Karma Sannyasa – Grihastha’s Quest for Fulfilment

Shalini Verma, Mumbai, inspired by Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati’s book, Karma Sannyasa

While we go about performing our duties, chasing our dreams and enjoying the fruits of our labour, there comes a time when we start to question everything we have stood for so far. We become restless and wonder what our purpose in life is. We believe that happiness will spring from pleasures of the senses or material acquisition. We are constantly chasing this mirage, which never really materializes. Suddenly, the futility of all our actions and relationships becomes apparent. This toxic confusion spreads into the deepest recesses of our mind. We start to lose interest in work, relationships, and above all in our very existence.

How do we rise above this state of unhappiness? Karma sannyasa is the panacea. It is the ability to embrace two worlds – the spiritual and the worldly. It is a delicate balance that we decide to strike in our lives.

Swami Satyananda Saraswati has conceptualized karma sannyasa as a way of life. He recognized the yearning in young people who had gone along the worldly path and yet had spiritual leanings. Being a spiritual visionary, he has taken a more pragmatic approach to the four ashramas or stages of life proposed by the ancient Vedas. A Hindu is expected to go through the four stages of brahmacharya (student), grihastha (householder), vanaprastha (retirement) and sannyasa (renunciation) ashramas. In this rather structured vedic life, we would enter into spiritual life at a very advanced stage when our body and mind are already frail. It is important to embark on a spiritual journey at an early stage if the individual and the society are to benefit. Paramahamsaji’s idea of karma sannyasa is an amalgamation of the spiritual and the worldly. He sees no contradiction in leading the life of a householder while evolving the spiritual self.

While the spiritual journey is of supreme importance, it is not necessary to shed worldly responsibilities or look upon them with disdain. It is said that the noblest example of a karma sannyasin was Raja Janaka. He was steeped in spiritual knowledge, yet he went about performing his role as a householder, father, husband, friend and king in the most outstanding manner. By following the principles of karma sannyasa, Janaka had become a liberated one while still living (jivanmukta).

Once we assume the role of a grihastha or householder, we are sucked into its whirlpool of commitments towards family and career. We all have to play our part as spouse, father, mother, colleague, boss, son, daughter, etc. We feel that the events and feelings thrown up during the grihastha life are the only reality. We attach undue importance to all that is happening to us, so much so that we get overwhelmed by every good or bad situation. Karma sannyasa helps us to step away from the situations and become more like a spectator, watching a film about our own life. Quite often a married couple, at the stage of daggers drawn, tends to seek help from a neutral marriage counsellor, who is expected to have a better perspective and be able to exercise true judgement, devoid of bias or attachment. Karma sannyasa turns every person into his or her own counsellor and helps in developing a sense of detachment.

Detachment is the key

If we were to adopt this sense of detachment towards our own lives, it would work wonders for us. Perhaps the most important lesson of karma sannyasa is the ability to remain detached in all actions. This state of detachment is aptly encapsulated in the Bhagavad Gita where Lord Krishna tells Arjuna to perform all his duties efficiently and in a detached manner. Such a person will reach God even while performing all his worldly karmas or duties.

At the heart of karma sannyasa is the process or journey towards deleting the ego or self from all our actions. We can play our part well only if we consider these roles as transient and do not attach much importance to them. Just like an actor in a play enacts his part with all sincerity and forgets about it after the play is over, karma sannyasins should immerse themselves in their commitments towards career and family, but at the same time remain entirely detached. The actor looks upon the play or movie as a momentary illusion that he is helping to create. He considers his role as equally illusory and transitory, almost like a candle that flares for a fleeting moment and dies. Yet while performing his role, the actor remains true to the character he is playing.

The problem lies in ‘me’

Karma sannyasa would be a three-legged horse if it did not teach us how to play our part well. The process starts with detachment as it helps us perceive our own shortcomings. Therefore, when we are passed over for a promotion, we need not waste our time blaming the boss, colleague, the company HR policies, or worse . . . fate! We are able to analyze what went wrong and find a way to correct it. Sage Vashishtha in Yoga Vashishtha reveals to Sri Rama that the only way to determine our destiny or override fate is by ‘self effort’. In our journey as karma sannyasins, we become solution oriented. Any correction has to be made in us rather than in others. Previously, when we were unhappy with a situation or a relationship, we tended to blame a person or thing. We felt that if only we could change the person or trade a thing for another we would be happy. Almost always such a change brought no lasting joy. Therefore, the solution lies in changing our orientation, attitude or habit.


When you decide to take up karma sannyasa, it is worthwhile to find a guru who will initiate you as a karma sannyasin. While initiation is not mandatory, it is highly recommended as it helps you to cross the Rubicon. A public declaration always helps when embarking on a new mission. Preferably, initiation should be in the presence of close family members. Your guru will bless you with geru (ochre coloured) clothes to wear in the ashram or when practising sadhana.

How can you single out a karma sannyasin in a crowd? He or she is routine oriented. Swami Satyananda has repeatedly stressed that your spiritual practice, be it yogic exercises, meditation or mantra, should be performed regularly at the same time every day. The secret of karma sannyasa lies in the regularity of our spiritual practice, even if it is not elaborate. At the same time, the practice should not come in the way of our responsibilities towards our family. As time goes by, the positive changes in us will make a lasting impression on our family members who will realize the value of karma sannyasa.

Karma sannyasa as a process

Our life as a karma sannyasin begins with initiation by the guru. Karma sannyasa is not a destination, but a process. It is a challenging journey as we seek out perfection in every action. It is a constant endeavour to outdo oneself at each state. In our spiritual pursuit we will come face to face with joy and sorrow, hope and despair, and success and failure. Every challenge should be perceived as life’s enrichment and a stepping stone.