Subscribe for Newsletters and Discounts
Be the first to receive our thoughtfully written
religious articles and product discounts.
By registering, you may receive account related information, our email newsletters and product updates, no more than twice a month. Please read our Privacy Policy for details.
Share our website with your friends.
Email this page to a friend
By subscribing, you will receive our email newsletters and product updates, no more than twice a month. All emails will be sent by Exotic India using the email address

Please read our Privacy Policy for details.
Your Cart (0)

Sannyasa the Highest Ashrama: Classification and Content

Article of the Month - March 2012
Viewed 22729 times since 15th Mar, 2012

Whether it be a young student, a married man or a forest dweller (Vanaprastha), the Vedas have enjoined Karma for all. However, it is the Vedas themselves which give us scope to leave Karma in a prescribed manner. This Vedic method of giving up Karma is known as Sannyasa. It is the stage of life ideally suited to the contemplation of knowledge (Jnana-Sadhana).

The Description of Sannyasa in the Vedas

Some people have opined that the Vedas themselves have not said anything about Sannyasa, but rather it is only the later texts (Smritis) based on the Vedas, which have introduced the system of Sannyasa. To support this view they quote sentences from the Vedas which ask one to carry on doing Karma for all our lives. However this interpretation is not correct. While it is true that if we do not perform Karma according to our life-stage (Ashrama), it leads to dosha (sin). But the one who becomes a Sannayasi by giving up Karma in the prescribed manner does not entail such a sin. Not only this, the Vedas have effusively praised Sannyasa saying:

‘Sannyasa is the highest, all others are secondary’ (Taittriya Narayana 78).

‘Those purified by Sannyasa Yoga know for certain the highest reach of Vedanta’ (Mundaka Upanishad 3.2.6).

‘Not by Karma, family or sons, but by sacrifice alone have the seekers of Moksha gained immortality’ (Taittriya Narayana 12).

The Jabala Upanishad clearly states:

‘After finishing your studies become a householder. After fulfilling your duties as a householder become a forest-dweller and after living in the forest, take up Sannyasa. Otherwise the student and householder can go directly to Sannyasa also’ (Jabala Upanishad 4).

The above quotation clearly explains the sequence of Sannyasa. It is further said that a ‘Sannayasi should shave his hair, and wander around for alms, all the while maintaining his purity’ (Jabala Upanishad 5).

The Mahabharata supports this:

‘A man bound by Karma finds release through Vidya. Therefore, Sannayasis, who can see through things, do not perform any Karma’ (Moksha Dharma 341.7).




The Shastras (Vedic scriptures), sanction two types of Sannyasas. The first occurs after one has attained Jnana, meaning Karmas fall off naturally from such a Jnani. An example of this is the sage Yajnavalkya in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. This is known as Vidvata Sannyasa, or Sannyasa after knowledge.


The second type of Sannyasa is known as Vividisha Sannyasa. It is for the seeker of Moksha who however has still not gained Jnana. Those with a complete sense of Vairagya (detachment) are entitled to this Sannyasa. Vividisha Sannyasa facilitates constant meditation on the One Supreme Brahman, which is not otherwise possible in any other Ashrama. However, one with half-baked Vairagya should not advance to this Ashrama without full preparation, because there is no going back from here. Most of the Sannyasa nowadays is of this kind.

Vidvata Sannyasa

Jnana is illumination while Karma is darkness. Therefore, one who has obtained Jnana gives up Karma effortlessly, as sage Yajnavalkya does in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (4.5.15). This is known as Vidvata Sannyasa.

Whether the man of knowledge (Jnanai) does Karma or leave it – i.e. whether Karma is seemingly done or not through his body – is immaterial. If there is no reason for continuing with Karma he does leave it, because Karma requires house, wife, money etc. All these are but objects of desire only. But what does a Jnani gain by giving up Karma? This question is as useful as asking what a person stands to gain when he comes from darkness to light and does not fall in a dirty puddle or a bush of thorns (which he would have in darkness). One who has taken Vidvata Sannyasa does not give up Karma thinking “I should leave my Karma.” Rather, like a coconut falls by itself from a tree, so does his Karma leave him.

Some householders object to Sannyasa on the ground that even a Sannayasi has to follow rules in the case of begging alms etc. Therefore, what is the harm if a Sannayasi, who uses only as much food and cloth as necessary for sustaining his body, do so while living in his house itself? The answer to this is that calling a house one’s own inevitably leads to affection and attachment towards the house. The one, who doesn’t have these, has to become a beggar for food and cloth.

Karma of a Jnani

Even though it is natural for Karma to fall away after one has obtained knowledge, even then we see Karma being performed by a Jnani, for e.g. king Janaka. This is because of what is known in Sanskrit as ‘Loka-Samgraha’, which means inspiring others to follow the path of Dharma. If people are not taught to tread the path of Dharma there will be lawlessness all around. Such a Jnani leaves his house only when his children are mature enough to take over the reins of the household.


Bhagavad-Gita (With the Commentary of Sankaracarya (Shankaracharya))All Jnanis are not kings. They may be situated in different unavoidable contexts. They may lack the requisite health for Sannyasa. Or there may not be anybody to look after their wife, small children or elderly parents. Shankaracharya Ji had an aged mother. Before leaving for Sannyasa he made arrangements for relatives to look after her; and even kept his promise that he would come to see her when her end was near. Thus a Jnani, if he has to live in his house due to necessary circumstances, continues to perform Karma for setting an example or even to hive of criticism (whether deserved or undeserved. However, his Karma is not Karma in the true sense of the word (since it is non-binding). (Shri Shankaracharya’s commentary on the Gita 4.20)


Vividisha Sannyasa

Someone who has not yet obtained Jnana, has to continuously engage in the following activities:

1). Shravana: Listening to the scriptures.

2). Manana: Convincing oneself about what has been heard by thinking it out.

3). Nidhidhyasana: Continued reflection on the above gained conviction.

It is well known that the essential knowledge of Advaita (Non-Duality), does not match with Karma because the latter presupposes a duality. Therefore, the one who has still not gained knowledge (Ajnani), but knows that Manana and Nidhidhyasana are necessary for Jnana, does not participate in Karma. This is because he knows that these two are not effective alongside Karma. But Karma has been delineated by the Vedas themselves, which we know are infallible. Therefore, it is not just anybody who can leave Karma and indulge in the sadhana of Jnana. Karma has to be left only in the manner prescribed by the Vedas themselves. This is known as Vividisha Sannyasa. This type of Sannyasa removes all worldly obstacles on the path to Jnana. It is extremely useful in the Sadhana of Moksha. Only those who has obtained Vairagya (detachment), by commitedly performing Nishkama Karma, are the ones entitled to this kind of Sannyasa and nobody else.

Question: What is this Nishkama Karma you are talking about?

Reply: The scriptures speak of four types of Karma:

a). Nitya Karma: These have to be done daily at a specified time in a prescribed manner.

c). Naimittika Karma: These are done whenever a special circumstance (Nimitta) presents itself. For example offering an oblation of water during eclipse, feeding food to a Brahmin on the death anniversary of our parents (Shraddha) etc.

c). Kamya Karma: Karma prescribed in the scriptures to fulfill a certain desire. An example of this is the sacrifice performed by king Dashratha to obtain a son in the Ramayana.

d).Pratishidha Karma: Those acts which are forbidden in the scriptures, like one should not drink alcohol, or one should not bath totally devoid of clothes etc.

Performing a forbidden act leads to sin, therefore the intelligent do not indulge in it. The result of Kamya Karma is the fulfillment of desires, and thus are of natural interest to us. However, the scriptures have not specifically outlined any result of the daily (Nitya) and circumstantial (Naimittika) Karma. Therefore, ordinarily people are not inspired to perform them. But not so for the seeker of Moksha (Mumukshu). Even though no fruits have been said for the performance of Nitya and Naimittika Karma, the Mumukshu, thinking of these instructions as dictate of God, performs them with faith, leaving aside Kamya Karma. This is the Nishkama Karma done with a feeling of offering to God, which is so selfless that not even the desire for Moksha is present while performing them.

These Karma are performed by the seeker of Moksha as a servant under the command of God. The Nishkama Karma begun in this manner slowly and steadily gives rise to a Samskara which encourages us to perform all our actions in this manner. It also leads to a rise in charitable inclinations. All this is nothing but Vairagya. Some people believe that only charitable deeds constitute Nishkama Karma, and therefore they lead aside the Nitya Karma and Naimittika Karma and indulge only in charity. However this does not lead to a consequent purification of the mind (chitta-shuddhi), which is the prerequisite for Jnana. Indeed, Nishkama Karma means living under the instruction of God by following Karma as prescribed in the Vedas. Remember, leaving up our homes to work in an Ashram’s library, office or shop is not Nishkama Karma.

Can One Come Back from Sannyasa?

Sannyasa has the following two characteristics:

1). Worldly problems are absent.

2). But the pleasure we derive from worldly objects dear to us is also absent.

Therefore, the dim-witted person who takes to Sannyasa keeping only the first of these two aspects in mind cannot gain satisfaction in Sannyasa. Trying only to perform his acts of the previous Ashrama albeit in a better way can make him slip. However, there is no going back from Sannyasa. In his commentary on the Gita Bhagavan Shankaracharya says:

‘Whatever is enjoined for one is his or her Dharma. Dharma is just not any act leading to a good result. This is because it is only the scriptures which are the final word in regards to Dharma.’ (Gita 3.35)

The going back from one Ashrama to another is not only for Sannyasa. Nobody can return to a lower Ashrama; i.e. a householder cannot become celibate, or a forest dweller cannot revert to the house. Slipping from one’s Ashrama is known as a Maha-Pataka (highest sin). The society is ordered not to form social bonds like marriage etc. with such persons (Brahma Sutras 3.4.47-50).


This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji. However, any errors are entirely the author's own.

References & Further Reading:

Post a Comment
Post Review
  • Excellent article! Very nicely addresses most aspects of sanyasa. Looking forward to read more of your articles.

    @ Veejay: You are right to a degree, however, this us purely a material type of sanyasa. True sanyasa goes way beyond avoiding things you mention. As for avoiding the pralayam...all that is born comes to an end, everything but the supreme truth is "nashvara" or impermanent. So don't hope you can stop death and destruction, life is born in the womb of death. Seeking refuge at the lotus feet of shri narayana (or whichever form of God you find dear) is the only way you can find release from the real pralayam, that of avidya, May we all find that peace and truth!

    Jai shri ram!

    Kind Regards.
    by Rohit on 1st Apr 2012
  • Your effort is truly a guide to the source of enlightenment for the common and ignorants like me. I feel highly obliged and indebted to you. Thanks and look forward to to get inspirations from you in future too.
    by DHOOM S PUNDIR on 17th Mar 2012
  • Really nice article...very helpful.
    by Shrinivas on 17th Mar 2012
  • Namaskar
    I am a very ordinary human being. In my view we all need to take sannyasa from hurting others feelings, hoarding too much money, earning through illegal means, collecting huge material wealth, eating exorbitant food, ruthlessly exploiting nature and natural resources, exploiting the helpless especially women etc. etc. This will make the world the most wonderful place in the universe and maybe we can even avoid the Pralayam.
    by Veejay on 17th Mar 2012
Parcel received is brilliantly packed by your dispatch team. Excellent collection, beautiful Micro-art work. The items are exactly same as displayed. Hats-off to the collection team. The shiva linga Ring & Garuda pendant were superb. Its pleasure shopping every time. God bless your team with good energy to continue this Real collection work.
Badarinath, India
Jamavar arrived so quickly and is beautiful, thank you!
Your service is exceptional. I am very pleased with your professionalism.
Shambhu, USA
Statue rec'd & it is beautiful, thank you!
Fran, New Jersey
Very good collection. Once ordered previously I had received exactly what has been displayed on the website. Very honest and genuine. But there was little delay in delivery. Nice experience shopping in this website.
Badarinath, India
I’ve received my blue scarf and I am delighted. I am impressed by your professionalism. Thank you so much! I will place another order soon.
Celine, France
Received the consignment in time. Excellent service. I place on record your prompt service and excellent way the product was packed and sent. Kindly accept my appreciation and thanks for all those involved in this work. My prayers t the Almighty to continue the excellent service for the many more years to come. Long live EXOTIC INDIA and its employees
A very thorough and beautiful website and webstore. I have tried for several years to get this Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course from Arshavidya and have been unable. Was so pleased to find it in your store!
George Marshall
A big fan of Exotic India. Have been for years and years. I am always certain to find exactly what I am looking for in your merchandise.
John Dash, western New York, USA
I just got my order and it’s exactly as I hoped it would be!
Nancy, USA.
Subscribe to our newsletter and discounts
Share with friends
Related Links
"Here is a fragment from one of the most poignant episodes of Indian history…. This piece of history is from the Mahabharata…. She was dying with shame but inside, like a true kshatrani (woman of the warrior race), she was burning with anger…. I have heard that women who follow dharma were never brought before a public court….Greed is the destroyer of dharma. I do not desire a third boon…. Draupadi was as forgiving as mother earth herself…. Just then Arjuna saw his dear friend Bhagawan Krishna approaching him…. “Leave him, leave him. He is a brahmin and worthy of our worship. Their mother should not cry, like I have at the death of my children."
Analyzing the Eternal Dimensions of Dharma Through Itihasa (History)
"Actually, the one who worships Bhagwan Vishnu should get rich and the one who worships Shiva should become an avadhuta like Him…. Then he works hard again to acquire wealth. I render all his efforts futile…. However, Bhagawan Vishnu is not like that, it takes longer to please Him…. As a consequence, they later harassed the great God Himself…. On the seventh day, he bathed in the holy waters of Kedarnath and began to cut his head with an axe to offer into the fire…. The boy bowed respectfully before the demon and asked…. No one who commits sin against a great person can be safe and happy in this world."
Shiva and Vishnu: A Unique Aspect of Their Worship
"This middle path lies in between extreme asceticism on one side, and extreme indulgence on the other…. When standing under a Ashok tree, tired and exhausted, she raised her right hand for seeking support of a branch of the tree…. The unique balance that defined his entire life was pre-determined in this duality….One day, in the palace garden he frightened his attendants…. He ate less and less till his diet reduced to a sesame seed, and himself, to a mere skeleton…. Seven days after the attainment of enlightenment gods sent food for breaking his fast…. However, he postponed his ‘nirvana’ for three months till he visited the places he had reminiscences of."
The Light That Enlightened Millions
(The life of Buddha in the popular mind)
"It concedes that for an orderly social life a division into four groups based on the principle of varnadharma is necessary…. Each individual sometimes acts in a sattvika manner while at other times he may act in rajasic or tamasic manner, which means that the manifestation of a particular guna depends on circumstances…. Though all the three gunas are present in everyone, different persons are driven to act differently…. The karma that I have to perform should depend on my inherent gunas and should have the ability to regulate these gunas…. There is no instant transition to moksha…. An individual has to make his way towards moksha only through worldly life."
Varnashrama Dharma: A Logical View
"Who would not satisfy his wife who is but his better half?…. Later, he took a bath, performed pranayama and meditating silently on the pure, eternal light, repeated internally the Gayatri Mantra…. Once it so happened that goddess Lakshmi was out of Vaikuntha…. Despite being older, they always maintain the appearance of five-year olds…. Seeing the great saints he welcomed them with reverence…. It is never for one single purpose but to fulfil many functions at the same time…. He ensured for them a glorious death."
God’s Lila, Understanding the Collective Impact of Avatara
" Contrarily metaphysicians and theologians perceived his form as it manifested in the Upanishads and Puranas….The ‘Advaita’ philosophy also contends that the entire Creation is just the extension of One…. Dance illustrates one of the ever-first cosmic acts with which Shiva seems to have tamed violent motion and separated from it rhythm, moves that communicated emotions and states of mind – human mind and the cosmic, and disciplined and defined pace…. Unlike Vishnu who resorted to dance for accomplishing a contemplated objective, Shiva has been conceived more or less as a regular dancer performing for accomplishing an objective as also for pure aesthetic delight…. Unfurling locks of hair and his snakes floating into space portray the dynamics of the act."
Shiva, the Nataraja
"Vyasa Ji explained through a story how it came to be that the Pandava's marriage with a single wife was in conformity with dharma….The gods, along with their king Indra, were sitting on the bank of a river when they saw a beautiful golden lotus floating on its waters…. Both were playing a game of dice…. On hearing Shiva’s words, Indra started shaking with fear… Without death, the burden on the earth becomes too much…. Her birth had the sanction of all the three Gods - Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu."
Devi Draupadi: Resolving the Paradox
"She has always believed that this would redeem her of her distress….A coconut, otherwise an ordinary dried fruit or the source of edible, or at the most, beauty oil, has always been revered as an auspicious object effecting good and well-being and the food that gods most loved….The tree in the Buddhist tradition was later identified as Bodhi-tree, seated under which Buddha had attained Enlightenment….Body gestures and symptoms, signs, indications among others must have been the early man’s tools of communicating oneself and knowing and understanding the world around….Kirttimukha was initially conceived as a mystical mask….Lion does not figure in the wide range of animal toys or figurines excavated from Indus sites."
Auspicious Symbols in Indian tradition
"During one such sacrifice, nine spiritually charged men entered the sacrificial hall….As for Bhagavat Dharma, it is the dharma spoken by God directly from his own mouth…. Like a person eating food finds himself gratified simultaneously in three ways…. We are all constantly taught by spiritual texts to offer or dedicate all our actions to God. However, the question remains as to how to practically carry out this injunction…..The only fruit of wealth is dharma... Therefore, there is no need for the Vedas to enjoin us to these things for which we already have a tendency….The real intention of the Vedic injunctions in these matters is to make a person abstain from them…”
Nine Teachings from Nine Yogis: The Essence of Bhagavat Dharma
"We assume that our happiness is the result of an interaction with external objects…. Suppose that an individual is deprived of sleep and food and pleasurable objects for a long time and then all of them are simultaneously offered to him…. Actually, seeking the answer to this question is the most significant pursuit in life…. The veil comes up again and the duality returns…. In this background, we can now analyse the nature of dukha (grief)."
Ananda: Understanding the True Nature of Happiness
"Once as he was engaged in puja, a saint came to visit him….Like a true householder attached to his family, Gajendra sported in the water with his wives, children and friends…. Understanding that his end was imminent, they all slowly withdrew, till Gajendra was left alone…. If we reflect on it calmly, we will realise that there is no house in the world where the story of Gajendra does not play out…. The one who is careful towards the end is able to reform his death…. Gajendra’s hymn of praise is one of the greatest philosophical poems in the annals of world literature."
Moksha of Gajendra: Liberation by The Formless God
"The Bhagavad Gita, while describing the qualities of a wise person says…. This verse is vividly illustrated in the story of king Rantideva occurring in the Srimad Bhagavatam…. He did not believe in hoarding, was above all attachments and was highly patient…. They were all trembling due to starvation and thirst….bowed to the dogs and their owner…. What I want is only this: That I be able to go and live in the hearts of all beings and undergo sufferings on their behalf, so that they may become free from all miseries."
An Example of Living Vedanta: The Story of King Rantideva
"Whenever he gets the time, he should go and live amongst people who have given up worldly life…. A wise person should serve his body and family only to the extent that is functionally necessary…. The person who lays claim on the surplus wealth is nothing but a thief…. He should share all objects of enjoyment with everyone, right down to dogs, sinners…. Such is the attachment to one’s wife….How despicable is this body, which if buried is going to become the food of worms, or excreta if eaten by animals….Since a son is to thus revere his elders even after their death, what to say that he is expected to serve them when they are alive…. The person wishing to follow the path of dharma should steer clear of the five forms of Adharma."
Narada Teaches Yuddhishtra a Householder’s Dharma
"But to pull this statement out of context and give it as an advice for anyone is far from correct…. But how is one to recognise the guru? Obviously, he will be able to understand the difficulties of the disciples and clarify to them the meaning of the scriptures on the basis of logic and experience…. They will have to search in their own neighbourhood only….The guru chosen by him should be at least better than himself!…. Of course, if the ideal guru whose features have been enumerated in the beginning is available, then the sadhaka should immediately go and surrender to him…. It is just like going to another teacher for higher education, after completing the education in a school."
The Qualities of a Guru and How to Find One
"Only a certain fraction of this karma is chosen by God in order to form the blueprint of our next birth…. The fruit that one experiences in this birth is due to prarabdha and a portion of the present agami…. Similarly, a fish in the Ganga does not accrue punya because of always living in Ganga…. A good karma can be annulled by a bad karma and a bad one by a good one…. Sometimes we also hear that prarabdha cannot be got rid of. It has to be spent through…. Bhagawan Vyasa says that for the full result of the karma to manifest, three things are necessary…. Then how to understand the statement that prarabdha should unavoidably be experienced?"
Theory and Practice of Karma: Some Salient Features
Show More
TRUSTe online privacy certification
All rights reserved. Copyright 2016 © Exotic India