An exploration of parents’ wishes and expectations, attitudes and reactions when a son or daughter is irresistibly drawn to renunciate life
WHEN I WITNESSED THE ANOINTMENT of Sri Bharati Thirtha Swamiji’s successor to the Sringeri Peetham in January of 2015, I saw that people were euphoric because a befitting successor to the peetham had been chosen. Devotees of the math felt blessed that a sannyasin of such pristine quality had been selected to one day don the mantle of the peetham. The joy on their faces was indescribable.
Standing in their midst, I wondered, “How many here would feel this same euphoria if this were their own child? How open and accepting are we to giving our sons and daughters to the order of sannyas, irrespective of the institution they may wish to join?”
Many years ago, while I was out for dinner with a relative and his family, the conversation predictably turned to what the kids wanted to be when they grew up. Expecting a typical answer like “a doctor” or “an engineer,” this relative asked my son what he wanted to become. Thanks to the pious influence of my parents and to our close association with Hinduism Today and Sringeri Math, our children had a clear disposition towards religion and spirituality. My son nonchalantly responded that he wanted to become a sannyasin.
A minute of shocked silence ensued while my relative tried to process this response. Regaining his composure, he assumed that my son was either joking or didn’t know what he was saying. Attempting to convince my son otherwise, he carefully explained the negative aspects of monasticism. My son, who had heard all of these arguments before, stuck by his convictions with an unconcerned equanimity that only a nine-year old could muster. As I had long been aware of his spiritual inclination, his response did not surprise me. I felt an acceptance towards this path and even a sense of pride in his consideration of it.
Later, my relative, still shocked and disturbed, spoke with me, stating that as a responsible parent I ought to force my child in another direction. Later in life my son did chose to become an engineer. But I am a staunch believer in destiny. If he had been destined to be a renunciate, I feel that no force on Earth could have stopped him.
India’s system of Vedic thought, Sanatana Dharma, stands among the world’s most ancient spiritual cultures and is an integral part of Indian life to this day. In his book Sannyas Darshan, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswathi writes, “While ancient religions of the Celtic, Teutonic, Slavic races, Syria and Asia minor have disappeared, Sanatana Dharma withstood the ravages of invasions. Our spiritual heritage survived because of the sannyasins who went away to live in solitude and seclusion during these inclement times of invasions and calamities.”
“Renunciation,” he writes, “is severance of the individual from all bonds of the phenomenal world; family, social, political, caste, creed, religion. It is a virtual rebirth, and once entered upon this path, there is no going back. Thus the sannyas parampara was conceived to be the direct path to moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth).” Swami notes that the sannyas tradition is said to have started with the Kumaras, the four sons of Brahma, whose renunciation was absolute.
BHARAT SEVASHRAM SANGH
Vairagya, detachment, the foundation of renunciation, must be an integral part of a sannyasin’s personality. His fundamental duty is to exercise control over the mind, discarding all worldly affairs in thought, word and deed, and liberate himself from worldly bondage. The Kathopanishad compares the path of sannyas to “a sharp edge of a razor, difficult to cross and hard to tread.” Sannyas is regarded as a path of utmost purity and sanctity, hence people revere sannyasins as the personification of these qualities.
inform us, “Who indeed overcomes maya? He who gives up all attachment, who serves the great ones and who is freed from the sense of ‘I and mine.’ He who lives in solitude, cuts through the bondages of this world, goes beyond the three gunas and depends upon the Lord even for his living. He who gives up the fruits of his actions, renounces all selfish activity and passes beyond the pairs of opposites. He who renounces even the rites and ceremonies prescribed by the scriptures and attains unfaltering love for God—such a man, indeed, crosses this maya and helps others to cross it.”
Sri Kuppa Siva Subramanya Avadhani, principal of the TTD Veda Vigjnana Peetham in Tirumala, explains, “The sacred thread for brahmana; the arms and armory for kshatriya; money and business for vaishya; and protection of cows (and other cattle) for shudra are respective identities, but these classifications are creations of the mind. Transcending all these and realizing the natural unborn, uncreated state of the Self is sannyas.” He concludes, “When a person has walked a long way in the scorching sun with a heavy bag on his back and offloads it when he finds some shade; that sublime feeling of relief and calmness he experiences is what sannyasa gives when we renounce everything worldly.”
Traditions vary, of course, and some are less formal than others. The Sannyas Upanishad lists four types of sannyas: vairagya sannyas, jnana sannyas, jnana-vairagya sannyas and karma sannyas. According to the Bhagavad Gita, sannyas, or renunciation, is a matter of attitude and thinking, freedom from desires; and this is possible through detachment and equanimity of mind. Adapting to changing times and sociopolitical transitions, a number of maths and ashrams have emerged paving the way for a new order of sannyas. While the basic tenets of detachment and nonviolence remained unchanged, their approaches and processes manifest differently to suit the masses. The Ramakrishna Order, the Brahma Kumaris and Sivananda Ashram, to name a few, approach sannyas and monkhood without orthodoxy. Service to society is given primacy. Some religious institutions adhere to strict traditional orthodoxy, some are devoted to service, and there is a new wave of sannyasins who profess detachment even as they engage with the corporate world. Sharada, a devotee of Ramana Maharshi, says, “‘Sannyaso Nirmalam Jnaanam’ is the philosophy of Ramana Maharshi; it is not necessary to shave one’s head and live in isolation. One has to be in a state of renunciation abiding in knowledge.”
From the distant past to the current day, there have been innumerable examples of renunciates for whom the call of sannyas has been irresistible.
It is said that if the samskaras (impressions of the mind) towards renunciation are strong enough, the pull cannot be resisted. Life’s course for the soul is predestined and planned, and sometimes that course is sannyas. Sri Bharathi Thirtha Swami, pontiff of Sringeri Math, said in his speech during the anointment of his successor, “I did not seek his horoscope to see if he has sannyas yoga (an astrological configuration which indicates sannyas is likely). It was Divine ordination that directed my decision.”
Gautama Saraswathi, a sannyasin I met in the Himalayas, spoke with me at length about the lives of monks who live in the mountains. Many of these ascetics left affluent families, successful careers and their former lives, simply surrendering to that divine call to embrace renunciation. They live in harmony with nature and are on the move all the time. “It is preordained and scripted by destiny; theirs is a direct connect with the Supreme,” he said.
Swami Harshananda, president of Ramakrishna Math in Bengaluru, recalls, “When I wanted to take sannyas and join the Ramakrishna Order, I came into contact with Swami Tyagishanandji, who was the president of the math. He was a great scholar and disciple of Brahmanandji, who was a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. He always discouraged me from taking sannyas. One day I was fed up and asked him, ‘If tomorrow I come and join the ashram against your advice, will you feel happy or sorry?’ He laughed and replied that he would feel happy. I asked him why then was he discouraging me. He immediately said, ‘You young people are always sanguine by nature and look at the brighter side of things. I am deliberately keeping you exposed to the darker and difficult side of monastic life. Then you will make a mature decision after weighing the pros and cons.’ I have been in this organization for 63 years now. I feel lucky that the Ramakrishna Order has chosen me for this life and given me shelter.”
Shastras enjoin a person taking sannyas to severe all familial ties. The traditional initiation into sannyas includes performing the shraddha (funeral rites) of the aspiring sannyasin. This signals the culmination of material life; his vows of renunciation signify a rebirth. This also indicates the highest level of detachment, not just from one’s family, but from one’s own identity. To the family, especially the mother, this custom is often emotionally difficult. Many traditional institutions follow this custom to this day; other institutions and orders of sannyas have evolved their own customs which allow for interaction with the monk’s birth family.
The importance of receiving consent from the family for taking sannyas is emphasized with the example of Adi Shankara. He did not leave home to take sannyas until his mother, Aryamba, granted him permission.
Swami Harshananda explains, “Generally we tell young people who come seeking sannyas to convince their parents and get their blessings. Don’t come with their curses. But ultimately, if detachment is very strong in the person, we tell the parents to make a decision of whether or not to accept the choice. Many of us have come in opposition of our parents; but all this settles down in time. When our parents see that we are leading a quality life and ultimately monasticism is doing good for us, they will accept it and realize that they are giving to society. Those who join a monastic order should show by their personal life and behavior that they are an asset to the organization and are doing service to society.”
Parental obstruction has been a significant impediment to many young men and women taking to sannyas. From the time of Shankaracharya’s mother, Aryamba, to present times, parents, especially mothers, have resisted. While the renunciate by his own will sacrifices his material life, the family, sometimes unwillingly, sacrifices their offspring. I have interacted with a few people who preferred anonymity, and hence their names have been changed.
Why is it considered a loss for the family when the child gives up the world? Indeed, this can be a difficult sacrifice, particularly for the parents. Vatsala, a wife and mother from Bengaluru, was shocked when, after finishing his education, her only son announced that he would be taking sannyas. Being an average middle-class family, Vatsala and her husband had looked forward to relaxing into a stress-free life when he became employed and got married. Like many others, they hoped to live through old age with their son as their security when they needed him.
Vatsala explains, “My son excelled in academics, both in his engineering and MBA. He was even offered a very good job. His decision broke our hearts, because we didn’t know where to go; we had invested all our savings on his education. Our support system had crumbled. We were hoping he would be there to take care of us in our old age. Now we are left to fend for ourselves.” The couple did their best to dissuade their son, but his resolve was unshakable. Now they have accepted the dictate of destiny and are resigned to the fact that he is happy doing what he chose for his life.
In the mountains I spoke with Chandra Giri, a wandering monk in his late twenties. He is a management graduate from a premier institution and an only son. After university, he had taken the reins of a successful international business owned by his father. “Out of nowhere I developed a strong urge, a calling for the mountains and the guru there beckoning me. I gave up everything, came to the Himalayas and met my guru. I’m blissfully nestled in this world of renunciation. Many times my parents have reached out to me and asked me to return, but even the thought of return unfurls a strong sense of aversion in me.”
As a young woman, Lakshmi was completely disinclined to marriage and wanted to take sannyas. Her parents rejected the idea vehemently and got her married, but the marriage quickly ended in disaster. Not letting her follow her calling, they forced her into a second and later a third marriage. Each failed. Finally, Lakshmi headed to the Himalayas to pursue the renunciate life. I met her a few years back in Haridwar during the 2014 Kumbha Mela; there was a bright aura around her. She was at peace with herself, and her radiant face proved to me that she was living in Divinity.
Sri Kuppa Siva Subramanya Avadhani was father to the boy who would become the successor to the pontiff of Sringeri Sri Vidhushekara Bharathi. He explains, “When we think that a boy from our family has been chosen to succeed as the 37th Jagadguru of Sringeri Sharada Peetham, it gives us goose bumps. For the entire family this is the fruition of virtue and spiritual discipline earned over a billion past births. It is indeed the culmination of blessings from God, guru and ancestors. This will lead us in the right path even through future births. The feeling of blessedness is beyond description. By detaching from the family, our son has done a great sacrifice for the sake of dharma, and by letting the dear child go into the order of sannyas, the family is doing a great sacrifice; both for establishing and strengthening dharma. Hence this is a sacrifice that will lead us towards Self Realization.”
The definition of a good sannyasin is a matter of varied perception. We live in a consumerist environment; and India, the seat of Sanatana Dharma, is transitioning fast under Western influence. Mrs. Vijaya Subbaraju, a renowned scholar and poet, writes, “To find someone in this age who is not a slave to the fascination of mobile phones, gadgets or sports—which are primary distractions today—is almost impossible. We would expect a renunciate to be one with pristine purity, distanced from the material world. Is today’s environment conducive for such a person?”
While some religious and monastic institutions are completely orthodox and renounce modern habits and gadgets, most institutions and renunciates are adapting to changing times—communication being of prime importance. But sannyasins succumbing to modern lifestyles and affluence, engaging in transactions and business have been viewed with distrust.
There is a thin line between necessity and fascination. Sri Jayendra Puri Swami, pontiff of Shri Kailash Ashrama Mahasamsthana, illustrates this with the story of a king who intensely revered a sannyasin, whom he considered his guru. He provided the sannyasin with a palatial residence and all the material comforts, with a sense of treating him on par with himself. Someone asked the sannyasin in what sense could he be called a renunciate if he lived in material comforts equal to the king. The sannyasin replied, “The difference between the king and me is, I can walk out, free from all these comforts at my will and never repent. The king cannot.” Swami explains, “This sense of detachment and liberation is the hallmark of a sannyasin.”
In an interview ten years ago, Sri Bharathi Tirtha Swami of Sringeri Peetham told me change is inevitable. “We have to adapt and change with the times; we cannot say we will not travel by car and insist on a bullock cart like our predecessors. What cannot change is the dharma we practice, the austerities that bind us. There is no compromise on that.”
Some traditional institutions prohibit parents and families from interacting or meeting the sannyasins of their order. The 109-year-old seer of Siddaganga Math did not visit his hometown for over 25 years, citing detachment. Sringeri Math places no such restriction, but the families meet the swamis just as other devotees do, and the response is correspondingly detached. Some institutions, such as Suttur Math, are quite liberal in this respect, allowing such families to become part of the institution and maintain their ties with the sannyasins.
According to the Shastras, if the son or daughter takes to monastic life, seven generations of his forefathers, both maternal and paternal, will be blessed. In the Hindu religion, monasticism is considered the highest life. In spiritually evolved families, a member taking sannyas is celebrated with reverence. They train themselves to accept his detachment, and this in itself is a form of renunciation. For example, from the very day of his anointment as the successor, Sri Vidhushekara Bharati’s pre-monastic family stopped referring to him by his pre-monastic name and addressed him as Sannidhanam. No longer considered his family, they instantly adopted the traditional, disciplined protocol, meeting him as ordinary devotees do.
Sharada, whose parents were devout followers of Ramana Maharshi, has chosen the life of renunciation. From childhood she grew up in an environment of piety and devotion, and this laid out a fertile platform for her to find bliss in renunciation.
“Some amount of spiritual training will fuel the quest for sannyas. A conducive atmosphere has to be created,” she opines. Besides service to Ramana Ashram and propagating Maharshi’s doctrines, Sharada is actively engaged in conducting classes for young children, bringing light to the values of life and our spiritual heritage. “Children are very receptive; they accept things with faith. They must be allowed to question, as enquiry is an important part of evolving. However, I find many parents are scared and tend to take their children away from engagement in spiritual discourse. I have been accused of influencing people towards renunciation,” she said with a smile.
On this subject Sri Swami Harshananda stated, “It is a tragedy of Hindu society that so many admire and praise the monastic ideals intently, but when it comes to the question of their own children taking to this path, there is terrible opposition. This psychology has to change. In Christianity if the child wants to dedicate his life to the church and to the service of Christ, they often feel proud of it. One of our priest friends in Mysore informed me that nine out of ten children of his parents had taken to service of the Church.”
For thousands of years, our heritage has produced great ascetics who have done tremendous work for Sanatana Dharma. They can uplift the entire society. A number of sannyasins I interviewed said that parents should take a broader view and allow their children to take up sannyas if they so desire. If a child is so inclined, it would be prudent for parents to counsel him on the nature of that dharma. He should be allowed to interact and receive counsel and guidance from great renunciates on the nuances of renunciation. The child should be allowed to ponder this carefully before deciding.
Sri Avadhani advises, “Parents should first imbibe the culture themselves. It is quite rare to find children who want to become sannyasins. Even rarer are parents who want to make their children sannyasins. But, what is actually needed is that parents be keen on guiding their children to follow Vedic dharma. Becoming a sannyasin is a consequence of following such a life.”
Two important forces guiding Hindu society today are the maths and temples; these are crucial centers for leading and rejuvenating Hindu society. The health and untarnished image of our monastic institutions ensure that the image of sannyas is held in reverence. The quality of the monastic institutions depends on the quality of the sannyasins and their activities, not upon buildings, wealth or prestige. Swami Vivekananda emphasized jnana (knowledge gained from realization) and tapas (spiritual disciplines and penance) as the fundamental factors expected in every sannyasin in every institution of sannyas.
Unfortunately, the reputation of sannyasins and monastic institutions has suffered in modern times. A few institutions and the monks heading them have been accused of immoral and criminal activities, reflecting badly on the entire order of renunciates. Twelve centuries ago, in his Bhajagovindam, Adi Shankaracharya cautioned against fakes who appear in the garb of sannyasins. His warning is echoed in the words and writings of many true renunciates today.
I interacted with numerous sadhus and naga sannyasins during the Kumbha Mela. While media coverage of the Kumbha Mela showcased some sannyasins who owned international empires, flashed their wealth and used the occasion to advertise their strengths and following, a large number of true renunciates were quietly and inconspicuously tucked away, engulfed in their sadhana and uplifting devotees. Distanced from the material world, from name, fame and wealth, reaching the Divine was their only goal. These true sannyasins exemplify and reiterate what sannyas is, despite the ills that have cast a shadow on this supreme path.
It is the silent sadhana of millions of true ascetics, unknown and unseen to the material world, that has sustained and bolstered the values of the life of sannyas. When India went through the turmoil of so many terrible invasions, our dharma was preserved and protected by these unseen sannyasins, who retreated into the interiors of the forests. The pristine purity of this order remains eternal, its supremacy unchallenged and unfazed, irrespective of any aberrations that have occurred in an evolving society. Knowing this, parents may rejoice when their beloved children elect to follow such a noble and elevating path.