Sannyasa (संन्यास), sometimes spelled Sanyasa or Sanyasi (for the person), is the life of renunciation and the fourth stage within the Hindu system of four life stages known as Ashramas, with the first three being Brahmacharya (bachelor student), Grihastha (householder) and Vanaprastha (forest dweller, retired). Sannyasa has historically been a stage of renunciation, ahimsa (non-violence) peaceful and simple life, and spiritual pursuit in Indian traditions. However, this has not always been the case. After the invasions and establishment of Muslim rule in India, from the 12th century through the British Raj, parts of the Shaiva (Gossain) and Vaishnava (Bairagi) ascetics metamorphosed into a military order, where they developed martial arts, created military strategies, and engaged in guerrilla warfare. These warrior sanyasis (ascetics) played an important role in helping European colonial powers establish themselves in the Indian subcontinent.
Saṃnyāsa in Sanskrit nyasa means purification, sannyasa means “Purification of Everything”. It is a composite word of saṃ- which means “together, all”, ni- which means “down” and āsa from the root as, meaning “to throw” or “to put”. A literal translation of Sannyāsa is thus “to put down everything, all of it”. Sannyasa is sometimes spelled as Sanyasa.
Sannyasa is a Sanskrit term that refers to a stage in a person’s life, or spiritual development, in which one renounces material possessions to concentrate purely on spiritual matters. Their goal at this point is to achieve moksha, which is liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Types and Objectives of Sannyasa
Types of Sannyasa
Sannyasa Lifestyle and Goals
Hinduism has no formal demands nor requirements on the lifestyle or spiritual discipline, method, or deity a Sanyasin or Sanyasini must pursue – it is left to the choice and preferences of the individual. This freedom has led to diversity and significant differences in the lifestyle and goals of those who adopt Sannyasa. There are, however, some common themes. A person in Sannyasa lives a simple life, typically detached, itinerant, drifting from place to place, with no material possessions or emotional attachments. They may have a walking stick, a book, a container or vessel for food and drink, often wearing yellow, saffron, orange, ochre, or soil-colored clothes. They may have long hair and appear disheveled and are usually vegetarians.
Most Hindu ascetics adopt celibacy when they begin Sannyasa.
The goal of Sannyasin
The goal of the Hindu Sannyasin is moksha (liberation). The idea of what that means varies from tradition to tradition.
Who am I, and in what really do I consist? What is this cage of suffering? — Jayakhya Samhita, Verse 5.7
For the Bhakti (devotion) traditions, liberation consists of union with the Divine and release from Saṃsāra (rebirth in future life); for Yoga traditions, liberation is the experience of the highest Samadhi (deep awareness in this life); and for the Advaita tradition, liberation is jivanmukti – the awareness of the Supreme Reality (Brahman) and Self-realization in this life. Sannyasa is a means and an end in itself. It is a means to decrease and then ultimately end all ties of any kind. It is a means to the soul and meaning, but not ego or personality.
The behaviors and characteristics
The behavioral state of a person in Sannyasa is described by many ancient and medieval-era Indian texts. Bhagavad Gita discusses it in many verses, for example:
ज्ञेयः स नित्यसंन्यासी यो न द्वेष्टि न काङ् क्षति । निर्द्वन्द्वो हि महाबाहो सुखं बन्धात्प्रमुच्यते ॥५-३॥
He is known as a permanent Sannyasin who does not hate, does not desire, is without dualities (opposites). Truly, Mahabaho (Arjuna), he is liberated from bondage. — Bhagavad Gita, Hymn 5.3
Other behavioral characteristics, in addition to renunciation, during Sannyasa include:
- Ahimsa (non-violence),
- Akrodha (not becoming angry even if you are abused by others),
- Disarmament (no weapons),
- Bachelorhood (no marriage),
- Avyati (non-desirous),
- Amati (poverty),
- Sarvabhutahita (kindness to all creatures),
- Asteya (non-stealing),
- Aparigraha (non-acceptance of gifts, non-possessiveness), and
- Shaucha (purity of body speech and mind).
Baudhayana Dharmasūtra, completed by about the 7th century BC, states the following behavioral vows for a person in Sannyasa. These are the vows a Sannyasi must keep –
Abstention from injuring living beings, truthfulness, abstention from appropriating the property of others, abstention from sex, liberality (kindness, gentleness) are the major vows. There are five minor vows: abstention from anger, obedience towards the guru, avoidance of rashness, cleanliness, and purity in eating. He should beg (for food) without annoying others, any food he gets he must compassionately share a portion with other living beings, sprinkling the remainder with water he should eat it as if it were a medicine. — Baudhayana, Dharmasūtra, II.10.18.1-10
When can a person renounce?
Baudhayana Dharmasūtra, in verse II.10.17.2 states that anyone who has finished Brahmacharya (student) life stage may become ascetic immediately, in II.10.17.3 that any childless couple may enter Sannyasa anytime they wish, while verse II.10.17.4 states that a widower may choose Sannyasa if desired, but in general, states verse II.10.17.5, Sannyasa is suited after the completion of age 70 and after one’s children have been firmly settled. Other texts suggest the age of 75.
The Vasiṣṭha and Āpastamba Dharmasūtras, and the later Manusmṛiti describe the āśramas as sequential stages which would allow one to pass from Vedic studentship to householder to forest-dwelling hermit to renouncer. However, these texts differ from each other. Yājñavalkya Smṛti, for example, differs from Manusmṛiti and states in verse 3.56 that one may skip Vanaprastha (forest-dwelling, retired) stage and go straight from the Grihastha (householder) stage to Sannyasa.
Who may renounce?
The question as to which vaṛṇa may, or may not, renounce is never explicitly stated in ancient or medieval dharma literature, the more modern Dharmaśāstras texts discuss much of the renunciation stage in the context of dvija men. Nevertheless, Dharmaśāstra texts document people of all castes as well as women, entered Sannyasa in practice.
What happened to renouncers’ property and human rights?
After renouncing the world, the ascetic’s financial obligations and property were adjudicated by the state, in the manner of a decedent’s estate. Viṣṇu Smriti in verse 6.27, for example, states that if a debtor takes Sannyasa, his sons or grandsons should settle his debts. As to the little property a Sannyasin may collect or possess after renunciation, Book III Chapter XVI of Kautiliya’s Arthashastra states that the property of hermits (vánaprastha), ascetics (yati, sannyasa), and student bachelors (Brahmachári) shall on their death be taken by their guru, disciples, their dharmabhratri (brother in the monastic order), or classmates in succession.
Although a renouncer’s practitioner’s obligations and property rights were reassigned, he or she continued to enjoy basic human rights such as protection from injury by others and the freedom to travel. Likewise, someone practicing Sannyasa was subject to the same laws as common citizens; stealing, harming, or killing a human being by a Sannyasi were all serious crimes in Kautiliya’s Arthashastra.
Benefits of Sannyasa
In Hinduism, the concept of Yugas refers to the cyclic ages that the world goes through. The four Yugas are Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, and Kali Yuga. The Kali Yuga is considered the last and current Yuga, characterized by a decline in righteousness, virtue, and spiritual values. Despite the challenges presented by the Kali Yuga, the path of Sannyasa can still hold significant benefits for seekers during this age:
Liberation from the Cycle of Birth and Death
The ultimate goal of Sannyasa is to attain liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death (samsara). This remains relevant in the Kali Yuga, as the pursuit of liberation is independent of external circumstances and the prevalent age.
Renunciation of Worldly Desires
The Kali Yuga is known for its materialistic and hedonistic tendencies, making it easy for individuals to get entangled in the pursuit of fleeting pleasures. Sannyasa offers an opportunity to renounce worldly desires and attachments, helping one break free from the cycle of suffering caused by material pursuits.
Focused Spiritual Practice
Sannyasa provides a conducive environment for concentrated spiritual practice. Amid the distractions and temptations of the Kali Yuga, Sannyasis can dedicate their time and energy solely to their spiritual pursuits, allowing them to make rapid progress on the path of self-realization.
Preservation of Spiritual Knowledge
Sannyasis traditionally take up the responsibility of preserving and disseminating spiritual knowledge. In the Kali Yuga, when the true essence of knowledge may be obscured, the presence of dedicated Sannyasis becomes even more crucial for the preservation of sacred texts and spiritual teachings.
Inspiring Role Models
Sannyasis, through their lifestyle and commitment to spirituality, serve as role models for others. Their renunciation and devotion to higher ideals can inspire people in the Kali Yuga to seek a higher purpose in life beyond material pursuits.
Spiritual Guidance and Teaching
Sannyasis often take up the role of teachers and guides, helping others on their spiritual journey. During the Kali Yuga, when the spiritual path can be challenging and confusing, the guidance of experienced Sannyasis can be invaluable in navigating the complexities of life and understanding the deeper truths.
Non-attachment and Detachment
Sannyasi practices non-attachment, which is particularly relevant in the Kali Yuga when attachment to material possessions and relationships can lead to increased suffering. By embracing a life of detachment, Sannyasis exemplify the importance of inner peace and contentment.
It’s essential to recognize that the path of Sannyasa is a deeply personal and profound decision, and not everyone is called to this life. While Sannyasa offers significant benefits, other spiritual paths, such as householder life (Grihastha), can also be valid and meaningful for seekers during the Kali Yuga. Ultimately, the key is to lead a life aligned with spiritual values and inner growth, regardless of the external circumstances of the age.
What is the period of each Yuga?
Renunciation in daily life
Later Indian literature debates whether the benefit of renunciation can be achieved (moksha, or liberation) without asceticism in the earlier stages of one’s life. For example, Bhagavad Gita, Vidyaranya’s Jivanmukti Viveka, and others believed that various alternate forms of yoga and the importance of yogic discipline could serve as paths to spirituality, and ultimately moksha.
Over time, four paths to liberating spirituality have emerged in Hinduism:
Sharma states that “the basic principle of Karma yoga is that it is not what one does, but how one does it that counts and if one has the know-how in this sense, one can become liberated by doing whatever it is one does”, and “(one must do) whatever one does without attachment to the results, with efficiency and to the best of one’s ability”.
Of the 108 Upanishads of the Muktika, the largest corpus is dedicated to Sannyasa and Yoga, or about 20 each, with some overlap. The renunciation-related texts are called the Sannyasa Upanishads. These are as follows:
|Samaveda||Āruṇeya, Maitreya, Sannyāsa, Kuṇḍika|
|Krishna Yajurveda||Brahma, Avadhūta, See Kathashruti|
|Shukla Yajurveda||Jābāla, Paramahaṃsa, Advayatāraka, Bhikṣuka, Turīyātīta, Yājñavalkya, Śāṭyāyani|
|Atharvaveda||Ashrama, Nāradaparivrājaka (Parivrāt), Paramahaṃsa parivrājaka, Parabrahma|
Among the thirteen major or Principal Upanishads, all from the ancient era, many include sections related to Sannyasa. Maitrāyaṇi starts with the question, “Given the nature of life, how is joy possible?” and “How can one achieve moksha (liberation)?”; in later sections, it offers a debate on possible answers and its views on Sannyasa.
The conclusion of Sannyasa is a profound culmination of a seeker’s spiritual journey. Having embraced the path of renunciation and detachment, the Sannyasi reaches a state of inner freedom and liberation from worldly attachments. This stage marks the complete dissolution of the ego, where the individual recognizes the oneness of the Self with the universal consciousness. The Sannyasi, having attained self-realization, becomes a beacon of wisdom and compassion, guiding others on the path to enlightenment. In the embrace of Sannyasa, the seeker discovers the eternal bliss that transcends the ever-changing world, fulfilling the ancient Vedic aspiration of “Tat Tvam Asi” – “Thou art That.” The conclusion of Sannyasa is not an end but a timeless merging of the individual soul with the cosmic soul, symbolizing the eternal journey toward ultimate liberation.
Frequently Asked Questions