Karma Sannyasa

Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati

"I have come a long way to speak to you," the newcomer said. He was an artist, a painter. He had long hair and delicate hands. Although he spoke slowly and carefully, measuring every word, there was a note of restlessness in his voice.

There were several people in the room. They had come to carry on a conversation started a few days earlier on the meaning and purpose of life. The artist was a newcomer, and he had come alone. With a slight hesitation he began to speak.

"In my life there have been the normal share of lips and downs. I have participated fully in every sphere of life, and really I have no reason to complain. But, nevertheless, I feel that there is something that I have missed out on.

I have begun to question my existence and my relationship with others. I feel an inadequacy of purpose in my life. I have often contemplated sannyasa, but I have a family to look after. I am not yet free of that. Yet, at the same time, I wish to give my life a new impetus, a new direction, and a new goal.

I would like to embark on a spiritual quest, but as a married man with obligations and responsibilities, it seems that all doors are closed to me. Or is there a way out? You see, if this realisation had dawned on me earlier, I would not have burdened myself with family and social commitments. But is it too late now? Where can I start?"

He paused, searching for an answer. He looked young in years, dressed simply with an air of casualness. Swamiji looked directly at him and replied, "There is a solution to every problem. We have only to find a way out. You see, man is born, he grows into an adult, gets married, earns a living, grows old and dies. This is what is happening everywhere. But can we believe that this is the sole purpose for which we live?

"Of course, there are many important factors which determine the life of a man. He is born with certain karma and samskaras, and he has to work them out before he can proceed on his life's journey. But what is the use of working out one set of karma, and at the same time, building up another set to influence your future life?

Therefore, you have to approach life with great care, proper understanding, and a desire to live a better quality of existence. I have met many people of your age, and also older, who were faced with the same problem. They wanted to improve the quality of their life. Many thought that sannyasa was the answer, but they were unable to adopt that way of life, for they were tied down by responsibilities which they had yet to work through. It seems pointless to abandon your responsibilities and than be ridden with guilt for the rest of your life."

Outside the sky was dense with clouds. It had rained the night before and the air was fragrant with the smell of wet earth. Swamiji continued, "I feel that if you view your life in the right perspective and make certain adjustments in your thinking, then in that you will find a solution to your problem. The problem is actually very simple. In fact, I even hesitate to call it a problem. Your thirst for the mundane experiences of life is more or less quenched. Your awareness is now growing to another dimension of experience. That experience is related to your evolvement - you may call it mental evolvement, spiritual evolvement or evolvement of consciousness. This has caused a restlessness in your being, for you are not able to adjust or understand how to combine and synthesise your everyday life with a higher, more meaningful existence.

I have given a great deal of thought to this problem. How is it possible to live the life of a householder and yet maintain a balance between the external and internal growth? And it is for this reason that I have reinterpreted the vanaprastha ashrama and adapted it to suit the needs of modern man. In the olden days when a householder or gribastha felt the need to delve deeper into the mysteries of life, he undertook the vanaprastha ashrama, retiring to the forest with his wife. There he spent his time in contemplation and inner reflection.

The vanaprastha ashrama was devised by the saints and sages who could envisage that once man has exhausted his ambitions, passions and desires, he would undoubtedly turn inwards. If, at that time, he is not given the facility, guidance and encouragement to understand his life better, he will develop mental and physical problems, and thus become a hindrance to both himself and society.

However, in today's world there are no forests in which to live, and it is not practical or even possible to create that situation. So I have introduced the concept of karma sannyasa based on the tradition of vanaprastha ashrama. Many people have already been initiated by me. They had similar problems to yours, and were of all age groups, married and single. Karma sannyasa has worked very well. In fact, wherever I go there are at least twenty to thirty candidates."

The artist, who had been listening intently to every word, asked Swamiji, "What is karma sannyasa and how do you become a karma sannyasin?"

Swamiji replied, "Karma sannnyasa is 'inaction in action'. This is the principal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna tells Arjuna, there is no harm in action, the danger lies in attachment and dependence on the fruits of the actions you have performed.

The wise man, even while acting in this world, is not interested in the fruits of his actions. The sense of doership which gives rise to happiness and unhappiness is fictitious. "You are not the doer of any action", he tells Arjuna, "So why do you assume doership?"

If you can understand this concept and implement it in your life, then you will gradually experience a higher quality of life. That is essentially the philosophy a karma sannyasin has to adopt. Live life fully, participate in all events of life externally, but internally maintain an attitude of non-doership. Do not become inactive, for you will gain nothing. What has to be done, has to be done. Even while doing the actions natural to you, if you are unattached to those actions you are truly the non-doer. On the other hand if you are doing nothing and are attached to that non-doership, then you become the doer.

You see, it is a very intricate philosophy, and it has to be understood in its true light. The change I am talking about is internal. Your external life goes on as it is. You live with your family, work, go on holidays, see movies. In fact, to an outsider you should appear to be the same person. But internally, you will have to do a lot of overhauling. All the changes that are taking place are within you, not outside. Of course, it does not happen overnight, it is a gradual process, but once you are able to grasp the importance of this idea in relation to your life and growth as an individual, you will find the answer to your problem."

The artist was silent and still pondering deeply on what had been said to him. A lady who had been attending many satsangs, and was herself in search of a new way of life said, "What is the importance of initiation in karma sannyasa? So, if we are to maintain our external appearance, relationships and lifestyle as it is, is it not at all possible to achieve this inner attitude without being initiated into karma sannyasa?" Swamiji paused for a while, looking out of the window. The clouds had burst into rain. Finally he said, "I was coming to that point. Of course, anyone who has this attitude to life is a karma sannyasin, whether or not he is initiated. But how many are able to say that they are not involved in their actions and can maintain a sense of detachment to the consequences of their actions, whether good or bad? Man is limited by his nature. He tries to overcome his limitations, but very often he fails in his attempt. On account of distractions, confusions in the mind, and a flagging will power, he is at a loss. So, it is important for him to have a guru from whom he can receive initiation. Initiation is not just a mere ritual. It is the transference of the guru's inspirational energy to the disciple. The disciple then draws on this energy to help him maintain one-pointedness and dedication in his efforts. The guru is there to administer guidance and inspiration, and to check where the disciple is going wrong.

In karma sannyasa it is very difficult for the disciple to maintain a balance between his worldly life and his inner life. Sometimes he may lean too heavily towards his inner quest and overlook his duties towards his family; at other times he may get caught up in the maya of worldly life and its distractions, and his sadhana may suffer. A karma sannyasin has to be very careful on this point. He should strive to maintain a balance.

On the one hand, he is a father, a husband, an employee, a member of society. And on the other hand, he is a seeker of the self, pursuing the goal of truth. Both roles should be complementary and conducive to each other. His performance and progress in spiritual life should enhance his worldly relationships and vice versa. Only then will he find fulfilment.

That is why a guru and initiation are most important for a karma sannyasin. In fact, karma sannyasa is more difficult to maintain than full sannyasa."

The artist looked up at Swamiji with apprehension, a trifle hesitant, and said, "I have found a great deal of solace in what you have said. It has given me a new and exciting view of life. I feel now that there is a way for me, although I am so enmeshed in the trammels of day to day life. What do I have to do to become a karma sannyasin?"

Swamiji replied, "Approach a guru who can give you initiation and a proper understanding of the life you are about to enter. He will give you a sadhana for yourself. In course of time this sadhana will give you the strength, clarity of mind and correct judgement that you require in your life. He will give you a gem dhoti or a piece of unstitched cloth to wear at the time of sadhana as a symbol of your resolution.

If you wish to receive a spiritual name, he can give you that too. A spiritual name is important for it signifies that which is your real inner nature. The guru has a clear vision of your deeper nature, your karma, your past and present and future. And he gives you a name on that basis. It should be a constant reminder of your destination. Other than this, you continue to live as you have been living. Your relationship with your wife, the food you eat, your lifestyle, go on as they are."

The artist's face lit up with a smile and he said, "I was under the impression that I would have to make many changes in my life. It has been most gratifying to speak with you, however there is one last doubt I wish to clarify. What is the importance of celibacy in the life of a karma sannyasin. Does one have to practise it?

Swamiji closed his eyes for a brief moment and then looked up at him and said, "According to Hindu tradition, the relationship between husband and wife forms part of their dharma, and they are bound by it. Just as it is your dharma to serve your parents, in the same way, it is your dharma to abide by the injunctions laid down in the Vedas regarding your relationship with your wife. To go against that would be to go against one's dharma. Marital relations are not a sin rather they are a stepping stone to higher evolution.

Moreover, after being married for a number of years I think both partners are more or less satiated. The passion/desire neurosis that is experienced before marriage is almost exhausted. What remains is not craving and hankering, but an intimate relationship.

Of course, the practice of celibacy cannot be underestimated, but it has to be spontaneous, authentic and free from suppression. If you find it is not working then your usual relationship should be resumed on the basis of the tantric tradition. The necessary practices for a successful, truthful and rewarding outcome should be learned from the guru. Both partners should do the practices and thus raise the awareness from the gross centres to the higher plane.

The philosophy of karma sannyasa is very simple. Use your life as a householder for a higher purpose, not merely for eating, sleeping and procreating. In time this will produce good samskaras for you and your family, and pave the way for a higher incarnation in your next life. For samskaras, whether good or bad, are carried on from life to life. So we have to be very careful about what samskaras we accumulate."

The artist said thoughtfully, "My wife was unable to come here with me on account of the children. But she too may wish to join me in this initiation."

Swamiji rose from his chair, as if to leave the room, and replied, "Wonderful! What could be better than both husband and wife dedicated to a higher quality of life and deciding to tread the same path."