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"Sanyasi" redirects here. For the motion picture, see Sanyasi (1975 film)

Sannyasa, (Devanagari: संन्यास) sannyāsa is the order of life of the renouncer within Hindu scheme of āśramas, or life stages. It is considered the topmost and final stage of the varna and ashram systems and is traditionally taken by men at or beyond the age of fifty years old or by young monks who wish to dedicate their entire life towards spiritual pursuits. In this phase of life, the person develops vairāgya, or a state of dispassion and detachment from material life. He renounces all worldly thoughts and desires, and spends the rest of his life in spiritual contemplation. One within the sannyasa order is known as a sannyasi.


Saṃnyāsa in Sanskrit means "renunciation", "abandonment". It is a tripartite compound of saṃ- has "collective" meaning, ni- means "down" and āsa is from the root as, meaning "to throw" or "to put", so a literal translation would be "laying it all down". In Dravidian languages, "sanyasi" is pronounced as "sanyasi" and also "sannasi" in slang.


There are a number of types of sannyasi in accordance with socio-religious context. Traditionally there are four types of forest hermits [1] with different stages of dedication. In recent history two distinct orders are observed "ekadanda" (literally single stick) and "tridanda' (triple rod or stick) saffron robed monks[2], first being part of Sankaracarya tradition[3] second is sannyasa followed by various vaishnava traditions and introduced to the west by followers of the reformer Siddhanta Sarasvati. Austerities and attributes associated with the order as well as expectations will differ in both.

Lifestyle and goals

The sannyasi lives a celibate life without possessions, practises yoga meditation — or in other traditions, bhakti, or devotional meditation, with prayers to their chosen deity or God. The goal of the Hindu Sannsyasin is moksha (liberation), the conception of which also varies. For the devotion oriented traditions, liberation consists of union with the Divine, while for Yoga oriented traditions, liberation is the experience of the highest samādhi (enlightenment). For the Advaita tradition, liberation is the removal of all ignorance and realising oneself as one with the Supreme Brahman.

Within the Bhagavad Gita, sannyasa is described by Krishna as follows:

"The giving up of activities that are based on material desire is what great learned men call the renounced order of life [sannyasa]. And giving up the results of all activities is what the wise call renunciation [tyaga]." (18.2)[4]

Cf: (The Sanskrit & Indic scholar) Barbara Stoler Miller's BG 18.2 translation reads thusly:

"Giving up actions based on desire, the poets know as renunciation; relinquishing all fruit of action, learned men call relinquishment.
"Disciplined action and relinquishment are spiritually more effective than renunciation."[5]

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's translation of verse 3, Chapter 5 of the Bhagavad-Gita[6], says:

"Know him to be ever a man of renunciation who neither hates nor desires; free from the pairs of opposites, he is easily released from bondage, O mighty-armed."

Renunciation in Dharma Literature

The Dharmasūtras and Dharmaśāstras give a number of detailed rules regarding at what stage of life a person may renounce, who is entitled to renounce, and what their legal and social standing is following renunciation.

When can a person renounce?

The earliest Dharmasūtras evince a very disapproving attitude towards renunciation. The author of the earliest stage of the Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra, for example, is critical of renunciation because ascetics do not reproduce. The birth of a son was necessary for a twice-born man to repay his spiritual debt to his ancestors. Because a Vedic student (snātaka), having completed his education, is required to start a family as a householder, Baudāyana states that only the householder's āśrama exists for him.[7] It must be noted that at the time Baudāyana was composed the āśramas were most likely permanent states of life chosen after one finished his time as a snātaka, not the sequential life stages they would later become.[8]

The Vasiṣṭha and Āpastamba Dharmasūtras represent a transition from the disapproval of the idea of various āśramas (including that of the ascetic) expressed in Baudāyana and Gautama to the acceptance of the āśrama system and gradual efforts to incorporate it into the framework of texts on dharma.[9] Those efforts culminated in the form of the aśrama system found in the Manusmṛti; by the time that text was composed, the āśramas had taken the form of sequential temporary stages which would allow one to pass from Vedic studentship to householder to forest-dwelling hermit to renouncer.[10] Thus, Manu and Yājñavalkya after him are able to stipulate that a renouncer must have paid his triple-debt as a householder before renouncing the world.[11] However, Yājñavalkya differs from Manu and Viṣṇu over whether passing through the āśrama of the vanaprastha is necessary. Manu 6.33 and Viṣṇu 96.1 state that one should renounce from the forest-dwelling hermit's āśrama, while Yājñavalkya 3.56 states that one may renounce from the householder's āśrama, provided he has paid the triple debt (to his ancestors, the Vedic sages, and the gods).

Who may renounce?

Although the question of which vaṛṇa renunciation is allowed to is not dealt with explicitly in dharma literature, it was understood that the āśrama system, including the āśrama of renunciation, was only open to dvija men.[12] Accordingly, when speaking of the rules for renouncers, Dharmaśāstra texts only directly address twice-born men. For instance, when Manu speaks of the qualities of a renouncer or the conditions under which he renounces, the person being spoken of is outrightly specified a "a Brahmin" or "that twice-born man."[13]

Nevertheless, Dharmaśāstra texts themselves attest to the fact that people besides twice-born men, that is, Śūdras and women, did renounce, even if the texts only mention such renouncers to castigate them. One must ask why Yājñavalkya 5.115 and Viṣṇu 2.235 would place a fine on feeding a Śūdra ascetic at a festival, or why Manu 8.363 would place a fine on conversing with a female renouncer, if such individuals did not exist in the first place.[14]

Legal and social status of renouncers

In renouncing the world, the ascetic becomes, for all religious and social purposes, dead. A ritual death is, in fact, part of the rite of renunciation itself. The ascetic is no longer bound to perform the Vedic rites enjoined upon twice-born men; he leaves his family behind to live a homeless life.[15] This state of being ritually dead is reflected in the laws relating to ascetics found in the Dharmaśāstras. Laws pertaining to renouncers are closely connected to and overlap with laws relating to the dead. Thus, Viṣṇu 6.27 states that when a debtor dies, renounces the world, or is in a far-off country for over twenty years, his male progeny should settle his debts. Nārada 13.24 allows the brothers of a renouncer to partition amongst themselves any inheritance he may have received from his father, except for a portion of money which should go to his "widow." Nārada 12.97 allows a wife to remarry if her husband disappears or dies, or becomes a renouncer, a eunuch, or an outcaste. Some texts, however, require that a man have provided financially for his wife and children before renouncing.[16] Relatedly, Nārada 1.7 states that if a renouncer dies in debt, all the merit produced by his spiritual practice goes to his creditors.

Thus, renunciants are not only socially dead but legally dead as well. And, like any dead person, they cannot enter into new contractual agreements. Kauṭilya provides a clear expression of this in the Arthaśāstra when he states that transactions cannot be completed by dependents and renouncers (3.1.12). Nārada 1.159-169 includes renouncers among those who cannot be questioned as witnesses in a court case.

It is interesting to note that other rules pertaining to ascetics hinge on the spiritual power they were believed to have acquired through their austerities. The Bṛhaspatismṛti, at 1.27, warns the king to have a proxy, and specifically someone schooled in the three Vedas, hear cases involving ascetics and others skilled in sorcery. Since ascetics were believed to have supernatural powers, incurring the anger of the losing party to such a case would have been viewed as potentially threatening to a king's life. What is more important to the larger discussion of ascetics and Ancient Indian law, however, is the acknowledgment that cases could and sometimes did involve ascetics, despite their legally and socially dead status.


Unlike monks in the Western world, whose lives are regulated by a monastery or an abbey and its rules, some Hindu sannyasis are loners and wanderers (parivrājaka). Hindu monasteries (mathas) never have a huge number of monks living under one roof. The monasteries exist primarily for educational purposes and have become centers of pilgrimage for the lay population. Ordination into any Hindu monastic order is purely at the discretion of the individual guru, who should himself be an ordained sannyasi within that order. Most traditional Hindu orders do not have women sannyasis, but this situation is undergoing changes in recent times.[17]

Danda as spiritual attribute

In the Varnashrama System or Dharma of Sanatana Dharma, the 'danda' (Sanskrit; Devanagari: दंड, lit. stick) is a spiritual attribute and axis mundi of certain deities such as Bṛhaspati, and holy people such as sadhu carry the danda as an austerity and marker of their station as a mendicant renunciate or sannyasi.

Sannyasa Upanishads

Of the 108 scriptures (or "Upanishads") of the Muktika, 23 are considered Sannyasa Upanishads.[18] They are listed with their associated Veda – ṚV, SV, ŚYV, KYV, AV (as found in the Upanishad):

  1. Brahma (KYV)
  2. Jābāla (ŚYV)
  3. Śvetāśvatara (KYV) "The Faces of God"
  4. Āruṇeya (SV)
  5. Garbha (KYV)
  6. Paramahaṃsa (ŚYV)
  7. Maitrāyaṇi (SV)
  8. Maitreyi (SV)
  9. Tejobindu (KYV)
  10. Parivrāt (Nāradaparivrājaka) (AV)
  11. Nirvāṇa (ṚV)
  12. Advayatāraka (ŚYV)
  13. Bhikṣu (SYV)
  14. Turīyātīta (SYV)
  15. Sannyāsa (SV)
  16. Paramahaṃsaparivrājaka (AV)
  17. Kuṇḍika (SV)
  18. Parabrahma (AV)
  19. Avadhūta (KYV)
  20. Kaṭharudra (KYV)
  21. Yājñavalkya (SYV)
  22. Varāha (KYV)
  23. Śāṭyāyani (SYV)

Noted sanyasis


Vairāgya (Hindi:वैराग्य, Telugu: వైరాగ్యం or విరాగం also spelt as Vairagya) is a Sanskrit term used in Hindu philosophy that roughly translates as dispassion, non-attachment (detachment), or renunciation, in particular renunciation from the pains and pleasures in the material world. The Hindu philosophers who advocated vairāgya told their followers that it is a means to achieve moksha.


Vairāgya is a compound word joining vai meaning "to dry, be dried" + rāga meaning "color, passion, feeling, emotion, interest" (and a range of other usages). This sense of "drying up of the passions" gives vairāgya a general meaning of ascetic disinterest in things that would cause attachment in most people. It is a "dis-passionate" stance on life. An ascetic who has subdued all passions and desires is called a vairāgika.[19]

In Hindu texts

The concept of Vairāgya is found in Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras, where it along with practice (abhyāsa), is the key to restraint of the modifications of the mind (YS 1.12, "abhyāsa-vairāgyabhyāṁ tannirodhaḥ"). The term vairāgya appears three times in the Bhagavadgītā (6.35, 13.8, 18.52) where it is recommended as a key means for bringing control to the restless mind.

See also


  1. The Samnyasa Upanisads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation, Patrick Olivelle, Oxford University Press, 1992
  2. Srimad Bhagavatam 1.3.30 First Canto By A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, ISBN 0912776285
  3. Srimad Bhagavatam: Fourth Canto By A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, ISBN 0912776382
  4. Bhagavad Gita 18.2
  5. Miller, Barbara Stoler, The Bhagavad Gita, Bantam Books, New York, 1986, ISBN 0-553-21365-2, pp. 143, 168
  6. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the Bhagavad-Gita, a New Translation and Commentary, Chapter 1-6. Penguin Books, 1969, p 333-334 (v 3)
  7. See Baudāyana 2.11.27; on the householder's āśrama being a snātaka 's only option, see also Gautama 3.36
  8. See Olivelle, Patrick, "Renouncer and Renunciation in the Dharmaśāstras," p. 85
  9. It should be noted, however, that neither accepted that the renouncer's āśrama was in any way superior to that of the householder
  10. See Olivelle's discussion of the development of the āśrama system in "Renouncer and Renunciation in the Dharmaśāstras," p. 84-106
  11. See Manu 6.35-37; Yājñavalkya 3.56
  12. See Olivelle, "Renouncer and Renunciation in the Dharmaśāstras." p. 111
  13. See, for example, Manu 6.29, 40, 94; for a discussion of whether, among even twice-born men, only Brahmins were to be permitted to renounce, see Olivelle, "Renouncer and Renunciation in the Dharmaśāstras." p. 111
  14. For more references to renunciation by Śūdras and women, see Olivelle, "Renouncer and Renunciation in the Dharmaśāstras." p. 112-115
  15. See Olivelle, Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads. p. 89-91
  16. See, for instance, Arthaśāstra 2.1.29
  17. [1]
  18. Patrick Olivelle, Oxford University Press, 1992
  19. Apte, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, p. 891.

External links


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