In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Holy Persons

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Holy Men
  • Holy Women
  • Gurus
  • Monasticism and Monastic Institutions

Hinduism Holy Persons
David Gordon White
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0026


Given the fact that there is no term in Sanskrit or in the modern languages of South Asia that corresponds exactly to “holy man” or “holy person,” it may be argued that this is an Orientalist category invented by Europeans in the 19th century. Yet, there exist descriptions, dating from the most ancient Hindu scriptures and the earliest Western travelers’ accounts of India, of individuals whose lifestyles and powers are so exceptional as to qualify them as superhuman. Yogi, sadhu, brahmin, sannyasi, rishi, muni: these Indic terms are all entries in the Oxford English Dictionary defined as different sorts of “holy persons.” Some, such as sannyasi (renouncer), rishi (seer), and muni (hermit), denote specific types of practice, whereas others resist classification. Many other sorts of saints, monks, reformers, charismatics, and ascetics encountered in Hindu scripture and secular Indian literature as well as on the ground may also be categorized under this heading. Quite often in these traditions, the line becomes blurred between the human and the superhuman, and so one may speak of “god-men”: local or regional deities revered as exemplary holy persons. In his classical study of “the holy” in religion, Rudolf Otto underscored the term’s broad semantic field: the holy is simultaneously fascinating, attractive, awesome, and terrifying. Over the millennia, India’s holy persons have inspired the same reactions: they have been objects of love, reverence, wonder, fascination, and awe, but also of dread and terror.

General Overviews

The origins of Indian holy men and women have be traced back to Vedic lore concerning the ancient seers (ṛṣis) and other groups (vrātyas, śramaṇas, etc.) who likely practiced some form of renunciation (saṃnyāsa) or asceticism (tapas). As such, these persons have been a fixture of Indian society and civilization for thousands of years. Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of South Asia have theorized the relationship between the social identities, statuses, and functions of these ascetics and world-renouncers, over and against those of such this-worldly actors as householders and kings, as a means of mapping ancient and modern Indian society. The groundbreaking work of Dumont 1981 (originally published in 1970) set the agenda for a debate that continued for several decades. Critiques of Dumont’s hypothesis may be found in Burghart 1983 (who faults Dumont’s Brahmanical perspective) and Gaborieau 2002 (who faults Dumont’s Christian perspective), whereas the historical studies Thapar 1978, Tambiah 1982, and Olivelle 2006 further it. Heesterman 1985 is a compendium of that historian’s highly original thesis concerning the origins of the renouncer ideal and the Brahmin caste.

  • Burghart, Richard. “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia.” Man n.s. 18.4 (December 1983): 635–653.

    DOI: 10.2307/2801900

    Critiques anthropological theories (including that found in Dumont 1981) of renunciation, arguing that their data are shaped not by renouncers themselves, but rather from the perspective of Brahmin householders. Argues that the ascetic perspective emphasizes renunciation as a means to overcoming the transience of this-worldly existence.

  • Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Translated by Mark Sainsbury. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

    Classic study of the Indian caste system—whose fundamental argument is that caste hierarchy is based on relative purity—focuses on the sanctioned position of the renouncer, who, situated both within and outside of the caste system, constitutes an “absolute” norm of purity for the broader Indian society. Reprint of the 1970 edition.

  • Gaborieau, Marc. “Incomparables ou vrais jumeaux? Les renonçants dans l’hindouisme et dans l’islam.” Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales 1 (2002): 71–92.

    Critiques Dumont’s theory (Dumont 1981) of the relationship between the renouncer and the man-in-the-world, on the basis of the close similarities between Hindu and Muslim forms of renunciation, as opposed to the sharp opposition between the Hindu and Christian forms of renunciation, which Dumont favored in his analysis.

  • Heestermann, J. C. The Inner Conflict of Tradition: Essays in Indian Ritual, Kingship and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

    Collection of the most important of Heestermann’s controversial studies on the co-emergence of renunciation as an idealized “Brahmanical” lifestyle together with the ritual rejection of the violence of Vedic animal sacrifice in ancient India.

  • Olivelle, Patrick. Ascetics and Brahmins: Studies in Ideologies and Institutions. Kykéion Studies and Texts, Scienze della Religione 6. Florence, Italy: Firenze University Press, 2006.

    Collection of the most important of Olivelle’s many groundbreaking philological and text-historical studies of the phenomena of asceticism and renunciation in the Indian religious tradition. Argues that ascetics have always been a part of, rather than a counterpart to, the broader Brahmanical system.

  • Tambiah, Stanley J. “The Renouncer: His Individuality and His Community.” In Way of Life: King, Householder, Renouncer: Essays in Honour of Louis Dumont. Edited by T. N. Madan, 299–320. New Delhi: Vikas, 1982.

    Traces the history of the strategic incorporation of heterodox (mainly Buddhist) renunciant ideologies and practices into orthodox Hinduism by Hindu monastic institutions in the medieval period.

  • Thapar, Romila. “Renunciation: The Making of a Counter-Culture?” In Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations. By Romila Thapar, 63–104. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1978.

    Compelling sociological explanation for the paradoxical role of the renouncer as symbol of authority within society. Ancient Indian renouncers were dissenters who flouted social conventions as a strategy for establishing a society parallel to that of householders and kings.

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