The True Meaning of Sannyasa

Exclusive to Vedic Management Centre by U. Mahesh Prabhu

Was Prince Siddhartha justified in leaving his wife and children to become Lord Buddha? Was it right for Adi Shankaracharya, as a young boy, to leave his widowed mother to become a renunciate? Narendranath’s family was in abject poverty when he chose to be a renunciate and became Swami Vivekananda. How can people who haven’t lived life of a householder guide those who live normal life? Questions like these often arise every time there is a discussion about the great gurus of India and those who join their monastic traditions. People who are attached to the material world often question the value of such renunciation altogether.

According to Vedic teachings, human beings pass through five stages, or Ashrams, in life, namely: Baalya (infancy), Brahmacharya (learning), Grihastha (householder) and Vanasprastha (hermitage/retirement) and Sannyasa (Renunciation).

Sannyasa, however, can be taken up by individuals at any stage of life, if they have the calling an the qualifications to do so. It can be adopted even at the stage of Brahmacharya to skip Grihastha and Vanasprastha. Sannyasa is a state in which the individual works towards letting go all the six detrimental qualities (Arishadvargas) in oneself, namely, Kama (lust), Krodha (anger), Lobha (greed), Moha (infatuation), Mada (ego) and Matsarya (envy) for the greater good and truth – Paramartha.

By this definition none of those qualify to be called as a Sannyasi, who are driven by Arishadvargas even if they call themselves Guru, Swamis or yogis.

Most of the early Rishis of the Vedic era weren’t formal Sannyasis – most of the Rishis were married and had children, passing on their teachings in gurukulas. For example, the author of Mahabharata, Vyasa himself claims to have fathered children. Vishwamitra, one the revered Seven Rishis, was never married but had a daughter Shakuntala from the Apsara MenakaJamadagni was a revered Rishi and father of another illustrious Rishi – Parasuraman, who was a Sannyasi. The Upanishads speak of King Janaka who achieved the highest Self-realization yet continued to run a kingdom. The tradition of giving up family life for joining formal monastic orders came later, some say starting with Rishi Kapila. So Sannyasa in the outer sense is not necessarily a pre-requisite for attaining Paramartha (Ultimate Truth), but it’s a path which offers most subtle way to live a life of absolute bliss beyond pain and suffering. However, to achieve the Ultimate Truth, one must renounce all attachment to the material world, whether one continues to serve any role in society or not which then becomes Karma Yoga.

Today’s Sannyasis portray Sannyasa to be an “extremely difficult task”. Their disciples, portray the idea of Sannyasa as if “walking with fire”. Some like followers of Osho use the word Sannyasa but don’t renounce a thing. However, true Sannyasa is hardly a life of torture. True Sannyasa is a lifestyle that is full of wisdom, and, therefore, bliss. Instead of suppressing their desires, true Sannyasis seek transcendence through Jnana (knowledge) and Dhyana (meditation).  A true Sannyasi lives a life without fear and full of bliss – something which individuals attached to friends and family can seldom find.

Consider this: Why do people have friends? Why do people have partners? Why do they marry? Why do they have children? While there may be any number of “sensible” or even altruistic answers for such questions – at the deepest level is our selfish desire.

At the root of all ordinary relationships we can find fear. We all fear something. We are naturally apprehensive about our education, opportunities, careers, companionship, finances, ailments, old age etc. We are often shadowed by our past and insecure about our future.

Fear is the core reason for most people to do things that are hurtful – to themselves as well as others. This is because fear easily gives rise to anger. People even give bribes to secure their future or protect their interests. People expropriate or use the wealth of others to enhance their own benefits that they are uncertain about. They even practice deceit and fraud to gain more for themselves, as they think that since the world cheats them they must cheat the world to get by.

When people are driven by fear, they easily fall into the six detrimental qualities (Arishadvargas), of desire, anger, greed, infatuation, ego and envy. Such qualities can quickly put an end to anything of lasting good in one’s life.

Now consider a life without fear. Certainly, it’s not easy to even imagine. Our minds have been conditioned by our friends, families, societies, teachers, politicians, bosses etc. to believe that living without fear is not possible or perhaps even undesirable. And because we’ve bought into this false idea, we have accepted fear as an integral part of our lives.

This is not to suggest that an individual should not consider or prepare for any difficults or threats in life. Dangers are real in this undertain world, but fear is an emotional reaction that causes us to misperceive what is going on Dangerous situations need to be dealt with carefully. But fear inhibits a clear response from us. Fears shake our confidence, incites panic attacks, brings stress and everything that makes our mind incapable of taking an appropriate decision. Fear can only take a situation from bad to worse. It inflicts more harm than good. If only you choose caution over fear – you’d see how great your life would be.

A Sannyasi is someone who, at the very least, knows the ideals of Paramartha or Ultimate Truth. A Sannyasi accepts the fact that greater truth cannot be achieved without letting go of Arishadvargas. Although Sannyasi might suffer the Arishadvargas from time to time – but would work carefully to overcome them. Sannyasa is a path of seeking excellence in action.

A Sannyasi is not someone who is idle. Because Artha or any higher goal cannot be achieved without actions (Karma), a Sannyasi always keeps one’s mind and body engaged with productive work.

Brahmacharya, or abstention from sex is a very important part of Sannyasa. Most “modern thinkers” look down upon celibacy. Because they cannot live without sex – they assume no one can! Many modern gurus have come to downplay or ridicule celibacy, calling it “optional”. They usually don’t give importance to Sannyasa either. Driven by a desire for fame, publicity, accolades and adoration – they may resort to Adharmic conduct and fall into the trap of the Arishadvargas. Because of this, we see gurus fighting with each other to gain more disciples and ending up with more problems than ordinary people.

A true Sannyasi does not takes pride in his celibacy nor does market it as a commodity. Sex is always a personal choice – including choosing to have it or not. So be aware of those who speak too much about celibacy in public.

A true Sannyasi is one who choses to seek the truth always. Truth is not just fact. It’s beyond. It’s something that liberates us from pain and delivers us to bliss. It’s not something merely to read, recite, worship, or adore. It’s to know and, then, to realize. Some might even know this Truth outwardly yet fail to benefit from it inwardly. It’s one thing to know, another thing to understand and completely different to be able to apply. Sannyas, therefore, is a path of living this Truth, full of bliss.

The true Sannyasis living in bliss don’t try to gain favour from or hurt others. Gaining favor from or hurting others – emotionally or physically – are forms of Kukarma or negative Karma. These stems from the six detrimental qualities – Arishadvargas. Even when criticized by others a Sannyasi not angered or feel insulted. A true Sanyasi is the one who desires to attain the state of Stithaprajna – where the mind has neither attraction nor repulsion, where only bliss prevails.  

A true Sannyasi is never attracted to mere things or people.  A Sannyasi stays above expectations and ambitions. Therefore, a “monastic order” that seeks funds, followers and public recognition – can compromise the state of Sannyasa even if they claim to be ancient traditions

When an individual truly accepts Sanyasa – one does so not out of distress or dislike. A sanyasi is never a loser or a complainer. Sanyasa arises from detachment. Renunciation essentially means to give. But before you give you need to have something. This is also the reason why Dharma shastras suggest Vanasprastha (renunciation) after Grihasta (householder) for normal individuals. A Sanyasi doesn’t become one out of an expectation for acceptance or reverence by the masses. One becomes a Sanyasi only after knowing, understanding, accepting and living the ultimate truth.

We are not the things we possess – including this transient body. The desires of the body, therefore, are not ours. Desires like lust are seldom satiated – so why be driven by them? This is not to suggest that one suppresses one’s urges – Sanyasa is about transcending all desires through Vichara (contemplation) and Viveka (wisdom), not by supressing them.

To conclude here’s a few real traits of a true Sanyasi

  1. A Sanyasi is one who seeks Ultimate Truth or Paramartha
  2. A Sanyasi is one who does not seek love, appreciation, adoration or publicity
  3. A Sanyasi is one who prefers solitude and engages in work without desire
  4. A Sanyasi never suppresses one’s lust; but transcends it through knowledge and wisdom
  5. A Sanyasi cannot be created by simply following any institutional order.
  6. A Sanyasi does not get attached – they’re always indifferent, without any trace of love or hate.
  7. A Sanyasi never rejects or abandons anything or anyone. Acceptance, not deterrence, is the hallmark of
  8. A Sanyasi is always engaged in productive work (Sat-Karma) without any sense of attachment to fruits of his work (Phala-Apeksha).
April 19, 2018

5 responses on "The True Meaning of Sannyasa"

  1. Excellent article! Highly informative and adhering to scriptures. Thank you.

  2. Nice article.Thanks for sharing.

  3. An excellent compression of the essentials into a very useful reference as to both what constitutes Sannyasa, and why. Thank you for all the articles and other works put out by The Vedic Management Centre and The AIVS.

    Luke,
    London UK

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