For some reason, modern day Hindus are indulging in the tomfoolery of considering samnyAsa as the greatest stage of dharma. They even claim that it is the ‘most profound and exemplary invention’ (used by several so-called Hindu Right friends of mine) of Hindu dharma. These ‘modern Hindu scholars’ are of the opinion that samnyAsa is the central point, the very axis, of Hindu dharma.
The truth is somewhat different. The origin of As’rama system is an interesting study. Brahmacarya is the first and compulsory As’rama. Olivelle feels that initially the As’rama system was one where in the snAtaka (graduate from a Vaidika school) selected an As’rama for his life rather than the sequential life stages that we see now. Olivelle makes a very compulsive argument for this view. It appears to be true that a snAtaka had the choice to select an As’rama. But ancient Vaidika texts themselves seem to show that the selection of one As’rama need not be for life. One could indeed become a gr.hastha and then, a samnyAsin.
Br.hadAran.yaka upanis.ad (2.4 – prathama maitreyii brAhmana) shows that YAjn~avalkya had entered gr.hasthAs’rama and then, entered into samnyAsa. The chapter begins with the r.s.i declaring to Maitreyii (his wife) about his desire to renounce. He says that he will divide the property between Maitreyii and KAtyAyanii (his two wives) before taking to samnyAsa. Hence, we will stick to the traditional interpretation of the various As’ramas being sequential stages (at least since the time of late brAhman.as and early upanis.ad period) though some snAtakas might have taken to samnyAsa directly. Also, just because a few snAtakas selected samnyAsAs’rama immediately after their graduation, it does not mean that the AcAryas were in favor of such action. One must remember that Hindu society had given lot of freedom to the individuals. Buddha and MahAviira were allowed to preach against the Vaidika dharma. Their ideas were opposed philosophically. Similarly, while some people might have practiced taking to samnyAsa directly after their brahmacarya period, it was certainly not a favored practice among the ancient AcAryas.
That some people held that one can enter any of the three As’ramas after becoming a snAtaka is confirmed by Gautama Dharmasutra (3.1) – “tasyAs’ramavikalpam ekebruvate” (eke – some people). But the same text (3.36) states that there is only one valid As’rama as only gr.hastha stage is expressly mentioned by the Vedas (entire Vedic literature from Samhita to Upanis.ad mentions the importance of procreation – thus, gr.hastha As’rama is “the As’rama”). Similarly, Apastamba Dharma sutra (2-9-21-5) also states that there was a practice where one can choose the As’rama to be followed after becoming a snAtaka. Combining these statements with the legend from Br.hadAran.yaka mentioned above, we may come to a conclusion like this: a snAtaka was able to select any of the As’ramas. But it need not be for life; a gr.hastha may indeed decide to become a yati (ascetic) in his later life. Thus, some students jumped the intervening As’ramas directly to samnyAsa. But it does not mean that one cannot enter gr.hasthAs’rama and then, proceed towards samnyAsa.
All said, the ancient dharmAcAryas were very categorical in stating their preference for gr.hasthAs’rama against others. Apastamba (2-9-24-1) says that a person achieves amr.tatva (immortality) through his offspring. This sentiment is as old as that of R.g Veda. RV (5-4-10) prays “O Agnii, may I attain immortality through my children”. Apastamba (2-9-24-8) cites PrajApati and confirms that only those who take to procreation of children among other duties are those who are supported by PrajApati. Those who do not follow these duties (thus, anyone who fails to procreate – which can be done only in gr.hasthAs’rama) become dust and get destroyed. TaittirIya upanis.ad (1-11) orders a snAtaka thus: “..prajAtantum mA vyavacchetsIH” – “do not cut off the line of progeny”
Thus, the most important duty of any Hindu is to enter gr.hasthAs’rama. Gr.hasthAs’rama is the central point of Hindu dharma (certainly not samnyAsa). Taking to samnyAsa without fulfilling one’s debt to his ancestors (pitr. r.n.a) is not advised by the ancient AcAryas. Undue importance to asceticism is a characteristic of S’raman.a traditions (Bauddha and Jaina) which is also reflected in Advaita worldview later on (e.g. as.t.Avakra giitA). Advaitins viewed the world as an illusion and as such, they decided to give more importance to world denying asceticism (which is an innovation and not supported by the ancient dharmasutra texts). It is to be remembered that advaita had indeed appropriated some bauddha ideas with its philosophy being a result of combination of Buddhist and upanis.adic ideas (see http://tinyurl.com/bbobj9u). The opinion of the dharmasutra writers is crystal clear. They were not in favor of ascetic traditions being given undue prominence. They were very much against any step taken by a snAtaka to become a samnyAsin without entering the gr.hasthAs’rama.