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Subject: Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Asceticism, Yajnavalkya, Kanyakumari, The Bachelor of Arts, Swami Virajananda, Viraja Homa, Maṇḍana Miśra, Bengali Brahmins, Devi Kanya Kumari
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"Sanyasi" redirects here. For the 1975 film, see Sanyasi (film).

Sannyasa (Devanagari: संन्यास, saṁnyāsa) is the life stage of the renouncer within the Hindu scheme of āśramas. It is considered the topmost and final stage of the ashram systems and is traditionally taken by men or women over fifty or by young Brahmacharis who wish to renounce worldly and materialistic pursuits and dedicate their lives to spiritual pursuits. People in this stage of life develop vairāgya, or a state of dispassion and detachment from material life, renouncing worldly thoughts and desires in order to spend the remainder of their lives in spiritual contemplation. A member of the sannyasa order is known as a sannyasin (male) or sannyasini (female).

During the sannyasa phase of life, a person abandons fire, or Agnihotra, allowed to the Grihastha ashram or householder phase of life. People who have entered the sannyasa ashram may choose not to cook, perform fire rituals or take heat from fire. In practice, however, Sannyasis do various services and partake in sacred rituals to set an example for others. Sannyasa focuses only on the self and spirituality and not even the gods (as abandoning fire suggests). Symbolically, a sannyasi casts his physical body into fire by wearing saffron robes when entering this phase, signifying purification of body through fire thus freeing the soul while the body is still alive. Hence, sannyasis are not cremated after death as most Hindus are, but may instead be buried.

Etymology and synonyms

Saṃnyāsa in Sanskrit means "renunciation" or "abandonment". It is a tripartite compound of saṃ- with a "collective" meaning, ni- which means "down" and āsa from the root as, meaning "to throw" or "to put". A literal translation would be "laying everything down". In Dravidian languages, "sannyasi" is pronounced as "sanyasi" and also "sannasi" in colloquial form.

Sanyasis are also known as Bhiksu, Parivraja/Parivrajaka, Sadhu, Siddha, Sramana, Tasapa/Tapasvin, Tyagis, Vairagis, and Yatis.

Origins of Hindu mendicants

The origins of sanyasis or Hindu mendicants is believed to be in the Vedic period. Noted groups of mendicants were the Keśins and Munis.

The Keśins are connected with the devas Agni, Surya and Vayu. In the Atharva Veda, Keśin is a name of Rudra. This has lead some scholars to connect Keśins to Rudra or Shiva.[1]

The Munis were a class of mendicants that were associated with Rudra.[2] Scholars such as Arthur Llewellyn Basham claim that they were medicine men who knew the secrets of Rudra's herbs and flying ability. They, like Rudra, wore braided hair.[3]

Yatis are mentioned in the Rig Veda usually in good terms. Later in the Yajur Veda[4] and the Pancavimsa Brahmana,[5] the Yati are said to have been fed to hyenas by Indra, and three Yati boys were spared the same treatment. One of them became King Prthu Vainya who praised Indra.[6] The other Yati survivors were Rayovaja and Brhadgiri. The Aitareya Brahmana, vii. 28 mentions punishing the Yati as among the sins that led the Devas to exclude him from Soma drinking.

Vratyas were another class of ascetics that, like the Munis, were associated with Shiva. They called their God Eka-Vratya, who had the same seven incarnations as Shiva. Like the Muni, they "drink poison".[7]


Adi Shankara in his Vivekachudamani Sloka 81) speaks about those who being subject to the sufferings of life condemn samsara. Their vairagya is superficial, neither total nor everlasting. In this context Sri Candrasekhara Bharati of Srngeri explains that because they are not completely detached from sense-objects they are bereft of the firm virtues of sama etc.[8] Therefore, Shankara instructs that the monster of Visaya (sense-objects) is to be killed by steadfast vairagya. Then alone the ocean of samsara fraught with the waves of birth, death etc., can be crossed without any obstacle in order to gain saksatkarana ("intuitive perception") of Brahman (Vivekachudamani Sloka 82).

There are subtypes of sannyasi in accordance with socio-religious context. Traditionally there were four types of forest hermits with different stages of dedication.[9] These four were:

  1. Kutichaka
  2. Bahudaka
  3. Hamsa
  4. Paramahamsa

More recently, in modern observation there are two types of "ekadanda" (literally single stick) and "tridanda' (triple rod or stick) saffron robed monks.[10] Specific practices differ slightly between these two groups.

Lifestyle and goals

The sannyasi lives a celibate life without possessions, and practises yoga or bhakti devotional meditation, depending on the specific tradition, with prayers to their chosen deity or God. The goal of the Hindu Sannsyasin is moksha (liberation), the conception of which varies from tradition to tradition. For the devotion oriented traditions, liberation consists of union with the Divine, while for Yoga oriented traditions, liberation is the experience of the highest samādhi (enlightenment) and for the Advaita tradition, liberation is the removal of all ignorance and realising oneself as one with the Supreme Brahman.

Within the Bhagavad Gita, sannyasa is described by Krishna as follows:

"The giving up of activities that are based on material desire is what great learned men call the renounced order of life [sannyasa]. And giving up the results of all activities is what the wise call renunciation [tyaga]." (18.2)[11]

Sanskrit and Indic scholar Barbara Stoler Miller translates chapter 18, verse 2 as follows:

"Giving up actions based on desire, the poets know as renunciation; relinquishing all fruit of action, learned men call relinquishment.

"Disciplined action and relinquishment are spiritually more effective than renunciation."[12]

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's translation of verse 3, Chapter 5 of the Bhagavad-Gita, says:

"Know him to be ever a man of renunciation who neither hates nor desires; free from the pairs of opposites, he is easily released from bondage, O mighty-armed."[13]

Renunciation in Dharma Literature

The Dharmasūtras and Dharmaśāstras give a number of detailed rules regarding at what stage of life a person may renounce fire, who is entitled to renounce it, and what their legal and social standing is following renunciation.

When can a person renounce?

The earliest Dharmasūtras do not favor renunciation. The author of the earliest stage of the Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra, for example, is critical of renunciation when young because ascetics do not reproduce. The birth of a son was necessary for a twice-born man to repay his spiritual debt to his ancestors. A Vedic student (snātaka), having completed his education, is required to start a family as a householder; Baudāyana states that only the householder's āśrama exists for him.[14] At the time Baudāyana was composed, the āśramas were most likely permanent states of life chosen after one finished his time as a snātaka, not the sequential life stages they would later become.[15]

The Vasiṣṭha and Āpastamba Dharmasūtras represent a transition from the disapproval of the idea of various āśramas (including that of the ascetic) expressed in Baudāyana and Gautama to the acceptance of the āśrama system and gradual efforts to incorporate it into the framework of texts on dharma.[16] Those efforts culminated in the form of the aśrama system found in the Manusmṛti; by the time that text was composed, the āśramas had taken the form of sequential temporary stages which would allow one to pass from Vedic studentship to householder to forest-dwelling hermit to renouncer.[17] Thus, Manu and Yājñavalkya after him are able to stipulate that a renouncer must have paid his triple-debt as a householder before renouncing the world.[18] However, Yājñavalkya differs from Manu and Viṣṇu over whether passing through the āśrama of the vanaprastha is necessary. Manu 6.33 and Viṣṇu 96.1 state that one should renounce from the forest-dwelling hermit's āśrama, while Yājñavalkya 3.56 states that one may renounce from the householder's āśrama, provided he has paid the triple debt (to his ancestors, the Vedic sages, and the gods).

Who may renounce?

Although the question of which vaṛṇa renunciation is allowed to whom is not dealt with explicitly in dharma literature, it was understood that the āśrama system, including the āśrama of renunciation, was only open to dvija men.[19] Accordingly, when speaking of the rules for renouncers, Dharmaśāstra texts only directly address twice-born men. For instance, when Manu speaks of the qualities of a renouncer or the conditions under which he renounces, the person being spoken of is outrightly specified a "a Brahmin" or "that twice-born man".[20]

Nevertheless, Dharmaśāstra texts document that people other than twice-born men, such as Śūdras and women, did renounce, even if this mention is only one of castigation. Yājñavalkya 5.115 and Viṣṇu 2.235 place a fine on feeding a Śūdra ascetic at a festival, and Manu 8.363 places a fine on conversing with a female renouncer; indicating that these categories exist.[21]

Legal and social status of renouncers

In renouncing the world, the ascetic becomes, for all religious and social purposes, dead and for this reason, a ritual death is part of the rite of renunciation itself. The ascetic is no longer bound to perform the Vedic rites enjoined upon twice-born men; he leaves his family behind to live an itinerant life.[22] This state of being ritually dead is reflected in the laws relating to these ascetic renouncers found in the Dharmaśāstras, which are closely connected to and overlap with laws relating to the dead. Thus, Viṣṇu 6.27 states that when a debtor dies, renounces the world, or is in a far-off country for over twenty years, his male progeny should settle his debts. Nārada 13.24 allows the brothers of a renouncer to partition any inheritance he may have received from his father amongst themselves, except for the portion due his "widow". Nārada 12.97 allows a wife to remarry if her husband disappears or dies, or becomes a renouncer, a eunuch, or an outcaste. Some texts, however, require that a man have provided financially for his wife and children before renouncing.[23] Relatedly, Nārada 1.7 states that if a renouncer dies in debt, all the merit produced by his spiritual practice goes to his creditors.

Thus, renunciants are not only socially but legally dead, and cannot therefore enter into new contractual agreements. Kauṭilya provides a clear expression of this in the Arthaśāstra when he states that transactions cannot be completed by dependents and renouncers (3.1.12). Nārada 1.159-169 includes renouncers among those who cannot be questioned as witnesses in a court case.

Other rules pertaining to ascetics hinge on the spiritual power they were believed to have acquired through their austerities. The Bṛhaspatismṛti, at 1.27, warns the king to have a proxy, and specifically someone schooled in the three Vedas, hear cases involving ascetics and others skilled in sorcery. Since ascetics were believed to have supernatural powers, any action or decision which caused them to lose their case would incur their wrath, therefore involvement in such a case had the potential to threaten a king's life. The existence of a proxy option is relevant to the larger discussion of ascetics and Ancient Indian law, as it acknowledges that ascetics could and sometimes did become involved in legal cases, despite their legally and socially deceased status.


Unlike monks and nuns in the Western world, whose lives are in the main regulated by a monastery or an abbey and its rules, it is common for Hindu sannyasis to be solitary wanderers (parivrājaka). Hindu monasteries (mathas) never have a large number of monks living under one roof at any given time; they exist primarily for educational purposes and have become centers of pilgrimage for the lay population. Ordination into any Hindu monastic order is purely at the discretion of the individual guru, who should himself be an ordained sannyasi within that order. Most traditional Hindu orders do not have women sannyasis, but this has begun to change in recent years.[24][25]

Ancient groups of ascetics

During the time of the Buddha around the 6th century BCE, there were several groups of ascetics, many times these groups were rivals of each other.

According to the Ariguttara Nikdya, the major groups of ascetics were:

  1. Achelakas, "without clothes," nudist ascetics who took recourse to about thirty-five methods of Tapas in respect to food and clothing.[26]
  2. Ajivika, nudist ascetics whose leader was Mankhali Gosala
  3. Aviruddhaka, "the not opposing ones, the friends"
  4. Devadhammika, "followers of the religion of the devas (or God)"
  5. Eka-satakas,
  6. Gotamaka, "followers of Gotama" (not the Gautama Buddha)
  7. Jatilaka, ascetics with long matted hair that practiced fire ceremonies and sacrifice
  8. Magandika
  9. Mundasavaka, "followers of Munda"
  10. Nigrantha (Jains), nudist ascetics whose leader was Vardhamana Mahavira
  11. Paribbajaka, Brahmin ascetics
  12. Tedandikas, "bearers of the triple staff"
  13. Titthiya, nudist ascetics whom the Buddha criticized [27]

Danda as spiritual attribute

In the Varnashrama System or Dharma of Sanatana Dharma, the 'danda' (Sanskrit; Devanagari: दंड, lit. stick) is a spiritual attribute and axis mundi of certain deities such as Bṛhaspati, and holy people, such as sadhus, carry the danda as a marker of their station as a mendicant renunciate or sannyasi.

Sannyasa Upanishads

Of the 108 scriptures (or "Upanishads") of the Muktika, 23 are considered Sannyasa Upanishads.[28] They are listed with their associated Veda – ṚV, SV, ŚYV, KYV, AV (as found in the Upanishad):

  1. Brahma (KYV)
  2. Jābāla (ŚYV)
  3. Śvetāśvatara (KYV) "The Faces of God"
  4. Āruṇeya (SV)
  5. Garbha (KYV)
  6. Paramahaṃsa (ŚYV)
  7. Maitrāyaṇi (SV)
  8. Maitreyi (SV)
  9. Tejobindu (KYV)
  10. Parivrāt (Nāradaparivrājaka) (AV)
  11. Nirvāṇa (ṚV)
  12. Advayatāraka (ŚYV)
  13. Bhikṣu (SYV)
  14. Turīyātīta (SYV)
  15. Sannyāsa (SV)
  16. Paramahaṃsaparivrājaka (AV)
  17. Kuṇḍika (SV)
  18. Parabrahma (AV)
  19. Avadhūta (KYV)
  20. Kaṭharudra (KYV)
  21. Yājñavalkya (SYV)
  22. Varāha (KYV)
  23. Śāṭyāyani (SYV)

Noted Sannyasins

See also


External links

  • Articles on aspects of Sannyasa, Vairagya, and Brahmacharya
  • 'The Song of the Sannyasin', poem by Swami Vivekananda

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