The UDASI Tradition

Guru Nanak & Baba Sri Chand. Lakhpat Gurudwara, Kutch.
  • Article tells about life and successors of Baba Sri Chand, the Udasi tradition, their symbols, types and beliefs and why their importance in modern day Sikhism fell.

The Udasi is one who remains in brahma-bhāva, feeling of identity with Brahman, and is indifferent to wordly affairs. He sits (āsina) above (ut) the objects of the senses, and hence called udāsīna. He follows the path of renunciation (nivṛtti mārga) rather than that of indulgence in sensory pleasures (pravṛtti mārga). 

Baba Sri Chand, called also Sri Candracarya (1494-1629/1643), the ascetic son of Sri Guru Nānak Dev (Nanakaputra) and   Mata Sulakhani Devi founded the historical Udasi (Udasina) sect, traditionally traced from the four sons of Brahma namely, Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanātana and Sanata Kumāra who received divya jnana, ‘divine knowledge’ from Lord Viṣṇu. 

Sri Chand is regarded as 165th sadhu in the Udasi lineage.  The sect is known for its emphasis on asceticism as against the mainstream Sikh belief in worldly activity (kirat karana). It professes faith in the Sikh gurus but does not strictly follow the Sikh Code of Conduct (rehat maryādā), or the Sikh rites of worship, as laid down by Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (estd. 1920).

Life of Baba Sri Chand

Sri Canda was born on Bhadrapada Sukla Navamī in 1494 (vikramī 1551) at Sultānpur Lodhī (Talvanḍi, according to another version) in Punjab. The infant had matted hair, three horizontal marks on his forehead, rings in his right ear and holy ash all over his body. His birth chart showed that he would be a man of deep learning, have extraordinary qualities and remain a celibate.

When Sri Chand was about seven years, Sri Guru Nānak Dev went on his first spiritual tour (udāsī). After two years he was invested with the sacred thread (yajnopavīta) and formally initiated into the Vedic literature by Panḍita Hardayala. At 11 he went to the gurukula of Acarya Puruṣottama Kaul in Srinagar for a comprehensive study of the holy texts and subsequently received initiation from Avinasi Munī. He defeated Somanatha Tripathi, a renowned Sanskrit scholar, in a religious debate in Srinagar after which his popularity spread in religious circles.

Sri Canda loved the solitude of forests where he meditated for hours without any fear of carnivores. Miracles came naturally to him. At Śankheśvara (near Dvarika bet, Gujarat) he made a spring flow by just blowing his conch and burying it in the ground. While in Kashmir, he buried a burning piece of wood from his hearth (dhunā) and materialised green leaves on it in the presence of representatives of Yakub Khan who had come to arrest him. The place, known as Śrī Candra Cināra, having a half-burnt tree graced by Śrī Canda exists to this day, and is controlled by Śrī Candra Cināra Baḍā   Akhārā Udāsīna Trust. At  Cambā, on the banks of the Rāvi, he made a large stone move like a boat to provide spiritual light to a boatman who had refused to ferry him across.

Sri Canda went as far as Sindh, Baluchistan, Kabul, Kandhar and Peshawar delineating the principles of true dharma and spreading the message of love and peace. A magnificent idol of Śrī Canda adorns a 500- year old temple (darbāra) dedicated to his memory at Faqir Jo Goth, a village 5km from Thatta (Sindh).

Sri Canda   visited Kailasa (Tibet), Mānasarovar (China), Nepal and Bhutan, in the north, Assam (Kāmarupa) and Purī in the east, Somanātha in the west, Ramesvaram, Kanyakumari and Sinhal Dvipa (Sri Lanka) in the south.

Sri Canda built a humble memorial to his father by salvaging the urn containing his ashes from the fury of flood at Kartārpur (Pakistan) and burying it at a place which developed into a town known as Derā Bābā Nānak (Pakistan) The successors of Sri Guru Nanak Dev held him in deep reverence and gave him presents. While at Bārṭha (district Pathankot, Punjab) Śrī Canda adopted Bābā Gurdittā, son of the sixth Guru Hargobind, by giving him the udasi insignia even though he was a householder.   

Sri Canda’s god was both saguṇa (with attributes) and nirguṇa (without attributes). He synthesised jñāna mārga - way of knowledge and bhakti mārga - way of devotion, the idea of One god and of His divine descent (avatāra) on the earth, of deva pujā -‘deity-worship’ - and guru pujā – ‘preceptor-worship’. Hence his philosophy is called Bhakti-Jnana Samuccaya, ‘aggregate of ways of devotion and ways of knowledge’. 

While, on one hand, he tried to bring about a rapprochement between Hindus and Muslims, and stem the tide of converts to Islam, on the other, he popularised the pancadevopasana - simultaneous worship of five deities - Gaṇesa, Surya, Viṣṇu, Siva and Śakti - to dilute sectarian differences among the Hindus.  He believed in the eternal principle of cause and effect (karma siddhanta), and in rebirth (punarjanma).  He was a Sanskrit scholar and is said to have written commentaries on the Vedas, the Upaniṣads and the Vedānta Sutras of Veda Vyāsa.

While the records of bards (Bhaṭṭas) say that Sri Canda died at Kīratpur on January 13, 1629, the Udāsīs believe that he vanished into the forest of Camba (Himachal Pradesh) after giving his last sermon to Brahmaketu, his ardent disciple from Bhutan. A small shrine having the statue of Śrī Canda lies at Pakhoke Randhāve (district Gurdaspur, Punjab), near an old śiśama tree (Indian rosewood; Dalbergia sissoo) mythologically linked to the Udāsī preceptor.

Among the works attributed to Baba Sri Canda are: Arta (arati or prayer) Srī Guru Nānak Dev comprising ten verses (padas)in honour of his father; Guru Gayatri (to be distinguished from the celebrated Vedic mantra), addressed to the spiritual preceptor for benediction; Sahasranāma, ‘thousand names’ in praise of the Supreme Being; Pañcadevaṣṭakam, eight hymns to Pañcadeva or five Hindu deities, and Mātrāvāṇī (Matrāśāstra) a succinct presentation of the Udāsī philosophy, in verse 55.

Successors of Baba Sri Chand

To continue the ascetic tradition of Bābā Śrī Canda, four monastic orders called dhuāns/dhunās or hearths emerged under Phula Shah (Puṣpa Deva, born 1573), Gondā (Gobind Sāhib, born 1569), Bābā Hamsa (Bālu Hasnā, Bāla Hāsa, born 1564) and Al-mast (Alimata, Kambaliya, born 1553) at Hoshiarpur, Kiratpur, Kartārpur (all in Punjab) and Nānakmatā (Uttarākhanḍ) respectively.

These ascetic orders spread into many parts of India. In course of time, six ascetic wings, each known as Bakśiśa - gift or authorisation of the guru to hold independent charge of an udāsi order –came into being under Bhakta Bhagawāna, Ajīta Mal, Suthare Shah, Mihān Sahib, Bakht Mal and Sangata Sahib. Of them, the Bakśīśa of Bhakta Bhagawāna and of Sangata Sahib won many adherents.

In course of time, the followers of four hearths and the first five Baksisas mentioned above became organised under Sri Pañca Paramesvara Udāsīna Pancāyata Akhārā (subsequently Baḍā  Akhārā) in 1779 (vikramī 1836). The  Udāsīs of  the tradition of Sangata Sahib led by Sadhu Manohara Dasa (Suradasa) established a separate order called   Sri Panca Paramesvara Udasina Pancayati  Naya Akhara at Kankhal near Haridwar (Uttarakhand) in 1839 (vikramī 1896).  

Sangata Sahib, also called Pheru, ‘on the move’, satyasmaaru or saccī dahri - ‘the truly bearded one’ had forty disciples; of them the lineage of Baba Brindavana and Baba Narayana Dasa, in particular, has been in prominence. Baba Nārāyaṇa Dāsa had four disciples: Bābā Gurbakṣa Sahib, Bābā Bhakta Sahib, Bābā Hirā Lāla and Bābā Naval Dāsa.

Baba Santosa Dāsa, disciple of Guriya Sahib and grand disciple of  Bābā Gurbakṣa Sahib, did spiritual practices in village Avalu (district Bathinda, Punjab) and planted a pot-grown Vaṭa or banyan tree in the eastern corner of Harimandir sahib, Amritsar in 1811. The place became a prominent Udāsī centre, and is famous as Brahma (the Absolute) Buṭā (tree) Akhārā.

Another Udāsī centre near the Harimandir Sahib, is known as Sangalawālā Akhārā (earlier Nirvāṇa Akhārā). It was founded in  1771 (Vikramī 1828) and traces its tradition from Govinda Sahib which had eminent Udāsi sādhus like Kamala Nayana, Cintāmaṇi, Nanda Lāla Sohnā, Mihan Sahib, Sangata Dāsa and Priyatma Dāsa.

Udasi Sadhus: Symbols,Types and  Beliefs

As per tradition, the chief symbols or ornaments of a Udasi sadhu are seli (woolen thread having 1108 knots)  ṭopī (cap), khinthā (a patched quilt) jholī, (bag), mālā (rosary) dhuna (hearth) and  bhabuta (vibhuti-consecrated ash). Ghummakaḍa or ‘moving’ sādhus carry a hollowed gourd (tumbī) for drinking water, deer-skin (mṛgachālā) for seating, and a stick (danda) for protection.

The  lineage (gotra) of Udāsīs is acyuta (eternal); their caste or colour (varṇa) is  hamsa (swan); flag (dhvajā),  acala (immoveable); monastery (maṭha),  nirāśa (without expectations); town (nagarī/nagara), nirbhaya (free from fear); and pilgrimage (tīratha), ātmā (the soul).

Udasi sādhus are of six types: Kuṭicaka, those who remain confined to a hermitage; Bahudaka, those who are on the move; Hamsa, the ‘swan-like’ who can discriminate between the noumena and the phenomena; Paramahamsa, the liberated ones who may not require external symbols of their tradition; Turiyātīta, those who have attained the fourth dimension of Being; and Avadhuta, those who are carefree and have lost the sense of worldly attachment.

In terms of their stage of life (asrama) Udasi sadhus can be categorized as Muni, Ṛṣi and Sewaka. The Muni observes sannyāsa dharma which requires total renunciation; Ṛsi lives the detached life of a vānaprasthi - ‘forest-dweller’ and; Sewaka is a householder who treads the udāsī path by performing service.

Nirvaṇa udasi sadhus, called caturathasrami , or those who belong to the fourth stage of life, smear the body with ash from dhunā , remain semi-naked with only a kaupīna or langoṭa – a strip of cloth between the legs  attached to a string about the loins –  do not touch money or precious metal, and stay away from women. They preach and give initiation (diksa) unlike the Sewaka- udāsīs.

Some keep natural hair intact on five parts of the body (pañcakeśī), some wear matted locks (jaṭādhāris), but a few shave their head (munḍa munḍānā). Some use un-stitched cloth (guru-gātī) of ochre, white or black colour on the lower part of body, or wear a long dress (colā) of red colour with black scarf. Some wear kafani cola, a kind of dress worn by Muslim ascetics - to remind themselves of the impermanence of life. 

Charan Paduka Khadavas of Guru Nanak & Baba Sri Chand. Lakpat Gurudwara, Kutch.

Udasi sadhus wear rosaries of knotted woolen, or of the beads of tulsī, sandalwood, or rudrākṣa. They put an ear-ring (mudrā) in the right ear (mudrā) and   use the wooden footwear, khaḍaon, for esoteric reasons. The disciples of Nirvāṇa Pritam Das from the lineage of Bhakta Bhagavāna among others, wear bracelet on their arm (kaḍā) and a chain (janjīrī) around their waist.

The Udāsīs pay obeisance to Bābā Sri Chand,Srī Guru Nānak Dev, Srī Guru Granth Sahib, pañca deva, five deities and samadhis (samādhs) of the  holy men of their Order. Their dharma dhvaja –flag of righteousness - carries a mark of hand (panjā), and is adorned with the peacock feather. 

During the course of worship (ārati/ āratā) in morning and evening sessions, they wave burning lamps before sacred images and symbols, ring bells,  blow objects like narasinghā/narasinghī or śankha - conch shell, and do congregational chanting  with the mahāmantra, ‘Hare Rāma, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Govinda, Śrī Candra Caitanya Nānaka Nanda’. The last four words are sometime replaced by prabhu nit nandā, making reference to   the omnipresent god in place of ‘the awakened Śrī Canda, son of Nanak’. 

The Udasi salutation is Gājo ji Srī Canda hare – ‘Speak loudly that Śrī Canda is Great’. Some Udāsīs worship a ball of ashes (golā) and use a kind of charm called nazarvattu, to avert the evil eye. The mode of worship of Kārṣṇi Udāsī Sampradāya is different as they adore Śrī Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā. But they also worship the Śivalinga with the same verve. The Udāsīs respect the Vedas, the Purāas, the Dharamaśāstras, the epics and the three G’s: gau, the cow, gaṇgā, the sacred river, and gāyatrī, the sacred chant. Hence, they are sometime called Sanātana Hindus by the Khalsa.

The Udasi sādhus specialize in Brahma Vidya - ‘divine knowledge’ which is believed to have passed on from Lord Nārāyaṇa to Brahmā, to his son, Atharvā to Dadhīcī, to Pippalāda,to the six munis –Suketā, Satyakāma, Gārgya, Kauśalya, Bhārgava and Kabandhi, from whom it passed onto the world.

Doctrinally, the Udāsis come closer to the Vedanta than any other system of philosophy. They lay great emphasis on moral discipline and regard celibacy, detachment, contentment, humility and patience as the key virtues of the life of an ascetic. Udāsī sādhus are scholars, siddhas-‘accomplished ones’ or both. They are pure vegetarians, non-alcoholics and chaste in life.

The Udasi sadhus spread across India reaching as far as the Deccan, the south and the East. But their key establishments – derās, maṭhas, sangata, asramas, gurukulas, tapovanas, akhārās, samādhīs –were in the Punjab and North-west India.

Due to their pious disposition and non-political nature they were not persecuted like the ranks of the Khālsā during the 18th century. Instead they received revenue-free land from many liberal rulers and chieftains including Hindus Muslims and Sikhs.

The Singh Sabhā Movement, having its beginning at Amritsar in 1873, challenged their claim to be the true inheritors of the faith of Śri Guru Nānak Dev. Many Udāsī mahants (priests) who were in control of the Sikh shrines were subsequently evicted during the course of Gurudwara Reform Movement in 1920s.  Despite reversals, the Udasi Orders continue to maintain their religious tradition.

Author   is Ex-British Council Scholar, author and spiritualist. Two pictures by Sanjeev Nayyar. 

This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, May 15 2014 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from author to share.

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