As a Vedanta student, everyone toys with the idea of sannyasa, either out of frustration or a fantasy. In the Advaita Vedanta tradition, we understand sannyasa both as a lifestyle and knowledge. Sannyasa as knowledge is non-negotiable but sannyasa as a life style is optional. What does this mean? How do I calibrate my life in the light of this understanding?
Just as the word ‘guru’ has entered popular vocabulary, so has the word ‘sannyasa’. The wife threatens, ‘If you don’t change, I will take sannyasa.’ The title of the newsarticle is ‘Mr X has taken political sannyasa.’ In both these instances, sannyasa is meant as a withdrawal from one’s regular duties and a walking away from it all.
So, then what is Sannyasa? The word Sannyasa is made up of two words – sam+nyaasa – sam stands for well done or completely and nyaasa in this context means giving up. So sanyaasa is giving up completely. Next question is, what is given up?
Depending on the context, Sannyasa has two meanings
Sannyasa as a lifestyle of taking the robes, living like a monk/sadhu and giving up worldly responsibilities
Sannyasa as knowledge – giving up of what was never yours irrespective of the lifestyle of karma yoga or sannyasa.
Sannyasa as a lifestyle – At some time or the other, every Vedanta student toys with the idea of becoming a sannyasi or a monk. Arjuna too toyed with this idea on the eve of the war. What does Bhagavan Krishna have to say about the choice of a lifestyle or how one lives one’s life?
लोकेऽस्मिन्द्विविधा निष्ठा पुरा प्रोक्ता मयानघ।
ज्ञानयोगेन सांख्यानां कर्मयोगेन योगिनाम्।।3.3।।
Sri Bhagavan said:
The sinless one (Arjuna)! The two-fold committed lifestyles in this world, was told by Me in the beginning1– the pursuit of knowledge for the renunciates and the pursuit of karma–yoga for those who pursue activity.
Referring to Arjuna as Anagha, the sinless one, Bhagavan Krishna is referring to the nature of Atma, who is untouched by the results of karma, punya or papa.
Nishtha means a committed lifestyle, in which one spends most of one’s time, effort and resources on a particular pursuit. For example, a person who is committed to the practice of japa, chanting the Lord’s name, is called japa-nishtha.
Moksha is clearly the goal and Nishtha, a committed lifestyle is a means to this end. The Nishtha is two-fold because there are two groups of people. One group is called karma-yogis or just yogis and the other group is called sannyasis or sankhyas, renunciates.
Karma Yogis includes everyone who is pursuing a life of Artha, wealth and Kama, pleasure aligned with Dharma. This person also pursues Vedanta alongside having a family, earning for one’s living, having vacations and does not live a life of renunciation.
For the Karma yogis there is karma-yoga. This means living a life of priorities, clarifying one’s ultimate priority as moksha, and fulfilling one’s responsibilities across different roles with the disposition of Karma Yoga. This helps to purify the mind of impurities of raga-dvesha such that one can be in harmony with reality. Living a life of kaushalam, performing competent karma aligned with dharma and prasada-buddhi, an attitude of gracious acceptance of people and situations makes one prepared to receive the knowledge of Vedanta.
Although karma can bind due to its limited results such that one is always on the treadmill of karma, if karma is transformed into karma yoga, it can become a means, yoga, for moksha.
A Karma Yogi’s pursuit is not exclusive like jnana yoga for a sannyasi, where all of one’s time, effort and resources are devoted to pursuing learning, sharing and teaching Vedanta. knowledge. For a sannyasi the disposition of Karma Yogi would be spontaneous having lived many years with the deliberate lifestyle of a karma yogi.
The Karma Yogi could be a brahmachari, not yet married, pursuing one’s education or in these days a single person who is also pursuing a career.
The Karma Yogi could be a grhastha, a married person where raising a family and building a career is the primary focus.
The Karma Yogi could also be a vanaprastha, one who has retired from professional responsibilities and who is in an advisory role with respect to children.
In the Vedic culture which is there in some rudimentary form even now, these 3 stages of life – brahmacharya, grahsthashrama and vanaprasthashrama prepared one for the last stage of life called sannyasa.
Sannyasa is the best retirement plan because one does not require money for it. One simply renounces whatever one has.
The sannyasa-ashrama is a stage in life where one is absolved from performing karmas. One is freed from the duties in order to pursue knowledge. This pursuit is all that is to be done.
Therefore, the person must already be a jnani or want nothing in life except knowledge.
Types of sannyasa
There are two main types of sannyasa. For a person who is already wise, there is vidvat-sannyasa, a sannyasa taken because of knowledge. The person has knowledge, and there is nothing more for him or her to do in the world – no obligations whatsoever.
If the knowledge has been gained in any of the other three ashramas – brahmacarya-ashrama, grhastha-ashrama, or vanaprastha-ashrama – the person can take to the sannyasa-ashrama directly, taking vidvat-sannyasa, so that he or she is no longer subject to obligations. Otherwise, for the person with knowledge, there will still be obligations because each of the first three ashrama implies certain duties on one’s part, which cannot be escaped from as long as one is in that ashrama. Thus, the person takes sannyasa to be free of these obligations–to make it complete and validate the tradition.
The other type of sannyasa is vividisha-sannyasa and is meant for knowing. This sannyasa is for those who desire to know the self, Atma, as Brahman. The person knows exactly what is to be done. He or she has heard that this Atma is Brahman and wants to commit to an exclusive pursuit of knowledge only to the exclusion of all other pursuits. Such a person is not interested in anything else and has certain viveka, discrimination, with reference to the real and the unreal. He or she also has vairagya, dispassion, mumukshutvam, the desire for liberation, and other qualifications in various degrees. And with these qualifications, the person takes to the life of sannyasa, called vividisha-sannyasa.
The third type of sannyasa is apat-sannyasa. When a person thinks he or she is going to die and does not want to die a grhastha or a vanaprastha, but rather as a sannyasi, he takes apat sannyasa.
Apat means danger. Because sannyasa-ashrama is always praised in the shastra, it is natural for a person to want the results of this ashrama. At such a time, one does not require a guru but can simply declare oneself to be a sannyasi. With the sun, the elements, and all the gods as witness, one can make vows, for which there is a particular mantra. And if one happens to survive, the vows taken can always be ratified later.
In sannyasa one gives up all karmas, for which there is a special ritual, the last fire ritual that frees him from all other fire ritual offerings that only a sannyasi performs. In this ritual, the sannyäsé bids goodbye to all the ancestors, to whom there has been an obligation – father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, great grandfather, great grandmother, then agni and devas.
The person taking sannyasa says that self-knowledge will be pursued to the exclusion of all else, asks for the blessings of the paternal and maternal ancestors, and takes a vow of abhaya, a vow not to harm any living being, including trees and plants. The sannyasi also vows to be a noncompetitor in this world and all others, thereby becoming a person who does not compete for the sake of status politically, economically, or socially. Knowledge is the only interest for the sannyasi.
Usually done on the banks of Ganga or any holy river, having taken these vows, the sannyasi takes a few symbolic steps, towards the north, the direction that stands for moksha. Moving towards the north in search of moksha, having discarded all clothing, the sannyasi is called back by the guru, given a set of simple clothing, given a new name. The new sannyasi may be asked to serve and continue studying with the guru. This, then, is the ritual of sannyasa, be it either vidvat-sannyasa or vividisha-sannyasa.
In vidvat-sannyasa, one may or may not take sannyasa formally. The main aim is that, by knowledge, one gives up all karmas. The knowledge is that ‘I am a non-doer. I perform no action.’ This is naishkarmya, the state of actionlessness. I perform no action at any time because Atma, which is ‘I,’ does not perform any action. Nor does Atma cause anyone to perform action. I am not a doer in spite of all the actions I do. This knowledge is real sannyasa described as jnana-karma-sannyasa.
For the sake of this jnana-karma-sannyasa, one takes to the lifestyle of sannyasa, pursuing self-knowledge. The other nishtha, karma-yoga, is for those seekers in the other ashramas.
Renunciation is possible at any stage. Arjuna, who was in the grhastha-ashrama wanted to renounce. He did not want to go through the intermediary stage as a vanaprastha. Nor was it necessary to do so, for the day a person wants to get out of any of the first three ashramas, it can be done. When one discovers the readiness, the dispassion in oneself, on that very day, one can take sannyasa. There is a Vedic sanction for it.
A karma-yogi has the means, a world, a field, where his or her raga-dveshas can be neutralised. Such a field is not there for a sannyasi.
The two-fold nishtha is meant only for shreyas. Arjuna wanted Bhagavan Krshna to tell him which one was better and Krshna replied that one can be a sannyasi or a karma-yogi. Both are meant for the same goal – moksha.
One can live a life of karma-yoga and gain moksha and one can live a life of sannyasa and gain moksha.
The only difference is that for a sannyasi there is only knowledge, whereas for a karma-yogi there is knowledge and karma. This difference must be understood well because this is where there is a lot of confusion.
You become either a karma-yogi or a sannyasi. But there is only one means for moksha, knowledge.
Depending on the kind of person you are, you can be either a sannyasi and pursue knowledge to the exclusion of everything else or a karma-yogi and pursue knowledge along with karma.
In both lifestyles – karma yoga and sannyasa, the pursuit of knowledge is common.
Knowledge is moksha. Therefore, the choice is not between jnana and karma.
It is between sannyasa and karma-yoga.
When the choice is between karma-yoga and sannyasa, it is natural to look to sannyasa. Given a choice, why do karma at all? Sannyasa seems to be the better choice since performing karma implies so much effort, problems, and even bloodshed in the case of Arjuna.
Bhagavan Krishna cautions us by saying that the wise argue that knowledge and karma yoga are not different. He says,
यत्सांख्यैः प्राप्यते स्थानं तद्योगैरपि गम्यते।
एकं सांख्यं च योगं च यः पश्यति स पश्यति।।5.5।।
Moksha that is gained by the sannyasins is also reached by the karma yogins. The one who sees sankhya, knowledge and karma yoga as one, that person sees the truth.
Sannyasa as knowledge of the Atma – Sarva-karma-sannyasa, the giving up of all action, takes place in knowledge. Through knowledge, the doership of the Atma is nullified. Because there is no doership in the Atma, even as one performs action, it is not really being done by the Atma. Thus, sarva-karma-sannyasa, is moksha.