UDĀSĪ, an ascetical sect of the Sikhs founded by Srī Chand (1494-1629), the elder son of Gurū Nānak. Udāsī is derived from the Sanskrit word udāsīn, i.e. one who is indifferent to or disregardful of worldly attachments, a stoic, or a mendicant. In Sikh tradition, the term udāsī has also been used for each of the four preaching tours of Gurū Nānak; in this sense, udāsī meant a prolonged absence from home. Some scholars, including many Udāsīs, trace the origin of the sect back to the Purāṇic age, but, historically speaking, Srī Chand was the founder. The Mātrā, the sacred incantation or composition, attributed to the Udāsī saint, Bālū Hasnā, records that Srī Chand received enlightenment from Gurū Nānak, the perfect Gurū, and that, after the passing away of the latter, he started his own sect.
Srī Chand was a devoted Sikh and a saintly person. His object in establishing the order of the Udāsīs was to propagate the mission of his father. Srī Chand kept on amicable terms with the successors of Gurū Nānak. According to Kesar Siṅgh Chhibbar, he sent two turbans at the death of Gurū Rām Dās in AD 1581, one for Prithī Chand, the eldest son of the deceased Gurū, and another for Gurū Arjan in recognition of his succession to the Gurūship. In AD 1629, Srī Chand asked Gurū Hargobind to spare one of his sons to join him in his religious preaching. The Gurū gave him Bābā Gurdittā, his eldest son. Bābā Gurdittā, although married, was disposed to saintly living. Before his death, Bābā Srī Chand admitted Bābā Gurdittā to the Udāsī order and appointed him his successor.
Bābā Gurdittā appointed four head preachers---Almast, Phūl, Goind (or Gondā) and Bālū Husnā. He gave them his own dress which became the peculiar Udāsī garb and smouldering embers from Bābā Srī Chand's dhūṇī (sādhu's hearth) to be taken to their new monastic seats. These Udāsī sādhūs set-up from those embers a new dhūāṅ each at his seat and thus came into existence the four dhūāṅs or hearths which became active centres of Udāsī preaching. Each dhūāṅ came to be known after the name of its principal preacher. The Udāsīs 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 sited by the Gurūs and which had fallen into obscurity with the passage of time. They established on such spots their ḍerās and saṅgats and preached Gurbāṇī. Thus the Udāsī dhūāṅs popularized the teaching of Gurū Nānak not only in the Punjab but also in far off places.
Besides the four dhūāṅs, there emerged another set of Udāsī seats called bakhshishāṅ, which flourished during the time of Gurū Har Rāi, Gurū Tegh Bahādur and Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. A bakhshish (lit. bounty) was a missionary assignment conferred upon an individual by the Gurū. There were six prominent bakhshishāṅ, viz. Bhagat Bhagvānīe (followers of Bhagat Bhagvān) ; Suthrāshāhīe ( followers of Suthrāshāh) ; Saṅgat Sāhibīe (followers of Saṅgat Sāhib) ; Mīhāṅ Shāhīe or Mīhāṅ Dāsīe, so called after Mīhāṅ, the title conferred by Gurū Tegh Bahādur on Rāmdev; Bakht Mallīe (followers of Bakht Mall); and Jīt Mallīe (followers of Jit Mall). The saints of bakhshishes travelled widely and established their ḍerās, saṅgats, maṭhs and akhārās in distant places throughout India.
The Udāsīs preached the message of Gurū Nānak and revered and recited the bāṇī of the Gurūs, but they retained their separate identity. Bābā Srī Chand did occasionally visit the Gurūs who treated him with respect for being a saintly personage as well as for being a son of Gurū Nānak. But they extended no patronage to his sect. However, after Bābā Srī Chand had had from Gurū Hargobind his eldest son, Bābā Gurdittā, to admit to his sect, the Udāsīs began to receive support and guidance from the Gurūs. Gurū Hargobind's successors conferred bakhshishes upon Udāsī sādhūs. Several of the Udāsī saints are remembered with esteem in the Sikh tradition. For instance, the famous Bhagat Bhagvān, Bhāī Pherū of the Saṅgat Sāhibīā order, who had served in the laṅgar or community kitchen in the time of Gurū Har Rāi, and Rāmdev (later known as Mīhāṅ Sāhib), who was originally a māshkī or water carrier in the service of Gurū Tegh Bahādur and who had received from him for his devoted service the title of Mīhāṅ (bestower of rain) as well as the dress and marks of an Udāsī consisting of selhī (woollen cord), ṭopī (cap), cholā (hermit's gown) and a nagārā (drum). Rāmdev established his own order of the Udāsīs which came to be known as Mīhāṅ Dāsie or Mīhāṅ Shāhīe. Another notable Udāsī sādhū was Mahāṅt Kirpāl who took part in the battle of Bhaṅgānī (1689) under Gurū Gobind Siṅgh.
After the abolition of the order of the masands by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, the preaching of Gurū Nānak’s word fell to the Udāsīs who also gradually took control of the Sikh places of worship. When Gurū Gobind Siṅgh evacuated the Fort of Anandpur along with his Sikhs, an Udāsī monk, Gurbakhsh Dās, underlook to look after the local shrines such as Sīs Gañj and Kesgaṛh Sāhib. When after the death of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, one Gulāb Rāi, an impostor proclaimed himself gurū at Anandpur and tried to take possession of the shrines, Gurbakhsh Dās thwarted his scheme. Gurbakhsh Dās successors continued to look after the Anandpur shrines till their management was taken over in recent times by the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee. At Nāndeḍ where Gurū Gobind Siṅgh passed away, Mahant Īshar Dās Udāsī performed the services at Darbār Gurū Gobind Siṅgh (Hazūr Sāhib) and managed the shrine from 1765 Bk/AD 1708 to 1782 Bk/AD 1725. He was succeeded by his disciple Gopāl Dās Udāsī, who remained incharge of Darbār Hazūr Sāhib up to 1803 Bk/AD 1746. Gopāl Dās was succeeded by his disciple Saran Dās Udāsī, who served the shrine for a long period of 30 years. After Saran Dās the control of the Darbār passed into the hands of the Sikhs who had, by that time, come from the Punjab in considerable numbers and settled at Nāndeḍ. In 1768 Bk/AD 1711 an Udāsī Sādhū, Sant Gopāl Dās, popularly known as Goddaṛ Faquīr, was appointed granthī at the Harimandar at Amritsar by Bhāī Manī Siṅgh, sent to Amritsar as custodian of the shrine by Mātā Sundarī. Gopāl Dās was later replaced by another Udāsī, Bhāī Chañchal Siṅgh, a pious and devoted Sikh.
Udāsīs recruit their followers from all castes and professions. In their religious practices they differ from the Sikhs, though they revere Gurū Nānak and Gurū Granth Sāhib like all other Sikhs. In their monasteries, Gurū Granth Sāhib is the scripture that is read. They do not subscribe to the Sikh rites. Their ardās also varies. Ringing of bells (ghaṇṭī or ghaṛīāl), blowing instruments (narsiṅghā or siṅghī) form part of their religious service. They worship icons of Gurū Nānak and Bābā Srī Chand. Their salutations are Vāhgurū (Glory of the God), Gājo Jī Vāhgurū (Hail aloud the glorious Lord) or Alakh (Hail the Unknowable). The Udāsīs believe that after gaining mātrā one can attain param tattva (the highest truth) and achieve mukti (release). The term mātrā, 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 Udāsī tradition, signifying an incantation or sacred text. An Udāsī mātrā is the sacred formula addressed to the disciples as counsel and advice. There are a considerable number of these mātrās attributed to Gurū Nānak, Bābā Srī Chand, Bābā Gurdittā, Almast and Bālū Hasnā. But the mātrās attributed to Srī Chand have special significance for the Udāsīs and are highly cherished by them.
Some of the Udāsīs wear white while others prefer gerūā (ochre) or red-coloured garments. Those belonging to the Nāngā 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 Gurū Nānak, Udāsī centres serve as seminaries of Sikh learning. Chelās, 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 Udāsī buṅgās or rest houses around the Harimandar were among the prominent centres of learning. Udāsī cloister at Amritsar, Brahm Būṭā Akhāṛā, ran a Gurmukhī school which attracted a considerable number of pupils. Some Udāsī centres also imparted training in Indian system of medicine and physiology. One such seat was the buṅgā of Paṇḍit Sarūp Dās Udāsī who was a great scholar as well as an authority on Charaka Samhitā, the famous treatise on Āyurveda.
In the troubled years of the eighteenth century when Sikhs suffered severe persecution, the Udāsī sādhūs 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 Udāsīs, however, have their own ḍerās and monasteries spread all over the country. The most important of their centres in the North are Brahm Būṭā Akhāṛā and Saṅgalāṅvālā Akhāṛā at Amritsar, Nirañjanīā Akhāṛā at Paṭiālā and the Pañchaitī Akhāṛā at Haridvār.