As recently as a few decades ago, a sādhu in India was recognized as someone who was renounced. Such a person had few disciples if any, and was not involved in major projects. The modern sādhu is recognized by the number of temples he has, the number of big projects, the number of disciples etc.
Why did this change happen?
People in Vrindavan were not very materialistic even up to 50 to 100 years ago. They had knowledge of dharma, and they studied śāstra. Having studied śāstra, these people valued true renunciation. Further, renounced role models existed. Pandit Baba in Vrindavan is a famous example. He lived in a cave in Govardhana, and rejected charity and donations, even when kings came to meet him.
In modern times, the education system of India has changed. People no longer know śāstra, and as a result, have became more materialistic. Modern sādhus are drawn from people in modern society who have modern samskāras. They aspire to follow, and also one day become, a sādhu with a large number of followers (preferably internationally), with big projects and a lot of money. Even though these followers may not understand śāstra, they are absolutely sure about the validity of their path and their guru because the guru is so popular. But one has to keep in mind Rupa Goswami’s instructions in the Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu – of not making disciples (न शिष्यान् अनुबध्नीयात्) and not taking on big projects (न आरम्भान् आरभेत् क्वचित् ) – which are two limbs of bhakti. Jiva Goswami comments on this, that one should not make disciples out of people who do not have the adhikāra for bhakti.
In the past, Indian society valued and supported renounced sādhus. But now modern society has redefined the term sādhu. If you dont have a large number of disciples, you are not worthy of societal support. In this way, even renounced sādhus are now being forced to change for their very subsistence. This has created a vicious cycle.
People who are ignorant of śāstra are now setting the standards for who is a sādhu, and by extension, who represents the sampradāya.
Categories: The limbs of bhakti