Monthly Archives: August 2014

Sannyasa–Part IV: Renunciation Itself Renounced

So now we come to Part IV, my favorite part and perhaps the most difficult to grasp.   Here Abhishiktananda steps off the “well-beaten path” and steps out over “the Great Abyss” with no “safety nets” in sight! Again and again he is unrelenting in his focus on the Beyond, and to such a degree that no institution, whether religious or cultural, can possibly contain what he says.


Abhishiktananda begins by blasting any notion of sannyasa other than as a dynamic related to a most profound inner experience: “It is precisely the all-transcending character of sannyasa that makes some people vehemently deny the possibility of its existing as an institution within the framework of any social or religious order…. Sannyasa is an inner experience–just that. The sannyasi is the man whom the Spirit has made ‘alone’, ekaki. Any attempt to group sannyasis together, so that they may be counted or included in a special class, is a denial of what sannyasa really is. The sannyasi is unique, each individual sannyasi is unique, unique as the atman is unique, beyond any kind of otherness, he is ekarsi, since ‘no one is different from or other than myself.’ The sannyasi has no place, no loka. His only loka is the atmaloka, but this is both a-loka (without loka) and sarva-loka (in all lokas). He cannot enter into dvandva (duality) with anything whatever–so, if there is a class of sannyasis, it is all up with sannyasa!”


He is especially acerbic with any idea or view of sannyasa as a “belonging to some group” or as constituted by any external measures or signs, etc.: “They have renounced the world–splendid! So from then on they belong to the loka, the ‘world’, of those who have renounced the world! They constitute themselves a new kind of society, an ‘in-group’ of their own, a spiritual elite apart from the common man, and charged with instructing him, very like those ‘scribes and pharisees’ whose attitude made even Jesus, the compassionate one, lose his temper. Then a whole new code of correct behavior develops, worse than that of the world, with its courtesy titles, respectful greetings, orders of precedence and the rest. The wearing of saffron becomes the sign, not so much of renunciation, as of belonging to the ‘order of swamis.’” Here he is describing mostly the situation in India, but it is clear that this description sadly fits way too many within western monasticism and religious life.


So sannyasa is first and foremost related to a deep and profound spiritual experience which manifests itself as “renunciation”–and this was already alluded to in Part I. Sannyasa is afterall a life of renunciation as we said, but this renouncement has to cut very, very deep or else we are merely playing at it. Abhishiktananda: “At the beginning of his diksa the one who is taking sannyasa repeats this mantra: ‘OM bhur bhuvab svab samnyastam maya’–‘All the worlds are renounced by me.’ But so long as there remains a ‘by me’ (maya) in the one who is renouncing the world, he has not yet renounced anything at all! The maya (I, me) is annihilated, blown to pieces, when the renunciation is genuine; and the only genuine renunciation is a total one, that is, when the renouncer is himself included in the renunciation. Then ‘maya’ is wiped out, renunciation is wiped out, and so is the renouncer. Then the heavens are torn open, as happened at the baptism of Jesus, and the truth of advaita shines out, needing no words, names or expressions, being beyond all expression. Words are quite incapable of expressing the mystery of that truth which pierces through to the unfathomable abyss of the inner experience, beyond the I/Thou, Father/Son, of Jesus’ baptismal initiation, beyond the tattvamasi/ahambrahmasmi (That art thou/I am Brahman) of the Upanishadic initiation, beyond all sannyasa, beyond all light that can be seen or spoken of, beyond any ‘desert’ that is still known as such.”


This is the core message of Part IV. The “renouncer” and the “renouncing” have to go also! Otherwise the would-be monk/sannyasi pats himself on the back that he is such a “renouncer.” It is interesting to note here that the reality of this kind of ultimate renouncing cannot be a “selfie” to put it in current lingo–it cannot be a do-it-yourself project. And here both John of the Cross and the Upanishads agree–it is only the Divine Activity within one that can do this. Abhishiktananda: “That can only be done when the tejobindu, the ‘pearl of glory’, the self-luminous one of which the Upanishads speak, flashes forth, the ray of light that illuminates the depth of the soul.”


Of course when we speak of “inner experience,” there is always the danger of self-delusion or of simply being “swept off one’s feet” by some psychic phenomenon. In some ways this is a trivial problem because the “nitty-gritty” of life will bring one back to earth very fast; but there is a special problem for those who live in intense spiritual environments, like monasteries, where they can talk themselves into thinking they have these “special experiences” and then they dress them up with quotes from scripture and spiritual writings and this begins to pass for “what they are there for.” They look for “signs” of realization, and truly they do find these “signs.” This kind of thing takes place in all and various religious groups where some individuals will “claim” ultimate realization because they “feel” it. Obviously this has nothing to do with sannyasa. Abhishiktananda: “However, as long as the light has not shone fully within, and the tejobindu–that pearl of glory in the depth of our being–has not yet totally transformed the buddhi (discriminating faculty) to its ultimate recesses, one has no right to pronounce the mahavakya: aham Brahma asmi ( I am Brahman). The ‘aham’ of which he is aware in his outer consciousness is still essentially the ego of the one who utters the formula, and only very indirectly does it point to the deep aham to which the Scriptures refer.”


Neither this profound inner experience, nor true sannyasa is “built upon” or dependent on anything else or needing any support. I am reminded of the questions raised pertaining to Jesus: By whose authority does he say what he says, by whose authority does he do what he does? Indeed, a would-be sannyasi might claim some external authority for his “sannyasa.” By whose authority is he a sannyasi? By the authority of scriptures? By the authority of a guru with all the paraphernalia of sannyasa? By the authority of a religious institution? By the authority of a claimed inner experience? Abhishiktananda’s position is so radical that in fact there is no authority for this Reality except the Reality itself, the Spirit if you will in Christian terms, the experience of advaita–but even here you want to be very careful what this term really means. True sannyasa is beyond all signs, all foundations, all authorities. Abhishiktananda: “The atman, the Self, rests on itself alone. To try to provide it with a would-b e ‘support’ outside itself amounts to letting the sand slip through one’s fingers. The same can be said of sannyasa, the supreme renunciation. As long as we try to find a support (pratistha) for it in anything else–say, a mantra, a diksa, a tradition, a vamsa–we simply miss the point. Anyone who relies on such things in order to gain recognition and acceptance in society…has not yet understood…. His true support is not here. It is nothing that can be shown, dated, described, proved by witnesses (such as the guru or abbot who gave him diksa)…. No revelation, no ecstasy, no Scripture, no man, no event, no diksa, nothing whatever can be his support….”


At this point in his essay, Abhishiktananda gives us what I consider his most beautiful, most profound and most important quote: “In the heart of every man there is something–a drive?–which is already there when he is born and will haunt him unremittingly until his last breath. It is a mystery which encompasses him on every side, but one which none of his faculties can ever attain to, or still less lay hold of. It cannot be located in anything that can be seen, heard, touched or known in this world. There is no sign for it–not even the would-be transcendent sign of sannyasa. It is a bursting asunder at the very heart of being, something utterly unbearable. But nevertheless this is the price of finding the treasure that is without name or form or sign…. It is the unique splendour of the Self–but no one is left in its presence to exclaim, ‘How beautiful it is!’”


I am not going to comment on this passage—it would take many pages just to begin to point out its significance and its many incredibly deep insights. But I would like to add just a few reflections. First of all, Abhishiktananda’s thought here resonates with some Rahnerian themes–the theology of Karl Rahner is not far off here, but it also must be said that Abhishiktananda seems to express something from a very deep experience beyond the ken of most theologians–even Rahner–not that this great theologian was not a man of the Spirit and of spiritual experience. Secondly, if we truly grasped the insights buried in these words, it would revolutionize the way we look at each other, at other human beings, at religious life, at the spiritual life…. His words open to us a vision encompassing all human beings, whether in a family, or active religious or monastics/sannyasis–it really doesn’t matter–all life is oriented toward this Transcendent Reality, and the sannyasi is only there to remind us of that fact. But the sannyasi’s “transparency” is truly effective only when the sannyasi is “no more”!!! Very hard to do– to say the least! This probably makes no sense to a lot of people. How do you pass through the “eye of THAT needle”?!–we are all so “rich” in ego-self. Jesus says that only God can accomplish this, and the Upanishads are really not that far off in this regard. In fact even if we spend our lives in the pursuit of wealth, sex, power, or we just meander through the trivial pursuits of our consumer culture, in the end we die and we are pulled “through the eye of that needle” and nothing is left except that which the sannyasi is pointing to–but this is Unspeakable and One with God.


So Abhishiktananda continues in this vein: “It is an invisible ray issuing from the Pearl of Light, the tejobindu, in the deepest abyss of the Self; it is also a death-ray, ruthlessly destroying all that comes in its way. Blessed death! It pierces irresistibly through and through, and all desires are consumed, even the supreme and ultimate desire, the desire for non-desire, the desire for renunciation itself. As long as any desire remains, there is no real sannyasa and the desire for sannyasa is itself the negation of sannyasa. The only true sannyasi is the one who has renounced both renunciation and non-renunciation. Farewell then to any recognition by others that I am a sannyasi.” So in this “impossible” description one can hear echoes of Buddhism. For many this will seem like merely playing with words and impossible to make any sense of this. But it is like a Zen koan, not a logical argument. In fact one could say that this sannyasi that Abhishiktananda describes is truly an embodied koan “in the flesh.” One does not arrive at this life through a process of logical thinking–or even cultural or religious processes.


So Abhishiktananda continues: “The kesi does not regard himself as a sannyasi. There is no world, no loka, in which he belongs…. Wherever he goes, he goes maddened with his own rapture, intoxicated with the unique Self. Friend of all and fearing none, he bears the Fire, he bears the Light. Some take him for a common beggar, some for a madman, a few for a sage. To him it is all one…. His support is in himself, that is to say, in the Spirit from whom he is not ‘other.’”


As I mentioned earlier, Abhishiktananda will soften this radicalism in Part V where he brings back the symbolic, and one might say “theological,” significance of the diksa, the initiation into formal sannyasa. One might accuse him of “having his cake and eating it too”–of being self-contradictory…but he is reaching realms where only the language of paradox is even allowed to approach. What’s important to realize and what’s very obvious is that true sannyasa for Abhishiktananda is never simply the equivalent of formal sannyasa into which one is initiated in a sacramental way. This has its own significance as we shall see, but now Abhishiktananda has an intense focus on what one might call “true sannyasa” or “the essence of sannyasa”–that which is connected to and expressive of an absolutely transcendent inner reality which no words or symbols can in any way touch. Whatever be our “formal” status, it is precisely this that ALL of us are oriented to whether we realize it or not. And now I get the import of that Merton axiom: monks are not “special people” but only what all people should be. Indeed, all monks and all sannyasis precisely serve that purpose when they are truly living out their lives. In any case, we will get into that in the next posting. Meanwhile let us conclude with the unrelenting radical message of this part of the essay: “From the call of the Spirit there is no release. Nothing can continue to have meaning or value for the man on whom the Spirit has descended. He no longer has either a past or a future. All plans made by him or for him, even the loftiest religious projects, are swept away like leaves before the wind…. Awakening must not be confused with any particular human or religious situation, with any specific state of life, or loka, or with any condition (or conditioning) which sets one apart. Even Gautama the Buddha seems to have tied the possibility of awakening too closely to the monastic life, and too often Hindu dharma has thought on the same lines.”


And: “’Self-realization’ is the great myth [my note:myth in the Jungian sense] of the Vedanta. When Sri Ramana says that the final obstacle to realization is the very idea that one ought to strive after it, he is in fact setting forth the definitive purification of the Spirit, that which sets man free and cuts the last ‘knot of the heart’…. It is the equivalent of the ‘dark night of the soul’ according to John of the Cross, who teaches that the ultimate act of union and perfect love is an act so spiritual that nothing in our created nature is able to feel it or lay hold of it, to understand or express it. It happens without our mind being aware of it or being able to apprehend it. Yet something in us knows that ‘It is,’ ‘asti.’ Both of these great seers refuse to allow that the final perfection, the awakening, has anything to do with space or time, or even thought. It is utterly mistaken to try to attain to some ultimate experience, as a result of which one might hold oneself to be a ‘realized man.’”

Amen!   To be continued….






Sannyasa–Part III: Sannyasa and Religion

So now we turn to the third part of this remarkable essay by Abhishiktananda. In some ways he continues the various themes about sannyasa that he has laid out in the first two parts, and in a sense he gets a bit repetitious and also he becomes somewhat muddled in his focus or so it can seem to a reader–and at the same time evolving into a most controversial and most challenging position with regard both to Hindus and to Christians. So let us begin a close reading of the first few pages. And here he starts with what might look like the first inklings of a “theology of religions.” What he seems to say will not please traditional Christians or cohere with orthodox Catholic theology, nor will it be amenable to orthodox Hindus.

The problem is that Abhishiktananda is trying to draw a circle around what cannot be encircled–as he himself acknowledges again and again. He is trying to put into words what ultimately cannot be put into words, but that doesn’t mean that nothing can be said about this Reality. Quite the contrary. But as that great Christian apophatic master put it: the moment you say something about the Ultimate Transcendent Reality called God, for all practical purposes you have to “unsay” it for the statement to be true. Both the “saying” and the “unsaying” have to be done carefully, thoughtfully, out of deep religious experience, and with profound respect for traditional terms and concepts. So we are not simply playing verbal games, nor dealing in intellectual puzzles that we can solve with enough cleverness. This is one reason why some time ago when I posted a series of reflections on the “Foundations & Fundamentals” of Christian spirituality and mysticism, I made the very first “building block” a sense of God as Ultimate and Absolute Mystery. Unless a person arrives at that realization, sooner or later, he/she will latch on to certain concepts and verbal formulas and images that will not only diminish their spiritual life but totally truncate it.

So Abhishiktananda begins with a basic dynamic of “on the one hand this is true,” but “on the other hand that is true”–in order to avoid simplistic assessment. Abhishiktananda : “Both as an inner experience and as the outward expression of this experience in human life, sannyasa transcends all the dvandvas, or pairs of opposites. It even transcends the fundamental dvandva which religious men have discovered in dharma–adharma…. Even more the sannyasi stands beyond the manifold distinctions and dvandvas which differentiate the various dharmas or religions with their sacred symbols, by whose guidance man strives to reach his goal.“ Now on the other hand he quickly proceeds to explain that he is not implying by this understanding of sannyasa any “facile syncretism” –the notion that all religions are basically all the same and be treated as “equivalent.” However a reader could not be faulted if he/she thought that this was exactly what he is implying! Abhishiktananda goes on to explain his position, but I think he goes on to dig a deeper and deeper hole for himself as far as acceptance goes by orthodox Christians and orthodox Hindus.

Abhishiktananda goes on to explain that each of the great religions of the world is rooted in an “awakening to the Real” in some remarkable person or persons. But this awakening does not take place in a vacuum but in a certain cultural setting and within a particular set of symbols and language possibilities. So the possibility of communicating the meaning of this awakening and symbolically pointing at it is inevitably conditioned by this complex matrix. What Abhishiktananda is doing is separating out a core experience from all the words and symbols that kind of map this experience in limited human terms. He is not saying that all maps are the same but he does emphatically insist that no map is adequate to represent this Reality–because its essential nature is “always beyond.” And it is to this “beyond” that we are drawn to in all the religions. Nor is he saying that the “core experience” of this Absolute Reality that gives rise to each religion is of the same depth or to the same degree or any other kind of sameness. Here he is still within the ambience of Catholic theology with the major exception that Catholic theology would insist that the Catholic symbolic universe points “more fully or more completely” toward this “beyond” and therefore it invites all the other great religions to find their own fulfillment within this ambience. But Abhishiktananda is moving quite far from this position as he explores the meaning of sannyasa.

Abhishiktananda: “Every dharma is for its followers the supreme vehicle of the claims of the Absolute. However, behind and beyond the namarupa, the external features such as creed, rite, etc., by which it is recognized and through which it is transmitted, it bears within itself an urgent call to men to pass beyond itself, inasmuch as its essence is to be a sign of the Absolute. In fact, whatever the excellence of any dharma, it remains inevitably at the level of signs; it remains on this side of the Real, not only in its structure and institutional forms, but also in all its attempts to formulate the ineffable Reality, alike in mythical or in conceptual images. The mystery to which it points overflows its limits in every direction.”


Now we are not going to get into the complex arguments of the theologians that such statements as above imply. In orthodox Catholic theology the “Catholic dharma” would not be seen as simply “at the level of signs”–even its institutional form, “the Church,” becomes the “Body of Christ,” that is it participates in the Reality of the Absolute and not just as a “pointer.” And there are various other arguments about such statements, but Abhishiktananda is not concerned about such arguments–he is totally focused on something else, and here is the core statement of his “theology of religions”: “But in every religion and in every religious experience there is a beyond, and it is precisely this ‘beyond’ that is our goal.” And it is in connection with this “beyond” that sannyasa is to be understood–any other explanation will only obscure the reality and mislead the inquiry into its meaning–such as often happened in western monasticism where the rationale for the life sometime took on the bizarre elements of a superficial piety.

So Abhishiktananda is now better able to locate the phenomenon of sannyasa within the whole realm of religious expression and within the very ground of religion: “ Sannyasa is the recognition of that which is beyond all signs; and, paradoxically, it is itself the sign of what forever lies beyond all possibility of being adequately expressed by rites, creeds or institutions.” And: “In one form or another sannyasa has emerged in every great dharma.” Now it is clear that sannyasa has its clearest expression in the sanatana dharma of India, where it becomes for all practical purposes “institutionalized” in a paradoxical manifestation. So there it is the “privileged witness to that which in the end neither itself nor any other dharma is able to express” and it “remains the most radical witness to that call to the beyond which sounds, however faintly, in the heart of every man.” So Abhishiktananda on the one hand universalizes the dynamic of sannyasa, and on the other hand he recognizes its special locus within the Hinduism of India.

At this point we have to ask ourselves what is Abhishiktananda saying about the relationship of sannyasa to western monasticism. In a sense we have already touched that topic in the two earlier sections, but he seems to repeat himself with new/different nuances each time–so it is hard to pin him down. So again in universalizing sannyasa he finds it at the heart of western monasticism–the very dynamic which we call monasticism arises out of the “gravitational pull” of the Beyond that is at the heart of all the great world religions. But it is very clear, as I pointed out and Abhishiktananda at times acknowledges, that western monasticism in its historical expression is nowhere even close to the radical nature and ultimacy that Hindu sannyasa has. It gets bogged down with way too much baggage. Abhishiktananda: “It has to be granted, however, that the unconditional summons to the Beyond, which is implied in all monasticism, is not always accepted with the same degree of radicalism.”   And in part it is due to cultural differences: “In the case of Christian monks also it is true that most of them can be described as bhaktas and karmins, that is, as engaged in a life of worship and activity…. The spirit of secular activism corrodes everything. So in the West monks and clergy seek to establish their status in society and ask for a social recognition which is purely, secular in character. In the flood of secularism which is sweeping away all the adventitious sacredness with which their calling was overlaid in previous ages they lose the sense of their real identity.”

Abhishiktananda also warns us not to get caught up in labels and “names.” This is endemic to all institutional monks and it becomes a total diversion from the identity that he is talking about. Strange thing that for all that call to renunciation which is at the heart of all monasticism, hardly any of it admits of “renouncing” the labels and names that monks love to exhibit and, yes, to possess as their identity(more about this in the next section). Abhishiktananda: “Terms like ‘Hindu sannyasa,’ ‘Christian’ or ‘Buddhist monasticism,’ despite their convenience, should be used with caution, since they only have meaning on the phenomenological level (the level of appearance). No epithet or qualification, religious or other, can rightly be attributed to the core of what in India is called sannyasa and elsewhere monasticism. The call to complete renunciation cuts across all dharmas and disregards all frontiers. No doubt the call reaches individuals through the particular forms of their own dharma: but it corresponds to a powerful instinct, so deep-rooted in the human heart, nihitam guhayam, that it is anterior to every religious formulation. In the end, it is in that call arising from the depths of the human heart that all the great dharmas really meet each other and discover their innermost truth in that attraction beyond themselves which they all share.”

Very well put and pretty much sums up Abhishiktananda’s whole position. The inner pull or the call of the Beyond “is anterior to every religious formulation,” and it manifests itself in this call to complete renunciation which sannyasa and monasticism are supposed to instantiate. But it is first and foremost a universal human dynamic which is accessible to every human being and in fact it is a call present within every human heart. The other very important point here is what you might call the “charter for interreligious dialogue.” No wonder that monks in all the traditions flourish more in these encounters rather than scholars. They are not so much interested in discussing the meaning of terms and symbols within each dharma (though this is an important endeavor also), but mostly the “renunciants” from each dharma can recognize in each other that commonality of that “call of the Beyond” before it becomes phenomenologically differentiated in very different philosophies and symbols and creeds and rites. It is something that cannot be put into words, so the monks and nuns usually end up talking to each other about each other’s practical lives and practices as they reach out to each other within this Silent and Transcendent Commonality of the Call of the Beyond.

Now Abhishiktananda raises another crucial question: “…what is to be the relation of those who follow the way of renunciation to their original dharma?” This question may come as a surprise because someone might understandably assume that the “renunciant” is a loyal and indeed central “son/daughter of the Church” in Christian terms or something equivalent in Hinduism. But it’s not as simple as all that if we follow Abhishiktananda. He admits that Hinduism has in fact done quite a lot in reintegrating those “renunciants” who have “left social life.” Needless to say, within Christianity it is even more so. But Abhishiktananda has his gaze focused intensely on that true Beyond which carries one into uncharted waters regardless of any official affiliation or membership or recognition. Abhishiktananda: “However, the great tradition to which we have been referring throughout this essay cannot allow that the paramahamsa is bound by any rules whatever, whether of family, society, religion or cult (in Christian terms, not even of the sacraments).” It is interesting that he says that because he himself strictly adhered to the daily celebration of the Eucharist during his whole life in India. Of course often, especially in the last years of his life, he celebrated the Eucharist with that freedom that would today bring down a reprimand from higher church authorities. In any case, it is also very interesting how he interprets this ultimate freedom of the “renunciant” in traditional and scriptural terms that Christians, especially Catholics, would not know what to make of.

Abhishiktananda: “He is the man who has passed beyond the realm of signs, whose function in this world is to remind each and every one that ‘all is over’(tetelestai, ‘It is finished’; John 19:30), that the time for parables has gone (John 16:25), that shadows have vanished before the reality (Heb. 10.1)–not that a new rite has taken the place of the old, but rather that all signs and rites have been transcended by the passage ‘through the veil’(Heb. 10:20). Christ’s unique and final oblation has put an end to all rites, since nothing further is left to be done or obtained (Heb. 10:14). By his whole being the monk testifies that the eschaton, the ‘last time’, is already present (John 4:23; 5.25….).”

Fr Bede

There is an interpretive slant here that is not the usual way of reading these verses. And you can see this also in the way he interprets the whole of Christian monastic history: “The ‘sign’ of this is not so much the monk who lives in a community, but the hermit, whose communion with his brothers is no longer at the level of the sign, in outward human fellowship, but at the level of the advaita of the Spirit, in which he sees no one as ‘other’ to himself. That is why no society, not even a religious society, can legislate for its hermits.” Needless to say Catholic monasticism has not quite seen it that way for most of its history. The community of monks has become the normative expression of the monastic charism, and the hermit is seen more as an eccentric or exceptional figure, more to be tolerated than copied. Of course there is a “beautiful” theoretical discourse in monastic spirituality about the “glories” of the hermit life, but for all practical purposes it is seldom allowed full and free expression. The sad fact is that too often “the call of the hermit life” means leaving one’s original monastic life. And here he emphasizes the freedom of the hermit, but it is not a freedom as is commonly known “in the world”–it is not something that the hermit “possesses” and claims as his own: “And yet no hermit can presume upon the ritual diksa which he may have received in order to claim any right for himself, even the right to be free. It is not the diksa that confers freedom on him. Indeed, as soon as anyone boasts of possessing freedom, he had already lost it; the would-be possessor of freedom has fallen back to the level of the dvandvas, and is therefore subject to the obligations of the law. [Wonder why Abhishiktananda doesn’t use St. Paul and all his diatribe against the law and his “life in the Spirit” language?] This freedom is the fruit of his inner awakening, and that cannot be ‘given’ by anyone. That which is essentially akrita, not made or produced, cannot be produced by any action, any rite or any teaching. It is discovered spontaneously in the innermost recesses of the heart, in the guha (cave) where the Spirit dwells alone.”


To be continued….




Sannyasa— Part II: The Transcendent Character of Sannyasa

So we continue with our reflections on Abhishiktananda’s deep and important essay on sannyasa. In this section he emphasizes the theme of the “transcendent character” of sannyasa, by which he refers not only to sannyasa as totally oriented to that Absolute Reality transcending all other realities, but also to the fact that sannyasa transcends its own cultural limitations as a cultural institution of sorts with its rules, rites, and symbols.

Recall that in Part I it was said that there are two paths to sannyasa: first there is the one that is culturally “approved” and one could almost say culturally regulated; then there is the sannyasa that “erupts” in one’s heart like a volcano , that you really do not choose or “time”–it just happens to you no matter who you are or where you are or how old you are. The first path has to do with the four stages of life classified by Hindu religious culture: brahmacarya, the life of a celibate student; grihastha, the life of a householder, your basic family life; vanaprastha, the life of forest-dwelling. This one is most interesting in that it actually represents a loose approximation to western monasticism–at least the hermit life, but you can see something of the western monk in general here also. Let me borrow a description of this stage of life from the internet:

“When a householder is considered to be older, perceiving his skin to have become wrinkled, his hair turned gray, and has grandchildren, the time is said to have come for him to enter the third stage of life, or vanaprastha. It is said that he should now disengage himself from all family ties, except that his wife may accompany him, if she chooses – although maintaining total celibacy, and retire to a lonely forest, taking with him only his sacred fires and the implements required for the daily and periodical worship. Clad in deerskin, a single piece of cloth, or in a bark garment, with his hair and nails uncut, the hermit is to subsist exclusively on food growing wild in the forest, such as roots, green herbs, wild rice, and grain. He must not accept gifts from any one, except of what may be absolutely necessary to maintain him; but with his own few possessions he should honor, to the best of his ability, those who visit his hermitage. His time must be spent in reading the metaphysical treatises of the Veda, in performing acts of bhakti (worship), and in undergoing various kinds of austerities, with a view to mortifying his passions and producing in his mind an entire indifference to worldly objects. Having by these means succeeded in overcoming all sensual affections and desires, and in acquiring perfect equanimity towards everything around him, the hermit has fitted himself for the final and most exalted order, that of devotee or religious mendicant of the fourth stage the sannyasin ashram.”

You can kind of see that from the perspective of the Hindu, the western monk looks more like he/she is in this third stage of this journey and maybe has “one foot” in the last stage but not quite there! Actually one could plausibly propose the idea that the western monk totally interiorizes this fourth asrama, a kind of “sannyasa of the heart” if you will. (Isn’t this the program of John of the Cross and the Carthusians–a radical interior renunciation but one ensconced within a large and secure institution?) This sounds good in theory but in practice I think it often evaporates away like a mirage and we never reach the sannyasa state. This is what Abhishiktananda was wrestling with in India—the fact that Christianity seemed to lack witnesses to the ultimate, as the Indian understood that.

Another interesting aspect to all this is that Hindu culture provides a kind of “gradual” movement toward greater renunciation, keeping it all within a definable symbolic space that everyone can recognize for what it is. So “renunciation” is always renunciation within this system and never bringing one outside this system of rules, rites and symbols. But there is a great tension and apparent conflict of views in that the other path to sannyasa totally skips all these steps and conditions and rules and in Part 4, as we shall see, that point is driven home forcefully. Again here is Abhishiktananda: “Sometimes it is regarded as transcending all stages of life, and therefore as being beyond the possibility of inclusion in any classification whatever; thus it is ‘atyasrama’”–ati=beyond, asrama=stage of life or abode of ascetics(this is the word “ashram” which is more familiar to us). These are persons “in whose heart such a blaze of light has been kindled by the reading of Scriptures and the testimony of the guru that it becomes impossible for them to remain any longer in the midst of worldly occupations. Here there is no question of a sannyasa taken as a result of a human decision after lengthy consideration, or in obedience to the Scriptures. It is not a self-imposed sannyasa, but rather one that is imposed by the Self. It is an irresistible inner urge, a sheer necessity springing from the depth of the spirit. It is a spontaneous thrust towards the infinite in the heart of one who can no longer be held back by anything. It is not at all a matter of seeking to acquire light or wisdom or of practicing renunciation; it is rather the strong impulse of a person’s own nature, unborn and unfettered.” And again: “He may still be a student or brahmacari, he may be a householder with wife and children, with position and responsibilities in the world, but the inner awakening frees him from all duties, and for him the life of sannyasa has become a necessity, whether or not he passes through a diksa.”

Now as I said above, all this is in a very strong tension with the sannyasa of formal cultural initiation. Abhishiktananda recognizes this and tries to show that the two can be reconciled or harmonized. I am not sure he is successful, but the effort is ingenious and interesting. Abhishiktananda: “However, as further reflection will suggest, the idea of Sannyasa as the fourth asrama is not so totally at variance with the estimate of it as atyasrama as it may appear to be at first sight. The relation of sannyasa, regarded as the fourth asrama, to the ‘other’ three states of life is in fact of the same order as the relation of the fourth ‘state of consciousness’ to the ‘other ’three(waking, dreaming and deep sleep…)…. The fourth–whether we speak of the final stage of life or the ultimate state of (self)-awareness–is not one member of a group of four and cannot be numbered after the other three. No doubt it is the last moment in a man’s progress towards his ultimate goal, that to which the Spirit is directing and impelling everyone from within. But in the passage from vanaprastha to sannyasa, as from susupti (deep sleep) to turiya (the fourth state of consciousness), there is a break in continuity and, strictly speaking, we should not even say that there is a ‘passage’. The ultimate, turiya, state of consciousness or of life does not enter into dvandva or opposition with anything whatever. It rests on its own greatness…on itself alone…on nothing else that can be seen, touched or expressed….”

Now this is most interesting and in an abstract sense I see what he is getting at, but practically speaking I don’t see how that solves the tension or the possible criticisms by Hindu religionists, especially those of the Brahmin caste who are totally wedded to the expressions and rules of the religious culture. In fact you can almost see how Abhishiktananda’s words would cause a lot of consternation in that camp when he concludes: “Therefore, as the Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad says on the subject of distinguishing classes among sannyasis, we may well say that the conception of sannyasa as a fourth asrama, as commonly understood, is only useful so long as one remains in avidya, in ignorance of the ultimate truth.”

At this point it would be prudent to point out that in fact ultraconservative nationalist Hindu voices have been very critical of Abhishiktananda and the few other Christian figures who have taken on the Indian religious culture with great seriousness and commitment and who have learned deeply from the sanatana dharma and Advaita Vedanta. These ultraconservatives generally claim that people like Abhishiktananda are “sheep in wolves clothing”–they are secretly trying to convert Hindus to Christianity by coming in the cover of Indians and talking Hindu language. So you can see that to these people any “relativizing” of cultural sannyasa seems like an attempt to subvert Hinduism by some foreigner! But we must also point out that there are Hindu holy men and gurus who fully acknowledged Abhishiktananda’s realization of Advaita and his understanding of sannyasa. ( Of course what’s funny is that really conservative Catholics claim that Abhishiktananda betrays the Catholic faith to Hinduism!)

Now in a more serious vein, we have to admit that there have been a number of scholars, both Indian and European, both Christian and Hindu, who have questioned Abhishiktananda’s understanding and interpretation of the Upanishads, of sannyasa, even of India’s total religious consciousness and culture–just as there have been some theologians questioning his Christology and his overall read of Church doctrine. Of course a number of other scholars have defended Abhishiktananda, but the real point is that this is more an example of the “scholar–monk tension.” Abhishiktananda speaks from his deep personal encounter with and experience of advaita and his admittedly very narrow and laser-focused appropriation of Indian religious culture in terms of its deepest intuitions and insights and teachings. “Speaking from experience” always grates on scholars’ ears because all they want to do is examine texts–and there is a very real and important place for that. Abhishiktananda spoke out of a knowledge that he gained by living the reality and by engaging with Hindu holy men of all kinds. Yes, he pretty much ignores bhakti and karma religiosity and some Indians have faulted him for this. He is also criticized even in this appropriation of sannyasa in that he ignores the caste system that seems to keep some people from this path. But if you read him carefully, it is precisely in the transcendent character of sannyasa that the caste system is overcome. In any case, also Abhishiktananda has a problem that this religious path seems to be described as “for men only.” No mention of women, even as transcendent as it is! Of course in actual life Abhishiktananda guided several women in the way of sannyasa but in terms of some religious structure that would protect them from harassment.


So now let us return to the essay and to Abhishiktananda’s treatment of the “transcendent character” of sannyasa. As he keeps emphatically insisting, this transcendence is deep and comprehensive and in a sense involving the very ground sannyasa stands on: “Sannyasa is beyond all dharma, including all ethical and religious duties whatever. Sannyasa Upanishads never tire of celebrating the glorious freedom of the sannyasi.” And the reason for all this is that sannyasa stands on the ground of advaita, the non-dual awareness of the Ultimate Reality of God and self. It is not until you have a sense of this advaitic experience that you can even begin to understand what sannyasa is all about. Abhishiktananda seems to be saying this in so many different ways throughout this whole essay. The whole meaning of sannyasa is related to advaita and without that you merely have a problematic religious and cultural institution and you get snared in a web of words and concepts that do not cohere or harmonize.  Thus the cultural sannyasa in which a person takes up this renunciation as simply another “stage” in his life only approaches the core meaning of sannyasa–which calls for a very real awakening to a Reality beyond all categorization–and true sannyasa ultimately enters a very apophatic namelessness that probably very few can inhabit. Abhishiktananda: “Everything that relates to the world of maya, such as rules of life or the paraphernalia of classical sannyasa, is simply a concession where proper knowledge and inner experience is lacking.”

Unless you have the “taste” of advaita, unless you feel the “gravitational pull” of advaita toward the Center of all Reality, you don’t enter the realm of sannyasa. And Abhishiktananda felt it so strongly early on in his Indian experience that he was anguishing that he might be losing his Catholic faith!

Abhishiktananda: “The sannyasi is indeed the witness to the world of that final state in which man recovers, or rather wakes up to, his own true nature.”

Abhishiktananda: “In fact for every sannyasi that day should come for him to strip himself of everything, depending on when the inner light attains in him to the fullness of its splendor…. When that happens, no regulations concerning the condition of a paramahamsa can bind him any longer. With the words “OM bhuh svaha,” he tosses into the river the whole paraphernalia of danda and kaupinam, kamandalu and kavi robe. As the Naradaparivrajaka Up.(5.1) says, all such things are merely provisional; they are only meaningful while awaiting the full inner awakening, until a man has ‘alam buddhi,’ that is, suifficient wisdom to realize that henceforth he no longer needs anything whatever…. All this goes to show that any distinction of degree in sannyasa, starting with the kuticaka and leading up to the highest ranks of paramahamsa, turiyatita and avadhuta is merely a matter of names, and this according to the Naradaparivrajaka Up.(5.1) is due to ignorance and mental weakness. The typical and ideal sannyasi is the avadhuta–literally, the ‘drop-out,’ the one who has shaken off everything…; he is free from all rules (a-niyama) and fixed in the contemplation of his own true nature, clad in space.”

Amen.     To be continued…






The Further Shore— Sannyasa: Part I, The Ideal

 This is the title of a most important book by Abhishiktananda. In fact I consider it one of the most important and significant religious documents of our time. It is comprised of three separate essays, written at slightly different times and put together by Abhishiktananda himself in this one volume just a few months before his death. It presents some of his most mature and most developed thinking, and it presents quite a challenge to all who read it, Christian, Hindu, or whatever.


The three essays are: “Sannyasa,” “The Upanishads—An Introduction,” and “The Upanishads and the Advaitic Experience.” At this time we will reflect only on the first essay about sannyasa, which I consider the most important one for our purposes. This essay itself is divided into five parts: 1. The Ideal; 2. The transcendent character of Sannyasa; 3. Sannyasa and Religion; 4. Renunciation itself renounced; and 5. Sannyasa-diksa. And the first posting will only be on this introductory material within 1. The Ideal. We will continue with this essay on Sannyasa for several postings as we reflect on various aspects of this phenomenon.


Part I. The Ideal

When Abhishiktananda speaks of “The Ideal,” he is not referring to an “idealized” view of sannyasa, which doesn’t exist except in words; but rather he is trying to articulate the core meaning of this way of life to which every would-be sannyasi would aspire to, some to a greater extent, others to a less. And this core meaning is both very simple and very difficult to formulate. But the need to do so is pressing because sannyasa is so easily misunderstood, misinterpreted, and in our modern world under severe attack–even from people of religion. Abhishiktananda makes a clear, forceful, and challenging defense of this way of life, and in the process he illumines the spiritual path for many of us.

I said “way of life”–that’s really what sannyasa is, a life of total renunciation. Now renunciation has received a bad rap in recent years in Western Christianity and in part due to certain theological and spiritual notions within Western Christianity itself. We are not going to get into that theological quagmire, but suffice it to say that true renunciation is not about inflicting suffering on ourselves in order somehow to compensate for our so-called sins against God. Ultimately this is based on a view of God as distant from us and as some omnipotent ruler who needs the suffering and death of His Son in order to “make up” for the sinfulness of humanity. Jesus “pays the price” and so we are redeemed. And so this line of thought goes something like that and it has a long tradition in Western Christianity. Eastern Christianity is much less tainted by this view, but of course it has its own problems there also. In any case, contemplative Christianity has always, more or less, articulated an alternative view of renunciation–one that has more to do with shedding encumbrances on one’s journey of awakening to the Reality of God, that has more to do with shedding false and/or superficial identities in order to discover who one truly is–a “child of God” in Christian language. This is no longer just a “fuzzy warm thought” in one’s head but a deep and revolutionary upheavel of a whole life. Now the renunciation in sannyasa is so radical that it extends into the very depths of this personal identity and not just in the externals of life. It is only in the non-duality of advaita that you begin to sense what the sannyasi is all about. And western psychology–and so much of western religious awareness also–is so centered on this “I” that is the subject of so much construction and anxiety(“am I getting old and near death?”) and fascination and pampering and obsession and fixation and idolizing, etc, that it has not a clue what the sannyasi is all about except that he looks “weird,” or “inhuman,” etc.


So sannyasa is a way of life that involves a most radical and most comprehensive and most thorough renunciation. But that still does not articulate the deep core meaning of sannyasa. This involves nothing less than the absolutely transcendent reality of God, the Divine Mystery which is beyond all concepts, all notions, all signs and symbols. The person who awakens to this Ultimate Reality, no matter how or when or where that happens, is drawn irresistibly into this life of total renunciation called sannyasa. As Abhishiktananda puts it, it’s as if a person feels his clothes are on fire and he jumps into the nearest pool of water. But the most amazing thing is that at the same time one awaken not only to the Absolute Reality but also to one’s deepest self, the true and only real self, which is inseparable from God, the non-dual experience which is called advaita. As Abhishiktananda puts it: “…they discovered their own true self to be likewise beyond everything that signifies it, whether it be body or mind, sense-perception or thought, or that which is normally called consciousness.”  So the one who plunges into this life of renunciation, of sannyasa, called the sannyasi, is a person totally committed to plunging into the depths of his own heart where these two mysteries, his self and the Reality of God become One Reality. And the only thing that this person needs to do or must do is to be attentive and present to this Presence, this Mystery, this Reality. Nothing else, absolutely nothing else must be expected from this person. He becomes a sign in the midst of his society and in the midst of the human family, a sign of that which is beyond all signs. Abhishiktananda emphasizes this point most eloquently and forcefully because this ideal has been under attack. The sannyasi, like the western monk, has been pushed “to do something useful,” to justify his existence–so various endeavors, works of charity, instruction, all these have been “contaminating” the ideal.


Speaking of western monasticism, there is an interesting problem with regard to the relationship of sannyasa to western monasticism. Abhishiktananda seems to waffle a bit here–at times he seems to equate the western monk and the sannyasi, same reality in different clothing; at other times he seems to see a real difference between the two. The sannyasi is strictly speaking an Indian phenomenon which is most truly understandable within the Indian religious and cultural matrix, within the scriptural tradition of the Upanishads and the Vedas. However, as Abhishiktananda often points out, that particular “ideal” opens up in persons in all kinds of different cultures and different religious languages and it may well look very different from its original manifestation in India. Sannyasa, or whatever you might want to call it, is there as a gift within the whole human family.


Now with regard to western monks, my own opinion is that the two are not exactly the same reality. I come to that conclusion from having lived the monastic life for many years, from having seen much of what western monasticism has to offer or thinks it does, from reading what many monks have written about their own “ideal.” The two are not the same. But there is still what anthropologists would call a “family resemblance.” The two belong to the same grouping of a human manifestation. But we should not be fooled by “resemblance” or with certain similarities in basic language and values. The two are more like “cousins” rather than “brother and sister.” The western monk may very well be “journeying toward the Further Shore” also but he is more likely doing it with a well-stocked boat with lots of provisions and perhaps even a life-raft! Can’t take chances! This is not to imply or say that there aren’t individuals within western monasticism and outside it who are just as radical and just as deep as the most authentic Indian sannyasi. What I am saying is that the institution, the charism, and the ideal articulated by western monks does not reach into the depths of what sannyasa brings you to. Nor is it meant to; another kind of ideal is manifested there. With Abhishiktananda I would agree that the Indian sannyasi represents the fullest and deepest and most complete manifestation of a most sublime dynamic of manifesting our Oneness with the Absolute Reality of God and living for that and that only, absolutely nothing else. Western monks mostly “approximate” this ideal. Western monks have only at certain times and in certain places even approached the “fullness” of that ideal: in the Desert Fathers, in some ancient Syriac ascetics, in some Eastern Christian hesychastic hermits, in various western hermits and mysterious figures over the centuries including our modern West. Otherwise most western monks live in communities with extensive organizations and rules and lives that have been justified by various works, possessions, projects, art, learning, even a kind of “spiritual practicality”–“we pray for others.” What is most interesting and annoying in fact is that key characteristic of western monasticism which I call the “institutional ego”—it seems so important to western monks that they “belong” to this or that group, when in fact it is all so contingent and ephemeral. Even in times of renewal, when the “call of the Desert” is re-found and rearticulated, somehow it slips away as the monks never seem to be comfortable with the radical nature of the Desert Fathers. It is very clear that there are other values being pursued and manifested there. The historical trajectory of western monasticism shows a great variety of goals even as “the one thing necessary” is claimed as THE goal. The sannyasi ideal has no such ambition or need. The face of the sannyasi is turned toward the Absolute Mystery, and in a sense he sees nothing else. This is difficult to grasp or appreciate for most westerners.


Now in India itself the sannyasa tradition has some diverse manifestations and also some real problems. The ideal is not always realized even there! There is the problem of “fake sannyasis”–folk who simply live off begging without any religious orientation. A more interesting problem is the complex variety of sannyasis who also live in ashrams and form “orders,” etc. These are the ones who most resemble western monasticism, but they also seem to be a bit further from that core, center ideal of sannyasa. Abhishiktananda: “In view of the conditions of present-day society and the change in people’s outlook, many sannyasis have chosen to give up mendicancy and the life of perpetual wandering. The ideal, however, remains, and must remain despite all the adaptations that may be required by time and circumstances….”


One of the reasons for the complex evolution and manifestation of the sannyasa ideal in India is the fact that there are two very different paths toward sannyasa. One is what is popularly known and culturally most evident: sannyasa as a stage, the last stage of a full and complete life. As Abhishiktananda puts it, this way of life “is taken by a man in order to get jnana (wisdom) and moksa (liberation). It is a sure sign of the greatness of Indian society that its tradition encourages a man to devote the last stage of his life to the sole quest for the Self, renouncing all else as if he were dead already.” Mostly this kind of person is not yet fully consumed by that inner vision, so he will benefit and indeed need a certain amount of structural support in terms of recognition, symbolism, ritual, even rules and organized structures. The cultural accoutrements of this realization of sannyasa can be misleading and easily misunderstood–especially of its core meaning. (This happens so readily in western monasticism.) So Abhishiktananda immediately qualifies and subverts what he said above and shows that the culturally driven sannyasa (even if it is religious and a step in the right direction as it were) is not yet the pure thing: “The kavi dress is not intended to mark off sannyasis as a special class within society, as is often unfortunately supposed. Sannyasa should not be regarded as a fourth asrama, or state of life, which follows after the three stages….It belongs to no category whatever, and cannot be undertaken along with anything else. It is truly transcendent, as God himself transcends all….” Thus there is also another sannyasa, which has nothing to do with a “stage in life.”


So now we come to that sannyasa that is no longer built on a cultural matrix of culturally approved choices and structures and rites. This is the purest and deepest manifestation of sannyasa. Abhishiktananda: This sannyasa “comes upon a man of itself and whether he likes it or not, he is seized by an inner compulsion. The light has shone so brightly within, that he has become blind to all the things of this world, as happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. In our times the best known case in India is that of Sri Ramana Maharshi, though such an experience is by no means entirely unique. Whether such a man should receive the formal initiation to sannyasa or not, matters very little. He has already become an avadhuta, one who has renounced everything, according to the primitive tradition which existed before any rules had even been thought of. This is the original sannyasa without the name….”


Recall that we started this reflection with the notion of renunciation. As mentioned, the renunciation of the sannyasi is radical, total, and deep, ultimately plunging into the very depths of his identity even as a “sannyasi”–or so it is for the ideal. No rites, no symbols, no rules, no organization, no scriptures even, can define, can limit, can fully express, can reveal who you truly are–so the sannyasi is there for this apophatic moment of identity because whatever it is that comes along and tries to tell you that you are “this” or “that,” the sannyasi is there to proclaim in his very being(not in words) the deepest “neti, neti” –not this, not that–to all such claims. But of course for this to be most deep and most effective and most profound, sannyasa itself in its ultimate manifestation must vanish in the flames of this apophatic ecstasy of always going beyond, always beyond, even beyond sannyasa itself. Thus Abhishiktananda: “…not a few dispense entirely with all rites. Ramdas, for example, simply began to wear saffron after a symbolic plunge in the Kaveri River at Srirangam. This is the case especially with avadhutas, who claim neither the name nor the status of sannyasis but accept the uncompromising ideal more rigorously than any others. Sri Ramana Maharshi simply left his home once for all and went straight to Arunachala. Before him Sadasiva Brahmendra first, on the very day of his marriage, abandoned his home, then left the ashram of his guru, and thereafter roamed, forever naked and silent, up and down the banks of the Kaveri.” And: “…alongside the official and ‘sensible’ sannyasis there still exist in India–in caves, rock-shelters or on the roads–an indefinite number of ascetics without any status who to the indifferent or hostile eye of the casual passer-by appear to be common beggars. And yet it through people like this that the ideal of the ancient yati (world-renouncer) is most surely preserved and handed on. “


To be continued…..     We have gone far enough for now. Much more to come. This is merely by way of an introduction to the ideal of sannyasa. Let us conclude with a few more quotes from Abhishiktananda:


“The sannyasi has renounced the society of men to live in silence and solitude.”


“Complete insecurity and the lack of all foothold in this world belongs to the very essence of sannyasa.”


“The sadhu is set among men to be simply the sign of the Divine Presence, a witness to the mystery which is beyond all signs, a reminder to every man of the inner mystery of his own true self.”


“The sadhu has no obligation towards society in terms of things that can be seen or measured. He is not a priest whose duty is to pray and make offerings on behalf of mankind. He is not a teacher, not even of the Scriptures themselves, as has already been said. Still less is he a social worker…. It is India’s great distinction that for thousands of years her society has accepted this, and has been ready to supply all the needs of the sannyasi without asking of him anything tangible in return, except just to be, to be what he is…. In our day such acosmism is not merely questioned, rather it is condemned…. However, when all is said and done, there is no doubt that Hindu sannyasa will adapt itself to present circumstances, precisely in order that it may fulfill its essential purpose. Some of its forms have become obsolete and will disappeare. Its eccentrics will bew lwess in evidence–though who is to judge what is eccentricity? The mass of those who are beggars rather than real sadhus will die out, as society will refuse any longer to support them. But the true sannyasis will continue to bear their witness, whether they pass their time in ashrams or depart on parivrajya, whether they remain in solitude or congregate in maths, whether they wear clothes or not, whatever name or outward appearance they may choose to adopt…. The present crisis will effectively sift the chaff from the good grain, and only those will remain whose outward profession is a sign of their complete inner renunciation. This small ‘remnant’ will doubtless be less numerous and imposing than their predecessors, but they will survive and will continue to remind India and the world that God alone is.”


“The life of a jnani passed among men and in connection with ordinary human activities in fact calls for a deeper degree of renunciation even than the traditional life of silence and solitude.”