Sannyasa: Peril or Blessing, Part 1

Editor’s Note: The following is one article that has been broken up into three articles for the purposes of this blog.

 

Last evening (December 13th, 2007), I completed Chaturvedi Badrinath’s, The Mahabharata: An Inquiry in the Human Condition, New Delhi, Orient Longman, 2007. I liked the last chapter on Moksha very much, as I have several common agreements with the author.

As I review this book, instead of giving some objective views on the concept of renunciation, I would prefer to discuss my life as a sannyasi as a case study. I don’t do it to brag about how good I am, or how I am better than other sannyasis. However, since I only agree with the author not only in principle but also in practice, I thought I would share a series of thoughts on my life as a sannyasi.

 

The Principles of a Sannyasi

To begin, I agree with the author that renunciation is not merely wearing a saffron cloth or living away from society. It is more of a mental attitude than merely living a double life of wearing the sannyasi dress but living with all kinds of ‘dualities’ of life without upholding the principles of sannyasa. However, the ‘sannyasi principles’ cannot be finalized as both common literatures, religious scriptures and vairagya writings differ on many details.1

Regardless of the many principles, all would agree that the mental attitude of a sannyasi is more important than giving up certain things outwardly. This mental attitude is confirmed by the fact that the word ‘sannyasa’ has two words sam + nyasa. Sam means good and nyasa means giving up. So only those who give up with good intentions and not out of compulsion or begrudgingly can be called a sannyasi.

 

Inspirations to be a Sannyasi

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda was my inspiration to choose this life of a single person. I deliberately use the word ‘single’ rather than sannyasa. Our Hindu tradition strongly insists on living by stages (as a bachelor, house-holder, forest hermit and then sannyasi), but my opinion is that a person who leaves his wife, children and grandchildren to seek after personal moksha2 is doing an injustice to them all, in particular to his wife. He might be ready to give up his relationship, but till the end his wife needs her husband, children their father, and in particular the grandchildren their grandfather. Leaving aside the argument of stages, I feel it is better to become a sannyasi as a ‘single’ person, than justifying severing all God-given relationships.

My Personality

It is not only Swami Vivekanand who was my inspiration, but also my personality. Though now I can articulate with certain technical terms regarding my temperament, in those early days, I realized somehow that considering my nature, it was better to remain a single man, than ‘troubling’ another women in marriage. When a woman comes in one’s life as a ‘wife’, his character and personality radically changes and she can even make a ‘saint out of a sinner’ and vice versa. In my late forties when some of my shishyas and friends asked why didn’t I get married, I jokingly used to say, “If I were ever married, either she would have killed me within two days or I would have committed suicide. As I want to live, I didn’t marry.”

Knowing my very dominant nature and very individualistic approach to life, I thought it was better not to trouble another woman by marriage. Thus, I have remained a single man for various reasons and circumstances. My main reason within me was that, if I remain single I would have more time to read and serve others.

 

My Father

My father was another inspiration. He used to say, ‘parobakaaram, yadaartam idam sariram’, helping others is the real joy. My elder brother had asthma and I got used to giving him injections. During my college days, some neighbors used to call me in the middle of the night to give injections to asthma patients when they could not get to the doctor. My father warned me to ‘not even receive a cup of water for that service. Then it becomes a business and not real seva.’ I never saw him eat anything we gave him. If we gave him a banana, he wouldn’t eat it immediately, but he would keep it for several hours to see that everyone one got her share and if there was any need for any ‘extra’ for any one.

 

Giving up Desires

Of course sex is a crucial part of human life. Like hunger, it is another thing that comes along with us when we are even conceived. So there is no point of explaining it away easily. However for me sex is not mere physical pleasure3. Though I am not the right person to talk about it, based on my reading and observation, sex is based more on an intimate relationship than a mere physical act. Badrinath endorses this:

“Among several other things, through the dramatic story of Yayati, the Mbh. is teaching us the truth that desire alone cannot be the basis of the man-woman relationship. In saying ‘Let one renounce the thirst of desire’, what is being also suggested is that one should abandon the mistaken notion that satisfaction of desire is all what erotic love is.” — p.322

And when one chooses deliberately to give up certain necessities in life in order to enjoy more preferred ones, she won’t mind paying that cost. It is more a matter of priority than following the normal course of life. I tell others that if I were married and had my own family, I wouldn’t have the time that I need to do things of my choice that I like. Inspired by Vivekananda, I too wanted to serve others, in whatever way I could. I liked his concept of ‘practical Vedanta’ more than a philosophical one. So I too was ready to pay the cost to remain single.

I even have seen people in families sacrifice this essential part of sex and intimate relationship for various reasons. For example, the Natukkottai Chettiyar (known as Nagarattar) used to leave their families and go other countries to earn money and would return once in two or even three years. Even today, those who serve in the army and married men and women living away in other countries to earn money are ready to pay the cost for other preferences. Of course they may find other means to find sexual release, but they sacrificed ‘sex’ in its true, pure and original form. Inspired by Vivekananda, particularly motivated to ‘serve’ others as much as possible by all means, I preferred the life of a single man.

 

Inspiration from Muktinath

Though I was motivated to remain a single person, my values to live as a single person came from another unexpected source – Muktinath. He began to guide my life as a single man and how to serve others as a sannyasi. I’ve written elsewhere (Found My Guru) on that topic, but I want to point out that the Hindu ‘ideal’ of a sannyasi gets a new meaning and values through the teachings of the Muktiveda. This does not mean that all that Hinduism contributed in my life has become meaningless. On the contrary, both my Hindu views and Muktivedic values compliment each other even for me to ‘enjoy’ the life of a sannyasi. For me, this vocation is better than that of a family person.

However, echoing the view of Mbh. and the Muktiveda, relationships are more important than living a lonely life. I should make it clear that though I always like to ‘live alone’ in solitude, I don’t like to life a ‘lonely life’.

 

This series will continue next week…

Endnotes

  1. The book by T.S. Rukmani, ‘Samnyasin in the Hindu tradition—chaning perspectives–, New Delhi, D. K. Printworld (P) LTd. 2011, is a good book as the author presents the views of scholaras and samnyasins with her analysis on various subject related to Sannyasa in Hindu tradition.
  2. .…if one has renounced the world but has not removed the disorders of the mind, even a samnyasi will remain in bondage, and if a householder has done so, he, or she, has already gained moksha as inner freedom.The paths to moksha are journies within. That is to say, they lie in self-understanding and self-control. It is clearly through them that I bring order in my relationship with my self and in my relationship with the other. What is suggested is self-control over one’s sense organs and over one’s desires, or rather control over desire as such….—p.583There is nothing to ‘renounce’, and there is nothing to ‘obtain.’ There is only to understand the true place of everything. Thus, in the life of a jivanmukta, in this life a free person, there is no external change of a visible kind; the change is internal, in his, or her, consciousness….—p.588

    –removing the ‘disorders of the mind’ is merely an ideal aim both for sannyasi and householder. Except few who claim to have attained it, no one is going to achieve it totally. There are various levels of ‘disorders of the mind’ also. So ordering the mind depends upon the vocation one chooses. And what looks ‘disorderly’ from one’s perspective need not be the same for another.—db

  3. {D.S. Bailey commends Paul’s “profound and realistic treatment of coitus.” Baileywrites regarding this passage (1 Cor 6:16-17)Here his [Paul’s] thought apparently owes nothing to any antecedent notions, and displays a psychological insight into human sexuality which is altogether exceptional by first-century standards. The Apostle denies that coitus is, as the Corinthians would have it, merely a detached and (as it were) peripheral function…of the genital organs. On the contrary, he insists that it is an act which, by reason of its very nature, engages and expresses the whole personality in such a way as to constitute a unique mode of self-disclosure and self-commitment. {D.S. Bailey, The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought, London: Longmans, 1959, pp. 9-10, cited by Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, cultural studies in 1 Corinthians. Illinois, IVP Academic, 2011, p.193}