SamnyAsa is not the central point of Vaidika Dharma

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. 

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8 thoughts on “SamnyAsa is not the central point of Vaidika Dharma”

  1. “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.”

    Not entirely true. Yes, snAtaka can select any of gRhasta, vAnaprasta or sannAyasa dharmAs, but he cannot change/reverse the order of Ashrama dharma. For example, one cannot become gRhasta after accepting sannyAsa. sant JnAneshvara’s story is a harsh example illustrating this.

    1. I thought it is self evident and that is why did not mention it. One cannot claim to have given up all wordly things (take samnyAsa) and then, come back to householder stage. A gr.hastha could become a samnyAsin not vice versa.

  2. First there is no centralised system in bharatiya society.. so there is no questioning of allowing or dis-allowing.. the society was free by its nature, because there is no totalatarian authority (like catholic church) to control it..

    Secondly, the asrams and aacharams are NOT common for all (the present supposedly hindus).. it differed according to kula gothra, and varna..

    In my community, as per tradition, a man or woman is NOT allowed to preside over any auspicious events, when his wife or husband is dead.. any rituals can be done only as a couple.. and this can be seen from pitru darpana..

    Brahmacharya need not be bachelorhood.. different communities had different level of education.. only the brahmins took to higher and advanced education .. the marriage was done as soon as attaining puberty in agrarian communities, and before puberty in brahmin communities..

  3. Hi,
    I am interested in knowing how you would reconcile your post with the following facts on the ground regd. advaita:

    1) Vijayanagara SAmrAjya was established with the blessings and encouragement of Vidyaranya Svamin of shringa giri.

    2) Samartha Ramadas svAmin (an advaitin) was an instrumental force behind chhatrapatI ShivAji mahArAja

    3) Naga sadhus who fought fiercely to their death against mleccha invaders and successfully saved Gokul from Ahmed Shah Abdali were started by Madhusudhana sarasvatI svAmin (an advaitin).

    4) Looking at the examples above, the two most enduring kingdoms (vijayanagara and marAThAs) and the most successful defence of a sanAtanI shrine was by advaitins– no other sect achieved so much military success in the darkest age of sanAtana dharma.

    4) The advaita siddhanta bases itself on the bhagavadgItA cannot be against the teaching of the gItA itself where Krishna asks arjuna to go to war to defend dharma.

    5) The emphasis on sannyAsa of advaita doesn not preclude adhence to dharma and fulfulling of purushArthas.

    6) The teaching of advaitic equanimity at an impressionable age is to remove fear of death and suffering from the minds of children. yOga-vAshiShTha, an advaitic text is a dialogue between vaShiShTha and rAma and is an important teaching for rAma to successfully face the trials in his life later.

  4. 7) As far as I understand advaita, it is inherently interested in establishing an environment where everyone is able to attain moksha, not just one person since every other being in this world is a manifestation of the same jIvAtman which is none other than brahman. It does not view sufferings and trials of one person different from those of others. When I mentioned mAyA and advaita, a good friend of mine on twitter shot back saying “tell that to the kashmiri pandits”. That Kashmiri pandits are not on the path where they can afford to indulge in adhyAmika chintin shows the need for other advaitins to work for their cause. Every advaitin inherently is an instrument of dharma since he thinks of the world as not different from himself.

    1. This is an example of emotional outburst. The post was abt whether saMnyAsa is the central point of vaidika tradition. The answer is NO and it is established through quotes from vedic texts. Any contribution by some brilliant saMnyAsin-s will not make it an accepted vaidika practice (by which we refer to the dharma sUtra ordained practices as well as those which are recommended by the vedic texts).

      Still, if you want to indulge in an argument of ‘my daddy is bigger than yours’ (rather than quoting from the vedic texts to prove your point), let us examine the contribution of the saMnyAsin-s as well.

      We were not denying that vidyAran.ya helped in establishing a powerful Hindu empire in the south. But such brilliance of one individual does not make saMnyAsa the central point of Hindu dharma. The s’ankarAcArya of sr.n~geri piit.ha did nothing against the muslim tyrant, tipu sultAn. The brAhman.a-s of mand.ya opposed him. Similarly, for every saMnyAsin who fought for dharma, you can find hundreds of gr.hastha-s who did the same. the presence of vidyAran.ya and rAmadas do not make the vijayanagara and marAt.hA armies advaitin armies. The grand vijayanagar was ruled by s’aiva rulers and later, by vais.n.ava rulers. gan~gA devii makes it clear that her kula guru was a kAlAmukha practitioner. rAmadas might have been an advaitin, but he was a rAma bhakta and also an ardent worshipper of hanumat. madhusUdana sarasvatii was a practicing vais.n.ava who even dared to say that saMkara was wrong in some of his interpretations of brahma sUtra-s. He was the one who supposedly stated ‘kr.s.n.At param kim api tattvam aham na jAne’. These were not ascetics who simply offered their bodies to be butchered by someone (as saMkara was supposed to have done with a kApAlika – seehttp://tinyurl.com/7cublar). So, these ‘ascetics’ were not the embodiment of saMkara’s advaita in toto.

      Nor are we denying the contributions of nAga sAdhu-s. It is true that, under muslim rule, having a dedicated troop of ascetics who had nothing to lose (and thus, more prone to fight and die for dharma) was a good idea. But do these contributions prove that saMnyAsa is the central point of our dharma? And contributions by a sect of sAdhu-s do not condone taking saMnyAsa directly without passing through gr.hasthAs’rama. OTOH, considering the nAga sadhu army which supported the nawAb of lucknow against Hindu kings,shall we say that nAga sadhu-s are worthless? After all, anUpgiri was one of the prominent generals of the nawAb and controlled an army of several thousand nAga-s (who fought for a muslim ruler).

      Any community which places too much importance on asceticism will decline. Life is about vibrant living. It is about proliferation of one’s genes. Our vaidika ancestors understood it.

  5. I have a few random comments…

    I know a bit of Advaita traditions regarding Samnyasa As’rama…
    Samnyasa As’rama is normally not given to each and every random guy… It is given to specific people by a dharmic guru who is within the tradition… The guru should give it to the person depending on his qualities and mental state…
    Most advaitins will say that Samnyasa As’rama should be taken only after Gruhasta As’rama…
    He should first do his duty of procreation before going to Samnyasa As’rama…

    Giving Samnyasa As’rama directly for a Brahmachaari is rare…
    In that case, one very important condition is that the guy SHOULD have a brother who will be a Grihasta and procreate… His family lineage SHOULD NOT end because of this guy taking up Samnyasa As’rama…

    The current Sringeri seer and the future seer appointed recently both moved from Brahmacharya directly to Samnyasa… But both of them have brothers…

  6. Moreover, there is a huge difference between ‘Indriya Nigraham’ and ‘Indriya Jayam’…
    When a person ‘suppresses’ his Indriyas (as opposed to ‘winning over’ his Indriyas), at some point these suppressed feelings come out in a very aggressive form and destroy the person along with ppl associated with him…
    Samnyasa As’rama should not be given to each and every one…
    It should be given only to people who have that mental state to handle it… It is a huge responsibility in itself… Not everyone can handle it…

    That’s why it is important for a person to first experience all pleasures in life to truly understand them… Someone who goes directly from Brahmacharya into Samnyasa may not really understand the intricacies… That’s why, this route is not normally recommended… It is given only in rare cases…

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