Sanyāsa

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By Swami Harshananda

Sometimes transliterated as: Sanyasa, SanyAsa, Sanyaasa


Sanyāsa literally means ‘complete renunciation,’ ‘the order of monks’.

Ancient and medieval scriptures describe four āśramas or stages of life. The last of these is sanyāsa or the life of a recluse or a monk. Anyone who has developed an intense vairāgya or spirit of renunciation for the world and is eager to attain mokṣa or liberation, is fit for taking sanyāsa. However it was restricted only to the brāhmaṇas in practice. One who takes the formal vows of sanyāsa is called a sanyāsin.

Classification of Sanyāsins

There are four kinds of sanyāsins:

  1. Kuṭīcaka
  2. Bahṅdaka
  3. Haṅsa
  4. Paramahaṅsa

The last is considered as the best.

Procedure for taking Sanyāsa

The Dharmasindhu of Kāśīnātha Upādhye[1] sets out a procedure for taking sanyāsa which is followed more or less even today. Since sanyāsa was taken either from the gārhasthya stage[2] or from the vānaprastha stage,[3] this factor should be kept in mind while studying the same as given in the above-mentioned work.

Briefly stated, the procedure is as follows:

  • Seeking a competent sanyāsin-teacher and living with him for at least three months
  • Purification of oneself through the japa of the Gāyatrī mantra, Rudra and performance of Kiṣmāṇḍahoma[4] to get rid of sins
  • Saṅkalpa[5]
  • Śrāddha including to oneself
  • Shaving, leaving the śikhā intact
  • Getting the things needed for the sanyāsin’s life like ochre-cloth, daṇḍa,[6] kamaṇḍalu,[7] kaupīna,[8] pādukās[9] and so on
  • Worship of Gaṇeśa and performing Ābhyudayika śrāddha
  • Recital of certain Vedic texts
  • Fasting
  • Sāvitrīpraveśa[10]
  • Keeping vigil for the whole night
  • Performance of Virajāhoma
  • Burning of all wooden sacrificial vessels
  • Blessing all the members of the family and leaving home
  • Repeating the praiṣamantra[11]
  • Offering of the śikhā[12] and yajñopavita[13] in water or the fire of Virajāhoma
  • Removal of the old clothes and accepting the ochre-clothes as well as other insignia of sanyāsa from the guru
  • Receiving the mahāvākya from the guru and also a new name
  • Taking the blessings of the guru and the senior sanyāsins

In some orders following non-advaitic tradition, the śikhā and the yajñopavita are kept intact and the japa of the Gāyatrī mantra is continued.

Code of Conduct

The sanyāsin, after formally taking the vows of monastic life, has to lead a wandering life, not dwelling inside villages or towns. His stay should be outside, under a tree or a temple or an uninhabited house. He can enter the village or the town for alms, only once in a day and that too after the smoke from the domestic hearths has died down. He should be moving, wandering alone, never staying in the same place for more than three days, except during the rainy season.

Observing strict celibacy and bathing thrice a day he must spend his time in japa,[14] dhyāna,[15] surārcana[16] and contemplation on Vedāntic and devotional scriptures whenever possible. He should be controlled in eating.[17] Practicing ahinsā[18] and satya,[19] he should give abhaya[20] to all creatures. He should be equanimous under all circumstances. His possessions should be only those accepted during the taking of the monastic vows and hence should never accumulate things out of greed. He should observe silence as much as possible and never practice astrology or occult sciences. The dharmaśāstras are replete with many injunctions and prohibitions which may not appear to be relevant in the modern context.

Other Related Topics

There is no unanimity in the dharmaśāstra whether sanyāsa is allowed only to the brāhmaṇas or to other dvijas also. An eccentric theory is sometimes put forward by the fanatical followers of Vedic rituals that only those who are physically disabled and hence unable to perform the rituals are fit for sanyāsa. Though śudras were denied sanyāsa by the smṛtis and the medieval digests, śudra-ascetics did exist.

Śaiva and Śākta sects permitted it to them also. Based on the Mahābhāsya of Patañjali[21] one can surmise that women-ascetics too existed, even in ancient days. Dvijas who were critically ill and about to pass away could mentally utter the praiṣamantra and die as sanyāsins. After death, the body of a sanyāsin had to be buried.

Over the centuries, due to historical, sociological and civilization factors several changes have been wrought in the institution of sanyāsa though the old and orthodox orders continue to hold on to most of the ancient traditions. Some of them are:

  • Changes in modes of dress etc.
  • Wearing stitched clothes and footwear
  • Living in institutions and engaging in public service activities
  • Performance of certain religious rites like pujā and homa
  • Etc.

Some orders of sanyāsins prefer cremation after death to burial.

Conclusion

If the society has given the highest place of honor to the sanyāsins, it has also prescribed the highest standards of morality, ethics and spiritual values for them. The religion and the society are still vibrant and susceptible to further spiritual development due to the contribution of these sanyāsins and the institution of sanyāsa itself.


References

  1. He lived in A. D. 1790.
  2. Gārhasthya means a house-holder.
  3. Vānaprastha means as a forest recluse.
  4. Taittiriya Āranyaka 2.7
  5. Saṅkalpa means religious resolve.
  6. Daṇḍa means staff.
  7. Kamaṇḍalu means water pot.
  8. Kaupīna means loincloth.
  9. Pādukās means wooden sandals.
  10. Sāvitrīpraveśa means withdrawing the Gāyatrī mantra into oneself since it will not be repeated after sanyāsa.
  11. Praiṣamantra means signifying total renunciation of hearth and home.
  12. Śikhā means tuft of hair.
  13. Yajñopavita means sacred thread.
  14. Japa means repetition of the divine name.
  15. Dhyāna means meditation.
  16. Surārcana means worship of his deity.
  17. It means taking food only once a day.
  18. Ahinsā means non-violence.
  19. Satya means truth.
  20. Abhaya means freedom from fear.
  21. He lived in 200 B. C.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore