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Sannyäsa is Renunciation

In its original, traditional form, sannyäsa is renunciation. Specifically, the monastic rite enacting the vow to become free of life’s roles (social as well as religious), renounce all worldly pursuits, a vow of non-injury to all life-forms (a life of least disturbance), a non-competitive life, a life committed to knowledge, with freedom (mokña) as the only pursuit of life. The fourth stage - açrama in a Vaidika’s life, in which normal relationships and activities in ordinary society are formally renounced.

A sannyäsi is a renunciate; one who has renounced all pursuits for the sake of gaining Self-knowledge; one who has discovered his identity with the vastu – Brahman through Self-knowledge.

The same Veda that mandates a person to perform various karmas as per its injunctions, releases the person ritually, of all the obligation - religious and social, so that one can pursue the truth through study of the Upanishads.

Sannyäsa is of two kinds – i) vividisä sannyäsa - one who takes sannyäsa to pursue a life of studies, or ii) vidvat sannyäsa - one who has the knowledge, and takes sannyäsa for nishthä.


The first type of sannyäsa is called Vividisä-sannyäsa; it is meant for knowing. This sannyäsa is for those, who desire to know the Self - Ätmä, as Brahman. This person knows what exactly is to be done. He/she has heard (äpätatah jnänam) that this Ätmä is Brahman, and wants to know it. Such a person is not interested in anything else, and has a certain viveka - discrimination, with reference to the real and unreal (nitya-anitya-vastu-viveka). He/she also has vairägya - dispassion, mumukshuttvam - the desire for freedom, and other qualifications in various degrees. And when with these qualifications, the person takes to the life of sannyäsa, that is called Vividisä-sannyäsa (veditum icchä - vividisä).


There is another type of sannyäsa. For a person who is a Jnäni, there is Vidvat-sannyäsa, asannyäsa taken because of knowledge. The person has knowledge, and hence, there is nothing more for him/her to do in the world - no obligations whatsoever. If the knowledge has been gained in any of the other three äsramas - brahmacarya, gärhastya or vänaprastha - the person can take to thesannyäsa-äsrama directly, taking Vidvat-sannyäsa, so that he/she is no longer obligated. Otherwise, for the person with knowledge, there will still be obligations, since each of the first three äsramas implies certain duties on one’s part, which cannot be left undone, as long as one is in that äsrama. Thus, a person takes sannyäsa to be free from these obligations - to make it perfect i.e., nishthä (nitaräm sthitah). Yäjnavalkya’s sannyäsa is termed as ‘vidvat-sannyäsa’.

The Ritual:

In sannyäsa, one gives up all karmas, for which there is a special ritual, the last fire-ritual that a person (future-sannyäsi) performs. One may see a sannyäsi doing a püjä, an offering of worship of flowers and so on, but one will never see a sannyäsi sitting around a fire doing a Vedic ritual. Such a person has been freed of all obligatory fire-rituals - of all karmas, in fact. A sannyäsi’s last fire-ritual is one in which all karmas are given up.

In this last fire-ritual, the future-sannyäsi bids goodbye to all the ancestors, to whom there has been an obligation - father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather, great-grandmother up to seven generations up, the rshis and the devatäs. The person taking sannyäsa says that Self-knowledge will be pursued to the exclusion of all else, asks for the blessings of the paternal and maternal ancestors, and gives abhaya, a vow not to harm any living being, including trees and plants. The sannyäsi also vows to be non-competitor in the community/society/this world and all others, thereby becoming a person who does not compete for the sake of status, politically, financially, or socially. Knowledge is the sannyäsi’s only pursuit.

Having taken these vows, the sannyäsi takes a few symbolic steps towards the north, the direction that stand for moksha. South stands for death. Thus Yama Dharmaräja, the Lord Death is a southerner (symbolically). Death does not attract anyone, freedom from death does. Moving towards the north in search of moksha, having discarded all clothing, the sannyäsi is called back by the Guru, is given a set of clothing by the guru/or the gurubhäis, and is asked to serve the society, and continue studying again.

In sannyäsa one also invites the gods as witnesses. In the wedding the man says –

mama cittam tava cittam anucittam bhavatu |

hrdayam te (tubhyam) dadämi ||

Similarly, in sannyäsa, the disciple tells the Guru - hrdayam te (tubhyam) dadämi|| hrdayaà here meansspiritual heart – yo veda nihitam guhäyäm.

This is the ritual of sannyäsa, either vividisä-sannyäsa or vidvat-sannyäsa.

Äpat-sann​yäsa - There is a third type of sannyäsa called äpat-sannyäsa. When a person thinks he or she is going to die, and does not want to die as a grhasta, or a vänaprastha, but as a sannyäsi, äpat-sannyäsa is taken. Äpat means danger. Because the sannyäsa-äsrama is praised in the sästra, it is natural for a person to want the results of this äsrama. It is as though the person has had a blank cheque all along and wants to encash it now. For one who has already lived a grhasta life, and has been told that death is near, there seems to be no use continuing in the grhasta-äsrama.

A person who is not about to die, will usually want to remain a grahasta, because he/she is fond of his spouse and children. But if he/she knows he is going to die very soon, he may go for äpat-sannyäsa. At such a time, one does not require a guru, but can simply declare oneself to be a sannyäsi. With the Sun, the five elements, and the gods as witness, one can make vows, for which there is a particularmantra. And if he/she happens to survive, the vows can always be ratified later. This is how Sankara became a sannyäsi in fact.


Swämini Ätmaprajnänanda Saraswati is the author of two published books - ‘Nomenclature of the Vedas’ and ‘Rshikas of the Rgveda. She teaches Vedänta and Pänini in Ärsha Vidyä Vikäs Kendraat Bhubaneswar.

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