restricted access CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: Saṃnyāsa: The Highest Hindu Aspiration
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298 CH APTER T W ENT Y-ONE Saṃnyāsa The Highest Hindu Aspiration One who has cut off all desires with the sword of knowledge, boards this boat of Knowledge Supreme and crosses this ocean of relative existence, thereby attaining the Supreme Abode—this one indeed is blessed. —Śaṅkarācārya, Vijñāna-nauka 10 The Vedic system of caturvarṇāśrama singled out one of the four great sections of society for professionally practicing religion: studying and teaching the Veda, performing sacrifices for themselves and for others was defined as the foremost social duty of Brahmins.1 In the course of their individual lives, too, a progressive spiritualization was provided for. After the period of brahmacarya , youth spent in studying with a guru, and after the time of gārhastya, family life devoted to fulfilling the duties enjoined by scriptures and offering sacrifices for the benefit of devas, pitṛs, and humans, the Brahmin was supposed to become a vānaprastha, a forest hermit practicing meditation of the Upaniṣadic type, and finally a saṃnyāsi, a renouncer without a fixed abode and without any possession or attachment, solely devoted to the realization of the absolute. This ideal schema never corresponded in its entirety to the reality of Hindu life, but it institutionalizes a very strong current within Hinduism: the desire to make religion one’s whole purpose in life rather than just one of the many things in life. Whereas the oldest law books explicitly state that saṃnyāsa is only for Brahmins who have passed through the other three stages of life,2 Hindu practice, for as long as we know it, has been less strict. Many Brahmins chose to enter saṃnyāsa right after brahmacarya as its continuance and perfection, and many non-Brahmins took up this mode of life as well. SA Ṃ N YĀSA 299 VAR IETIES OF HOLY M EN AND WOM EN The terms used to identify the “religious” vary, and despite the quite precise definition of some of them, they are applied very loosely by the average Hindu. Sādhu, “holy man” or its feminine form, sādhvī, or sant, “saint,” are common designations applied by most people to all categories of the religious. Saṃnyāsi (feminine: saṃnyāsinī), “renouncer,” is a fairly common term, too, though sometimes it is restricted to the members of the order founded by Śaṅkarācārya, the Daśanāmis (who do not accept women ascetics). In contrast to these the Vaiṣṇava religious are called vairāgis (feminine: vairāginī), a word that has the same meaning, but is used in a more exclusive way. Yogi (feminine: yoginī) as a professional designation can also mean holy men or women in general, or it can designate members of particular groups. Quite often the designation of the saṃpradāya or specific order is used as a name particularly in those places where either one saṃpradāya is especially prominent or where so many sādhus and sādhvīs live that people are familiar with the more subtle distinctions among them. Not all the estimated eight to fifteen million religious, male and female, of today are formally members of a particular order; many are svatantra sādhus, people who without going through the formalities of initiation through a guru and membership in an order don the religious garb and follow a path within the general frame of Hindu religious life. Quite often English books speak of the sādhus as “ascetics” or “monks,” terms with associations within the Western Christian religion, which do not really apply to Hinduism. The etymology of sādhu goes a long way toward clarifying its meaning. It is derived from the root sādh-, to accomplish, and describes someone who follows a certain sādhana, a definite way of life designed to accomplish realization of his ultimate ideal, be it the vision of a personal God or the merging with the impersonal brahman. As long as one has not yet reached the goal one is a sādhaka; the perfect one is called siddha, having achieved sādhya, the end to be reached. The various groups of religious differ in their sādhana; differences that sometimes concern doctrinal and dogmatic issues, sometimes ways of life and behavior, sometimes rituals and practices. It is hardly possible even to list all the saṃpradāyas, numbering three hundred or more. Though there have...