By Swami Harshananda
Samnyāsa (‘complete renunciation,’ ‘the order of monks’)
Ancient and medieval Hindu scriptures describe four āśramas or stages of life. (See ĀŚRAMA.) The last of these is samnyāsa 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 samnyāsa.
However, in practice, it was restricted only to the brāhmaṇas.
One who takes the formal vows of samnyāsa is called a samnyāsin.
There are four kinds of samnyāsins: kuṭīcaka, bahudaka, hamsa and parama-hamsa. (See PARAMAHAMSA for details.) The last is considered as the best.
Procedure for taking Samnyāsa
The Dharmasindhu of Kāśīnātha Upādhye (A. D. 1790) sets out a procedure for taking samnyāsa which is followed more or less even today.
Since samnyāsa was taken either from the gārhasthya stage (as a householder) or from the vānaprastha stage (as a forest recluse), 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 samnyāsin-teacher and living with him for at least three months; purification of oneself through the japa of the Gāyatrī mantra, Rudra and performance of Kuṣmāṇḍahoma (vide Taittirīya Āranyaka 2.7) to get rid of sins; saṅkalpa (religious resolve); śrāddha including to oneself; shaving, leaving the śikhā intact; getting the things needed for the samnyāsin’s life like ochre-cloth, daṇḍa (staff), kamaṇḍalu (water pot), kaupīna (loincloth), pādukās (wooden sandals) and so on; worship of Gaṇeśa and performing Ābhyudayika śrāddha (See ĀBHYUDAYIKA-ŚRĀDDHA.); recital of certain Vedic texts; fasting; Sāvitrīpraveśa (withdrawing the Gāyatrī mantra into oneself since it will not be repeated after samnyāsa); 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 (signifying total renunciation of hearth and home); offering of the śikhā (tuft of hair) and yajñopavita (sacred thread) in water (or the fire of Virajāhoma); removal of the old clothes and accepting the ochre-clothes as well as other insignia of samnyāsa from the guru; receiving the mahāvākya (See MAHĀVĀKYAS.) from the guru as also a new name; taking the blessings of the guru and the senior samnyāsins.
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 samnyāsin, 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 ever be on the move, wandering alone, never staying in the same place for more than three days, except during the rainy season. (See CĀTURMĀSYA.)
Observing strict celibacy and bathing thrice a day he must spend his time in japa (repetition of the divine name), dhyāna (meditation), surārcana (worship of his deity) whenever possible and contemplation on Vedāntic and devotional scriptures.
He should be controlled in eating (taking food only once a day). Practising
ahimsā (non-violence) and satya (truth), he should give abhaya (freedom from fear) 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 practise 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 dharma-śāstra whether samnyāsa 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 samnyāsa!
Though śudras were denied samnyāsa by the smṛtis and the medieval digests, śudra-ascetics did exist. Śaiva and Śākta cults permitted it to them also.
Based on the Mahābhāsya of Patañjali (200 B. C.) 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 sarhnyāsins. (See ĀTURASAMNYĀSA.)
After death, the body of a samnyāsin had to be buried.
Over the centuries, due to historical, sociological and civilisational factors
several changes have been wrought in the institution of samnyāsa 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., like wearing stitched clothes and footwear; living in institutions and engaging in public service activities; performance of certain religious rites like pujā and homa and so on.
Some orders of samnyāsins prefer cremation after death, to burial.
If the Hindu society has given the highest place of honour to the samnyāsins, it has also prescribed the highest standards of morality, ethics and spiritual values.
That the Hindu religion and the society are still vibrant and susceptible to further spiritual development is notj a little due to these samnyāsins and the institution of samnyāsa itself.
See also ASCETICS, ĀŚRAMA, DAŚA-NĀMĪS, MONASTICISM and YATI.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore