For the Good of the World: Sannyasa According to Manusmriti

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

The sannyasin must move alone, and keep on moving for the good of the world, always thinking of and being established in Brahman, having no expectations or desires, even for food, yet always desirous of extreme bliss.

Manusmriti, Ch.6

Sannyasa according to Manu is such a high, noble and altruistic ideal that it is difficult for us today even to imagine it. The lifelong preparation it involved, the severely spartan lifestyle of a sannyasin in those times, does not appear to be a possibility to us now in the Kali Yuga. Such selflessness, such utter dedication and one-pointedness of vision towards achieving the goal of human existence – moksha – is rarely found in the twenty-first century, although it does burn brightly in a few great souls like Swami Satyananda and Swami Niranjanananda who have been sent to inspire us once more.

Kali Yuga Sannyasin – Modern Sannyasa

“My sannyasin today even demands Lux soap,” Swami Satyananda has said. Compared to previous eras, the modern sannyasin leads a very comfortable and protected life, living in ashrams, maths or centres, with regular meals provided and a bed to sleep in – soft mattress, pillow, blanket, sheet, mosquito net – not to speak of a private room. Complaint is the order of the day, especially if there is not enough food, and if there is no food at all, riot! If the modern sannyasin was given a begging bowl and told to go out and get his own food, how would he survive?

Many sannyasins have their own ashrams or centres, travel first class and stay in the best hotels as they fly from one country to the next, giving talks and lectures and getting in a bit of sightseeing on the side. If they had no roof over their heads and no money in the pocket, what would they do?

It is not uncommon for today's sannyasin to carry his own personal laptop computer, CD-kit and latest movie camera, and to own a whole cupboard full of other possessions ranging from musical instruments and tape or book collections to made-to-measure wardrobes, alarm clocks, computer games and statues of favourite gods. He eats from stainless steel utensils, sports the latest Birkenstocks and is fortified against the elements with raincoats, umbrellas, sunglasses and sunscreen creams.

Weak body – dependent mind

The body of today's sannyasin is too weak to undergo the rigours of tapasya, or penance, like bearing the extremes of heat and cold, going without food for long periods and remaining alone without any assistance or companionship. His mind cannot bear the slightest abuse and is in no way under his control, so how can his consciousness roam forever in the supreme Brahman? The mind of the Kali Yuga sannyasin seems very far from God! He cannot be alone with this mind, but seeks friendship at every turn – even while eating food mouna cannot be kept.

Not having fully experienced life before taking sannyasa, and finding the path too arduous to tread, many drop out after only one or two years. Even after having stayed with the guru for the traditional period of twelve years, the desire for companionship and children, for puri and halwa, pizza and chips, pulls them back down to householder life, where they get sucked into the bosom of Maya once again, like a drop of water in the hot desert sands, scorched like a grain of rice sizzling in oil.

How can we revive the nobility, greatness and glory of sannyasa; how can the sannyasin be raised from the level to which he has fallen today? The only way is to reinstate Dharma on her throne to rule over this unstable society; to give each individual a base, a purpose, a direction and a goal; to bring some systematic order and harmony back into daily life; to create a stable society from which a new, a strong, a selfless and dedicated sannyasin can re-emerge. For a strong sannyasin is the product of a strong, balanced and peaceful society, having dharma as its base and God as its central pivot.


So what is real sannyasa? Who is the real, the genuine, the true sannyasin? How should he live, act and think? What is his relationship with the world and with his fellow man, and what is the purpose of donning the sacred geru cloth?

To find out, let us go back in time to the days of Manu; the days when civilization was based on renunciation, and flourished in the hermitages of the rishis and seers. A time when the sannyasin was revered on account of his penances, renunciation and universal service to humanity; when he was held in awe like Buddha and Christ on account of his suffering for the welfare of humanity and the whole universe. An age when even the ruler's main purpose and role was to accomplish the perfection of dharma, to make laws for the good of the righteous and the destruction of evil.


Let us return to an age when the tapasya of great sannyasins could, in the words of Dr S. Radhakrishnan, “…burn to ashes all sorts of social filth, to make way for all that was pure and righteous.” Let us look into a past when dharma ruled the earth; when the object of all human action was truly thought to be lokasamgraha – the holding together of the human race, as one unit, in its evolution. Let us raise the curtain on a time when rituals such as yajna and agnihotri were performed for the sole purpose of enriching human life and the environment, and instilling the lofty ideal of one world family; a time when the great sage Manu wrote his smriti.


Manusmriti is a treatise on dharma. It was the first law book on commonly accepted and practised norms of social conduct. Smritis deal only with this aspect of dharma. Manu's main objective in formulating his laws was the smooth running of social life, leaving very little room for any kind of social unrest.

Manu realized that all beings are part of the one atman, and that to hold this unity together is the greatest dharma. Dharma would not be dharma if it failed to achieve this ultimate unit which unites the whole universe and beyond.

Smooth transit to freedom

Manava Dharma Shastra, or the Laws of Manu, is a work of great ethical, social, legal and, above all, spiritual value, consisting of 2,685 verses. It outlines meticulously the duties or obligations of men and women and what their standard of conduct should be as members of a well-ordered, law-abiding society.

Manu prescribes in detail the way of crossing over samsara, or worldly existence, systematically traversing the different stages of life from birth – through childhood, student life, marriage and renunciation – to death, by rightful means without leaving anything for evolution undone, and with the goal of moksha, or liberation, held always before the mind as being the ultimate purpose of human existence. He divided life into four distinct stages or ashramas: brahmacharya ashrama (student life), grihastha ashrama (household life), vanaprastha ashrama (retiring from social life and living in the forest) and sannyasa ashrama (the attainment of freedom).

Vedic base

The basis of Manu's thought was the Vedas. In the words of R. P. Dwivedi, “Manu took into consideration all the available material from the Vedas and other sources. He interpreted them and used them in such a way as to enable every member of society to lead a happy life while doing his social work, thus reaching the cherished goal – moksha.” And Manu was of the firm opinion that moksha was possible only when there is the sound foundation of a calm and peaceful society.

The main postulates of Manusmriti stem from Sanatan Dharma which, being totally beyond time and space, can never be irrelevant or out of date, even though the emphasis may change and adapt according to people's needs and the prevailing social conditions. Before looking at the actual text of Manusmriti let us take a very brief look at who Manu actually was.

Who was Manu?

Manu is considered to have been an actual human figure and the beginner of human history. Titled swayambhu, or self-born, he is believed to have been the first progeny of the Creator or Brahma. It is Brahma who is said to have taught Manu dharma. This would mean that the Manusmriti first came into existence billions and billions of years ago. However, the manuscript in its present form is said to be no older than Christ.

Since Manu first propounded his laws, his smriti has been passed down by the rishis from one generation to the next through the long ages. In the process, it must have undergone countless changes, emendations and additions as it adapted and moulded itself to the needs and conditions of an ever-changing, ever-vibrant society.

We shall now turn to the text itself to examine the stage of life just prior to actual sannyasa.


“When a householder perceives the lines appearing on his face, his hair becoming grey, and his son having his own son, he should retire to the forest, giving up all household paraphernalia, except for the sacrificial fire and all the necessary equipment for sacrifice.”

After passing through grihastha ashrama or householder life, Manu considered that the grihasthi, or householder, had gone beyond the desire for sense-gratification and that his senses were fully under control. He should therefore withdraw himself completely from social life and all family duties and start preparing for the final journey home – sannyasa.


On amavasya (no moon) and poornima (full moon), the vanaprasthi regularly performed agnihotri and vaitanika agnihotri (the pouring of ghee, or clarified butter, onto the three sacrificial fires). Sacrifices were also performed at auspicious times related to the nakshatra (planetary positions), for example, at the two times in the year when the sun changes solstice, north and south. For oblation he prepared purodasha (a preparation made from rice and milk) and caru (made from boiling rice, barley and pulse) for offering to the gods and manes or forefathers. For these preparations he had to use grains harvested in the period of Vasant (March–April) or spring, and Sharad (September–October) or autumn, and these he collected with his own hands. Manu instructs, “After offering oblations made from uncultivated objects procured from the jungle, which are most sacred, (the vanaprasthi) should use the remaining portion for his food. He should use only the salt which he has made himself.”


The vanaprasthi has not yet even entered the fourth stage of life, sannyasa, but still he has to undergo such formidable penance that we in the Kali Yuga are amazed by it. In the heat of summer he was required to perform panchagni sadhana, sitting in the midst of four fires – north, south, east and west – with the burning sun overhead providing the fifth fire.

Swami Satyananda says that people today do not usually survive this sadhana because it takes such a toll on the body, which becomes dehydrated very quickly. All the major organs of the body and the brain are liable to break down. Such great heat is just not compatible with survival. According to him, he knows of only three people who have managed to come out of it alive – Anandamayi Ma, Sharada Devi (Ramakrishna's wife) and himself. He did not expect to come through it due to his advanced age and says that one can only do so by the grace of God. Before he started the panchagni sadhana he said, “I have faced the five internal fires (kama or passion, krodha or anger, lobha or greed, moha or infatuation and matsarya or envy). Now I will face the external fires.” For only when one has conquered these five hellish fires of worldly life which consume us all can one bear the scorching of the outer flames.

Sri Swamiji performed the panchagni sadhana as a form of prayaschit, or atonement, because during his days of gurudom he took on certain karmas of his disciples out of his compassion for them and had to purify himself of these. During his sadhana the temperature sometimes reached 90 centigrade, but he never once became dehydrated. When there was a wind the sparks used to burn his body and his skin turned a magnificent glowing bronze. As a result of his having been able to face and absorb the five external fires, Sri Swamiji awakened the eternal celestial fire within his own self.

During the rainy season the vanaprasthi was not permitted to use any kind of shelter, but had to remain out under the open sky facing driving wind and rain, thunder and lightning storms. In winter he was to cover his body with the icy chill of wet clothes. Quoting from Manusmriti, “In this way he should intensify his penances more and more. Practising severe penances he should go on mortifying and mortifying his body. Absorbing all the vaitanika fires in his own self, as enjoined by the shastras, a vanaprasthi should live in the forest without a house, using no fire and living on roots and fruits. He should make no effort to obtain bodily comforts, should observe strict celibacy and sleep on the ground, having a tree as his only house.”

Forest lifestyle

The vanaprasthi had to wear deerskin or garments made from the bark of trees and to grow long matted locks, a beard and moustache; he was not permitted to shave or to cut his nails. His prescribed food, other than the leftover oblations, was, “vegetables, flowers, roots, fruits gathered from sacred trees and fat derived from fruits.” Anything grown in a ploughed field or in a village was totally prohibited, even if he was starving. However, “in cases of emergency he could accept bhiksha, or alms, from ascetic Brahmanas or, if this was not possible, from Brahman householders dwelling in the forest. If this also was not possible, he should go to a village, take bhiksha there, come back to the forest and eat eight morsels only, either with a leaf, or piece of broken vellel, or even with his hand.”

No donation of any kind was to be accepted. Bathing was to be done three times a day. Regarding sickness, Manu prescribes the following law: “If any incurable disease occurs, a vanaprasthi should take only water and air and, having himself fully restrained, should go straight to the north-east quarter till the body ends.” Such were the laws laid down by Manu for the third quarter of human life – forest dweller. Only having successfully gone through all this was the vanaprasthi entitled to take the final glorious step into sannyasa.


“Only after having studied the Vedas in a proper manner (brahmacharya ashrama), procreating sons righteously (grihastha ashrama), and performing the different sacrifices as per one's capacity (vanaprastha ashrama), should one make up one's mind for moksha. One goes to hell who tries for moksha without having studied the Vedas, procreated sons and performed sacrifices.”

Sadhu – Go! Go! Go!

Manu's sannyasin was an ascetic of the highest calibre and absolutely fearless. He had renounced everything except a few sacred objects – a danda, or staff, a kamandalu, or water pot, and a kapala, or begging bowl, all of which were made out of wood, clay, bamboo or gourd. Thereafter he had to, “Move alone, and keep on moving for the good of humanity.”

He was totally self-sufficient and self-contained, requiring no assistance from anyone. Like the vanaprasthi he had no home and no fire and could visit a village only for the purpose of procuring alms to sustain his body. Having reached this level of consciousness as a natural progression from one stage of life to the next, there was actually no question of his having suddenly to abandon life and society; it was a smooth and generally accepted transition.


Regarding yoga the sannyasin was to use it in the following way: “He should eradicate disease through pranayama, sin through dharana (concentrating the mind on God), attachment to the world through pratyahara, and lust, anger and greed, etc. through meditation.”


Caring nothing for his physical body, the sannyasin wore dirty clothes, was clean-shaven and lived under trees. When he walked, he walked with the compassion of the Jain, being careful not to step on any animal or insect on his path and filtering his drinking water through a cloth. Ahimsa, or non-injury to any living entity in thought, word or deed, was the highest sadhana and was to be strictly observed in regard to all – animals and humans alike.

Manu set impeccable standards for the sannyasin. He was to speak only truth, show respect to all persons, bear insult and never retaliate or show anger. He was to feel enmity for none and to, “speak only sweet words, even if someone abused him.” In this way he perfected dharma. He had no expectations even for food and with only God for his support kept on moving for the good of the world, “without causing pain to any being.”

Merging into Brahman

The sannyasin continually contemplated Brahman; his mind always roamed in thoughts of God. He meditated on how misdeeds in this life result in lower births and suffering in the next; how the body is overpowered by disease and how the atman, or soul, caught up in the endless wheel of existence, is constantly reborn in thousands of crores of species: “When the sannyasin realizes the faults of worldly objects and becomes totally unconcerned with and unmindful of them, then only does he attain perpetual pleasure in this world and in other worlds after death. In this way, discarding all attachments one by one, indifferent to all pairs of opposites (heat-cold, like-dislike, love-hate, etc.) the striver merges with Brahman.”


“Ascetics attain their supreme position through ahimsa, performing lawful duties prescribed by the Vedas, the practice of severe penance and non-attachment.”

Manu's sannyasin had no attachment, even to his danda and kamandalu. Neither had he the slightest attachment to the physical body, built as it is, “…on pillars of bones with tendons connecting muscles, the bones smeared with flesh and blood, covered by skin, full of excreta, with foul smell, home of disease, suffering from hunger and thirst, desirous of gross enjoyments, momentary and built of the five gross elements.” He should be ready to leave his body at any given moment just as birds abandon a tree which falls into the river, and “having no desire for either life or death, the renouncer should only wait for kaala (the time of death) just as a servant awaits the order of his master.”

This is sannyasa according to the all-wise Manu.


In Rikhia the sannyasa flag is flying high in all its original purity, holding the ideals of Manu alive within its folds. The strong wind which blows it spreads the eternal seeds of dharma to the four corners of the earth once more. The myriad bees which come to collect the honey from the flower beneath it sip the nectar of the vedic culture and take it home to their hives throughout the world. The doves which sing softly around it send forth the gentle message of peace and understanding to every human heart which is open to receive.

Due to the vision of a perfected sannyasin, an avadhoota, a bodhisattwa, the seer who raised this flag, the objective of human action will once again become the desire to accomplish the perfection of dharma; to reinstate the highest ideal of one world family – lokasamgraha. This is one sannyasin who is revered and held in awe for his total dedication to the welfare and unity of the entire universe. This is one great soul living amongst us today in the Kali Yuga – the Rikhia Rishi (who, like Vishwamitra before him, is a Raja Rishi) – wanting nothing, needing nothing but “two rotis and two dhotis”, and living only to serve his neighbours – the whole of humanity. He has said, “He who lives to serve others truly lives!”

Cosmic Bhandaar

He is the Cosmic Bhandaar
sitting beneath the flag,
sending out compassion to the world.
All the world comes to Him
and the whole world is He.


For He is the real sannyasin,
lit by the celestial fire.
Master of the world
and King of Kings.


Glory to this sannyasin.
Glory to the Rikhia Rishi.
Glory to you! Glory to you!