Advantages of Being a Sannyasi
I find one distinct advantage in being a sannyasi: I need not pretend before others. While living as a family, people have to maintain a certain status quo in society. They have to ‘act’ before others. Once, one of my shisyas exaggerated his position to a third person. When I confronted him on this, he said, “What to do Swamiji? In this world we cannot be 100% transparent and on several issues we have to exaggerate a bit. This is not telling a lie, but part of life. As a sannyasi, people never expect you to be successful in your endeavor. But we as family people, are always compared with others in life.”
This leads to another advantage I have as a sannyasi: to serve and to be served. Since I serve others as much as possible, when the need comes, I do not hesitate to not just request but even demand the same kind of service from others (of course as much they could do). One time, when I moved from the North and settled down in the South at Housr, I called one of my shishyas and said, “As a sannyasi, I have even the right (dharma) to beg and demand from you,” when I was in need of money. The difference between a family person and a sannyasi is that, when they seek the help of others, sometimes their respect, prestige, statues, etc. are at stake. Whereas, thankfully, Indian society never expects a true sannyasi to uphold any of these values. He is relieved from all these because of his choice. He can go and ask without any personal hurt and pain. At least in principle, when he asks, he is not asking for his comforts of family but to serve others.
Sannyasis and Social Work
At the same time, I should express my opinion of sannyasis being involved in any kind of social work, particularly those that directly involve money. Though I had my ‘Fund for Friends’, I soon realized how even a philanthropic work can trap a sannyasi in dealing with money. I liquidated that fund by giving the final amount to someone in need. In fact there was not much money in that Fund itself.
Though a sannyasi can ask without any sense of any hurt or pain to his ‘ego’, he has to take help from others who bring problems for which the sannyasi alone will be responsible. The recent criminal cases against a few sannyasis and swamijis are the best examples for this. I prefer either the govt. or NGO’s doing all kinds of social and public service rather than the sannyasi being directly involved. He can motivate and inspire his followers to do it on their own either personally or through any other means.
One time, a local political leader asked why I didn’t collect fund from my shishyas to help needy poor children for their education. For this I said, “Poor and needy people are everywhere. Why should I ask others to help those who are here alone? Rather I encourage them to do it in their own place. By this we are not only encourage responsibility, but also decentralize such activities.”
When a sannyasi becomes the head of any fund or service centre, he becomes the final authority, and is not challenged by his followers. He can follow democratic norms by appointing committees and trustees, but when it comes to the final decision on certain crucial decisions, his word is final and it will only later be questioned and criticized by others. In life I uphold this principle that ‘A sannyasi should not have money and power’. He can have moral authority, which is earned because of his life and service than demanding because of his dress or position.
A Reminder to Society
So a sannyasi is not only one who has renounced in mind but also with a uniform. He stands in the society to convey some tangible message to those who live in it. The saffron robe is the symbol of ‘fire’ that often reminds people about the transitory nature of material things. Though life needs to be lived in its totality by enjoying all legitimate things in this world, sometimes it helps people not to become so entangled with the material alone. Of course people need not look at a sannyasi to learn this, but a sannyasi can stand as a symbol to remind people about the transitory nature of things.
Nothing goes to waste in creation. Even those things that stand away from others have a place in creation to make it complete. As a joke I tell that by not marrying and raising children, sannyasis are helping the population control in our country, for which the government and others are spending a lot of effort. At least in this, even negatively a sannyasi serves the society.
Society functions based on an identity, but this identity needs to be expressed by outward symbols and signs, and not just a mental construct. Otherwise simple people cannot learn and understand their role in society. So, although it is often abused and misunderstood, the symbol of a sannyasi (both as a vocation and stage) speaks to the society. Though he stands away from it, he cannot stand apart from it. In this respect both the sannyasi and the society will remain incomplete without each other contributing for the common good for all.
One who has truly renounced will not pay attention to another’s comments on his renunciation, whether outward or inward changes. Even I am laughing to myself in how I have tried to defend my act of renunciation. In this context I would like the story about Pattinathar. He was the wealthiest merchant at Kaveripumpattinam (also known as Pumpuhar), even richer than the king. But he had no child and in answering his prayer, Siva himself was born to him as a son. When Siva grew up, he went to other countries by ship for business and brought lots of wealth. In order to protect it from thieves, he hid it in dry cow dung cakes.
Once his son reached home, Pattinathar was shocked that he brought only dry cow dung and not lots of wealth. In angry, he threw one of them on the floor, and it broke and precious gems and stones scattered on the floor. His son, to teach a lesson to his father about his attachment to wealth, went away leaving a palm leaf with the words, “Even at death a needle without its eye (whole) won’t come along with your way.”
Realizing his vanity, Pattinathar (this was his sannyasi name) immediately distributed all his wealth to the poor, renounced everything, and went and sat under a tree in the crossroads of the city. On hearing this, the king himself came to see him to ask the reason for such a drastic act on his part. When the king asked what he gained by renouncing everything, Pattinathar replied, “While you stand, I am sitting.”
On hearing this, the king immediately renounced his post and became Pattinathar’s disciple. While he was a merchant Pattinathar had to stand to receive the king when he came to visit him. Now that he had renounced everything, he had no fear about protecting his wealth from the king or any one, and therefore he had no need to stand up to receive the king.
One day when Pattinathar went to field to take some rest in the afternoon, he kept his head on the edge of the field as a pillow. Two women came there to cut the gross. On seeing him, one said, “See how rich he was and now where he is sleeping?” For this the other women said, “Though he renounced everything, he could not renounce the comfort of the pillow to take rest.” Then both went to cut the grass.
When they returned they saw that Pattinathar, had even removed his head from the edge and was sleeping on the field. Then the first women said, “What kinds of words you spoke! See what he has done now?” For this she said, “He has not yet completely renounced everything. If he had done it, he would never mind about the opinion of others about him.”
Gurukulam, December 14, 2007