Traditionally one entered the path of sannyas at a ripe old age after exhausting all desires and ambitions, and establishing control over the body and mind. The young people who entered sannyas were very few and like their elders, they too were established in renunciation and detachment. Therefore karma yoga was not practiced as we know it today, nor was it deemed necessary. It was enough for them to meditate, study the scriptures, teach and preach.
Now, however, ashrams are being established all over the world, and many young people from all backgrounds and walks of life are coming for sannyas. They have no other hope and no other ideal to look to. They may be full of desire, ambition and all kinds of samskaras, but they are ready to throw it all away in the hope of finding something worth living for. For them, ashram life, guru seva (service to the guru) and guru bhakti (devotion to the guru) are the best ways to make the mind strong and balanced.
This path is open for everyone and it is possible to progress along it more easily, especially for those who have not yet purified the mind and are lacking in awareness and self control. In the course of ashram fife these young sannyasins come into contact with many people and they learn to understand the higher and lower qualities of human nature very well. As they make spiritual progress they are able to apply their knowledge of yoga in society and bring many people to the spiritual path.
While some people claim that the strictly orthodox and traditional path of sannyas leads to a higher level of development, the best path is the one which is most suited to the needs and requirements of each particular age. It is not only evolution of the individual, but also the collective state of consciousness of mankind which determines how sannyas shall be attained in any time. In modern, civilised society, man's complexes and neuroses have multiplied greatly, but by adopting a suitable form of sannyas, spiritual attainment can be had just as well today as in former ages.
According to the scriptures, mankind is now entering the kali yuga- the age when spiritual awareness is almost completely submerged, and both the individual and the society as a whole are governed by materialistic and hedonistic values alone. However, the scriptures maintain that anyone who does aspire towards spiritual attainment in this age can evolve very quickly and easily to higher awareness, provided his resolve is firmly set.
In former ages, the level of consciousness of man as a whole was far more spiritually orientated, the prevailing atmosphere was purer and sannyas required very demanding austerities. To win acceptance as a disciple, one had to prove himself worthy of the guru's guidance by superhuman efforts. This can be understood by reading the story of Milarepa's trials in attaining the teachings from his master, Marpa.
Today, sannyas is more readily available to genuine seekers than in those times, because the consciousness of man as a whole is bogged down in materialism and fewer people are interested in genuine spiritual attainment. The guru makes sannyas available according to the capacity of the individual and the need of society. The guru's consciousness does not change, it is universal, spanning all ages and conditions, but the nature of his guidance varies with the prevailing conditions of the age and the abilities of the disciples.
Today there is a greater necessity for sannyas than in former times. Our ancestors had better circumstances for sannyas, but less need of it. They were not so unhappy. Sannyas is more necessary for modern man who lives a life of stress and strain, of imaginary and false values.
While many people talk about transforming society, sannyas directly influences the level of consciousness of the society as a whole by transforming the consciousness of the individual. Sannyas is a way of life which accelerates spiritual evolution through establishing harmony and equilibrium between all the potentialities and aspects of the human being- his emotions, intellect, and intuition, so that he has access to the fullest possible self expression. Once this is attained, true contentment arises. Man will never be happy, individually and collectively, until the total development and expression of human personality is achieved. The state of a society depends solely upon the mental states of its individuals. People will always complain idly about social structures and situations which are unfavourable to them but the only way to effectively bring about a transformation of society is to first transform the individual awareness through sannyas life.
If sannyas becomes a social philosophy then it is no better and no worse than all the other social philosophies- with its own institutions, dogmas and beliefs. This has been the failing of so many religious orders. But, if sannyas is restricted to the individual, then his evolution is assured, and if thousands of individuals all over the world undergo the experience of evolution, then the whole fabric of society will definitely be influenced. By raising the consciousness level of individuals, sannyas brings about evolutionary changes in the social structure and collective consciousness of man.
In the early stages of sannyas training, it is necessary for a sannyasin to be removed from the influence of society. He goes his way and society goes another. This period enables him to discipline and purify the mind. He is forced to face himself on all levels, and to experience all the latent complexes, frustrations and fears lying in his mind, until he is no longer affected by them and finally transcends them. Then the mind becomes balanced, steady and unshakeable; capable of powerful, one-pointed concentration and unmoved by internal or external influences. At this stage, the sannyasin is ready to re-enter the world as a powerhouse of positively and creative living, able to give sound, objective advice and positively help in alleviating the suffering of mankind, without any personal motive.
In the past, some orders of sannyas extended the period of separation from the rest of mankind into a permanent state, and the sannyasin forgot his responsibility to work for the world's welfare. The modern sannyasin must not neglect his responsibility. Returning to the world and serving as a bridge, spanning the outer and inner worlds, connecting material and spiritual states of being is the duty of a sannyasin. Trained sannyasins must be available to people everywhere.
The role of sannyasins in the near future will be to bring the teachings of yoga to the people of the world on a larger scale. Modern man is suffering from physical illnesses, mental instability and spiritual ignorance. He does not know who he is or what is his purpose. Now he is beginning to realise this and is looking for the way to heal his body, rest his mind and attain higher awareness. Yoga will quench his awakening thirst, showing him the way to a higher life.
People often ask why sannyasins today continue to shave the head and wear geru robes. Firstly, whether or not a sannyasin shaves the head is largely immaterial, although there are several good reasons, both traditional and practical, for doing so. At the time of sannyas initiation, it is traditional to shave the head, symbolic of the cutting of all personal complexes and attachments which impede progress in spiritual life, including attachment to the physical appearance. Secondly, shaving facilitates meditation by enhancing receptivity to cosmic vibrations. And thirdly, in a hot climate, a shaved head is very cool, clean and healthy.
Geru robes are still worn today, firstly from the viewpoint of preserving an ancient tradition and spiritual organisation, and secondly, the geru colour plays an important part in influencing the human mind and emotions. Geru colour is a symbol of detachment and total dedication. Right from the beginning in India, sannyasins have worn geru colour. It vibrates with life and has a powerful psychological effect through having been associated with renunciates and higher knowledge all throughout Asia, for thousands of years. When travelling in India or abroad people instantly recognise a sannyasin and are automatically drawn to him to discuss matters of spiritual life and yoga. Similarly it constantly reminds the sannyasin of his purpose as well. Finally, geru is made from a special red mud found only at certain mountain sites. It possesses unique mineral and vibrational properties which are important in body and skin health and in physical, mental, emotional and spiritual metabolism.