The Idealism of Sanyasa Dharma in Hinduism

Faith and Spirituality

by Jayaram V

Question: What is the true meaning of Sanyasa or Renunciation according to Hinduism? Do the modern gurus who live in luxury qualify as Sanyasis?


What is true renunciation? I have written about this before. Please check the links at the end of this essay under the Suggestions For Further Reading column. In this discussion, I will explain the idealism of Sanyasa and its significance to human life.


Sanyasa or renunciation in Hinduism is a very noble concept. You must have heard of it. You might have seen several people who renounced their worldly lives and became Sanyasis. The practice is very ancient and may be rooted even in pre Vedic civilizations of ancient India. The Vedic seers were renunciants. They lived in the forests and practiced renunciation, besides teaching the secret knowledge of the Vedas to qualified students. Shaivism has a long tradition of renunciant practices, which may be as old as the Vedic tradition.

When Alexander invaded India, he met a few ascetic people who lived in the forests and practiced renunciation. He was greatly impressed by their sacrifice, knowledge and detachment. Ancient India witnessed the rise of several ascetic movements, apart from Buddhism and Jainism. Wandering monks (sramanaas), Parivrajakas, Munis, Sadhus, Sanyasis, Jinas, Kapalikas, Vairagis, Vratyas and several others practiced renunciation in search of liberation and freedom from suffering.

The idealism of Sanyasa

In Hinduism, sanyasa or renunciation is the ultimate sacrifice of life one can perform in devotion to God or in quest of liberation. It is the sacrifice of sacrifices, in which you give up everything, to become empty, alone, nameless and selfless. It is returning to the seed state of consciousness which becomes modified during the long existence of soul in bound state under Nature’s control, by shedding all the impurities which it accumulates. Let us examine what it truly means to be a Sanyasi or a renunciant.

Living as if you are already dead, as if you do not exist, as if you do not matter, as if you are not there even when you are there, this is true Sanyasa or renunciation. A renunciant resists all temptations to pursue his desires, to be himself, defend himself, or promote himself or his interests. He lets life happen, rather than making it happen. He is a truly nonviolent person, who does not disturb the world nor is disturbed by it. It may sound a little odd to those who are not familiar with the subject, or those who are drawn to worldly life and become involved with their numerous identities, attachments and egoistic pursuits.

The essence of Sanyasa

To live as if one is no more while one is still alive, this is the essence of true sanyasa, renunciation. It is giving up all hope, desires, fears, likes and dislikes, preferences, priorities and goals, so that you no more indulge in striving, struggling, resisting, defending, controlling, attacking and amassing. In short, it is not doing what you normally do in worldly life to sustain yourself, or promote yourself and your interests.

A true renunciant remains alone, satisfied within himself, giving up relationships, ownership, attachments, associations, identities, affiliations, opinions and beliefs. By this definition, very few people in the world qualify as renunciants. You will not frequently find them because they usually shun society and the company of worldly people.

Aloneness is the defining aspect of true renunciation. Hence, liberation (Moksha) itself is described in the scriptures as the state of aloneness (kaivalyam). The practice of spiritual aloneness (ekanta) leads to the state of transcendental aloneness in which all the dualities disappear and the Self alone remains.

Living without expectations, plans, goals and hope, the sanyasis walk alone on the path, even when they are surrounded by people. They may interact with the world, but are not touched by it. They may remain in the company of people, but their minds remain absorbed in the thoughts of God or the Self. This may sound extreme to those who are accustomed to worldly life, and who secure their lives with desire-ridden actions and careful planning.

The blessings of renunciation

While it is true that sanyasa is a life of hardship and uncertainty, it has its own advantages. An ascetic or a renunciant who leads a disciplined life, restrains his mind and senses and practices self-control is inwardly free. He may be bound to his body, but mentally he remains free from everything. Thereby, he enjoys greater freedom than those who take upon themselves the burdens of worldly life and pursue their selfish desires.

Sanyasa or renunciation opens the doors of freedom to those who are willing to go through the hardships of purification and transformation. It is an unlearning and unburdening process in which the renunciant leaves behind all the excess baggage, which he has been carrying through many lives in the long journey of his existence on earth as the bound soul (baddha jivi).

Sanyasa and worldly people

Ordinary people seek security and self-preservation through those very possessions and jealously guard them against potential loss. Therefore, the very thought of losing them creates in them fear and anxiety. A sanyasi overcomes that fear and gives up everything that binds him, so that he can experience freedom and relief from the burdens of worldly life.

Thus, to pursue Sanyasa Dharma, or the path of renunciation, and to live like a Sanyasi requires a lot of courage, conviction and toughness. Only a few people in the world put it all on the line and jump into an abyss of uncertainty, with faith and God as the sole support. In today’s world, it is even more difficult to practice Sanyasa or become a Sanyasi because the distractions are too many.

Therefore, even if they have a strong aspiration, many people find it difficult to break their bonds and take up Sanyasa. They may dabble with spirituality from the comforts of their homes or familiar surroundings and try to make the best of both the worlds, enjoying the blessings of worldly life and hoping to gain some rewards such as mental peace or social approval and acceptance from their spiritual effort. Although it is not an ideal approach, in some cases it may eventually culminate in true sanyasa.

The truth regarding Sanyasa

The difficulties of Sanyasa become magnified from the perspective of worldly life or those who are accustomed to living in comfort. However, those who take the plunge and unconditionally commit themselves to the life of renunciation, feel different abou it. Although they may go through innumerable hardships in the beginning, finally they find the experience liberating and exhilarating.

With faith and resolve they enter the protection of God and leave behind all their worries and anxieties. It is as if their chains have been removed and they have been released from the prison of worldly life. Hence, as true renunciants they dwell neither upon their past nor upon their future. They remain in the present, absorbed in the thoughts of God or the Self or in no thoughts at all.

Learning to appreciate the ideal of Sanyasa Dharma

You may not yet be ready to take the extreme step of giving up worldly life and becoming a Sanyasi. The Vedas project the ideal that Hindus who become householders to perform their obligatory duties as a sacrifice to God should eventually give up their worldly desires and become sanyasis.

Saynasashrama is the last and the most important phase in the life of a householder. All other phases that lead to it are considered preparatory. The life of any human being upon earth is believed to be incomplete without that phase. According to the Vedas, it is also the surest way to settle one’s karma and overcome past life impressions to qualify for immortality.

The truth is, worldly life has its own limitations. Since we are mortal beings, we cannot have everything forever. Someday or the other, either you give up the world or the world gives you up. You may not easily give up your identity or status or ownership, but one day they will be taken away from you.

As you grow older, you will also realize the futility of life, the lack of any apparent purpose to it, and your helplessness to deal with many existential problems and your imminent death. The world will eventually swallow you and erase your memories and your footprints. In time, it will bury your ghost image in the graveyard of lost history.

Imagine how many people must have lived so far upon earth and how many of them we really remember. Therefore, even if you are not ready for Sanyasa, cultivate the attitude of renunciation and learn to let go of things. Learn to walk lightly in the mire of life, without becoming too serious about it and without becoming too involved with the world or its attractions.

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