Sannyasa the Highest Ashrama: Classification and Content

Article of the Month - Mar 2012

This article by Nitin Kumar

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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).

Mundaka Upanishad

‘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 Message of Mahabharata

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.

The Message of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (Sanskrit Text, Transliteration, English Translation and Commentary )

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.


Srimad Bhagavad Gita with the Commentary of Shankaracharya and Anandagiri

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.

Nitya Karma - Daily Observances

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.

Ramayana- The Story of Lord Rama (English)

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.

Nishkama karma (Malayalam)

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.

Sreemad Bhagavad Gita with the Bhashya of 'Shankaracharya' (Malayalam)

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)

Brahma Sutra

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:

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  • 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.
    Rohit April 01, 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. Regards
    Veejay March 17, 2012
  • Really nice article...very helpful.
    Shrinivas March 17, 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.
    DHOOM S PUNDIR March 17, 2012