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.”