Introduction to Sannyasa

What is a sannyasin's commitment?

Sannyasa means complete dedication. As an individual you have emotions, intelligence, memory, speech, strength, good health, resources, friends, society. This is your wealth; this is your money. You are using it for yourself; you are squandering it for yourself. Then one day it comes to your mind, "Let me use what I have for a definite purpose." That is your sankalpa. From that day, your thoughts, your energy, your mind, your prana, your day, your night, your eating, your sleeping, your friends, everything is utilized for that purpose.

That is the exact meaning of sannyasa. That is why sannyasins don't get married. If you have a wife you have to look after her. That means you have to give her your mind, your money, your love, your support, and so much more. That is your wealth. That is why sannyasins don't have children, and for that purpose there is celibacy in sannyasa. Before sannyasa you direct everything towards yourself because you consider everything to be yours. But once you take sannyasa, everything is directed towards one cause. You cannot appropriate any of your faculties or resources for your own pleasure; that would be misuse.

What is the purpose of sannyasa?

A sannyasin is one who has totally dedicated himself to the purpose of self-awareness, atma jnana, self-knowledge. To discover yourself, who you are, is the purpose of sannyasa. In order to discover one's real nature, in order to understand the relationship of the atma with the totality, you need to completely divert all your mental, psychic, emotional and physical resources to that end.

With that understanding, you take sannyasa. If you have desires and passions, violence, vehemence, you should not take sannyasa. Maybe a sannyasin can divert his mental resources here and there a little bit, but not totally. Through his mind, body, senses and emotions, he is just aware of one target, takes sannyasa and follows the path, setting certain rules and regulations for himself.

How must a sannyasin live?

In the ashram sannyasins should become an inspiration to other members. Then they can transmit the light and the teachings of the guru. When sannyasins become flirtatious with their students and gossip mindlessly, they cannot transmit. They have to practice their sadhana, strengthen their willpower and with raised consciousness they have to help the students and devotees who come to stay in the ashram.

Outside the ashram we need disciplined swamis, not careless swamis. We want disciplined swamis, responsible swamis, who have enough social consciousness and who spend their time studying, teaching and practicing; who do not talk uselessly, who do not try to practice samadhi by drugs, who do not practice tantra by sexual interaction. They should live like guardians of your children. If you are like that, then you follow the path of sannyasa. We do not want sannyasins who behave like rogues. If you can live alone, if you do not have passionate desires, if you have compassion for society, love for yoga and for guru, then you can call yourself a sannyasin.

What should a sannyasin renounce?

A sannyasin must renounce only the inauspicious in life, that which destroys health, mental equilibrium and emotional balance, which disturbs the peaceful surroundings of family and society, producing a tradition of evil influences. A sannyasin should not renounce auspicious actions which purify the mind and body and make him strong. He should not renounce actions which generate and create good for society and the nation.

Sannyasins must aim at giving a positive direction to humanity. If a sannyasin is a teacher, an engineer, a scientist, a doctor, let him continue to be so in the framework of sannyasa. If everybody were to renounce all actions, then there would be chaos in society. Karma itself does not generate karma; karma does not generate rebirth. It is inauspicious karma and attachment to the karma that generates more karma.

When should a sannyasin wear geru?

The geru cloth gives the sannyasin a spiritual identity which makes him more aware of his desire to achieve a higher goal. Giving a uniform to an ordinary person changes his whole personality. A policeman in uniform is a tremendous force, but out of uniform he is just an ordinary person. This is the importance of wearing geru, and every sannyasin should wear it whenever possible.

Geru is the colour of fire and spiritual dynamism. It has been the colour worn by sadhus and sannyasins in India for thousands of years. Therefore, any sannyasin wearing geru is expected to uphold this tradition by living in self-imposed poverty. He cannot go and live in the forest nowadays, because there are no forests, but he must still live an austere life.

What does it mean to be a swami?

Swami means master of the self, master of experience, master of the mind. A swami does not belong to any religious order or have any religious affiliations. There comes a moment in a person's life when he wants to make himself totally free. In fact, freedom is man's ultimate search. By freedom we do not mean political, economic or social freedom. Freedom is emancipation and enlightenment, and it is for this reason that one chooses to be a swami.

A swami has to realize the vast potential in his own self. He has to realize that he is not the body, not the thoughts, not the mind. He has to realize that he is something beyond what he can understand. There is an area of consciousness, an area of existence, an area of experience, which is non-material and non-physical. This is what every swami has to remember. Whether he is working in an ashram, living the life of a mendicant, practicing austerity in the Himalayas or faltering and falling away from the path, giving himself to the temptations of maya, to sensual experiences, his goal remains unaltered. No sort of diversion can deter him from his main aim, which is to experience, even for a fraction of a second, something beyond this material life.

It is not necessary for a swami to be learned. Experience has nothing to do with external knowledge. Even an illiterate person can have the highest super-experience, whereas an intellectual may keep on waiting for years and centuries. Intellect and knowledge, and spiritual experience are not the same thing. To be a scholar of the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas, Upanishad, or in history, geography and mathematics, is not the qualification of a swami.

A swami may not be an orator at all. It is sufficient if he has experience. A fraction of a second of experience is equal to the knowledge that derives from eternity. That ultimate experience is the goal of man's destiny, evolution and incarnation. Therefore, a swami's responsibility is to keep an eye on that experience all the time.

What is the order and tradition of sannyasa to which we belong?

In India in ancient times an order was created for those who could handle spiritual matters, who were spiritually developed from birth or by practice. They were known as rishis. These rishis were living the life of householders with wives, children and social obligations. However, being spiritual by nature, they were inclined to lead a spiritual life. They dedicated their lives to spiritual practices and they developed a very enlightened culture.

The ancient history of India is filled with references to these rishis. However, as times changed, the rishis experienced a lot of difficulties, because although they were highly developed in spiritual life, still they had many social and family obligations. They decided to isolate this order and organize it by fixing rules and regulations for its maintenance and survival. Thus the order of sannyasa developed.

Sannyasins were spiritually minded but they did not want anything to do with social or family obligations. They did not expect much from society, were not interested in politics, but were prepared to live in austere conditions with minimum material things. They were not expected to marry and have children. They did not have any personal property or any political or religious affiliations. They were expected to live apart from society, practice their spiritual disciplines and discover better methods for spiritual enlightenment, to prepare disciples and instruct householders according to their needs and capacities.

Later in the 9th century this order was properly organized by Adi Guru Shankaracharya. The whole of India was divided into four zones - east, west, north, and south, and in each zone the headquarters or maths for the different groups of sannyasins were set up. The northern headquarter is near the Himalayan range in Badrinath. The western headquarter is at Dwarika, Gujarat. The eastern headquarter is in Jagannath Puri, Orissa. The southern headquarter is in Sringeri near Bangalore. All sannyasins belong to one of these main headquarters.

Sannyasins of each math have different titles according to their tradition. Our tradition, the Saraswati order, emanated from the southern headquarter. Saraswati is the title of those sannyasins who are not only learned, but at the same time possess inner knowledge. In this way, there were ten traditions known as the Dashnami order of sannyasa. Each division represented a particular state of being, a particular state of mind, and each tradition had a different duty assigned to it.

The headquarter was associated with specific traditions, as follows:

  • Sringeri with Saraswati, Bharti and Puri
  • Dwarika with Tirtha and Ashrama
  • Badrinath with Giri, Parvat and Sagar
  • Puri with Vanam and Aranyam

The tradition, lineage and the guru play an important and necessary role in the life of a sannyasin. It is by upholding these three that the sannyasin receives grace, inspiration, guidance and strength to follow the path of sannyasa until the goal of self-realization or moksha has been reached. Those sannyasins who try to tread the path of sannyasa without any tradition, lineage or guru, usually falter and fall back. Only those who are buoyed up from within by the wisdom and light of tradition, lineage and guru will be able to persevere until the final stage is achieved.

What is the duty of the Saraswati sannyasins?

Saraswati is the goddess of wisdom, learning and speech. According to tradition, Saraswati sannyasins were assigned the duty of preserving knowledge, so that it could be utilized by future generations.

As sannyasins of the Saraswati tradition, it is our responsibility to understand and absorb as many different sciences, systems and branches of knowledge that exist in the world. Truth is one, but it is called by many names. Therefore, it is important to realize the link between different philosophies and systems of thought, and express them according to the need of humanity. To say that this path is better and that one not suitable is not the purpose or tradition of the Saraswati order. Having an integrated approach towards development and achievement in life is the main purpose of the tradition.

Why is training necessary for sannyasa life?

In the early stage of sannyasa, after initiation, ashram training is absolutely essential. This training must take place under the guidance of a guru or senior most sannyasin. The traditional period of sannyasa training is twelve years, as it is the time required for changing or transmuting mental patterns and samskaras, impressions, from gross to subtle, from mundane to spiritual.

Only those who complete the twelve year period of training can be regarded as full sannyasins. Those who complete five or six years and then leave can only be considered as half sannyasins. Those who complete two or three years are one quarter sannyasin. Those who have no training in the guru's ashram at all, who have only taken diksha, initiation, and then resumed their independent life, cannot be considered sannyasins at all.

Before entering any professional field, many years of study and training are required. Would anybody accept a doctor, lawyer or engineer who had only studied for one or two years, or maybe not at all? In ordinary life, a mother gives birth to her child, and in spiritual life the guru gives diksha to his disciple, but after that the child must undergo years of education and training until he is considered ready to take up his post as a responsible member of society. In spiritual life also the period of training cannot be avoided, especially if the sannyasa order is to survive.

Why is work an essential part of sannyasa training?

By accepting sannyasa and engaging yourself in the path of sannyasa, you release a certain amount of energy. Not all, but some energy blocks are removed. When these blocks are removed, energy begins to flow. This energy has to be properly engaged because it is a tremendous force and it can turn in any direction, creative and destructive as well.

As a sannyasin, whenever your mind becomes negative, depressed or passionate, it is because your energy is not being properly engaged. Negative thoughts, negative tendencies, negative behaviour do not indicate that your willpower is weak, that your mind is weak, that you are bad or evil. Negativity in the nature of a sannyasin indicates that he has a lot of energy which he is unable to engage properly. It is only the energetic person who is negative. A man who has no willpower is never negative; he is timid. This is an important point which you must keep in mind.

Whenever you are positive, it means that your energies are properly invested. When you have depression, do not try to resolve your negativity by positivity. It will not work. You cannot overcome negativity by positivity. Negativity can only be overcome by looking after your energy and seeing that it is properly utilized. This is the reason why work is emphasized in the ashram for the training of sannyasins.

The moment you take sannyasa, certain blocks are removed. If your mind becomes detached, other blocks are removed. If you are not affected by pain and pleasure, the front block is removed. With each and every act of sannyasa, with each and every act of yoga, your blocks are getting removed, but what are you going to do with the energy that caused the imbalance?

Therefore, sannyasins must remember that they have to work hard on the physical, mental, intellectual and spiritual planes. All the time, they must keep the mind engaged, and that is why they live in the ashram. When the proper time comes, they should shine as spiritual guides to people, not only in the ashram, but anywhere.

Sannyasins live in a country; they have a passport, because they have to have it, they have a nationality because they have to have it, but really they belong to no country. They are universal and when they learn yoga, when they enlighten themselves, when they have greater control over the behaviour of their energy, then they can and should move out and guide people side by side with their own spiritual practices. Sannyasins must become like transmitting poles for the powerhouse, which remains in one place.

Why is karma yoga so important for sannyasins?

The efficiency of an ashram depends on team work which is behind the success of the place. The capacity of a swami depends on his ability to coordinate a team and to what extent he is able to inspire the members to work efficiently and wholeheartedly day and night. Everybody cannot practice karma yoga; it is an inspired energy. When you manifest that energy in you, then you have no knowledge of time and space. If you try to work in the ashram with a selfish motive, you will never be able to get the inspiration. You will fall ill in a few days.

Therefore, it is essential for the swami to live and work in the ashram. It is not for the sake of the ashram, but for his personal growth and development. The ashram provides a base for karma yoga, and karma yoga is very important for the purification of avidya, ignorance. When you work physically and mentally, without any selfish motive and personal interest, that is called karma yoga. When you work with a personal selfish interest or motive, you merely become the enjoyer of loss and gain

Actions done without attachment will not bear any fruit - either positive or negative. Suffering is not man's ill luck. When you perform actions with personal attachments, then suffering starts. If you can love everybody in the world without involving yourself, you will never suffer. If you can't, you will. Even if you love one person with attachment, you will suffer. The secret of sannyasa is to live a complete life without any personal attachments.

What are the stages of sannyasa life?

There are four stages in the life of a sannyasin. The first stage is when he lives with his guru. He has minimum belongings and he serves his guru and learns by his discipline. Then he learns from his guru by his precepts. This period can be anything up to twelve years. During the next stage a sannyasin should keep moving from place to place like a mendicant. He should not live in one place for many days.

The third stage in the life of a sannyasin is that he should retire into seclusion by himself and there he should practice continuous sadhana. During the twelve years with his guru and during his experience as a mendicant he will have attained tranquility of mind. Now when he sits for meditation it will not be difficult for him. He should continue this stage of life until enlightenment. After he has received or experienced enlightenment, there is no discipline and there is no dharma for him. He is free to do what he likes.

Published in Sivananda Math, June & September issues, 1989