The Path of Sannyasa

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Sannyasa is an ancient tradition representing a way of life. It is an order of people who have renounced the material world to experience the spiritual world. In the 8th century, the sannyasa order was restructured by Shankaracharya. However, the basic principles and ideals of the sannyasa lifestyle remained the same, namely, the pursuit of spiritual excellence. Although in the present day many people have altered the sannyasa system according to the prevalent living conditions and mentality, nevertheless there are people who maintain the sannyasa lifestyle as it was practised 5000 years ago.

The basis of the sannyasa lifestyle is the pursuit of spiritual excellence. This should not be understood as an intellectual attainment; spiritual excellence is not memorizing scriptures and literature, or becoming a good lecturer or philosopher. It is a state of experience where philosophy and performance are totally compatible, and this compatibility is seen in a balanced, positive expression in thought, word and action.

The drive to achieve spiritual excellence in sannyasa follows certain ideals. The first ideal is tyaga, renouncing the attachment to objects that we consider pleasant, or associate with as our own. Traditionally, it is said that the one who becomes a sannyasin dies a legal death. After taking sannyasa, one cannot lay claim to inheritance, money, property, name and fame. Sannyasa represents total disassociation from the social way of thinking.

In this context, not everybody is qualified to be a sannyasin. Today, despite thousands wearing geru and walking around with shaven heads, maybe one or two can be identified as sannyasins, who have that spirit and force of character. Very few people have the capacity to venture into and properly understand the basics of sannyasa life. The true sannyasa samskara exists in very few people. It is seen in those who are totally free from every kind of influence and interference, and remain true to the inspiration that brought them to spiritual life. When the spiritual samskaras are already active, at a certain point in life they take over. The mind and emotions have no role to play in the life of such a person.

When Swami Sivananda experienced that inner calling of sannyasa, he returned to India from Malaysia, landed in Chennai, his home town, yet did not see his family. He went from the ship to the railway station and then up north, without being influenced by any sentiment or emotion. The spiritual samskara had burnt up everything else.

Paramahamsaji says that from the day he left home, he never looked back. At the age of eight Shankaracharya left his home for the unknown, against all odds. At the age of sixteen Ramana Maharishi was sent to the market to buy vegetables, but he went to the railway station and bought a ticket for the next station.

The spiritual samskara is not compatible with the worldly samskara. Once the spiritual samskara ignites, the worldly conditioning of the mind is bypassed. The limited identification with the world in terms of those who are considered near and dear ceases to exist. Therefore, sannyasa has been declared as death.

Such a complete experience and expression of sannyasa does not automatically come about with initiation. Either one has that spiritual samskara or one has to go through a process of preparation to receive the spark of ignition. This is why traditionally sannyasa is given to those who have fulfilled all the gross desires in life.

When education, social and family responsibilities have been completed, when one has retired from active service and is free from social and family commitments, one is ready for sannyasa. This is the traditional movement from brahmacharya ashram (student life) to grihastha ashram (householder life) to vanaprastha ashram (retired life) to sannyasa ashram (spiritual life). The traditional approach states that only when the karmas are exhausted should one attempt to tread the path of sannyasa.

Most people who come into sannyasa life have to work to develop the culture, attitude and conditioning of sannyasa. This preparation is a long process during which one needs to educate oneself in the principles of sannyasa, found in the lives of those who have lived sannyasa, in the present age as well as in ancient times.

Sattwa

The first milestone given to sannyasa aspirants is to develop a sattwic nature. This is not easy because we experience the condition of sattwa very briefly in our lives. The majority of the time we experience and express rajasic and tamasic natures. To work through our tamasic and rajasic natures and establish ourselves in sattwa, a nature which is pure and luminous, is the first requirement of sannyasa.

Vairagya

The second component of sannyasa is vairagya or dispassion, as taught in the scriptures, and not merely as defined by the intellect. Raga means personal association and identification whereas vairagya means to be without any personal association or identification with the objects that surround us. We are all subject to raga – attraction, attachment, involvement, identification. As a consequence, we experience the outcome of that identification, whether pain or pleasure. The development of vairagya in this situation means that we recognize the existence of everything, but at the same time remain detached and therefore free from the effects of good and bad. Vairagya is achieved with the assistance of viveka, discrimination.

Surrender

Surrender or samarpan is the third component of sannyasa. This idea of surrender does not indicate dependence, but an inner experience of ‘I am not the doer or the enjoyer of the experiences of life. I am only a medium, an instrument.’ The experience of samarpan is to believe and feel that you are an instrument of the divine force. The simplest way to define surrender is ‘Let thy will be done’, ishwara pranidhana.

This level of surrender is possible only when there is sustained focus on a higher reality, God or the supreme self. It is experienced as a realization of this higher force which is responsible for all of existence, and one begins to operate to the will of that force.

Swadhyaya

The fourth component of sannyasa is swadhyaya, study of the self. The body is the laboratory, the spirit is the scientist and the mind is the object to be fused or exploded like an atomic bomb. The movement from a limiting conditioning to the creation of a constructive conditioning is known as swadhyaya. This process begins at the point where you identify something within, an attribute, shortcoming, strength or weakness that you want to eradicate, cultivate or intensify.

Swadhyaya is an ongoing process of understanding and transformation that takes place internally, but is reflected externally in one’s behaviour and interactions. The compatibility between philosophy and action has to reflect in thought and deed. Thus, the discipline of swadhyaya becomes the process of integrating the internal developments with one’s lifestyle.

We should use the SWAN principle to analyze, observe and deal with the personality. SWAN is an evaluation of our personality through four components: Strength, Weakness, Ambition and Need. We have to discover our needs and ambitions, and isolate the difference between the two. During this analysis, we often find that what we considered our needs are not really necessary. When we identify our needs and isolate ambitions, we become more focused and aware, and our desires automatically reduce. The focus shifts to developing strengths, and not hiding weaknesses.

In this manner, we generate the right mentality for living sannyasa life. It becomes possible to identify our desires, whether sensorial, intellectual or spiritual, and to come to a point where we are able to understand and use them in a positive way. Rather than living in a state where ambitions control us and the consciousness exists at the lowest level, the energy of the grosser levels is harnessed to reach higher levels. This is the natural outcome of a properly lived sannyasa lifestyle.

Desires have to be lessened, and the lessening takes place according to the needs of the individual. Buddha said that in order to experience nirvana, you have to give up the desire for nirvana. It sounds paradoxical, but the motivations that stimulate the gross mind, the senses – the craving for enjoyment, comfort and luxury, the desire to live a painless life – have to be released, so that the mind is able to experience greater stability and clarity.

To be established in swadhyaya means being totally in control and aware of the functions, behaviour and nature of the body, senses, mind, emotions and spirit, and being able to manage any fluctuation that arises in a balanced and harmonious way.

Seva

Seva, selfless service, is the fifth requirement of sannyasa. One must be involved in an activity which is selfless. When Swami Satyananda was about to be initiated by his guru Swami Sivananda, he asked him, “What am I expected to do after sannyasa?” Swami Sivananda replied, “Nothing, just continue to work in the kitchen, the printing press, carry water, manage the office and accounts, manage the ashram, do everything that you have been doing.” Paramahamsaji said, “If I have to do what I was doing at home, I might as well go home and exhaust my karmas while supporting and raising a family. When I have exhausted everything, I should come back.” Swami Sivananda replied, “No, returning to household life will not exhaust karmas, it will create more karma. It will create attachments, expectations and ambitions which are the bondage of the mind. If you continue to work in the ashram, the belief that you are acting for your guru, God or humanity will free you from the identity of being the karta, the doer. At home you will not experience surrender, whereas in an ashram you have to cultivate the quality of surrender.”

Swami Sivananda gave Paramahamsaji a clear indication: “You have to work hard until the age of sixty and exhaust your karmas. After that you can live the life of a sannyasin.” Therefore, Swami Satyananda did not become Swami Satyananda on the day of initiation; he became Swami Satyananda forty years after having taking sannyasa. For forty years he worked hard to develop the identification, attitude and lifestyle of a sannyasin, and came to the point where today the whole world looks to him as the ideal of sannyasa.

In this way, the sannyasa attitude, understanding and mentality has to build up gradually. During this period of development, one has to leave aside lofty ambitions such as God-realization. After all, to travel to the moon one needs the training of an astronaut and the right vehicle. God-realization, moksha or nirvana are terms that indicate the result of an aspirant going through different stages of transformation. These are indications of an attainment which is a natural outcome of this process of transformation.

In the last five thousand years, very few people have attained God-realization without undergoing inner transformation. Although the scriptures state that the ultimate focus is God-realization, the initial focus has to be the effort to imbibe and express the qualities and principles of sannyasa in our lives.

—Ganga Darshan, 2002–2006