A favorite of magazine covers and documentaries, nothing presents a more exotic and mysterious picture of Hinduism than that of the sannyasi. Traditionally revered in Hinduism, and sometimes derided by detractors, these wandering holy men have been part of the Indian landscape since ancient times. Indeed, tales of sannyasis retiring to the forest in search of enlightenment is a staple of the civilization. By the time of Buddha, two thousand six hundred years ago, the tradition of sannyasa had already long existed. In fact, before his enlightenment, the Buddha spent years travelling with a group of sannyasis, practising austerities, who then became his first disciples.
In Hinduism, four stages of life are described: bramacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha and sannyasa. A bramachari is a celibate student, whose duty is to learn from his teacher, his guru; a grihastha is a householder, whose duties include raising a family and engaging in civic duties; vanaprastha is the retired stage of life, and finally, a sannayasi is someone, who having performed all worldly duties, renounces all for the pursuit of spiritual wisdom. In practical terms however, many young men (and women) take sannyasa.
Thus a sannyasi is not a priest, which is profession, but a natural stage of life. It is the result of a deep commitment, involving no salary nor benefits, and a product of a personal search for the truth. Yet, despite their abandonment of societal responsibilities, the orders of sannyasa have built up significant traditions over the years. While many sannyasis are free of any association and follow their own path, many more coalesce into orders, attracted by the teachings of the leaders.
The Buddha created an order of sannyasis, which he called the Sangha. These monks (in western terms) dedicate their lives to understanding the teachings (the Dharma) and expounding it to others.
One of the great organizers of sannyasa in Hinduism was the great 8th century saint Shankar-acharya. Born in South India, he travelled across the land, expounding his philosophy, establishing temples and orders of sannyasis, which have great influence to this day.
He founded two types of sannaysis; one called the astra-dhara (the carrier of weapons), and the other the shastra-dhara (the carrier of scriptures.) The astra-dhara, the warrior sannyasis, were meant to protect Hindu temples, which were being regularly attacked by invaders. They were structured around mahants (leaders) and their orders are called akharas, which literally means the circle within which martial arts are practised.
The shastra-dhara sannyasis established mathas, whose closest English translation would be monasteries. There, they studied scripture, specifically those that expounded the monistic teachings of their founder. These sannaysis became known as the dasnami (ten-name) sannyasis, so-called because upon entrance to the order, initiates are awarded one of ten names (such as Puri, Bharati and Giri.)
|The Sringeri Matha, established by Shankaracharya|
Sannaysis are still found in India, though in much reduced numbers. The main reason for the decline is the minimization of traditional spiritual education in India, where western education is seen as a gateway to the best paying jobs. In the transition to a materialistic culture, and away from a spiritual one, many of the ancient traditions are diminished.