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SANYĀSA . The Sanskrit term sanyāsa commonly means "renunciation of the world." It refers both to the initiatory rite at which a renouncer (sanyāsin ) formally breaks all his ties with society and to the way of life into which he is so initiated. The term is absent from the Vedic texts and from the Buddhist and Jain literature. It is used exclusively in the Brahmanic tradition and the Hindu sectarian traditions deriving from the medieval period; it refers to renunciation as practiced only within these traditions. The word entered the Brahmanic vocabulary probably around the second century bce.

Renunciation and Brahmanism

There is no consensus among scholars regarding the origin of world renunciation in India. Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, this is an issue that is likely to remain unresolved. Recent scholarship, however, has shown that the claim once made that the renunciatory ideal originated exclusively among the non-Brahmanic or even the non-Aryan population is unfounded. The earliest available evidence shows that by the sixth century bce the institution of world renunciation formed an important part of the entire spectrum of religious traditions and sects of North India, including Brahmanism. Renunciation, nevertheless, questioned the value of major Brahmanic institutions such as marriage, sacrificial rites, and the social hierarchy of castes. Because it proclaimed the path of renunciation, divorced from ritual and society, as the acme of religious life, the way of renunciation posed a special challenge to the society-centered Vedic religion, which recognized only one socioreligious role for adult men, that of the married householder with his social, procreative, and ritual obligations. The Brahmanic tradition, however, has always demonstrated the ability to absorb the new without discarding the old. Attempts were made to find theoretical legitimations for the lifestyles of both the renouncer and the householder, the most significant of which was the system of the four āśrama s (orders of life). Renunciation was sometimes redefined to accommodate life in society. The devotional traditions (bhakti), for example, considered true renunciation to be the inner quality of detachment from the world and from the results of one's actions rather than the physical separation from society. Some of these traditions defined renunciation as surrender to God. Despite such efforts at synthesis, a tension between these two ideals has continued to exist within Brahmanism.

Lifestyle and Goal

The main features of the renunciant life are substantially the same in all sects at least within the ideal rules presented in the textual traditions. Renouncers are homeless. Except for the four months of the rainy season (June through September), they are required to wander constantly. Their ideal residence is the foot of a tree. Renouncers shave their heads and either go naked or wear an ocher robe. They practice celibacy and poverty, obtaining their food and the other few necessities of life by begging. Several terms for a renouncer, such as parivrājaka ("wanderer") and bhiku ("mendicant"), reflect these aspects of his life. All these features, moreover, need to be understood not merely as ascetic practices but as symbolic rejections of social customs and institutions. A significant feature of the renouncers' style of life is the abandonment of fire. It symbolizes their separation from Vedic society and religion, and in a special way their rejection of the Vedic sacrifice. Though it is present in all renouncer traditions, the abandonment of fire occupies a central position in Brahmanic renunciation, which is often defined as the abandonment of all ritual actions. The absence of fire gave rise to two other customs. Unable to cook for themselves, renouncers beg cooked food daily. After death they are not cremated like other people but are buried either on land or in water, for cremation is performed with the sacred fires of the deceased and constitutes his last sacrifice (antyei ). The greatest transformation of renunciation occurred in early Buddhism with the establishment of permanent monastic communities and the consequent abandonment of the itinerant lifestyle. Monastic orders were not organized within Brahmanism until a much later period. The best known among them is the Order of Ten Names (Daśanāmis), reputedly founded by the Advaita philosopher Śakara (788820 ce). In spite of the reality of settled monastic living, however, it was never accepted either as law or as ideal. The rule of homeless wandering was maintained at least theoretically both within and outside Brahmanism. Although lower goals, such as attaining a heavenly world, are often mentioned, liberation (moka ) from the constant cycle of births and deaths (sasāra ) is considered the goal of renunciation. Many sects regard it as a precondition for liberation. Sanyāsa, therefore, is often referred to as mokāśrama or simply as moka. Brahmanism establishes a hierarchy among renouncers based on the degree of their removal from the world and from social norms. The lowest is called a kuīcaka. He lives a life of retirement in a hut and receives food from his children. The next is a bahūdaka, who begs for food and adopts a wandering life. A hasa carries a single staff, and is thus distinguished from the first two, who carry three staffs tied together. The fourth and highest type of renouncer is a paramahasa. He breaks all social ties, discarding the sacrificial thread and the tuft of hair on the crown, the two basic symbols of his former ritual and social status.


All renouncer sects devised some form of initiation, and Brahmanism was no exception. In fact, one of the earliest usages of the term sanyāsa was with reference to the Brahmanic rite of renunciation. No uniform rite, however, evolved within Brahmanism, and even the medieval handbooks give different versions. On the major features, nevertheless, there is agreement. The rite takes two days, although most of the major ceremonies are performed on the second. On the first day the candidate performs nine oblations for the dead (Śrāddha), the last of which he offers for himself. The following day he performs his last sacrifice and gives away all his worldly goods. He then symbolically deposits his sacred fires within himself by inhaling their smoke, burns his sacrificial utensils, and extinguishes his sacred fires. The abandonment of fire and ritual is interpreted as an internalization; a renouncer carries the fires within himself in the form of his breaths (prāa ) and offers an internal sacrifice in these fires every time he eats. He then utters three times the Praisa, or renunciatory formula: "I have renounced" ("Sanyasta mayā"), and gives the "gift of safety" (abhayadāna ) to all creatures with the promise never to injure any living being. He is now a renouncer. He ceremonially takes the requisites of a renouncer, such as staff and begging bowl, the emblems of his new state (yatiliga ).


The rite of renunciation results in the ritual abandonment of all rites. Paradoxical as this seems, it enabled the socioritual norms of Brahmanism to control the entry into the very state that aims at transcending them. The question of qualification precedes any discussion of a ritual action, including the rite of renunciation. Only the three twice-born classes (varas ) are qualified to perform rites, and, therefore, to renounce. Opinion, however, is sharply divided as to whether only brahmans or all three upper classes are so qualified. A person, moreover, has to pass through the āśramas of student, householder, and forest hermit before renouncing, although with the obsolescence of the hermit's state this rule was interpreted to mean that a person should be free from the three debts incurred at birth, namely Vedic study, sacrifice, and procreation, which are paid by fulfilling the obligations of the first two āśramas. One view, however, holds that these provisions apply only to ordinary people; one who is totally detached from the world may renounce immediately. The position of women is also ambiguous. Orders of nuns exist in Buddhism, in Jainism, and in some medieval Hindu sects. Female renouncers are referred to frequently in Sanskrit literature, and their position is recognized in Hindu law. Brahmanic authorities generally deny the legitimacy of female renunciation, although occasionally dissenting voices are heard in this regard.

Ritual and Legal Effects

The renunciatory rite is regarded as the ritual death of the renouncer. Although dead, he is nevertheless visibly present among the living and occupies an ambivalent position within Brahmanism. He is excluded from all ritual acts. His status as far as ritual purity is concerned is unclear. Although theologically he is often considered the acme of purity, within ritual contexts his presence is feared as a cause of impurity. In Hindu law, the renouncer's ritual death constitutes also his civil death. The renunciation of the father, like his physical death, is the occasion for the succession of his heirs. It also dissolves his marriage, and some authorities, such as the Nāradasmti (12.97), would permit his wife to remarry. Renouncers, moreover, cannot take part in legal transactions and are released from previous contractual obligations and debts. They are not even permitted to appear as witnesses in a court of law. Renunciation is considered an irreversible state, both ritually and socially. A renouncer who reverts to lay life (ārūhapatita ) becomes an outcaste (cāāla ) and is excluded from all ritual and social contact.


Renunciation was one of the most significant developments in the history of Indian religions. It influenced the post-Vedic worldview based on the central concepts of sasāra and moka. The founders of almost all major Indian religions and sects were renouncers. The mentality of the renouncer influenced even the religious life and the value system of people within society. The society-centered and the world-renouncing ideologies represented by the householder and the sanyāsin continued to exist side by side within Brahmanism. As Dumont (1960) observes, "The secret of Hinduism may be found in the dialogue between the renouncer and the man-in-the-world" (pp. 3637). Hinduism in general and Brahmanism in particular cannot be understood adequately if the researcher ignores either of these two poles and their interaction.

See Also

Bhakti; Moka; Monasticism, article on Buddhist Monasticism; Rites of Passage, article on Hindu Rites; Śaivism, articles on Kāpālikas, Pāśupatas; Sasāra.


Dumont, Louis. "World Renunciation in Indian Religions." Contributions to Indian Sociology 4 (1960): 3362. A seminal study on the role of renunciation in the historical development of religion in India.

Ghurye, G. S. Indian Sadhus. 2d ed. Bombay, 1964. Somewhat outdated, but still the most comprehensive account of the ascetical sects within Hinduism.

Heesterman, Jan C. "Brahmin, Ritual and Renouncer." Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Süd- und Ostasiens 8 (1964): 131. Attempts to demonstrate that renunciation was the logical outcome of the inner dynamic of Brahmanism.

Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmasastra, vol. 2. 2d ed., rev. & enl. Poona, 1974. Part 2, pp. 930975, provides the most comprehensive account of sanyāsa in the Dharmasastra literature.

Miller, David M., and Dorothy C. Wertz. Hindu Monastic Life: The Monks and Monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal, 1976. A good description of Hindu monks and monasteries in a major monastic center in modern India.

Olivelle, Patrick. "Contributions to the Semantic Development of Sanyāsa," Journal of the American Oriental Society 101 (1981): 265274. The only study on the early uses of the term sanyāsa.

Olivelle, Patrick. Sanyāsa Upaniads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation. New York, 1992.

Olivelle, Patrick, ed. and trans. Vasudevasrama Yatidharmaprakasa. 2 vols. Delhi and Vienna, 19761977. A medieval handbook that shows how renunciation was understood and practiced within Brahmanism.

Sharma, Har Dutt. Contributions to the History of Brahmanical Asceticism (Sanyāsa ). Poona, 1939. An early but still useful study based on the law books and the Sanyāsa Upaniads.

Sprockhoff, Joachim Friedrich. Sanyāsa: Quellenstudien zur Askese im Hinduismus. Wiesbaden, 1976. A detailed examination of the Sanyāsa Upaniads. The best overall study of Brahmanic renunciation.

Patrick Olivelle (1987 and 2005)