The word ‘avadhūta,’ often met with in the Hindu religious literature, generally refers to a perfect man, also called a ‘paramahaṁsa’ or an ‘ativarṇāśramin.’ The Bhāgavata (skandha 11, chapters, 7, 8 and 9) mentions an avadhūta who had twentyfour teachers. The list includes the pañcabhūtas or the five elements, animals like elephant and deer, and human beings like a maiden and a child. He says that he learnt a lesson each, from each of them through careful observations.
The Avadhūtagītā, a work ascribed to Avadhūta Dattātreya, gives a description of the characteristics of an avadhūta, based on the four syllables—a, va, dhū and ta (8.5-9): He is free from desires. Ever pure, he lives in bliss. His speech is faultless. He has no body-consciousness. His mind is ever absorbed in Brahman and hence he has no need to practise meditation. He is totally free from egoism and ignorance.
Avadhūta Dattātreya has been mentioned in several Upaniṣads.
In a more restricted sense, the term ‘avadhūta’ is applied to the senior Nāgā sādhus of the daśanāmī orders living in holy places like Rishikesh. They may or may not be naked. But they wear matted hair, necklace of rudrākṣa beads or even bones, and are indifferent to rules of observance common to other monastic or religious orders. Several types have been noted among them: Brahma-avadhūta, Śiva-avadhūta, Bhakta-avadhūta and Haṁsa-avadhūta.
The avadhūtas base their practices on the tantras.
Female ascetics of this variety are also known to exist and are called ‘avadhūtānīs.’