- Saṁnyāsin in the Hindu Tradition: Changing Perspectives by Trichur S. Rukmani
In her latest book, Saṁnyāsin in the Hindu Tradition: Changing Perspectives, Professor Trichur S. Rukmani looks into the Hindu renunciant figure, more specifically the saṁnyāsin—the individual who formally renounces wordly life to adopt an ascetic, contemplative way of life. Rukmani is fully aware that this topic of study is nothing new, but believes the question of what it really means to be a saṁnyāsin today still needs to be addressed, especially in the current globalized age in which saṁnyāsins “are no more confined to the Indian landscape alone but present in foreign lands as well” (p. 3). Thus, her book aims to provide an up-to-date account of the saṁnyāsa institution in modern times, including as well relatively recent developments beyond the Indian subcontinent.
The book begins with a succinct historical treatment of renunciation in the Hindu tradition (chapter 1). Here the author broadly examines the development of renunciation concepts and practices starting from early Vedic times through the classical and Purāṇic phases up to modern times. Particularly informative is the section dealing with the pre-Independence period, which features a brief discussion on how figures such as Mahātma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave, although not formally saṁnyāsins, greatly influenced the saṁnyāsa institution with their reinterpretation of the concept of renunciation. The author also addresses major changes in the institution from the post-Independence period onward, stressing in her analysis factors such as the explosion of information technology, secularization, and the increasing presence of Hinduism in the West. Summarizing the history of Hindu renunciation in twenty pages is obviously challenging, and perhaps the scholarly oriented reader would appreciate a more extensive treatment. However, while Rukmani succeeds in supplying substantial material to the reader, her true purpose is to address how well-known [End Page 671] scholars of Indology (chapter 2) and especially spiritual leaders or practitioners themselves (chapter 3) look upon saṁnyāsa.
A notable feature of the work’s methodology is, I believe, its clear sensitivity to the “insider-outsider” problem. As the author makes clear in her introduction, the book’s treatment of renunciation strives to give voice in a balanced manner to both scholars and saṁnyāsins alike, namely to those who have reflected academically on the subject (the outsiders) and those who are committed to renunciation in their daily lives (the insiders). Furthermore, perhaps aware of her own position as an outsider, Rukmani has deliberately chosen to present her study in the form of one-on-one interviews (we may recall that Rukmani is mainly a textual scholar and that such methodology is a departure from her other works in Hindu studies). Chapter 2 includes a few interesting interviews with modern scholars (albeit mostly Indian/Hindu) exploring how they understand or perceive the role of the saṁnyāsa institution in modern times. Chapter 3 forms the major part of the book (over 150 pages), and deals with how saṁnyāsins belonging to different sampradāyas (including as well some well-known Śaṅkarācāryas) conceive their status and duties in today’s society. Interviews explore central issues such as the conception of liberation (mokṣa), the place of women in the saṁnyāsa institution, and the interaction of saṁnyāsins with the public sphere. The author took special care to respect the views of the speakers during the process of editing. I believe the result is methodologically valuable inasmuch as interviews convey an overall sense of authenticity and shed important light on how the Hindu renunciation tradition is currently understood both in academia and in its actual application in saṁnyāsa institutions.
The last chapter (chapter 4) includes the author’s own observations based on the information gathered during the interviews. Significant here is her comparative...