Sannyasa — Hindu Monasticism

(This is an excerpt from a treatise on Sannyasa, Principles and Practice, co-authored by Swami Haribrahmendrananda Tirtha and Swami Nirgunananda Giri. If you are interested to read the detailed document, then send a request email to swaminirguna@gmail.com)

Introduction to Sannyasa

The Sanskrit word for renunciation is Sannyasa[1— refer to corresponding notes at the end of this article]. Within Hinduisim (sanatana dharma), it represents a traditional form of ascetic life wherein the Sannyasi relinquishes all material goals and sensual pleasures in the pursuit of the ultimate verities of life. ‘Neither through works, wealth, nor through progeny, but through renunciation alone is immortality to be attained,’ proclaim the Vedas.

A similar conception of sannyasa, particularly in the west is monasticism, which is derived from the greek word monos, signifying being alone or solitary. Thereby a sannyasi, or a monk, is one who gives up all ties that binds him to Society and sets out alone on his spiritual path.

In a society filled with emphasis on human bonding and relationships, the sannyasis’ norms of ‘social distancing’ and embracing of isolation might seem irrational. However, when viewed from a loftier perspective, based on the wisdom of traditional Indian scriptures (Shastras), it is the most effective means to free oneself from the bondage of samsara, the repetitive cycles of birth and death[2].

In fact, the etymology of the english word ‘renounce’ comes from the old French word ‘renoncer’ and the latin word ‘renuntiare,’ both of which mean ‘protest against.’ From that context, a sannyasi is considered to be protesting, in his own way, against the material and sensual driven life which the majority take to, out of social compulsion and without any deliberation.

For instance, in today’s technology centric world, gratification of senses has reached a new high. Whether it is in going to movies and shows, browsing online, or consuming food and drinks at a restaurant, each experience is heightened so as to derive maximum sensory engrossment. In sharp contrast to it, the sannyasi’s perspective, in accordance with the scriptures, is that the more one feeds the senses and gets entangled in the mundane ways of society, the stronger are the resulting samskaras (subtle mental impressions created from an action). It is these samskaras, and the actions generated from it, that ultimately lead one to rebirth or to get entangled in samsara, the cycle of birth and death. Thus, a sannyasi is not protesting against some authority or group but against the enticing nature of samsara itself. As one of the Upanishads succintly puts it, “given the nature of life, how is joy possible?”[3]

To subdue the senses, and apply oneself to the inner science of sadhana, spiritual practices, becomes the primary objective of the sannyasi and of anyone who has understood this truth. Scriptural study, contemplation, yogic practices, etc., are some of the proven ancient methods and processes, which he[4] then adopts to reverse the instinctive outward seeking of the senses and mind, and to turn it inward to one’s Self.

In fact, it takes a fine intellect with a sharpe sense of discernment and a dispassion to worldly pursuits, in order to truly comprehend such a vision of sannyasa. In other words, it is not a failure from material life or a psychological impairment that motivates one to a life of renunciation (although there may be instances of such misdirected individuals who take to sannyasa). Instead, it is the realization of the potential that sannyasa offers toward the ultimate fulfillment of all human pursuits (purushartha). Commenting on this, Swami Tapovan Maharaj says, “Under the influence of this wonderful hoary tradition, many cultured persons even today give up everything, attain the stage of desirelessness, and proceed along this way of life.”

The tradition that the sannyasis take support of, and align themselves with, is the value system, customs and guidance handed out by shastras, the ancient Indian scriptures. Along with the sadhana, the guidance from his teachers based on scriptures, form the two limbs on which every sannyasi traverses his spiritual journey across the ocean of samsara.

A Brief History of Sannyasa

From the ancient sages, Rishis, who brought forth the Vedas to the wandering mendicants, Sadhus[5], the forms of sannyasis may been varied but the presence of sannyasis at every period in Indian history is irrefutable. Besides, the role of sannyasis in the shaping of Indian culture and values has been acknowledged from time immemorial. In fact, it would not be far-fetched to claim that the monastic style of life originated in India and has gone onto to inspire many of its counterparts in other religions as well.

Although in the vedic age, the rishis were mostly married, they were able to maintain a high level of purity partly due to overall spiritual maturity prevaling within the society. Overtime, it became obvious that a sincere spiritual aspirant has to renounce completely and remain distant from the society whose values don’t uphold the highest spiritual pursuit. In turn by taking to renunciation, not only inwardly but also outwardly, the sannyasi becomes an ideal for all to revere and ultimately aspire towards.

It is said that the fourth messenger on the fateful day, which propelled Siddhartha (who later became Buddha) to renounce his princely life, was a sadhu, a mendicant. In contrary to the popular notion of monasticim having its roots in Buddhism or Jainism, sannyasis were present in Indian communities even before the monastics from these religions proliferated. But as some scholars have pointed out, these sannyasis were mostly ascetics, living either in the caves or wandering around the country in the true spirit of renunciation. Except for the traditional gurukul, the ancient educational and spiritual training schools, the sannyasis didn’t band together at one place (with some exceptions, such as Kumbhamela, a sacred assembly of sadhus and pilgrims held once every 12 years).

The form of itinerant asceticism was commonly embraced by the aspirants as it was endorsed by several references and injunctions given in ancient texts. In contrast, the bout of monasticism which the masses felt inclined toward after the advent of Buddhism and Jainism was centered primarily on community living. Such a form of cloistered life has since been popular both in the East and West as it gives an individual the strength in group and the security against a world that oppose its values. Yet such a form of renunciant lifestyle marked a shift in the way sannyasa was practiced in the ancient India. It called forth for a system and organization that either led to new traditions or restructured the ancient traditions.

Such a well organized form of the sannyasa order within the Hindu religion was developed with the advent of Adi Shankaracharya in the Eight Century A.D. Resurrecting the Hindu values without dismantling the orthodox framework (as Buddhists and Jains did), Shankaracharya gave a new impetus to this ancient custom of sannyasa. His pioneering work and the setting up of several institutions for monastic life further influenced or revived various other sannyasatraditions within the Hindu religion, such as those spearheaded by Ramanuja and Madhvacharya in Southern India.

Similarly in the West, the sannyasi ambassadors such as Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, and Srila Prabhupada, and the traditions carried forth by disciples of Swami Sivananada, Swaminarayan, etc., have all helped spread the monastic ideals and Hindu spiritual values beyond the Indian shores. Thus, both in India and in other countries, we can see in recent times, various organizations and institutions that carry forth the sannyasa tradition, albeit in their own unique expressions.

The Tradition and Types of Sannyasa

Sannyasa as stipulated in various Hindu scriptures point out that the principles and values for the life of sannyasa are not confined to any one institution or tradition. Unlike other religions such as Christianity or Buddhism, the rules and regulations for monastics within Indian context was not formulated by one person or an Institution. Instead, its source stemmed out of the very shastras itself, whose roots are considered to be divine revelations given to the sages. Whether in the Upanishads, Smritis, Dharma Sutras, Itihasas or the Puranas, we find references and guidelines for the life of sannyasa being outlined in these scriptures.

The path of being a celibate student, a house-holder and a forest dweller prior to sannyasa was conventionally considered as the progession of different stages of life. However, the traditional lore of India — puranas — speak of several young prodigies who found it unnecessary to go through the other ashramas before taking to sannyasa. It is said sages such as Shuka renounced right upon taking birth prodded by the memories of previous lives. “Those who find worldly life to be devoid of substance enter sannyasa even before going through the householder stage of life.”[6]

On the other hand, there are many who take to sannyasa through the krama sannyasa, i.e having fulfilled their responsibilities in life and having lived as a householder for several years, and perhaps also taking to some form of forest dweller life. One of the most dramatic stories of such a renunciation is illustrated in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishads. The Sage Yajnavalkya had lived a fulfilling householder life. Despite having gained the highest knowledge and having imparted it to his students, he decides to give up that life and take to sannyasa. The shastras has distinguished sannyasa into two broad categories as listed below:

1. Vidvat Sannyasa: Literally translated as the ‘sannyasa of the knower’ or ‘sannyasa after knowing’, it is the renunciation of one who is Self-realized. Having no further pursuits in life or desires of the world, he renounces so as to abide and revel in the ultimate realization of Truth. Such a form of sannyasa is rare even among those who are Self-realized.

2. Vividisha Sannyasa: This is the renunciation of the seeker, of one who is on the path to realizing the highest knowledge. He takes to sannyasa so that he is not distracted from his pursuit of mokhsa and can dedicate himself fully to the attainment of Knowledge.

Entry into Sannyasa Ashrama

Sannyasa is the fourth stage of life, otherwise referred to as sannyasa ashrama[7]. It is that stage when an individual renounces everything — posessions, family, social obligations, etc. Just like a duster that wipes the slate clean, sannyasa serves as an instrument for negating every form of worldly role and identification.

The uniqueness of this stage of life is that it is dedicated only for sadhana, spiritual practices, with the vision of attaining moksha, final emancipation. Such a kind of sannyasa is otherwise referred to as sarva karma sannyasa in accordance with the vedic Scriptures of India[8], as it overrides all previously accepted ritualistic, social and family duties in this act of final renunciation.

Following the initiation into sannyasa, the sannyasi (renunciant) relinquishes all ritualistic practices that he was earlier performing or is expected to perform. He is no longer compelled by any of his previous social obligations. Sannyasa is the final ceremony or diksha, initation, for life, after which he can no longer take up any other initiations.

Generally, when one feels ready to commit oneself to the life of sannyasa, it is assumed that they have a good understanding of the shastras and as to why it exalts the life of both inner and outer renunciation. Taking such principles to heart, the sannyasi is naturally propelled by dispassion, away from material pursuits, into living the ascetic life out of a deeper motivation. With this background, we can appreciate as to why it wasn’t considered necessary in ancient times for the rules of monasticism in Hinduism to be detailed out or codified into one manual or book as it was done in other monastic orders of Buddhism, Jainism or Christianity.

In contrast, the Hindu shastras have outlined the principles and values of sannyasa based on which a specific set of regulations and practices can be formulated by any teacher or institution, at any period of time, for the purposes of training the novices and initiates. Although the sannyasi is freed from ritualistic obligations after the sannyasa ceremony, there are several other implicit injunctions that they will now have to abide by (if they fall in the majority of second category vividisha sannyasis.

Grhastas & Sannyasis

The Grhast-ashrama (the stage of householder or married life) and Sannyas-ashrama constitue the two key aspects of the Vedic ideal of religious life. The householders’ (grhastas) vision of life may seem to be in opposition to that of a renunciant (sannyasi). This is because at the outset a majority of the grhastas in this age seem to focus their efforts (purushartha) mainly on wealth and sensual gratification with a few wiser ones directing their efforts toward a life of righteousness (dharma). The seeking of liberation (moksha) might be perceived in today’s times to be the domain of only the renunciants. That is however a narrow view of the overall vedic ideal for a religious life.

The ashramas system was designed as “four distinct and legitimate ways of leading a religious life” [Olivelle, P]. Although it is commonly interpreted as evolutionary phases of life, with the hermits and renunciants being higher up the spiritual ladder, it is not however an indication of one’s spiritual status or progress. Viewed from a religious perspective, the sannyasi’s way of life is indeed filled with the highest potential for spiritual progress as the sannyasi can focus exclusively on his spiritual life. But the ashrama system doesn’t rule out the potential of Self-realization for grhastas (and members of other ashramas).

The grhatas can participate fully in their worldly life while continuing to be a seeker of liberation. King Janaka, Sage Yajnavalkya of ancient times and Ramakrishna Paramhansa in recent times, are all exemplars of those who realized the highest goal of life, while living as householders. Yet, as was mentioned earlier, some Self-realized saints such as Sage Yajnavalkya sought to conform to the vedic system of ashramas and took to the life of sannyasa at a later stage.

Nevertheless, it is not essential for one dedicated to the spiritual goal of life to go through the grhast-ashrama (or the krama ashramas of brahmacharya, grhasta and vanaprastha prior to taking sannyasa). If one has the inclination early on in life to solely dedicate oneself to the pursuit of moksha, then the scriptures offer them the provision to be freed from all ritualistic obligations of grhast-ashrama even before they enter it. Such a commitment is indeed the wiser path for a sincere seeker of highest goal of life.

Refering to this advantage of prioritizing one’s time and efforts within sannyas-ashrama, Paramahansa Yogananda explains what propelled him toward a life of sannyasa: “I had analyzed the lives of many of my friends who, after undergoing certain spiritual discipline, had then married. Launched on the sea of worldly responsibilities, they had forgotten their resolutions to meditate deeply. To allot God a secondary place in life was, to me, inconceivable.”[ From his book Autobiography of a Yogi]

Thereby, a mature perspective of these two key ashramas is to see them as corroborators, supporting each other in living their respective stage of life. The grhastas draw inspiration from sannyasis while fulfilling one’s materialistic and ritualistic obligations with an attitude of inner renunciation. The presence of sannyasis in the society can itself be a balancing factor for the mindset of excessive materialism. Besides their living example of simplistic living, sannyasis can offer guidance and teachings to grahatas so that religious values may be practiced actively.

On at a material level, the sannyasi depends on the grhastas for bhisksha (alms) and other basic needs. Thus both the sannyasi and the grhasta are dependent on each other for a harmonious and overall development of the society.

The Ultimate Surrender

Sannyasis have renounced all relationships and possessions in this world. Therefore, the prarabdha karma[9] takes care of their needs and of their remaining life span. The workings of praradha karma, how and when it fructifies, is dependent on the almighty Consciousness as the supreme God. Thereby it is this Divine Force who is ultimately the doer and controller. This creation is protected by Him or Her as the supreme authority.

Embracing such values, whatever activities the sannyasi partakes of is to support God’s will, according to the workings of karma. Maintaining one’s own body is also understood from such a perspective. Whether it is taking food or doing meditation, it is to support this process of the cosmic maintenance through one’s own karma. This has to be the attitude of one taking to sannyasa, a complete dedication and surrendering to the almighty God or the universal Consciousness.

In every form of monasticism, whether it is Eastern or Western, the renunciant embarks on such a path not out of helplessness or despair but out of faith and trust in a higher transcendental Being. He seeks refuge in a higher wisdom and strength than his own.

The life of complete renunciation of all worldly possessions, relations, roles, names, and so on, is triggered and inspired by an ineffable ‘divine call.’ It is nurtured through the grace and guidance of the Gurus and Scriptures. And finally, it is fulfilled by one’s earnest efforts to follow the path and surrender the ego to the Almighty Universal Consciousness.

Like rolling river free

Thou ever be.

Sannyasin bold! Say

— Om Tat Sat, Om!

(From ‘The Song of the Sannyasin’ by Swami Vivekananda)

[1] The accurate spelling should be saṃnyāsa but is popularly spelled as Sannyasa. The etymological composition in Sanskrit is sam (together, all), ni (down), and āsa (to throw or to put). Thus the literal translation is “to put down everything, all of it.” (Concise Oxford Dictionary). Shankaracharya in his commentary on Gita (2–21) confirms that “the word ‘nyasa’ with the prefix ‘sam’ points to renouncing and not installing (forming)”

[2] “Sorrows and delusion (due to ignorance) are the root causes of samsara. There is nothing that can bring an end to these, except the renouncing of all doership-induced activities (as in sannyasa) — Shankaracharya in Gita commentary (2–21)

[3] From the Maitrayani Upanishad. The full quote as translated by Paul Deussen: “In this body infected with passions, anger, greed, delusion, fright, despondency, grudge, separation from what is dear and desirable, attachment to what is not desirable, hunger, thirst, old age, death, illness, sorrow and the rest — how can one experience only joy?” Hymn I.3

[4] The use of masculine gender is merely for the sake of ease and consistency.

[5] Also known as parivrajikas, yatis, bhikshus and recently as Swamis. This form of Sannyasin is the one prescribed by the scriptures for one who is yet to stabilize in the ultimate Truth

[6] Brihaspati Smriti. A similar reference is found in Jabala Upanishad (4:1) wherein Yajnavalkya expounds to King Janaka the evolution of different Ashramas culminating in Sannyasa or that ‘one may renounce on that very day when dispassion (vairagya) dawns on him regardless of which Ashrama he may then belong to.

[7] Ashrama is a system of four distinct and legitimate ways of leading a religious life: as a celibate student (Brahmachaya), a married house-holder (Grhasta), a forest hermit (Vanasprasta) and a world renunciant (Sannyasi), according to Olivelle P., in “The Asrama system”

[8] “According to Sruti (vedas), the renunciation of all actions including mental actions is the superior path. The immortality pointed out (in Brihadaranyaka Upanishads) by ‘This alone’ (is worth pursuing), suggests that for an aspirant of Truth, all other pursuits should be renounced.” (Shankaracharya, Upadesha Sahasri, Introduction 20–21)

[9] Prarabdha Karma is type of karma wherein a specific portion from the storehouse of all past actions is predestined to fructify in the present life (the present effects of past causes), as one’s experiences and circumstances.

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Writer, Contemplative, Himalayan Sadhu and a Sannyasi (monk) based at Uttarakhand region of Himalayas.

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Swami Nirgunananda Giri

Swami Nirgunananda Giri

Writer, Contemplative, Himalayan Sadhu and a Sannyasi (monk) based at Uttarakhand region of Himalayas.

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