Living Sannyasa

Swami Satyananda Saraswati. From satsangs at Rikhia, 1994–2000

Geru, shaven head and a flowing beard do not make a sannyasin. A true sannyasin is a personification of tyaga, true renunciation and non-attachment. He is a representation of tapas, austerity and self-purification. Those who live for themselves cannot be sannyasins. A trustee who spends the trust’s money on his own children is misusing the trust. What is the meaning of sannyasa? Nyasa means ‘trust’. You are a trustee of your wealth – of your feelings, capabilities, body, intellect, money and house. You must use all these resources for others.

The goal of sannyasa is not to find God, to seek deliverance or personal peace, but to work for the amelioration of human suffering. The world is on fire, your neighbourhood is burning and you are smugly sitting under your air-conditioner! For how long can you do that? The day is not far when the fire will engulf your house too. Therefore, help to make the world cool and you won’t need an air-conditioner. When there is coolness and peace everywhere, you will feel it too.

A sannyasin has a great ideal before him and those who want to adopt sannyasa should do so. It is a path to serve others, to treat all your neighbours as your own family instead of looking after the interests of a limited family of four or five.

One does not take sannyasa simply for a career. Lord Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita (18:12): “The sages understand sannyasa to be the renunciation of action with desire; the wise declare the abandonment of the fruits of all action to be tyaga.” However, not everyone who takes sannyasa can fulfil this aim because each person brings his own karmas along. Many people come to sannyasa at a young age due to vairagya, without having fulfilled their obligations. So what do we do about their karmic balance? We adjust it through guru seva, service to the guru, because it is necessary to fulfil karmas, to undergo worldly happiness and sorrow.

Some sort of standard has to be maintained in sannyasa life. The standard of sannyasins in the latter part of the twentieth century fell because sannyasa became a career, a profession, a way to get respect, honour, name, fame, disciples and limelight. But the twenty-first century brings a new promise.

All those sannyasins who have shaved their heads or are initiated, listen to this carefully. A sannyasin cannot be a symbol of enjoyment – he can never be that. A sannyasin is not a consumer. He is a trustee. Sannyasins are always rich, they are never poor, but their riches do not belong to them. Whatever we get we keep in a trust. That is the trust of society, and nobody has the right to breach that trust.

Living for others

Have you ever seen mango trees eating their own mangoes, wheat fields eating their own wheat, pumpkin creepers eating their own pumpkin? Paropakaaaraya sataam vibhootayah – “To serve others, to benefit others is the life of a sannyasin.”

The eternal law is that those who are sannyasins, whoever they are, live for others. Whether they teach spiritual life or do social service, they live for others. Those who live for themselves are householders, although they also make a contribution to society. Their contribution cannot be underrated, but they do not really live for others as do sannyasins.

Besides, a sannyasin has to perform karmas too. And who knows, this may be a simpler way to realize God! Who knows in what form He may appear before you? He may knock at your door as a crippled person instead of appearing in His four-armed form. After all, God appeared before Ekanath in the form of a donkey.

Altruistic stress

The sannyasin who thinks least about his or her own self will have no stress. If he does become tense and anxious for the sake of others, over the health or poverty of others, it helps him positively. That altruistic stress has a constructive and benign influence whereas stress due to selfish concerns has a malignant effect. Always remember that the anxiety and worry which you feel for others will never do you any harm, but if you think about your own problems and become worried, the blood pressure will rise and the sugar level will fluctuate. Swami Sivananda always exhorted us, “Worry and anxiety will not harm you if it is not for your own selfish problems.”

Sadhana for a sannyasin

Swami Sivananda said, “Bear insult, bear injury, this is the highest sadhana.” If you can bear insult and injury, you are a very strong person. Swami Sivananda also said, “Serve, love, give, purify, meditate, realize, be good, do good, be kind, be compassionate.” He was not miserly. Whenever anyone asked him for something, he would give it. Swami Sivananda always used to think about others. Whenever he met people, he did not give spiritual lessons. He always used to say nice things about people and give them clothes, food and medicine. He could remember the names of each of his acquaintances from thirty to forty years ago.

It took me so many years to emulate my guru and practise his principles. I never understood him then, but now I do. Nothing belongs to me, nothing is mine. I am just a medium. Here it comes, there it goes.

Role of sannyasins now

Paropkar, working for the good of others, has had different meanings in different ages. Sometimes it meant giving peace to others, sermons, mantras, teaching the techniques of worship, teaching asana and pranayama. In the coming age, paropkar will also mean arranging food for the hungry, as poverty is on the increase.

When an industrial revolution takes place, in the first stage unemployment increases and political crisis takes place. This has happened everywhere in world history. Under such circumstances the role of sannyasins changes; they should then work in the villages. There is no dearth of nursing homes in cities. There are also schools in plenty, but there are hardly any facilities in the Indian villages.

Sannyasins should leave towns and settle down in far off villages. They should remain happy while imparting knowledge and doing their duties. They should construct thatched huts. A sannyasin should serve all. The times have changed. There is a great challenge facing sannyasins because the leaders have betrayed us. Let no sannyasin betray.

The brahmins, intellectuals, do not rule nations today, nor do the kshatriyas, weapon holders. Today the world is ruled by the commercial and working classes. However, each of us should remember that sannyasins do have a special responsibility in this age. Otherwise they could stay in forests or their ashrams and stay immersed in their worship. The disciples would come there and satsang would go on. Sannyasins used to dwell in solitude – that was our culture. Kings and emperors used to bow before them and receive their counsel and blessings. But all that is no more.

Today, sannyasins are the most powerful wing of society. A sannyasin can manage a panchayat alone, neither a Deputy Commissioner nor a Superintendent of Police is required. Rajadanda, the authority of the ruler or the state, has failed to manage society. But yogadanda, the power of yoga, can manage it. Yogadanda means that the sannyasins and the people live together in a community. In a panchayat there are about eight to ten thousand people. Of these, four to five thousand are men and women living together and the rest are children. You have to take care of their food and education. There is the possibility of all children aged between six and fifteen living in the ashram. Any sannyasin can achieve that. People in this country have great faith and trust in sannyasins.

Sannyasins are emperors without crowns. They will now have to dedicate themselves to the upliftment of society. If this is not done, then the deprived section of the community will destroy both the rulers and the sannyasins. They will not allow them to survive.

Sannyasins leave the world in search of God and go to forests and caves to meditate. How can they help to solve the problems of the world?

This idea is erroneous. After taking to sannyasa life, first the spiritual seeker has to live with the guru in the ashram and do whatever service the guru orders. There are many ashrams where sannyasins work for the upliftment of people. They work in the villages, dispensing medicines to the sick, teaching Sanskrit and spreading the message of bhakti.

No one leaves their home and heads straight for the forest. It is not that easy to live in the forest. The mosquitoes will buzz a welcome in your ears in return for a bounty of blood. The scorpions and snakes will bite you to death. These days, if you even try to enter a forest to build yourself a hut to live in, the forest ranger will make it impossible for you to do so. If you try to live in a cave, you will find it is already inhabited by animals.

I went to Kailash ashram in search of sannyasa and on a spiritual quest. I was asked to stay and learn Sanskrit and Vedanta. Then I went to live in Swami Sivananda’s big ashram where I was taught many useful things. Nothing that I learned at school or college helped me in life, but everything that I learned in my guru’s ashram was useful. Nobody ever asked me who Ashoka was or how many children he had. On the other hand, the practical training I received in banking, auditing, international law, science, construction, writing, editing and the scriptures all proved to be immensely handy at every step in later life.

Had I gone to the jungles seeking God, I would not be sitting here in Rikhia. Had there been no ashrams or sannyasins in India, the whole country would have been converted, like Europe was. In India it is the sadhu who reaches out at the grassroots level. The sadhu can move about unhindered on the roads into towns and villages. He can enter any place to ask for alms or to spread the message of the Ramacharitamanas and the Bhagavat. Therefore, sadhus and sannyasins have rendered a precious service to this country. Who produced all the literature and philosophy of India? Sadhus and sannyasins like Vyasadev, Tulsidas and Valmiki. If you exclude these texts from the mass of Indian classics and literature, you will be left with nothing. Take the case of religion. Vedic religion has influenced the whole world. Therefore, do not entertain the erroneous thought that the sadhus and sages who live like recluses have done nothing for the world, that they have not discharged their responsibility towards society.

The sannyasins who serve in the ashrams and the few recluses who live in the solitude of the Himalayas are like powerhouses. In their seclusion they reach such spiritual heights, such depths of sadhana, that they become the generators of spiritual power. We derive our energy from these power sources. We are the cables of distribution. We distribute their thoughts and their energy among the people of the world. These sadhus and sannyasins may be unknown to you, but they are not just a few in number. Only a real jeweller knows the real value of gems. Similarly, only a real spiritual person can know the worth of these great souls.

These sadhus don’t go to the Himalayas to do sadhana in seclusion until their respective gurus give them the proper clearance. In my own case, my guru told me in 1947 that my time had not yet come and that I would have to wait for forty years. You cannot be self-willed in this matter. You have to wait for the command. The guru does not give the green signal to just anyone. Sadhana is not a matter of merely one lifetime. In the Ramacharitamanas it says:

Janama janama muni jatan karaahi anta Raama kahin aavata nahin.
Birth after birth the munis try, but at the time of death are not able to utter the name of Rama.

For the past year I have been getting the urge to leave my home and renounce. It is possible that my frustrations are making me feel that way. What should I do?

The person who truly wants to leave home does not ask anyone’s permission, just as the person who wants to commit suicide does not ask anyone. The urge to renounce does not arise twice. It comes only once and it comes with such intensity that one cannot think of anything else. This feeling encompasses everything. Many people used to ask me, “Swamiji, shall I take sannyasa or not?” My answer was, “No, you should not.” There were others who would come and say, “Swamiji, please accept me as your disciple.” I would say, “Okay, come on the eleventh and have your head shaved.” The day the attitude of sannyasa develops in you, you will walk out of the life you are in.

In today’s stressful life, how can we lead the life of a sannyasin in the role of a householder?

First of all you must understand that life has been the same down the ages, in Satya yuga, in Treta yuga and now in Kali yuga. Suffering is not unique to this age. Lord Buddha explored all the means to find a solution to the problem of suffering. He himself found peace and happiness, but he could not make others happy. All great souls have pointed out the way to attain happiness and hope, but others have not been able to follow the path.

Secondly, you should not even attempt to be a sannyasin while leading the life of a householder. The code of household life is different from the code of sannyasa life. There should be no confusion, no mix-up between the two. By following the code and leading the life of a householder, you are not less than a sannyasin. A householder is not a small-time sannyasin; he is also a great sannyasin. In householder life you have the opportunity to cultivate some rare, divine qualities. In the Bhagavad Gita there is a description of these qualities, and they are best learned while living as a householder. Fortitude, restraint, self-control, understanding another’s point of view and learning to curb your temper are all divine qualities. Household life is the best time to cultivate such qualities.

Swami Sivananda used to say, “Family life, grihastha ashrama, is the university of life, where you can learn tolerance, wisdom, self-control and self-sacrifice.” In the absence of such qualities, family life becomes a chaotic wilderness, a family of animals.

One lives as a householder in grihastha ashrama and at the same time prepares for sannyasa, which is the pinnacle of spiritual life, a very high state. This is the teaching of vedic dharma and the code of vedic culture. The first twenty-five years of life are devoted to academic learning, general grooming and obtaining the qualification for a vocation. You may train yourself in computers, physics, history or geography. Then you enter family life by getting married.

In grihastha ashrama you gain wisdom which will come in handy later in sannyasa ashrama. After the age of fifty, as you near retirement, you can take proper sannyasa. If there is the opportunity, shave your head and wear geru. Otherwise, live at home and gather together a few like-minded friends in the evening for a satsang of your liking. Choose one of the scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras, the sayings of Sri Ramakrishna or Sai Baba. After grihastha ashrama comes vanaprastha ashrama (retirement from worldly life).

So, if you are a karma sannyasin (householder renunciate), live like a karma sannyasin, and if you are a poorna sannyasin (total renunciate), live like a poorna sannyasin.