Shankaracharya and the Tradition of Sannyasa

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Sannyasa is not monkhood where you adopt a life which is in a sense religious, religious in the broad aspect, not in the limited fundamentalistic aspect. Sannyasa is actually keeping in trust your abilities, your strengths, your qualities for the benefit of human society; and pursuing one aim in life, a creative aim, which becomes your lifestyle, which becomes your path, which becomes your desire and aspiration. This aim is the discovery of the self: To find transcendence from pain and suffering, and to develop the awareness to the extent where your external interactions are creative, supportive and positive; and your inner awareness is experiencing the microcosmic and the macrocosmic consciousness. This is the aim of sannyasa.

It has been decided by the sages and seers that there are four kinds of purusharthas, or efforts, that one needs to perform to experience wholeness and completeness in life. The effort to be self-sufficient and secure, socially and personally (artha); the effort to fulfil all your aspirations (kama) and desires; the effort to follow the precepts of humanism (dharma); and the effort to realize your own nature, to experience the transcendental aspect of your own being (moksha).

These four efforts, which are mandatory for every individual to experience wholeness and completeness in life, are complimented by four different ashramas. Brahmachari ashrama, the life of a novice, of a student, the life of a learner, of a seeker or an aspirant, which compliments the aspect of finding security and comfort in life. Whatever you learn in your days as a student is only an asset for you to utilize later on whenever the time arises. There are ways of finding a sense of harmony, security and satisfaction in life.

The second ashrama is the householder ashrama, grihastha ashrama. This is complimented by the fulfillment of aspirations and desires, kamana. In society, as an individual, as a responsible member of society, the dharmas and the obligations which you have towards yourself, they are guided by your personal motivations, desires and aspirations. So the fulfillment of the kamana aspects happens in the householder ashrama.

The third aspect is the ashrama of social retirement, vanaprastha ashrama. In this ashrama an individual works to develop and propagate the qualities of humanism called dharma. I am not using the word dharma in the sense of religion because that is not the meaning of dharma, although many people have translated it as a religious act. Dharma is actually humanism. Dharma to develop the precepts, the understanding, the process conducive to the attainment of the qualities of humanism. This effort is made in vanaprastha ashrama, the ashrama of social retirement, active participation in the establishment of a foundation for your growth at the cosmic level.

The fourth ashrama is sannyasa. This compliments the aspect of moksha, to make an effort to discover the nature of the self, to find enlightenment, to experience wholeness and completeness, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, professionally and, of course, spiritually.

These four ashramas were the guidelines of the sages and seers. This system was practised for a long time by everyone, but later on in history, when we began to identify with one of the precepts and we neglected the other precepts, confusion of thought began. That confusion of thought continues until today, and it will continue because our energies have been channelled in one direction only and not in the other direction. The energies which had been channelled are in the body, in the aspects of artha and kama. We have become so involved in finding fulfillment and satisfaction, sensorially and sensually, intellectually and emotionally, that we have lost the concept and the experience of dharma and moksha. We know what is true, what is just, what is right, but we cannot do it. Our belief is one and our action is another. This is a split in our personality.

So when this confusion arose in the course of history – just when I don't know, but maybe when people became involved with each other at a very deep emotional level – then possibly this confusion came, as you can see it is happening even today. When this mental confusion came, the clarity of karma, the clarity of ichha, desire, the clarity of sankalpa was lost. Some people who were aware of this loss of clarity and the rising confusion in people's minds got together. They said, “Okay, since the majority of the society is following the path of artha and kama, let the few of us who are seeing the degradation and the deformation of social values and structures, devote our lives to the maintenance of dharma and moksha”. In order to do that the lifestyle to lead, to follow, was chosen and that was of sannyasa.

Vanaprastha ashrama is only a transition; just as social life, household life, is the culmination, while studentship is only a transition. In the same way, vanaprastha was a transition and sannyasa was the finality – the culmination of moksha, experiencing wholeness and completeness. So the lifestyle of sannyasa was chosen and they also chose a lifestyle which was different from all the social values. If people lived together and formed the society, then these people chose to remain isolated and secluded. They were considered as the renunciates, the tyagis. They were people who would not fit in a normal society. They had different values, their lifestyle was different, their aspirations were different and they simply did not fit.

These tyagis went into remote areas where the social environment and social laws were unable to touch them. They started performing austerities – austerities meaning the development of the techniques, the practices, the precepts and the concepts of dharma and moksha. During the process of tapasya they discovered many things about life. They discovered that man and divinity are essentially one and this statement came in the form of Vedanta. They discovered that the entire universe – the manifest and the unmanifest – is in a continuous process of evolution, of prakriti, nature. Such people became followers of Sankhya.

The tyagis discovered the importance of physical and mental health for spiritual development. They were called yogis. They discovered that if somebody could follow the normal precepts of life in society, society could be made richer – richer in every sense and more prosperous at every level, whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. Such thinkers were known as vidwans who devised the law of yoga, the social code of conduct. In this way different ideas of Tantra, Vaishanavism, Shaivism, Buddhism and Jainism evolved. This entire thing was an effort by these few select, secluded people who dedicated their lives for the emergence of a value, of a concept, of a belief, of a philosophy, by which even in normal life, without having to renounce anything, you can experience fullness and completeness.

When such ideas come into existence, then sometimes political factors also come in. For example the expansion of these ideas to other tribes, to other cultures, to other civilisations, to other countries and groups of people. This desire to expand an idea leads to wars and invasions. Many wars have been fought and many invasions of different countries have taken place only for the propagation of a belief, of a concept, of a idea. The majority of the wars in history have been religious and ideological.

As all this was happening, a person known as Adi Shankaracharya came to the forefront. He took it upon himself to bring together all such groups that were thinking along the lines of human evolution and he gave them an identity. Thus he created a structure – the Dashnami structure of sannyasa – in which ten different groups of philosophical thinkers came together. These ten different groups excelled in their own philosophies, beliefs and practices.

Our order, Saraswati, has always excelled in Advaita, Vedanta and Yoga. There are other traditions such as Bharati, Puri, Giri etc. The Giri tradition, for example, has always excelled in Hatha Yoga, Tapasya and Tantra. The Puri tradition, for example, has always excelled in the Sankhya system of thought. So all these ten different sampradayas had a belief, a practice, a way of life and they all followed it. This is the tradition, and the credit for this goes to Shankaracharya who brought the different factions together to become a major social force to maintain a balance in the life of a person – a balance between the external and the internal, the mundane and the spiritual.

In this process, many other people came forward to establish their own traditions. Buddha came and he established his own tradition of sannyasa in the form of bhikshus and bhikshunis. Then Lord Mahavira came and he established his form of sannyasa as Digambar, the unclad ones. Later on the Swetambaras came, the white-clad ones, and that form of renunciation, that form of sannyasa is also accepted. In this way many other people came forward. The Tantrics have their own system of sannyasa having the colours of red and black.

So there are many forms of sannyasa. Later on, even in these traditions and sects, there arose a disparity of thoughts between the sadhaks and the aspirants. However the basic belief has always remained the same in all these traditions, which is the discovery of the self by whatever means possible. As for the Dashnami tradition, Shankaracharya established four seats of learning in the north, east, south and the west of India. These four seats of learning were assigned to be the regulatory body for a group of those sannyasins with similar aims and objectives. So all these ten different categories were divided into four groups and these four groups became the supreme body, the four establishments of Shankaracharya, and they were known as seats of learning or maths.

—Ganga Darshan, 1996