The present book, “Samnyasins in the Hindu Tradition: Changing Perspectives”, covers a wide territory, frying to look at the samnyasins and the samnyasarama in their long existence from the times of Sankara to the present day. This book traverses a slightly different trajectory from the usual book on samnyasins as it attempts an overview of the samnyasin and the institution over a long period from Vedic to post Independence times and speculates on the future of the institution as well. Samnyasins and scholars not only from India, but from countries as diverse as Canada, South Africa, UK and USA also figure in this collection. The samnyasaramas covered also range from the traditional Advaita, Visistadvaita and Dvaita to include many more later asrams such as the Vira Saiva (Lingayat), Dharmapuram Adheenam, Arya Samaj, Shivananda Ashram, Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Narayan and many others. Another departure from other books on the subject is that it also compares institutions like the Ramakrishna Mission for instance, as they function in India and in foreign countries where they have established asrams. In the midst of varied opinions regarding the samnyasin and the samnyasarama this book will throw light on how scholars, common people, as well as the samnyasins themselves view their roles, both as individual personalities and as persons living in an institution relating to society as a whole.
Dr. T.S. Rukmani is currently Professor and Chair in Hindu Studies at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. Before joining the present assignment she had the distinction of being the first Chair in Hindu Studies and Indian Philosophy at the University of Durban-Westville, South Africa. She had a distinguished academic career at the University of Delhi and is the only one so far to be awarded the D.Litt. degree from the department of Sanskrit. Her last assignment at University of Delhi was as Principal of Miranda House. She is the author of ten books which include a four volume annotated translation of Vijnanabhiksu’s Yogavarttika (New Delhi: 1981- 1989) and a two volume annotated translation of Sankara’s Yogasutra-bhasyavivarana (New Delhi: 2001). She has innumerable papers to her credit and publishes regularly in academic journals both in India and abroad.
This book has been a long time in the making. A grant for this research on the Hindu samnyasin and the institution of samnyasa was provided by the FRDP (Faculty Research Development Program) by my University, without which I could not have visited the countries I did and have a series of interviews with both scholars of Indology as well as of samnyasins/samnyasinis with their- consent, during the years 1998 to 2000. I thank the Concordia University for that support. My stay at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Shimla for six months in 2007 as a fellow also enabled me to use its excellent library for this research and helped me in realizing how varied and diverse the tradition of sathnyt7sa was and the wide variety of samnyasins who come under that designation. For a textual scholar as myself this was indeed a revelation.
The very many people who facilitated the interviews with both scholars of Indology and the sathnyasinslsathnyt7sinis themselves are too numerous to be mentioned by name. I thank them all sincerely as this would not have been possible without their help. The interviews themselves were based on a questionnaire which is given as Appendix I at the end of the book.
I regret to say some of those who were interviewed have passed on and as a token of my gratitude to them I dedicate this book to their memory. It may also be noted that the information given in the book regarding the samnyasins and the samnyasasramas is from the time of the interviews and because of the very many people involved, it was not possible to update the information.
No book is written by the author alone. There are always a number s people who help in crafting a book and that is equally true in this case as well. Apart from the interviewees themselves a number of my friends and colleagues have helped me in many ways and it is not easy to thank them individually. I will just say a big thank you to everyone of them and leave it at that. My husband S. Rajamani has always been there as a pillar of support to see this project through. My thanks are also due to D.K. Printworld who by their gentle reminders and their great patience pushed me into finally completing this book.
RELIGION has been part of human civilization from ages past and continues to consume the interest of both the layperson and scholar alike. And the Hindu samnyasin/samnyasini whether in isolation or in an institution, who defines Hinduism in a very special way, is very much part of the Hindu landscape in the imagination of the world at large and has captured the minds of the common folk, scholars working in the Humanities and the Social Sciences as well as some scientists. The powerful image of a samnyasin who renounces the much coveted worldly Ife which an ordinary person finds difficult to renounce is of perennial interest and there is a fascination to learn more and more about this snhny4sin phenomenon in the Hindu tradition.
The samnyasin has not always been an object of admiration alone though; he/she has been the subject equally of praise as well as ridicule. But no one has been able to ignore the notable presence of the samnyasin r the Hindu. social structure from ancient times and the curiosity regarding their lives has never been diminished and consumes the average Hindu’s life to this day. While some have looked upon the samnyasin as a person in whom the highest value of moksa (liberation):- been achieved, there are others who have vilified the samnyasin as a parasite in society living off the labour of other people. These are two extreme views and it is surely possible to have samnyasins who are representatives of both these viewpoints. However, this study does not concern itself with these issues but starts off with the assumption that samnyasin is a vital part of Hindu society and is also a much respected part of the tradition. It has sought to verify that assumption not solely v relying on textual sources dealing with samnyasins and the institution samnyasa but also through face to face interviews with both scholars of Indology and the different samnyasins belonging to a variety of traditions.
As the subject of this book is about samnyasins and their institution, some may pose the question as to whether there is a need for such a book at all as there are already quite a few books which deal with this topic from many angles such as textual, anthropological, ethnic and sociological. I am aware of these studies and a number of them are listed in the bibliography at the end. However, the point of departure for this book is that the conclusions arrived at are based solely on personal interviews with samnyasins, in most cases, in their asramas themselves. I would, however, like to draw attention to three books which deal with this subject in more or less a similar manner as I am doing here. These are by Ghurye (1964), Tripathi (1978) and David Miller (1976). While Ghurye attempts a broad historical survey of the many samnyasins in the land, Tripathi’s book concerns itself mainly with the Uttar Pradesh area as does David Miller’s book which concentrates on the State of Orissa alone. One should also realize that these books were written some time ago and there is a need to look at the changing perspectives that have come to govern both the individual samnyasin as well as the sathnyi7sarama as well, since the time these books were written. Though these three books base their findings on interviews and participant observation, the results are communicated by the authors in their own words to the readers.
In this book however, I, as the author, am in the background and I let the interviewees speak for themselves without injecting my words into what they have to say about their sampradayas and their own views. In other words, the author is practically absent in this book or sometimes minimally present when some views of the interviewees are summarized for clarity alone. In the presence of differing views amongst the different sampradayas and individual sathnyasins/sathnyt7sinis, even on basic topics like moksa, initiation rites, women samnyasinis and so on, the author has allowed the interviewees to speak for themselves and the result has been to reveal the rich variety within the broad framework of the samnyasa tradition itself within Hinduism. As the study was based on a prepared questionnaire, the questions asked of the interviewees were the same and one limitation of this methodology was that very often the answers to the same questions tended to have the same ideas repeated. I could have glossed over them saying that the answer for a particular question did not differ from the previous person, etc., but I preferred to state what was narrated and let the reader make his/her own conclusions regarding the person being interviewed rather than intrude into the views of the person. This has resulted sometimes in repetitive ideas on some topics like moksa, concept of samnyasa and so on, but that was unavoidable in this kind of a study.
Apart from the reasons stated above for the need of a book of this kind, one has to also take into consideration the constant influx of change I hat creeps into both individuals as members of a society they live in as well as into the institutions that are within the society. Samnyasins and (he institution of samnyasa are also subject to the phenomenon of change and this has been particularly pronounced in this age of globalization wherein samnyasins are no more confined to the Indian landscape but tire visibly present in foreign lands as well. All classical material whether I hey are texts or institutions need to be studied afresh every few decades and that is what this endeavour is all about. There is also still a lot of ignorance regarding the lives of the Hindu samnyasins and one more 1)00k on the subject can contribute, in, however small a measure, to give a proper perspective on the subject. That in itself is a justification for another attempt to study and inform the public about the life of these samnyasins and the institution in which they live. In time this study will also be superseded by another, more representative of the age it will be dealing with.
In all some fifty-five samnyasins were interviewed for this book, but eventually only thirty-one interviews have been included here keeping 11w size of the book in view. By and large I have tried to include a variety of asrams like the Advaita, Visistadvaita, Dvaita, Saiva-Siddhanta, Virasaiva, Ramakrishna Mission, Sivananda Ashram, Chinmaya Mission and many more. I have also looked at the different branches of the Ramakrishna Mission, Sivananda Ashram and others which have come h In established outside of India such as South Africa, the UK, and North America, which give a broader picture of how these organizations function in foreign lands and make adjustments to different cultures. Just as diaspora groups living outside their homelands adjust to changed circumstances, these asramas also exhibit similar strategies of changing some of the customs and introducing new ones to suit the places they live in, in order to better adjust to foreign lands. The names of the asrams and Missions as well as the names of (he persons interviewed have been given as they are published in their own respective publications even if sometimes they may differ from the Sanskrit spellings. Similarly, in view of the multiple spellings used for words like peetha/pitha/peetham, matha/matham/mutt, asram/asrama/ ashram etc., no attempt has been made to change them. They have, by and large, been indicated in the glossary.
The book is planned in four chapters. The first one titled “Swamis/ Samnyasins/Monks/Ascetics in the Cultural World of the Hindus”, fries to place the topic in a historical context using texts as well as traditional and cultural understanding. This chapter makes the point that though the institution of samnyasins came into being later, traditionally associated with Sankaracarya, the concept itself can be traced to Vedic times and is very much part of Hindu culture. It also traces the many twists and turns that the concept itself underwent in its long journey from Vedic to modern times. The dramatic changes that have come in the wake of technological advances to this age-old institution is also a focus of this chapter.
The second chapter is based on interviews with some scholars of indology as to their understanding of the samnyasin and the institution of samnyasa. Amongst these scholars some talk about samnyasa in general, while some others belonging to particular sampradayas like Visistadvaita and Dvaita dwell on the minute points of differences that samnyasins from their sampradayas have and yet others look at individual samnyasins and highlight the many ways in which they reinterpret the very concept of samnyasa itself in their institutions. The views of the scholars are sometimes given in their own words and at other times they are summarized to give the gist of what they meant. Even though these scholars are familiar with the textual samnyasa material, what comes out loud and clear in these interviews is that there is no single way in which the scholar of Indology views both the samnyasin and the institution they belong to. This chapter thus presents the tradition as is seen to be practised on the ground and brings to focus the truism that the reality is very often not always what is represented in the texts themselves.
The third chapter continues the same format as the second, of presenting the views of samnyasins based on interviews with individual samnyasins from many lineages. Here again we find what was highlighted by scholars in the second chapter, i.e. that there is no one way of understanding the concept of samnyasa and the institution itself.
Here, as in Chapter 2, the views of samnyasins are given in their own words and sometimes summarized but in no way has the author intruded into what the samnyasins had to say about the different points raised. The samnyasins affiliated to centres like the Ramakrishna Mission, the Sivananda Ashram, etc., working outside India have also been interviewed separately from samnyasins of these same asrams in India, in order to get some perspectives on the different approaches when one works in an alien atmosphere.
The fourth chapter is a concluding chapter where some observations based on the information gathered in the foregoing chapters are made. For instance, different sampradayas and individual samnyasins have brought in many changes in the initiation ritual for entering samnyasa; there is also a wide variety of views regarding what moksa stands for; another area of concern which still engages the minds of some samnyasins is whether women are eligible for sathnyt7sa or not; samnyasins also have differing views on whether they should enter or take interest in politics or not; how much of contact should a samnyasin have with her/Ms family after taking samnyasa is another area where differences are visible.
Little details that are normally not well known also come as surprises like the participation of Visistadvaita samnyasins in the sraddha ceremony which is normally considered taboo for a samnyasin. Similarly the way (he foreign samnyasin imbibes the observances of the sampradaya sheds light on the way how little changes creep in due to a changed atmosphere. Moreover, there is interesting information not widely known and also which one would not normally associate with a samnyasarama such as the consultation of horoscopes to select a new head of an asram, for instance. Similarly, the way the samnyasins themselves explain certain practices can differ from how people in the outside world as well as scholars of Indology understand them. The fourth chapter tries to highlight any new information learnt from the samnyasins themselves which adds to our understanding of the lives the samnyasins lead in their asrams. What comes out clearly in the fourth chapter is the theme that there are some interesting facts about the samnyasins and their institutions which we as scholars are normally familiar with.
I do not talk about the Dasanami samnyasins specifically in this book as the origins of the Dasanami order art’ not very clear. There are some samnyasins who were interviewed who belonged to Daanm1 akhadas and I have discussed some points of the akhadas in that context. There could have been many free roaming samnyasins like the kesin mentioned in RV (X.136) and their names such as Giri, Vana, Aranya and so on do suggest their various locations. As there is a strong tradition mentioning their association with Sankara’s name it is also possible that these names were given to them by Sankara based on their own traditions and Sankara might have also got them affiliated to his different mathas as well (Ghurye, 1964; Gin, 1976; Tripathi, 1978; Wade, 1990). A number of them from these various lineages might have come together in later times, when the need arose, to form a militant group called the Nagas, even while retaining their original affiliations. The considered opinion of scholars is that the Naga samnyasins came into being to fulfil a specific purpose during times when the Hindu sathnyi7sin was under threat after the time of Sankara.
The mode of recruitment of the Dasanami samnyasins at the time of Kumbha Melas, as well as the way in which the chiefs of the akhadas are selected, all suggest that the rams and the akhadas had independent origins. Though in practice the Dasanamis seem to be staunch Siva followers, they profess to follow Advaita philosophy. This minor point might very well give credence to the legendary association to the Nagas of Madhusudana Saraswati at whose behest the Naga samnyasins got sanction to organize themselves as a militant group to protect the Hindu samnyasins at the time of the Mogul king Akbar. As Madhusudana was a staunch Advaita, this could explain the loyalty to Advaita amongst the akhi4t sampradayas even though in practice, as mentioned earlier, they are Saivites.
Scholars also talk about 52/53 principal mathas divided into eight davas and how the Dasanami akhadas grew out of these original davas. It is probable that initially there was only one akhadas and from that grew the six akhadas known today, whose origins are given between CE 856 and 1749 by Dr Sarkar (cited in Gin, 1976: 22). What is relevant for our purpose is that a number of samnyasins interviewed for this book, specially in the north, are both samnyasins of traditional asrams and are also Mahamandalevaras/Mandalevaras belonging to an akhada. It is also worth noting that I did not come into contact with any Mahamandalesvaras or Mandalevaras of akhadas in the south of India. Books by Ghurye (1964), Tripathi (1978), Gin (1976); Wade (1990) and others can be consulted for more information regarding the Dasanami samnyasins.
Though I have not included independent sadhus in this study, I did interview a few evolved independent sadhus in order to substantiate the claim that even today the practice of adopting samnyasa for spiritual find other reasons is still very much alive in the Hindu tradition. There have always been such sadhus in the land not only amongst the Hindus but within Buddhism and Jainism as well. The Hindu sadhus are by and large free roaming ascetics on their own. They also wear, by and large, the ochre robes and generally follow the lifestyle of a samnyasin.
One may notice, in the course of reading this book that there are a disproportionate number of samnyasins who profess to follow the Advaita Sampradaya. While the first four or five arams started by Sankaracarya cannot be duplicated, and in my interviews I did not come across any other samnyasin calling himself Sankaracarya which was solely reserved for the heads of the mathas established by Sankaracarya himself, most independent samnyasins profess to follow Advaita philosophy and I did not come across independent Visistadvaita or Dvaita samnyasins. The rigid rule of association with a temple which governs the Vaianava Sampradayas as well as the Saiva Sampradayas does not easily lend itself to the formation of independent Vaisnava or Saiva Sampradayas. The lack of any rituals and temple worship associated with the theoretical understanding of Advaita possibly made It easier for persons spiritually inclined to start asrams based on Advaita philosophy. Sivananda, Chinmayananda, Dayananda Saraswati and others have all started their own asrams and interestingly enough Chinmayananda was a disciple of Sivananda, and Dayananda Saraswati In turn was a disciple of Chinmayananda. Today the asrams started by all three have their own branches all over the world.
This phenomenon of going to an established guru in a reputed asram like Sivananda’s, for instance, and then branching off to start one’s own asram, is very much part of the tradition which came into being specially after Swami Vivekananda. In time these subsidiary branches acquire their own reputation and sprout other 1rams much like a banyan tree with its hanging roots. We have many such examples like that of Swami Dayananda’s Arsha Gurukulam, for instance. This is a phenomenon which continues to the present day.
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