Sannyasa, Principles & Practices

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संन्यासयोगाद् यतयः शुद्धसत्त्वाः ।
ते ब्रह्मलोकेषु परान्तकाले
परामृताः परिमुच्यन्ति सर्वे ॥ ६॥

Having well ascertained the Self, the goal of the Vedantic knowledge and having purified their minds through the practice of sannyasa, the seers, in the end, gain the world of Brahma, and liberating themselves from everything gain the supreme immortality

The Sanskrit word for renunciation is Sannyasa[1]. Within Hinduism (sanatana dharma), it represents a traditional form of ascetic life wherein the Sannyasi[2] 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.[3]

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[4].

In fact, the etymology of the English word ‘renounce’ comes from the old French word ‘renoncer’ and the latin word ‘renuntiare,’[5] 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 succinctly puts it, “given the nature of life, how is joy possible?”[6]

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[7] 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 sharp 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 fulfilment 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.”[8]

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 (elaborated in later sections). Along with the sadhana, the guidance from his teachers based on shastras, form the two limbs on which every sannyasi traverses his spiritual journey across the ocean of samsara.  

This treatise is thereby an attempt to bring out the various principles and practices for one aspiring toward the life of sannyasa and for everyone in the society who have a duty to uphold and support this tradition. Its purpose is to show how the tradition of sannyasa is based on a practical system, which is applicable as much in the present generation as it was several centuries ago.    

A detail introduction of this article is available on this blog and the full PDF booklet can be downloaded from here

[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] The term sannyasi represents the singular noun form for one who has taken to sannyasa and sannyasis represent its plural form. It is derived from sannyasin, a word that may be interchangeably used at times for sannyasi.

[3] This verse is from Kaivalya Upanishad (1.3). Check for Sanskrit text and transliteration in Appendix.

[4] “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)

[5] The Latin word can also be interpreted as re (expressing reversal) + nuntiare (announce)

[6] 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

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

[8] Iswara Darshan, pg. 85, CCMT Publications, 1969

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