UDASI, an ascetical sect of the Sikhs founded by Sri Chand (1494-1629), the elder son of Guru Nanak. Udasi is derived from the Sanskrit word udasin, i.e. one who is indifferent to or disregardful of worldly attachments, a stoic, or a mendicant. In Sikh tradition, the term iidasi has also been used for each of the four preaching tours of Guru Nanak ; in this sense, udasi meant a prolonged absence from home. Some scholars, including many Udasis, trace the origin of the sect back to the Puranic age, but, historically speaking, Sri Chand was the founder.

The Matra, the sacred incantation or composition, attributed to the Udasi saint, Balu HaSria, records that Sri Chand received enlightenment from Guru Nanak, the perfect Guru, and that, after the passing away of the latter, he started his own sect. Sri Chand was a devoted Sikh and a saintly person. His object in establishing the order of the Udasis was to propagate the mission of his father. Sri Chand kept on amicable terms with the successors of Guru Nanak. According to Kesar Singh Chhibbar, he sent two turbans at the death of Guru Ram Das in AD 1581, one for Prithi Chand, the eldest son of the deceased Guru, and another for Guru Arjan in recognition of his succession to the Guruship.

In AD 1629, Sri Chand asked Guru Hargobind to spare one of his sons to join him in his religious preaching. The Guru gave him Baba Gurditta, his eldest son. Baba Gurditta, although married, was disposed to saintly living. Before his death, Baba Sri Chand admitted Baba Gurditta to the Udasi order and appointed him his successor. Baba Gurditta appointed four head preachers Almast, Phul, Goind (or Gonda) and Balu Husria. He gave them his own dress which became the peculiar Udasi garb and smouldering embers from Baba Sri Chand`s dhum (sadhu`s hearth) to be taken to their new monastic seats.

These Udasi sadhus set up from those embers a new dhuan each at his seat and thus came into existence tlie four dhunns or hearths which became active centres of Udasi preaching. Each dhuari came to be known after the name of its principal preacher. The Udasis proved zealous preachers of Sikhism and carried its message to the far corners of the country and beyond. They especially rediscovered places which had been visited by the Gurus and which had fallen into obscurity with the passage of time. They established on such spots their deras and sangats and preached Gurbani.

Thus the Udasi dhuans popularized the teaching of Guru Nanak not only in the Punjab but also in far off places. Besides the four dhuans, there emerged another set of Udasi seats called bakhshishan, which flourished during the time of Guru Har Rai, Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh. A bakhshish (lit. bounty) was a missionary assignment conferred upon an individual by the Guru. There were six prominent bakhshishan, viz. Bhagat Bhagvanie (followers of Bhagat Bhagvan) ; SuthrashahJe ( followers of Suthrashah) ; Sangat Sahibie (followers of Sangat Sahib ) ; Mihan Shahie or Mihan Dasie, so called after Mihan, the title conferred by Guru Tegh Bahadur on Ramdev; Bakht Mallie ( followers of Bakht Mall) ; and Jit Mallie (followers ofJIt Mall).

The saints of bakhshishes travelled widely and established their deras, sangats, maths and akharas in distant places throughout India. The Udasis preached the message of Guru Nanak and revered and recited the ban! of the Gurus, but they retained their separate identity. Baba Sri Chand did occasionally visit the Gurus who treated him with respect for being a saintly personage as well as for being a son of Guru Nanak. But they extended no patronage to his sect. However, after Baba Sri Chand had had from Guru Hargobind his eldest son, Baba Gurditta, to admit to his sect, the Udasis began to receive support and guidance from the Gurus. Guru Hargobind`s successors conferred bakhshishes upon Udasi sadhus.

Several of the Udasi saints are remembered with esteem in the Sikh tradition. For instance, the famous Bhagat Bhagvan, Bhai Pheru of the Sangat Sahibia order, who had served in the langar or community kitchen in the time of Guru Har Rai, and Ramdev (later known as Mihan Sahib), who was originally a mashki or water carrier in the service of Guru Tegh Bahadur and who had received from him for his devoted service the title of Mihan (bestower of rain) as well as the dress and marks of an Udasi consisting of selhi (woollen cord), topi” (cap), chola (hermit`s gown) and a nagara (drum). Ramdev established his own order of the Udasis which came to be known as Mihan Dasie or Mihan Shahie.

Another notable Udasi sadhu was Mahant Kirpal who took part in the battle of Bhangani (1689) under Guru Gobind Singh. After the abolition of the order of the masands by Guru Gobind Singh, the preaching of Guru Nanak`s word fell to the Udasis who also gradually took control of the Sikh places of worship. When Guru Gobind Singh evacuated the Fort of Anandpur along with his Sikhs, an Udasi monk, Gurbakhsh Das, undertook to look after the local shrines such as Sis Ganj and Kesgarh Sahib. When after the death of Guru Gobind SiTigh, one Gulab Rai, an impostor, proclaimed himself guru at Anandpur and tried to take possession of the shrines, Gurbakhsh Das thwarted his scheme.

Gurbakhsh Das` successors continued to look after the Anandpur shrines till their management was taken over in recent times by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. At Nanded where Guru Gobind Singh passed away, Mahant Ishar Das Udasi performed the services at Darbar Guru Gobind Singh (Hazur Sahib) and managed the shrine from 1765 Bk/AD 1708 to 1782 Bk/AD 1725. He was succeeded by his disciple Gopal Das Udasi, who remained in charge of Darbar Hazur Sahib up to 1803 Bk/ AD 1746. Gopal Das was succeeded by his disciple Saran Das Udasi, who served the shrine for a long period of 30 years.

After Saran Das the control of the Darbar passed into the hands of the Sikhs who had, by that time, come from the Punjab in considerable numbers and settled at Nanded. In 1768 Bk/AD 1711 an Udasi sadhu, Sant Gopal Das, popularly known as Goddar Faquir, was appointed granthi at the Harimandar at Amritsar by Bhai Mani Singh, sent to Amritsar as custodian of the shrine by Mata Sundari. Gopal Das was later replaced by another Udasi, Bhai Chahchal Singh, a pious and devoted Sikh. Udasis recruit their followers from all castes and professions.

In their religious practices they differ from the Sikhs, though they revere Guru Nanak and Guru Granth Sahib like all other Sikhs. In their monasteries, Guru Granth Sahib is the scripture that is read. They do not subscribe to the Sikh rites. Their ardas also varies. Ringing of bells (ghanti or gharial}, blowing instruments (narsingha or singhi) form part of their religious service, They worship icons of Guru Nanak and Baba Sri Chand. Their salutations are Vahguru (Glory of the God), Gajo ji Vahguru (Hail aloud the glorious Lord) or Alakh (Hail the Unknowable). The Udasis believe that after gaining matra one can attain param tattva (the highest truth) and achieve mukti (release).

The term matra, lit. a measure or quantity, stands in prosody and grammar for the length of time required to pronounce a short vowel. But the term has acquired an extended meaning in the Udasi tradition, sigiiifying an incantation or sacred text. An Udasi matra is the sacred formula addressed to the disciples. as counsel and advice. There are a considerable number of these matras attributed to Guru Nanak, Baba Sri Chand, Baba Gurditta, Almast and Balu HaSria. But the matras attributed to Sri Chand have special significance for the Udasis and are highly cherished by them. Some of the Udasis wear white while others prefer gerua (ochre) or redcoloured garments.

Those belonging to the Nanga sect remain naked, wearing nothing except a brass chain around their waist. Some wear matted hair and apply ashes over their body. Some wear cord worn around the head, neck and waist. They abstain from alcohol, but not infrequently use bhang (hemp), charas and opium. They practise celibacy. Besides disseminating the word of Guru Nanak, Udasi centres serve as seminaries of Sikh learning. Chelas, i.e. disciples, gather around the head of the monastery who instructs them in Sikh and old classical texts. The heads of these centres travelled with their pupils to places of pilgrimage and participated in debate and discourse.

The Udasi bungas or rest houses around the Harimandar were among the prominent centres of learning. Udasi cloister at Amritsar, Brahm Buta Akhara, ran a Gurmukhi school which attracted a considerable number of pupils. Some Udasi centres also imparted training in Indian system of medicine and physiology. One such seat was the bunga of Pandit Sarup Das Udasi who was a great scholar as well as an authority on Charaka Samhita, the famous treatise on Ayurvecia. In the troubled years of the eighteenth century when Sikhs suffered severe persecution, the Udasi sadhus took charge of their places of worship.

Their control of the holy shrines lasted until the opening decades of the twentieth century when Sikhs through an enactment of the Punjab Legislative Council had the management centralized in the hands of a democratically elected board. The Udasis, however, have their own deras and monasteries spread all over the country. The most important of their centres in the North are Brahm Buta Akhara and Sangalanvala Akhara at Amritsar, Niranjania Akhara at Patiala and the Panchaiti Akhara at Haridvar.

References :

1. Randhir Singh, Bhai, Udasi Siklian di Vithiya. Amritsar, 1959
2. Nara, Ishar Singh, ItihasBaba Sri ChandJI Sahib ate Udasin Sampardai. Amritsar, 1975
3. Macauliffe, Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion : Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors. Oxford, 1909