In the renowned poetic composition Rãmcharitamãnas, Tulsidas uses the metaphor of the cotton plant to describe saintly people:
“Sãdhu carita subha carita kapãsu, nirasa bisada gunamaya phal jãsu; jo sahi dukha parachidra durãvã, bandaniya jehi jaga jasa pãvã” – Bãla-Kãnda 1.2
The conduct of saintly persons is as noble as the career of a cotton plant, the fruit whereof is tasteless, white and fibrous (even as the doing of saints are free from attachment, stainless and full of goodness). Even by suffering hardships (in the form of ginning, spinning and weaving) the cotton plant covers others’ faults and has thereby earned in the world a renown which is worthy of adoration.
By contrast to what we think of as a Sãdhu or saintly person, Tulsidas suggests that they are not defined by race, religion, dress, tradition, language, custom or platform. These things are but superficial paraphernalia which are attributed to them (usually by followers). Human nature unwittingly ascribes authority to visible and superfluous attributes which are further compounded by group psychology, thereby reinforcing a surface-level definition of ‘Sãdhu‘.
The word itself comes from the Sanskrit ‘Sãdh‘, meaning to accomplish. The Sãdhu is therefore one who has undergone much hardships (akin to the cotton plant) through patience, discipline and perseverance to become accomplished in something. Once we recognise (from Latin re-cognoscere ‘to learn again’) and re-calibrate our judgements of people based on this original definition, people suddenly appear in a very different light. Sãdhus are no longer confined to saffron robes, temples, institutions and religious platforms. They appear anywhere and everywhere. They are the Steve Jobs, Martin Luther, Bruce Lee, Bob Marley, Aung San Suu Kyi, etc.
Letting go of the surface level definition allows us to assimilate wisdom from all directions.