from 1946 – 1952 (Braue 7) and was later elected to the position of Chairman of UNESCO in 1948.

When India received independence from Great Britain in 1947, Sarvepalli was still India’s key representative at UNSECO. He would later also be awarded the titles and responsibilities of Ambassador-Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of India to the Soviet Union from 1949 to 1952 (Kohli 44).  Radhakrishnan was widely thought to be one of the most respected and successful of all diplomats in Moscow at the time. He had met Stalin twice, as the Ambassador of India, with Stalin commenting, “ You are the first person to treat me as a human being and not as a monster. You are leaving us and I am sad. I want you to live long.” (Kohli 45). Dr. Radhakrishnan, the diplomat, was considered a very sympathetic and humane person, open to other viewpoints, and never considered to be an elitist intellectual.

After his return to India in 1952, Sarvepalli was elected as India’s first Vice-President, an inaugural position that had been created under the new constitution. He would be re-elected in 1957, not long after the death of his wife. During his many tours around the world his main objective was to impress upon foreign leaders India’s viewpoint on major international issues and increase his country’s role on the global stage.

In many of his books and dissertations, Radhakrishnan takes great pains to interpret Indian thought in a way that Westerners could relate to. (Kohli 45) Through his public life he remained steadfastly committed to high principles, dignity and moral authority. This integrity of purpose made him a highly revered figure in India and internationally he became one of the best-liked and respected public figures of all time.

In May of 1962, this well regarded philosopher and statesman was elected President of the State of India, succeeding Dr. Rajendra Prasad, becoming the second Head of State of a newly independent India. During his presidency, India was faced with war on two separate occasions, first with China and subsequently with Pakistan. In 1967,  Sarvepalli made an emotional farewell broadcast to the nation and told his loving country that he would not seek another term as President and would retire from public life.

After the death of Nehru in 1964, he described the former leader as “an earnest of the age to come, the age of the world men with world compassion.” And went on to say, “The best way to honour his memory is to get on with the work which he left unfinished, his work of peace, justice and freedom at home and abroad” (Dehruy 8).  Radhakrishnan’s dedication and efforts made a great contribution towards the realization of Nehru’s objectives.

Philosophical Beliefs

Sarvepalli often described philosophy as “ the attempt to think out the presuppositions of experience, to grasp. By means of reason, life or reality as a whole”(Braue 42). He attained prominence due to his eloquence in describing Indian philosophy according to Western academic standards, enabling non-Indo cultures to understand and consider Eastern philosophies and, most particularly, from India. He once stated his greatest challenge was that western philosophers, despite claiming to be objective, were inevitably influenced by the theological teachings of their own cultures.

Radhakrishnan’s philosophical work took two distinct directions. His philosophy is Indian idealism (Braue 44). First, his Indian Philosophy was defined as Radhakrishnan interpreted it. Originally what he presented was no different than the “Vedanta” which he had defined earlier.  Later, he changed its designation to “Hinduism” or the “Hindu View”. The second direction was the construction of a philosophical system from experimental grounds without relying on Indian thought (Minor 43).

Radhakrishnan tried to clarify for his western audiences that Hinduism is a progressive unity and that the history of Hinduism is of evolutionary advancement. He saw the method of “Hinduism’s” historical development as characterized by a critical attitude toward the traditions of the past in a modern sense, not just accepting past thoughts (Minor 45). Radhakrishnan was also an advocate of the class system of Hinduism. He believed that it was the only democratic solution to racial problems. Caste was a way to organize society and suggested that it is entirely functional, not a “mystery of divine appointment” (Minor 45-46). Thus, the foundation of the caste system are the ideas of free will, equality and democracy (Minor 45-46).

Radhakrishnan wrote many books on his philosophical beliefs and he was well known for his ideas on the Prasthana Trayi, the Bhagavadgita, the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra.


Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan died on April 17,1975 after a prolonged illness. At that time, Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi said, “As a teacher, he was deeply involved with the welfare of youth. As a statesman, he had deep understanding of the practical problems of nation building. He contributed significantly to the consolidation of our political parliamentary traditions. Now death has claimed him, but the memory of his commanding presence, the resonance of his voice and the radiance of his thought cannot fade and will remain a part of our legacy.” (Kohli 48)

Every year on September 5th, on Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday, “Teachers Day” is celebrated all across India and the government gives national awards to teachers. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan will remain one of the greatest Indian philosophers of the 20th century and of all time (Kohli 48-49).


Braue, Donald A. (1985) Maya in Radhakrishnan’s Thought. New Delhi: Narendra Prakash Jain.

Dehury, Dinabandhu (2010) Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as Statesman. Orissa: Orissa Government.

Gopal, Sarvepalli (1989) Radhakrishnan, a Biography. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Harris, Ishwar C. (1982) Radhakrishnan: the Profile of a Universalist. Columbia: South Asian Books

Hawley, Michael (2003) “The Making of a Mahatma: Radhakrishnan’s Critique of Gandhi. Studies in Religion 32(1-2), 135-148.

Kohli, A.B. (2001) Presidents of India. New Delhi: Reliance Publishing House.

Kumar Behura, Dillip (2010) The Great Indian Philosopher: Dr. Radhakrishnan. Orissa: Orissa Government.

Michael, Aloysius (1979) Radhakrishnan on Hindu Moral Life and Action. Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

Minor, Robert N. (1987) Radhakrishnan A Religious Biography. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Minor, Robert N. (1997) Radhakrishnan as Advocate of the Class/Caste System as a Universal Religio-Social. International Journal of Hindu Studies 1(2), 386 – 400.

Murty, K. Satchidananda and Vohra, Ashok (1990) Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Schilpp, Paul A. (1992) The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Sharma, Arvind (2002) Modern Hindu Thought. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Indian political system

Rajendra Prasad

Sarvepalli Gopal

Comparative Religion



Jawaharlal Nehru

Rabindranath Tagore



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli

Article written by Ryan Booth (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Sathya Sai Baba


Sathya Sai Baba It is said that “the only person in India who can draw larger crowds than Sai Baba is the prime minister” (Swallow 125). Also known as Satya Sai Baba, Sai Baba has risen in the last century as an important figure in modern day India. It is difficult to know the amount of followers that Sai Baba has, but it is estimated that there are at least twenty million adherents worldwide (Rodrigues 487). His name, when broken down, gives meaning, Satya means truth, Sai is the divine mother, and Baba mean father. His name stands for the union of the male and female aspects in the world (Bassuk 87). Sai Baba’s most powerful technique to draw people to his cause is the use of miracles, especially materialization (Babb 1986: 181). Over the course of his life, Sai Baba has attracted many followers, but he has also received his fair share of negative attention. Scepticism and doubt have been cast on the legitimacy of his miracles, and controversy has risen in his inner circle with accusations of murder and pedophilia. Examining his life, his miracles, his cult, his divine “connection”, as well as the criticism of others, are all important for understanding who Sathya Sai Baba is, and his importance to the modern Hindu society.

Sathya was born in the state of Andhra Pradesh in the village of Puttaparthi in 1926 (Babb 1983: 116). He was born into the Raju caste, his birth name Satyanarayana Raju (Bassuk 87). At his birth special signs occurred to mark his coming, one of which was a cobra mysteriously appearing under Sai Baba’s bed, and another was a Tambura magically had its strings plucked (Urban 78). Sai Baba attended school like a normal child where he focused on drama and bhajan, which are devotional songs (Babb 1986: 163). In 1940, Sai Baba had an epileptic seizure and began acting in a bizarre manner. Exorcists were brought in to try to cure the boy, but failed (Urban 79). This was explained to be the possession of his body by Shirdi Sai Baba (Bassuk 88). Shirdi Sai Baba was an Indian healer and miracle work who had died in 1918 (Babb 1983: 117). Through claiming to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, Satya had proclaimed his avatarhood (Bassuk 87) and gave his miraculous powers legitimacy (Urban 79). It was at this time that Satya left his family and began attracting devotees to his cause. Ten years later, he constructed his ashram in Puttaparthi and his influence began to be felt across the country (Urban 79). In 1963, Sai Baba had another forceful seizure, was diagnosed with tubercular meningitis, and went into a coma. He was brought before a crowd for a festival and he miraculously cured himself and began proclaiming himself as the Lord Siva and his consort Sakti in embodied form (Babb 1986: 165). He claimed that the illness was caused by Sakti, as she had caused the mage Bharadvaja to become ill, and Siva had cured him by sprinkling water. Sai Baba claimed that by sprinkling the water on himself he had cured his disease (Babb 1986: 165). After his proclamation, Sai Baba began travelling around the Indian sub-continent spreading his message through lectures, speeches, festivals and special pujas (Urban 79). He also founded a number of “Sathya Sai Colleges” and has been active in charitable and philanthropic activities (Babb 1986: 168). Sai Baba has stated that his goal in his current incarnation is to combat social evils and spiritual degeneration present in the modern day (Urban 87). Sai Baba has also prophesied his own death, at the age of 96 in the year 2022 (Babb 1986: 166).

An important aspect of Sai Baba legitimacy is his claim that he is an avatara, a god in human form. The idea of avatara arose through the complex polytheism occurring in the Vedic period, the idea that a god has descended into a human form (White 865). The Buddha is a common example of one considered to be an avatara. Sai Baba uses the idea of the avatara to draw legitimacy to his powers. He claims that in his current form, he is Siva and Sakti together in human form. Sai Baba suggests that there are three Sai incarnations, Shirdi Sai Baba who was Sakti alone, Satya Sai Baba who is both Siva and Sakti, and the future Sai incarnation Prema Sai who will be Siva incarnate alone (Babb 1986: 166). Many of the miracles that Sai Baba performs also play an important role in connecting him with Shiva. One of the most common objects that Sai Baba materializes is vibhuti, sacred ash that has a connection with Siva (Babb 1983: 119). Another materialization miracle of producing a lingam out of his mouth draws strong symbolic connections with Siva who is primarily associated with the lingam (Swallow 138 and 146).

The festival of Mahasivaratri becomes an important annual activity for Sai Baba’s cult. This festival is known as the great night of Siva and Sai Baba is worshipped as a living lingam (Swallow 146). The main reason for the success of Sai Baba is his ability to perform miracles. The miracles that Sai Baba performs are crucial for recruitment and maintenance of the cult. Sai Baba himself has even called his miracles nidarshan (“evidence”) of his divine character and important for influencing the spiritual being of his devotees (Babb 1983: 117). Some of the miracles that have been attributed to Sai Baba include the curing of illnesses, being able to leave his body and be in more than one place at once, raising the dead, knowing intimate details of those he helps without being told, being able to fly, and multiplication of loaves of bread and fish (Spurr 119 and Babb 1986: 174). However, the most important type of miracle that is performed is materialization. It is believed that he can materialize practically anything (Babb 1986: 179). The most common object materialized is vibhuti, and it is said that he produces a pound a day (Babb 1983: 117). These miraculous powers are known in Hinduism as siddhis which are supernormal powers that can be obtained through yoga (Rodrigues 204). It is important to note that the absence of Sai Baba does not mean that a “miraculous” event could not be attributed to him, but rather increases his authority by creating an essence of the miraculous (Babb 1986: 180). An example of this would be the mysterious and sudden presence of vibhuti within the devotee’s household (Babb 1986: 179). This miraculous element is at the foundation of Sai Baba’s movement.

An understanding of Sai Baba can also be obtained by examining the practices of his cult. Participation can be as simple as placing a picture of Sai Baba in the family shrine, to the more devout practices, in which devotees will fill their homes with images of the Baba. Committed members will also take part in the education and social service systems that the cult takes part in (Babb 1986: 170). Education and social service are important goals of the cult, with members partaking in sponsored charitable and philanthropic activities. These activities are funded by donations of wealthy devotees. Sai Baba himself does not receive the donations, but rather a trust called the Central Shri Sathya Sai Trust receives all donations. This has made the donation process very simple, as devotees can make donations at any branch of the Canara bank (Urban 81). The cult and Sai Baba have established four “Sathya Sai Colleges”, as well as putting major efforts into Bal vikas, which are child development programs (Babb 1986: 168). In general, the individuals most drawn to Sai Baba’s cause are the well educated middle class (Urban 81). Sai Baba has gained western attention by becoming the guru to the owner of the “Hard Rock Cafe”, Isaac Tigrett (Urban 74).

Like most religious figures Sai Baba, has not escaped the criticisms and skepticisms that come with the role. Two types of skeptics have arisen. Some completely dismiss Sai Baba and view his miracles as sleight-of-hand tricks. Others do not dismiss his abilities, but rather dismiss the idea of him being divine, and attribute his abilities to the siddhis of a yogic adept. In an eye witness account of “materialization”, Michael Spurr carefully watched the process by which Sai Baba materialized goods for his devotees. Spurr suggests a simple sleight-of-hand trick, in which the “materialized” object was held in the left hand, concealed by a stack of paper. When the time is right, he transfers the object to his right hand, holding it between his fingers. He then spins his hand palm down and “materializes” the object for the devotee. Spurr also saw objects in between the cracks of Sai Baba’s left hand and saw him drop a pellet that could be the vibhuti that is materialized (201). Spurr also had an eye witness account where Sai Baba recalled incorrect details about two of the devotees whom he was talking with. This was rationalized by other devotees as Sai Baba joking around (205). Other areas of controversy have arisen around Sai Baba. In 1993, six members of Sai Baba inner circle were killed in Sai Baba’s room, two of which were murdered, and four, who were bearing knives, gunned down by police. The motive of the murders was suggested to be an internal conflict, and Sai Baba was never interrogated about the murders (Gogineni 58). Accusations of pedophilia have also surfaced surrounding Sai Baba. A book called “Avatar in the Night”, released by a former devotee of Sai Baba, accuses Sai Baba of having homosexual interest in young boys (Gogineni 58).

All copies of the book were burned. Sathya Sai Baba is a complex figure and although he has come under intense criticism, he has had an important role in the shaping of modern day Hinduism.


Babb, Lawrence A.(1983) “Sathya Sai Baba’s Magic”. Anthropological Quarterly 56. 3:116-124

Babb, Lawrence A. (1986) Redemptive Encounters: Three Modern Styles in the Hindu Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press

Bassuk, Daniel E. (1987), “Six Modern Indian Avatars and the Ways they Understand Their Divinity” Dialogue & Alliance 1. 2:73-92

Gogineni, Babu (1999) “The God Man of India Sex, Lies and Video Tape in the Satya Sai Baba Story” Skeptic 7. 4:56-59

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The eBook – an Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd

Spurr, Michael J. (2003)“Visiting-card revisited: an account of some recent first-hand observations of the “miracles” of Sathya Sai Baba, and an investigation into the role of the miraculous in his theology”. Journal of Religion and Psychical Research 26 2:198-216

Swallow, D. A. (1982) “Ashes and Power: Myth, Rite and Miracle in an Indian God-Man’s Cult”. Modern Asian Studies 16. 1:123-158

White, Charles S. J. (1972) “The Sai Baba Movement: Approaches to the Study of India Saints”. The Journal of Asian Studies 31. 4:863-878

Urban, Hugh B. (2003) “Avatar for Our Age: Sathya Sai Baba and the Cultural Contradictions of Late Capitalism”. Religion 33:73-93

Related Topics for further investigation



Bhakti yoga

Linga (lingam)


Prem Sai






Shirdi Sai Baba


Notable Websites

Written by Michael Racz (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Devotion of Sri Ramakrishna

“Nobody has been able to understand him who came on earth as Sri Ramakrishna. Even his own nearest devotees have no real clue to it. Only some have a little inkling of it. All will understand in time.” (Swami Vivekananda in Sil xvii)

How can we realize the presence of God? Sri Ramakrishna searched the answer of that question throughout his life in the Daksinesvar Kali Temple, where he is reputed to have succeeded in gaining a vision of the gods and goddesses of many religions. To his devotees, Sri Ramakrishna represents an Avatar (incarnation) of the Divine, among the innumerable spiritual figures of India. Devotees also believe that he spreads the light of mystic radiance over the entire world.

In 1936, in Kamarpukur, a little Bengali village sheltered by banyan trees and mangoes and surrounded by rice fields and pools, Ramakrishna was born. His father was Khudiram Chattopadhaya, and his mother was Chandramoni Devi (Paramahamsa 29). According to legend, while Khudiram was on pilgrimage to Gaya, a god appeared to him during a dream and promised to be reincarnated in Khudiram’s next son. Meanwhile, while Chandra Devi was visiting a Siva Temple, she too had a vision that foretold the birth of a divine child (Lemaitre 45). Dhani Kamarani, a blacksmith woman, was present with Chandramani Devi when this happened. In the memory of the dream at Gaya, he was named Gadadhar which means “the Bearer of the Scepter”, which is one of the names of Visnu (Lemaitre 45). It was later in life that he began to be called Ramakrishna. From a very early age he was disinclined towards formal education and wordily affairs, but he was a very talented boy who could sing spiritual hymns and paint. He was found to be absorbed in spiritual moods while listening to the discussions and discourses of Holy men.

According to his biographies, Gadadhar was six years old when he experienced his first ecstasy. It occurred while he was walking with his sister-in-law and some of her friends to a temple in their village. He was singing devotional songs and running around in the paddy field. The sky was covered by black clouds and when he saw a flight of white canes in front of the dark clouds, Gadadhar lost connection with outer consciousness and experienced an incredible joy in that state (Lemaitre 46). Gadadhar repeatedly experienced similar experiences throughout his childhood. At times when he was worshiping the goddess Vishalakshi or while playing with his friends, he would lose connection with his consciousness and move into his own happy land, samadhi. Once in his village during the festival of Sivaratri, there was a play being conducted about Siva but somehow the person who was going to act as Lord Siva was missing. So Gadadhar volunteered to act. While playing the role of Lord Siva, Gadadhar, once again, lost his consciousness. At the age of ten Gadadhar would experience this trance more often, until it became a common thing.

In 1855, Ramkumar, Gadadhar’s brother, and his nephew, Redayram, became the priests of Dakshineswar Kali temple, which was built by Rani Rashmoni who belonged to Kaivarta cast. Gadadhar’s task in the temple was to decorate Ma Kali. Gadadhar was also known as Thakur, a simple priest. He was unconventional. He believed that if you do not think that god is with you and a human being, then you cannot come close to god. So Gadhadhar did not follow all the rules and regulations of the Brahmin caste. Nevertheless, he was later appointed as the main priest of the temple. He then started looking at the goddess, Ma Kali, as his own mother and also the Mother of the Universe. He also worshipped his own wife, Chandra Devi as the Divine Mother and invoked the divinity in her. As Gambhirananda describes:

“By the by, the Mother lost all outer consciousness and the worshipper, too as he proceeded with his ceremonies, gradually lost himself in beatitude. On the level of ecstasy the Deity and the devotee became identified.” (Sil 147)

During the 1860s Sri Ramakrishna also practiced Islam under the Banyan tree of Daksinesvar. Govind Roy, a Sufi initiated him (Sil 73). Ramakrishna used to say prayers five times daily wearing a cloth like an Arab Muslim. The Hindu way of thinking disappeared from his mind. According to biographical accounts, he spent three days in that mood and a radiant countenance of Muhammad appeared to him in a vision. He also had an interest on Christianity. He was so surprised to see the shyness of the figures of Madonna and the child Jesus and became interested in Christian religion. Though his deep meditation he had a vision of Christ, as a great Yogi and son of the Divine Mother. He did not believe that any one religion could hold the whole truth to the exclusion to others (Lemaitre 112). One of his renowned teachings is: as many faiths so many paths.

One day Ramakrishna went on a pilgrimage to Varanasi with Mathur Babu, the son-in-law of Rani Rashmoni, and his family. They first stopped at the Vaidyanath Siva temple in Behar (Lemaitre 115). He was greatly distressed to see the wretched condition of the people in a nearby village. Moved by sympathy for them, he requested Mathur to feed the poor people and give everyone a piece of cloth. Unfortunately, they did not have sufficient funds to feed and clothe everyone as they had to bear their own expenses for the pilgrimage. However, Ramakrishna was inexorable; he canceled the journey to Varanasi and spent all the money for the poor villagers. He believes that God lives in every living soul. During a state of hyperconsciousness Sri Ramakrishna said, “Jiva is Shiva [the living being is God]” (Lemaitre 116).

Ramakrishna also met with many of the great sons of India. Among them Swami Vivekananda was one of his favorite disciples who became a messenger of Hinduism in the western world. According to legend, long before he knew Naren (i.e., Vivekananda), as in the case of Rakhal, a young disciple who later became Swami Brahmananda, his other favorite son, the priest of Daksinesvar had seen him in a vision in the guise of a wise man plunged in the meditation of the Absolute, having incarnated in a human body in order to assist his master in the earthly task of which at that time Vivekananda was utterly ignorant (Lemaitre 186). Sri Ramakrishna went to Samadhi with Vivekananda before his death and gave everything to Naren to lead the work of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda.

After the death of the great master, his favorite disciple Narendranath assumed the role of organizer and evangelist following Ramakrishna’s example. He took a leadership of the permanent monastery in 1898 at the Belur Math where Vedantic study got a promotion with the arts, sciences , and industries, teacher training, mass literacy and education, establishment of schools, colleges, orphanages, workshops, laboratories, nursing home for individuals and so on. The Math and the Mission together have 144 centers all over India and in different parts of the world (Lemaitre 205). Most of the missions and Maths are situated in India and Bangladesh.

Sri Ramakrishna was a successful priest of Kali as he had a vision of the Divine Mother through his restless devotion. On August 15, 1886, he had fallen into a trance and never awoke, but his teachings are still alive in the millions of his disciples. Sri Ramakrishna’s chief apostle, Swami Vivekananda’s organizations, Ramakrishna missions and Maths, are spreading out the concept of love and devotion among the people of all over the world and providing humanitarian aid. Being an illiterate sage, Sri Ramakrishna became a spiritual master of Hindu philosophy and a savior of twentieth century. The German philologist portrayed Sri Ramakrishna as “a wonderful mixture of God and man” and as “a bhakta, a worshipper or lover of the deity, much more than a Gnanin or a knower.” (Paramahamsa: 58)

References and Further Recommended Reading:

Lemaitre, Solange (1969) Ramakrishna and the vitality of Hinduism. New York: Funk & Wagnalls

Sil, Narasingha Prosad (1937) Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: A phychological Profile. New York: Brill’s Indological Library

Gupta, Mahendranath (2001) Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita. Chandigarh: Vedanta Press

Paramahamsa, Sri Ramakrishna (2008) Ramakrishna, His Life and sayings. Toronto: Forgotten Books

Related Topics for further investigations:

  • The Ramakrishna Math and Mission
  • Swami Vivekananda
  • Goddess Kali
  • Sarada Devi
  • The Guru
  • Bhakti
  • The Dakshineswar Kali temple
  • Four stages of life
  • Rani Rashmoni
  • The four stages of life
  • Samadhi
  • The Vedanta
  • The Bhagavad-Gita
  • Brahmasamaj
  • Karma
  • The Darcanas and Yoga

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic:

Article written by: Sudipto Chowdhury (2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa is to be considered one of the most profound figures in India’s history. Unlike many people who centre their lives primarily around their outward actions and extrinsic influences, Sri Ramakrishna lived only for spirituality and his innermost thoughts. Solange Lemaitre remarks that, “his life is the muted accompaniment of the purely inner story of an exceptional soul and its spiritual steps towards the Absolute” (146) [For further information on “the Absolute,” see Lemaitre 83-93]. Over the years, Ramakrishna received great fame and admiration for his effortless ability to enter into samadhi [this is one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga; a spiritual state when one’s ego disappears, for more information, see Nikhilananda 169], his deep beliefs rooted in the Hindu tradition, and his teachings on acceptance and charity.

Even Ramakrishna’s birth was said to be surrounded by divine occurrences. Both of his parents, Khudiram Chattopadhyaya and Chandra Devi, apparently received spiritual visions about their son before they were even aware of his conception. Khudiram dreamt that the god Visnu made a promise to him to be born as his son, and Chandra experienced a vision “indicating the birth of a divine child” (Nikhilananda 4). And it was on February 18, 1836 that Chandra gave birth to a son, Gadadhar [this name translates as “the Bearer of the Mace,” an epithet of Visnu, see Nikhilananda], who would go on to be recognized as Sri Ramakrishna. He was born at Kamarpukur, a village in the Hooghly District of Bengal, India. Gadadhar grew to be an intelligent, inquisitive, and “healthy and restless boy” (Nikhilananda 4) whose primary interests lay in Hindu mythology and the epics, religious readings, and observing Hindu monks’ pilgrims and worship. Gadadhar’s strong passion for religion and the spiritual world was only beginning to develop and would continue to grow stronger with time.

From an extremely young age, Gadadhar demonstrated unconventional manners, according to the Indian caste system. At his sacred thread ceremony, the nine-year-old Gadadhar accepted and ate food that had been prepared by a sudra woman, which was seen as improper due to his Brahmin status. This event marked the beginning of his long-standing belief that, “[t]hose who love God belong to no caste” (Lemaitre 78).

Gadadhar had special divine qualities about him that sparked in him a burning desire to know God and continually obtain more knowledge about God. Lemaitre explains that as soon as the teenaged Gadadhar “entered into contemplation, the Lord appeared to him virtually immediately. It was from this time forward that the propensity of his nature to lose consciousness became stronger” (49). It was this strengthening propensity that would go on to guide Gadadhar in his new role as a priest at the Kali temple of Dakshineshwar, located near Calcutta, in the state of Bengal. Gadadhar would also be guided throughout the course of his life by two influential and very different people. One of his mentors was a master of non-dual Vedanta, “Totapuri” (Nikhilananda 26), and the other was a female tantric, “the Brahmani” (Nikhilananda 18).

Sri Ramakrishna became a priest at the Kali temple by replacing his brother, who had died one year after accepting the position. At only twenty years of age, Ramakrishna was brimming with vibrant energy and enthusiasm for religion and pursuing God, but he did reserve some hesitation towards the temple of Kali and the hierarchical implications of his new position as a priest. He did not support the idea of the caste system, as previously mentioned, and this was reflected in his initial reluctance to accept the position. But soon after beginning this new chapter of his life, Ramakrishna was overwhelmed by the holiness of the temple, its close proximity to the sacred river the Ganges, the atmosphere of the temple and its surroundings, and above all, “the living presence of the Goddess Kali” (Lemaitre 57). He would go on to regard Kali as the “Divine Mother” (Lemaitre 86) and rapidly became more obsessed with seeing her in her absolute form. This obsession drove Ramakrishna to perform unorthodox rituals, such as praying to Kali throughout the night while removing all of his clothing, including his sacred thread (this was thought to be sacrilegious), in an effort to free himself of all external bonds (Lemaitre 65). These unorthodox practices intensified the growing notion that Ramakrishna was, in actuality, insane. It is not difficult to understand the assumption that Ramakrishna had gone “mad” as he would suffer bouts of hysteria when he felt as though his body was on fire, fits of uncontrollable sobbing, delirious moments of ecstasy, and an overall complete indifference to the outer world (Nikhilananda 18).

Sri Ramakrishna was twenty-three years old when he married Sarada Devi in 1859. His marriage further emphasized his devotion to God and his “unquenchable desire to enjoy God in various ways” (Nikhilananda 15) as their marriage was never consummated. This act of celibacy lifted Sarada Devi to a type of pedestal so that Ramakrishna could “worship his wife as an embodiment of the Divine Mother” (Rodrigues 285). They remained married until his death in August of 1886.

Although Ramakrishna remained a priest in Dakshineshwar, his teachings rapidly spread throughout India and eventually worldwide as well. People were traveling in increasingly larger groups to see the “Divine Incarnation” (Lemaitre 84) and to hear him share his thoughts on life and God. He is well known for his warm acceptance of religions outside of Hinduism, as he himself briefly practiced the disciplines of Islam and Christianity. Nikhilananda remarks, “Sri Ramakrishna realized his identity with Christ, as he had already realized his identity with Kali, Rama, Hanuman, Radha, Krishna, Brahman, and Mohammed […] thus he experienced the truth that Christianity, too, was a path leading to God-Consciousness” (34). These realizations of various spiritual identities undoubtedly caused controversy amongst Hindus and others, but they also underlined Ramakrishna’s notion of tolerance and non-ignorance.

Of all the people who Sri Ramakrishna influenced, his impact on Swami Vivekananda was perhaps the most profound. Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) became Ramakrishna’s most devoted disciple, spreading his master’s teachings and stories throughout the world, including the Western world. Ramakrishna’s name, along with Vivekananda’s, became known in North America after Vivekananda visited the United States. His appearance at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 marked the beginning of the development of a more compassionate, accepting, and appreciative relationship between Eastern and Western religions. He established the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York City and this center, along with its missions, continues to bridge the gap between the East and the West.

It was on August 16, 1886, that Sri Ramakrishna died in a house in Cossipore, India, with his disciples, dearest friends, and Sarada Devi at his side. His name lives on in his teachings and in the actions that thousands upon thousands carry out today in his honour. Lemaitre notes that “Ramakrishna’s sympathy for the unfortunate derived from his conception that God is in every being” (116). This sympathy is recognized and put into action through such groups as the Ramakrishna Order which, among other accomplishments, has “created schools, colleges, hospitals, dispensaries, homes for the aged, and orphanages” (Rodrigues 285). And so, Sri Ramakrishna remains a celebrated and illustrious religious figure and one whom Narasingha P. Sil affectionately calls, “the nineteenth-century Bengali Saint” (1).


Lemaitre, Solange (1969) Ramakrishna and the Vitality of Hinduism. Trans. Charles Lam

Markmann. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

Nikhilananda, Swami (1984) The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. New York: Ramakrishna-

Vivekananda Center.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2007) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Sil, Narasingha Prosad (1991) Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: A Psychological Profile. Ed.

Johannes Bronkhorst. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Related Topics for further investigation:

· The Absolute

· Samadhi

· The Ramakrishna Order

· Keshab Chandra Sen and the Brahmo Samaj

· Swami Vivekananda

· Tantra

· The Vedanta

· The Goddess Kali

· Brahmin class

· Eight powers of yoga

· Aum

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic:

Article written by: Stefanie Rausch (2008) who is solely responsible for its content