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

Rishi, Sanyasin, Pandit, Sadhu…What Are They? November 11, 2013

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?

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