According to tradition, a sannyasin is one who keeps moving for the welfare and benefit of many. He is one who helps man to fulfil his spiritual ideals by inspiring and teaching him the yogic way of life. To live as a sannyasin, one has to be first trained under a guru's guidance for many years in order to develop a free mind.
The sannyasin is respected as one who refrains from the unreal and has faith in the real. He is one who has renounced externally and internally, materially, and even spiritually, but has maintained a positive way of thinking and a stability throughout. The sannyasin is tranquil and wishes well to all. Sannyas is the state of mind where one has renounced all good and bad, beautiful and ugly, love and hatred.
Sannyasin also means preceptor; one who has learned to control himself completely, internally and externally, physically, mentally and emotionally. That is why a sannyasin is called 'swami' - one who is master of his own mind.
The sannyas tradition is world-wide in origin, and no culture is unfamiliar with the concept of a sannyasin- a man who has left the world and its preoccupations for the sake of higher spiritual life. In India, Lord Shiva is considered to be the archetypal sannyasin. He is known as Tyageshwar - Lord of renunciates. He dwells in meditation high in the Himalayas, having no possessions beyond a loincloth, a tiger skin, a trident and a mala of rudraksha beads. His hair is long and matted, with the Ganges flowing from it. Around his neck is draped a serpent, symbolising his mastery of the serpent power and attainment of divine and immortal consciousness. He is the third member of the trinity of Hinduism - the destroyer, for it is by renunciation that ignorance is destroyed and immortality gained.
In modern times, it was Adi Shankaracharya (788 A.D.) who reformed and structured the present system of sannyas as it is followed in India today. He constructed ten different orders (dasnami - ten names) of sannyas. Although there are many unessential restrictions which vary from group to group, all the sannyasins of the order of Shankaracharya wear geru cloth to this day. This is the biggest and most organised institution in India. It is very widespread, disciplined and respected. Many great gurus have belonged to it and many disciples have travelled the road to freedom within it.
Some sannyasins have long hair, others remain shaved, some cannot touch fire, money, sweets, garlic, onion, meat and so on, depending on such circumstances as culture, weather and temperament. Despite these unessential differences, all sannyasins who wear the geru robe have a great responsibility to carry the higher spiritual values of life - love, unity, peace, nonaggression, silence, sincerity, humility, and nobility. This is what sannyas stands for, and this is what a sannyasin must be. Sannyas is not a social or religious order, but a way to attain higher spiritual values and understanding.
Sannyas was established by the saints and sages of the ancient world in order to preserve the spiritual sciences such as yoga, so that mankind would never lose contact with its highest potential. Originally, the whole world was the home of yoga and sannyasins, but some thousands of years ago, many civilisations came into political conflict with each other and were completely destroyed by wars. The warring nations were immersed in chaos and upheaval and neglected to maintain their spiritual traditions. The spiritual culture was destroyed along with the political culture, because they failed to protect and maintain the people who preserved the higher knowledge.
It was only in India that this spiritual culture was not destroyed because the sannyasins were kept away from the conflicting ideologies, political and administrative altercations. Some governors were wise and separated the renunciates, the swamis, from society, saying to them: 'Live outside of society and we will feed, clothe and sustain you. You must only preserve mankind's spiritual heritage, maintain the higher values of life. If ever, in coming generations, life again becomes settled in the world, then give back the spiritual science to the people.'
There were many centuries of political strife and wars all over the world. The spiritual sciences were buried and whole cultures and races forgot about them. Throughout this period, however, in remote places, away from society, spiritual knowledge continued to be passed down from sannyasin to sannyasin, from guru to disciple, in an unbroken line of transmission. The truth was preserved in its essential form, although the outward modes of application may have changed to suit the times and the varying needs of different aspirants.
Still today, for truth to be preserved, sannyasins must be away from politics, away from parliament and administration. They must be away from conflicting ideologies like capitalism, communism, socialism and bureaucracies. They are only concerned with the knowledge, the vidya, the sciences of yoga, which lead man to liberation. Wherever spirituality has been used for political purposes, it has succumbed. It has been incorporated into the socio-religious framework of the society, but has lost its propensity as a means of transformation of consciousness. Religions have been exploited in this way, but the sannyas tradition of India has preserved its purity because the economic, political and moral ideologies could never utilise the sannyasins for their own purposes. If there is any history of India, it is the history of the rishis, mahatmas and sannyasins. Take them out and you have no literature, no religion, no dharma.
For sannyasins, religion is never the end, but only the means. Similarly, yoga is the means, and not the end. The end is, always and forever, the attainment of greater self awareness. Anything less falls short for a sannyasin. He cannot be blindly restricted to a particular code or belief, but accepts the truth in all ways and remains open to them all - Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Zoroastrianism and atheism alike.
The sannyasins of India have been able to maintain the traditions of yoga and of sannyas because they have always welcomed anyone who could give knowledge by which the mind could be controlled, a higher experience could be gamed and the deeper recesses of man's being could be known.
Now that order is again settling in the world and people are looking for higher life once more, the sannyasins are returning that spiritual knowledge which they have been transmitting from guru to disciple down through the ages.