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…