Rishi, Sanyasin, Pandit, Sadhu…What Are They?

Have you heard some of these words before? Maybe, like me, you know they’re all types of holy people, but you’re not sure what the distinctions are.

I realized a few weeks ago that I have a vague sense of what a pandit does or what a rishi is, but I don’t know exactly what makes someone one and not the other. I knew I needed to do some research and learn the differences between all these kinds of holy men.

Here’s what I uncovered…


Kids.baps.org tells us that rishi is the word for sage and that there are different kinds of rishis. I’ll admit I never realized there were classifiable differences between a brama-rishi and a maha-rishi.

It is apparently a very ancient word that is used to describe the writers of the Vedas. The rishis are saints with direct knowledge of Truth and God.


This is someone who has renounced the world and lives in poverty while trying to come to self-realization (enlightenment/moksha). It may be done as one of the natural stages of Hindu life. After the householding phase, when someone retires, they are expected to devote the end part of their lives to spiritual pursuit. In ancient times one would enter Sanyasin-hood and enter the woods to live a life of chastity and renunciation away from the pleasures of the world.

Some unusual individuals may skip over the householder and marriage phase of life and go straight to Sanyasin, living as a monk.

Wikipedia tells us…

There are subtypes of sannyasi in accordance with socio-religious context. Traditionally there were four types of forest hermits with different stages of dedication.  These four were:

  1. Kutichaka
  2. Bahudaka
  3. Hamsa
  4. Paramahamsa

More recently, in modern observation there are two types of “ekadanda” (literally single stick) and “tridanda’ (triple rod or stick) saffron robed monks. Specific practices differ slightly between these two groups.


One who has learned proper Sanskrit chanting, particularly of the Vedas. They are called scholars and teachers, intellectuals, and learned people. Pandits are also the people serving as priests at Hindu temples.


Sadhus are Sanyasins. It sounds like this may be a word for those who enter the renunciation monk stage early in life. According to Wikipedia, women can also be sadhus (sadhvi). The word means “Good Man” (or “Good Woman”).

While someone might decide to become a Sanyasin when they retire and just start doing it, becoming a sadhu requires regulation and particular vows and adherence to the rules of a sect. A sadhu is part of a group (even when wandering alone), while a sanyasin could be a hermit alone in the jungle.


A guru is a teacher more directly than a pandit is. A guru is the guide to spiritual practice. Ideally he is an enlightened person who knows the path and so is able to guide others on it.

To sum up, here is my understanding now…

Rishi = Saint, Sage

Sanyasin = Hermit

Pandit = Priest

Sadhu = Monk

Guru = Spiritual teacher/guide

What do you think? Have I got the distinctions correct? Are there other words for holy people that you’ve come across?

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Nithin Sridhar

    Rishis are those who “Saw” the Vedic Truths. They lived life in harmony with Universe and completely involved in Dharma. They were the “Seers”.

    Sadhu is any Holy Man. A Sanyasi is one who has traditionally/officially taken Sanyasa Diksha according to tradition. Hence, Sadhu is a Saint and Sanyasi is a Renunciate.

    • Ambaa

      Thanks for that clarification! :D

    • Daniel

      Not all Sadhus are saints, more than not they are charlatans. :-p
      Rshis and Gurus are pretty much interchangeable too. I suppose anyone teaching you something can be an upaguru, but in regards to the gurushishyaparampara, the Guru better be a Rshi or you’re wasting your time. Rshi = Jnani. I look at Rshi is a flowery word. Bhagawan Nitayand was one of he greatest spiritual beings to come out of india as was Sai of Shirdi, but they are not dubbed rshis but Ramana was. I guess its who decides to name you and it sticks :)


  • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

    This is one of those areas where it’s sort of hard to really clarify.. things are what they are… Christian ecclesiastical terms don’t always translate.

    There are also the terms ‘purohit’ for a priest and ‘pujari’ for the person doing a puja; said person may or may not be a purohit. The term pandit is generally also used to refer to a learned person; you hear the term a lot in classical music and dance worlds too – Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Ravi Shankar, etc.