The symptoms of a sadhu are that he is tolerant, merciful and friendly to all living entities. He has no enemies, he is peaceful, he abides by the scriptures, and all his characteristics are sublime. (The Vishnu avatar Kapiladeva to his mother Devahuti, Srimad-bhagavatam 3.25.21)
There is an apparent irony in the term sadhu-bhushana, (sadhu-ornaments). The stereotypical image of a sadhu is that of an ochre-clad, long bearded, Hindu ascetic who sheds all ornaments save for a string of beads and a mark of sacred clay. Having cut family ties, he lives on the fringes of society, fixed on reaching moksha through rigid spiritual discipline. Sects of ascetics, both Vaishnava (such as the Ramanandi) and Shaiva (such as the Dashnami), as well as Shakta, fit this image. Photos of dreadlocked men bathing at the Khumba-mela have come to define the popular image of a sadhu.
Through Kapiladeva’s response to his mothers appeal for guidance, the Bhagavatam speaks of sadhus by a list of defining attributes, ornaments which beautify and distinguish ones character. Having promised Devahuti a yoga practice which is sarvanga-naipunam, (practical in every way)(1), Kapildeva begins a lucid explanation of the practice of bhakti-yoga beginning with the observation that although attachment to the material binds the soul, when attachment is transferred to sadhus, the door to liberation is opened (moksha-dvaram apavritam).(2) One is to recognize a sadhu, not by their external appearance but by their sadhu-ornaments, both soft, (titikshavah-tolerant, karunikah-merciful, suhridah sarva-dehinam- friendly to all, ajata-satravah-inimical to none, santah-peaceful), as well as hard, (sadhavah-abiding by scripture).
Much has been written in bhakti-shastras (scriptures) regarding sadhu-sanga, or associating with sadhus (also called sat-sanga). Here, Kapiladeva reveals the value of sadhu-sanga as the opportunity for shravanam or hearing (shravanam is the first of nine processes in bhakti). From hearing in the association of sadhus, he states, ones sradha (faith), rati (attachment), and bhakti (devotion) to God naturally follow.
satam prasangan mama virya-samvido
bhavanti hrit-karna-rasayanah kathah
taj-joshanad asv apavarga-vartmani
sraddha ratir bhaktir anukramishyati
In the association of pure devotees, discussion of the pastimes and activities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is very pleasing and satisfying to the ear and the heart. By cultivating such knowledge one gradually becomes advanced on the path of liberation, and thereafter he is freed, and his attraction becomes fixed. Then real devotion and devotional service begin. (Kapiladeva to his mother Devahuti, Srimad-bhagavatam 3.25.25)
Translations by Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc. Used with permission.
(1) Srimad-bhagavatam 3.25.14
(2) Srimad-bhagavatam 3.25.20