There are two distinct life styles - one in pursuit of Artha and Kama, while the other, a life style oriented towards attaining Moksha (liberation). A Sannyasi is an individual who has experienced a level of dispassion and discontentment with the first lifestyle of pursuing wealth, prosperity and pleasure. One makes a choice to put down (renounce) such a pursuits as this individual finds no meaning in such living.
In Hinduism, there are four life stages and Sannyasa is one of them. This is an optional life stage and accepted by choice. A Sannyasi in general pursues knowledge in Upanishads, with the goal of attaining Moksha (liberation). They relinquish all their daily responsibilities and stay away from even Puja, temple worship, recreation, married life, wealth creation etc. as these activities are geared towards a prosperous life. A sannyasi is called by many other names such as a Yati, Sadhu, Parivrajaka, Muni and Bhikshu, names based on their qualities and their life practices.
A sannyasi an ascetic, manages his mind (anger and such strong emotions) and a life based on a scriptural reflections or practices.
There are many misconceptions about Sannyasis. Here are some facts to clarify.
- A Rishi must not be a Sannyasi. In fact most of the Rishis are householders. They are seers of truth and revealers of mantras.
- Sannyasis do not live in a monastery. Hinduism traditionally has no concept of a monastery. Sannyasis live in Ashrams in the current times.
- Siddha is an accomplished individual. The accomplishment could be liberation or other special skills or powers. A Siddha need not be a Sannyasi, though they might be seen wandering.
- Yogi is typically one who meditates, and need not be a Sannyasi.
- Anyone can pursue and attain Moksha, not just Sannyasis.
- Sannyasis are to not be worshipped - in fact they are not considered to be auspicious.
- A Sannyasi is not necessarily a Guru and a Guru need not be a Sannyasi.
- A Sannyasi is not an expert in all aspects of life or an all knower, though people tend to perceive that way.
There are predominantly three Sannyasa traditions. They are:
- Smarta Sannyasi (Examples are Adi Shankara and Swami Vivekananda)
- Vaishnava Sannyasi (Example is Swami Raghavendra)
- Shaiva/Shakta Sannyasi (Example is Sivaya Subramuniya Swami)
There are many God forms that are related to Sannyasa tradition. Dakshinamurti is not a Sannyasi, though you will see Sannyasi disciples at his feet. Shiva in meditation on top of a mountain, reminds us of Sannyasa. Dattatreya is the only Sannyasi god - also called Avadhuta, seen with a cow and four dogs.
A Sannyasi finds no meaning or desire to maintain a family, have children and enjoy the world around him/her. Some of these natural desires do not excite such an individual and hence Sannyasa is an exception, rather than a norm. Traditionally, an individual who is above 70 years of age choses to take up Sannyasa and women were not admitted into Sannyasa due the changes in social systems since the middle ages. In Vedic times, Sannyasa was given to women too. People with disabilities or those who suffer from diseases that might stop them from pursuing studies and life of a Sannyasi, may not be admitted into Sannyasa. Heretics are also not allowed to take up Sannyasa.
An individual performs many rituals while getting initiated into Sannyasa. One of the early rituals is renouncing the ritual fire - which symbolically indicates the end of all desires and the termination of all actions that lead to fulfilling desires. The Sannyasi candidate performs one’s own funeral rites and Prayascitta rituals. Among the series of initiating rituals, shaving of hair from head and the body follows oblations to the forefathers.
A Sannyasi, who is already liberated wore no clothes. The Sannyasi who pursued Moksha (liberation) wore ochre clothes. Traditionally a Sannyasi wears only one piece of cloth, eats by begging a maximum of 8 mouthful of food a day and accepts no gifts. He is allowed to stay a maximum of one night in a village and maximum of 5 nights in a town - as he travels from one place to the other. He will have no disciples or followers and lives a life of no specific goals other than Moksha. A Sannyasi does not perform any rituals and does not harm any being wilfully.
Modern day Sannyasis follow a different lifestyle actively getting involved in the societal life in various roles. This change was initiated and propagated by Swami Vivekananda, who called upon Sannyasis to carry out acts of service to the society. Today a Sannyasi gets involved in Seva activities, teaching pursuits and even community building. Some Sannyasis additionally takes on Guru roles, with disciples and a following.
It is important to remember that a Guru need not be a Sannyasi and a Sannyasi is always not a Guru. A Sannyasi may take on a role (Guru, social worker for example) as an act of service to the society.
*the above article is a summary of one of the discourses held during the Hindu Hub Monday sessions