An Udasi shrine in Nepal
An Udasi shrine in Nepal

Udasi (Gurmukhi: ਉਦਾਸੀ ਸੰਪਰਦਾ; udāsī saparadā) is a religious sect of ascetic sadhus centred in northern India. Becoming custodians of Sikh shrines in the 18th century,[1] they were notable interpreters and spreaders of the Sikh philosophy during that time.[2] However, their religious practices border on a syncretism of Sikhism and Hinduism, including idolatry, and they did not conform to the Khalsa standards as ordained by Guru Gobind Singh.[3] When the Lahore Singh Sabha reformers, dominated by Tat Khalsa Sikhs, would hold them responsible for indulging in ritual practices antithetical to Sikhism, as well as personal vices and corruption, the Udasi mahants were expelled from the Sikh shrines.[3][4][5]


The word Udasi is derived from the Sanskrit word udasin,[6] meaning 'detached, journey', reflecting an approach to spiritual and temporal life,[2] or from udas ('detachment'), signifying indifference to or renunciation of worldly concerns.[7] The sect is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak's elder son Sri Chand (1494–1643), who, contrary to his father's emphasis on participation in society, propagated ascetic renunciation and celibacy.[2] Another Sikh tradition links the Udasis to Baba Gurditta, the eldest son of Guru Hargobind, and there is dispute on whether the Udasis originated with Sri Chand or Gurditta.[8]

They maintain their own parallel line of gurus from Guru Nanak, followed by Sri Chand, followed by Gurditta.[2] They first came to prominence in the 17th century,[6] and gradually began to manage Sikh shrines and establishments in the 18th century,[1] from where they espoused a model of Sikhism that diverged considerably from that of the Khalsa.[6] They would set up establishments across North India through to Benares, where they would come to be ideologically joined with monastic asceticism.[6] The combination of Hindu gods and the Sikh religious text indicated that the sect evolved over time under many historical influences and conditions,[2] interpreting the message of Guru Granth Sahib in monistic Vedantic terms.[9][10] They were initially largely based in urban centers where they set up their establishments, or akharas, only beginning to spread into rural areas during Sikh rule;[2] before, they had around a dozen centres; by the end of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's reign, the number had increased to around 250.[10] The Udasis widely propagated its form of Sikh philosophy, and during the 18th and the early 19th centuries, their teachings attracted a large number of people to the Sikh fold.[2]

Before the emergence of the Singh Sabha Movement in the late 19th century, they controlled important Sikh shrines, including the Harimandir Sahib for a short while.[6][7] However, during the Akali movement of the 20th century, the Tat Khalsa Sikhs expelled them from the Sikh shrines, accusing them of vices and of indulging in ritual practices that were against the teachings of the Sikh gurus. The Sikh Gurdwara Reform Act, 1925 defined the term "Sikh" in a way that excluded the syncretic groups like Udasis, Nanakpanthis, and other groups who maintained transitional identities.[3] Subsequently, the Udasis increasingly identified themselves as Hindus rather than Sikhs.[1]


According to 18th-century descriptions, they either cut or matted their hair under a turban, rather than knot it under a turban like Khalsas, and instead of the Khalsa emphasis on the panj kakkar garb and sporting arms, their dress code would include items such as a cap, a cotton bag, a flower rosary, a vessel made of dried pumpkin, a chain around the waist, ash to smear on their body, and a deerskin upon which to perform Hatha yoga, resulting in an extremely divergent appearance from Khalsa Sikhs in the eighteenth century.[6] In addition to not consider the Khalsa's Rehat Maryada to be binding on them,[7] their modes of thought and attitude towards salvation also differed significantly. The Khalsa believed that salvation could be attained while taking part in society and pursuing secular objectives like political power and accumulation of resources like agrarian land, though this had to be accomplished within a particular framework of beliefs and spiritual practices, chief among which was the societal order and structure of the Khalsa. The Udasis considered secular pursuits to be incompatible with personal salvation, which was to be achieved only through renouncing the world,[6] espousing asceticism and a monastic traveler lifestyle. Udasis are known for their Akharas along with the Nirmala sect of Sikhism.

The Udasis also worship the panchayatana, the five Hindu deities: Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Ganesha, and Surya.[11]

Akhara locations

Traditionally, there were four Udasi centres (akharas or dhuans[what language is this?]) with each controlling a certain preaching area; Nanakmatta, Kashmir, Malwa (Punjab) and Doaba. There is an Udasi gurudwara (temple) in Amritsar, near the Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple).

Today's Udasi are predominantly located in northwestern India especially around Punjab Haryana, Gujarat and cities like Haridwar and New Delhi; they are divided into three major groups:

See also


  1. ^ a b c John Stratton Hawley; Gurinder Singh Mann (1993). Studying the Sikhs: Issues for North America. SUNY Press. p. 182. ISBN 978-0-7914-1426-2.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Pashaura Singh; Louis E. Fenech (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. OUP Oxford. pp. 375–376. ISBN 978-0-19-100412-4.
  3. ^ a b c Tanweer Fazal (1 August 2014). "Nation-state" and Minority Rights in India: Comparative Perspectives on Muslim and Sikh Identities. Routledge. p. 113. ISBN 978-1-317-75179-3.
  4. ^ Pashaura Singh; Louis E. Fenech (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. Oxford University Press. pp. 542–543. ISBN 978-0-19-100412-4.
  5. ^ Pashaura Singh; Louis E. Fenech (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. Oxford University Press. pp. 28–29, 73–76. ISBN 978-0-19-969930-8.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Harjot Oberoi (1994). The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. University of Chicago Press. pp. 78–80. ISBN 978-0-226-61592-9.
  7. ^ a b c David N. Lorenzen (1995). Bhakti Religion in North India: Community Identity and Political Action. SUNY Press. p. 57. ISBN 978-0-7914-2025-6.
  8. ^ Oberoi 1994, p. 78.
  9. ^ Singh & Fenech 2014, p. 376.
  10. ^ a b J. S. Grewal (1998). The Sikhs of the Punjab. Cambridge University Press. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-521-63764-0.
  11. ^ James G. Lochtefeld (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M. The Rosen Publishing Group. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-8239-3179-8.