In the classical, Sanskrit literature of the Hindu tradition, becoming a sadhu is described as the fourth stage of life after having lived as a student, householder (where one is married and raises a family), and experimenting with social withdrawal. The rituals of becoming a sadhu vary with sect but in almost all sects, a sadhu is initiated by a guru, who bestows upon the initiate a new name, as well as a mantra, or sacred sound or phrase, which is generally known only to the sadhu and the guru and may be repeated by the initiate as part of meditative practice. (The guru is an important figure in all ascetic traditions, often being equated with the Deity. Service to the guru, even in the most menial of forms, is considered an essential form of spiritual practice.) Initiation may also require a sadhu to symbolically enact his own death and funeral before entering the sadhu vocation. Indeed, ritual initiation in the Dandi sect, a subdivision of the Shaiva Dashnami tradition, involves aspirant sadhus cremating effigies of themselves representing a new life. Sadhus are considered to be dead unto their former lives. However, it is also true that many sects are composed of men that have renounced early in life—often in their late teens or early 20s. In many cases, those who choose the sadhu life are fleeing from family or financial situations that they have found to be untenable. However, in general, becoming a sadhu is recognized as a difficult lifestyle and it is a path followed by few.
In Hinduism, the terms Sadhu, Swami and Sannyasi refer to renunciates and spiritual masters, who have usually left behind all material attachments to live in forests, temples and caves all over India. The word “Sadhu” is the general term for a Hindu ascetic who has given up the pursuit of the first three Hindu goals of life: kama (pleasure), artha (wealth and power), and even dharma (duty), to solely dedicate himself to achieving moksha (liberation) through meditation and contemplation of God. The title Swami literally translates as “owner of oneself,” denoting complete mastery over instinctive and lower urges. Many yogis and gurus (teachers) of the Hindu tradition hold the title of Swami as a sign of respect denoting spiritual accomplishment.