By Jayaram V
In Hinduism renunciation or sanyasa is the true mark of spiritual
life. It is is believed to be the simple and straightforward way
to achieve moksha or liberation. Actually the word "achieve" is
not the right word to use in this context, because a person who
has renounced everything does not aim to achieve anything in particular
including salvation or liberation or union with God. People who
follow the path of sansyasa or renunciation are expected to lead
very austere and ascetic lives, setting aside all desires and comforts
and acknowledging no relationship whatsoever, including the relationship
with God and oneself. One has to forego all acts of self-preservation
and self-advancement and also the need to further one's ego and
identity. Some sects of Hinduism encourage their initiates to develop
equanimity and selflessness through extreme measures such as engaging
in unusual acts to attract social ridicule and criticism or inflicting
pain and suffering upon themselves willfully by sleeping upon a
bed of thorns or standing on one leg, spending their nights in graveyards
or fasting for days and so on.
Sanyasa is also recognized in Hinduism as one of the
four ashramas or stages
in the life of a human being, the other three being brahmacharya
(the life of a celibate), grihastha (the life of a householder)
and vanaprastha (the life of retirement or a forest recluse). Sanyasa
or the life of renunciation comes in the end. After an individual
spends his life in acquiring knowledge and becoming a householder
to perform his obligatory duties towards himself, his parents, his
family and society, he is expected to withdraw from active life
and spend the rest of his life without any attachments or
desires for his spiritual salvation. This
is expected to be accomplished in two stages: vanaprastha and
sanyasa. In the first stage
he withdraws from active service and leaving behind his family and
household goes to a forest or hermitage where he prepares himself
for the hardships of the next stage, which is the life of renunciation
and self-negation. In this stage (sanyasa) he is expected to forego all sense
of ownership and doer-ship, renouncing all desires.
relationships, attachments and possessions.
In the ancient times, when a person entered this stage, he was
forbade from maintaining any social or family contact. He was advised
to withdraw the sacrificial fire into himself so that he himself
would become an embodiment of fire that manifested itself as a radiant
spiritual energy (tapas). He was also forbade from the use of fire
either for cooking or heating or for ritual purposes. He was expected to
subsist on whatever food he could find from begging only once a
day and also progressively reduce his intake of food to become free
from the desire to live or survive.
It is however not compulsory in Hinduism that a person should become a sanyasi
only in his old age. While this is the ideal
prescribed for the Hindus by the Hindu law books or the Dharmashastras,
there are no hard and fast rules for a person to enter the life
of a sanyasi. A person can
take up sanyasa at any stage in his life, as long as he is
acting according to his true intentions rather than some
ulterior motive. Usually in such matters people seek the advice of
their personal gurus or spiritual mentors who with their wisdom
and ability know whether a person is ready for the hardships
of an ascetic life and how far he or she can go on the spiritual
Just as the ritual became internalized in the later Vedic period,
the practice of sanyasa also underwent a profound change in
course of time. The emphasis
gradually shifted from the external and physical acts of renunciation
and observation of code of conduct to
internal and mental renunciation, in which attitude and detachment
became more important than mere adherence to a rigid code of
conduct or the monastic rules. According to this new approach, sanyasa or renunciation does not mean
mere observation of rules or proper code of conduct or donning
the orange robes, but renunciation of desires and attachment to things and actions.
Detachment and equanimity of mind are therefore key to true renunciation.
In this sense, sanyasa actually means making no deliberate effort.
Etymologically it means
having no anya asa or no other desire, or na ayasa or no intentional striving. It
living unconditionally, without desire, without effort, without
striving, without preference and without
expectation. It is to live and work in a state of total freedom, without a
particular identify of oneself, unencumbered by the burdens of the
past or the anxieties of the future, whether one is alone or in
the company of others, free from all attachments, compulsions and
entanglements, like a lotus leaf. It means not taking sides, not making
judgments and not being influenced by any particular faith or belief.
A true sanyasi is neither attached to himself nor to any particular
god or goddess. The presence or absence of anything would not cause
in him mental ripples. He looks around but does not desire anything in particular.
He leads an active life, but does not participate in it for selfish
reasons. He goes by a name, but does not believe that it represents
him truly. He understands his individuality but is not compelled to protect
it or promote it or preserve it. He takes care of his mind and
body, but knows that he is the eternal soul. He lives in the present, but
when he looks into the future it is not to make a planned
effort to create his future or work for any goal, including the
goal of self-realization. As the Bhagavadgita says, when he performs
actions, a true sanyasi thinks that he is doing nothing at all.
Whether it is walking or talking or seeing or hearing or touching
or smelling, or tasting or breathing, he remains an observer, knowing
that his senses are dealing with the sense objects.
True renunciation therefore is an attitude of mind and way of
life, in which we set aside our desires and expectations and let
go off all intentional effort and compulsive planning. We let things happen.
We identify ourselves with our spiritual nature. We become aware
of our connection with the Universal Self. We let our
lives take their own course, according to the divine will,
without fear and anxiety, willfully surrendering to God and
letting Him take the ownership,
and the control of our lives and actions. Through renunciation,
we become truly free from
the desire to direct our lives or the habitual compulsion to exercise our will
to ensure our survival and success. And eventually we experience
the state of being rather than doing.
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