Vanity thought #1449. Sannyasa FTW

When I wanted to talk about us being led by Kali Yuga I didn’t mean our personal struggle with renunciation but us as a society, I simply got sidetracked. My original intention was to discuss our implementation of sannyāsa.

What do we know about sannyāsa? It’s a last stage of life in varṇāśrama system, ideally meant for people over seventy-five years old. In Kali Yuga lifespans get shortened so we instead talk about last quarter of one’s life, sometimes after fifty. Śrīla Prabhupāda took sannyāsa at the age of fifty eight, for the reference.

There are several stages to sannyāsa itself – first one moves out of his house but settles nearby, within the reach of his family, but gradually his renunciation matures and he leaves human society as a whole. Then, at the most perfected stage, one becomes parivrājakācārya, a wondering teacher of the entire human race. Prior to that sannyāsa means personal renunciation, whatever preaching that might be involved is secondary to the main goal – achieving complete control over one’s own senses.

In order to preach one also has to be a devotee, which is always rare even in the Vedic society. Of course one can preach some other philosophy, too, but that would require special training – one does not become a ṛṣi or a yogī simply by not eating and not mating. Bhakti, however, is open to all and, as said in Upadeśāmṛta, simply conquering one’s senses is enough for a devotee to start making disciples all over the world. In our tradition sannyāsa means guruship, renunciation for the sake of personal advancement is seen as a waste.

There’s also the injunction against taking sannyāsa in Kali Yuga and that should have put an end to the practice but not for devotees who do not take it as a personal project but as a means to preaching. Control of the senses does not come through straight on renunciation for devotees and, paying tribute to Kali Yuga limitations, they are not trying to achieve it through sannyāsa but rather through taking prasādam.

This has put the entire aśram upside down. Ordinarily, sannyāsīs capitalize on weakening senses and natural lack of drive and motivation that comes with old age but this weakness is seen as an impediment in preaching. Preachers need to be strong and powerful, eager to learn and be attuned to the interests of the population, and generally full of vigor. They should have a drive and display significant degree of success or otherwise no one will take them seriously.

As Kṛsṇa said in Bhagavad Gītā, people follow leaders, and to become a leader one should display leadership qualities, ie act like a kṣatriya, not like a traditional sannyāsi. It should be an exception for a brāhmaṇa to accept such a role and I can’t think of Vedic sannyāsīs playing it at all, yet this is what is required for successful preaching.

In Gauḍīya vaiṣṇavism we have examples of Lord Caitanya and His associates, and then Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvati Ṭhākura re-establishing the institution of sannyāsa for preaching purposes, and then our own mixed bag ISKCON experience.

Lord Caitanya was a perfect sannyāsī, but a very exceptional one. He took sannyāsa from an impersonalist order and that was already unusual. Śaṅkarācārya had many followers but they were still only a small minority of the overall population, his brand of sannyāsa wasn’t for everybody, but they were very respectable, which was a plus for Lord Caitanya.

The Lord totally renounced His household life at a very young age and immediately went to preach all over India. For Him there was no question about control of His senses, He is the Lord, after all. That’s one example for us – if senses are not bothering devotees very much they can follow Lord Caitanya’s footsteps and immediately go out and preach, while they are still young and capable.

This is what we did in the seventies – requesting sannyāsa from Śrīla Prabhupāda was often contingent on taking up some audacious preaching mission immediately afterwards. For many, however, sannyāsa was given as a recognition of their previous service and as a means to cement their authority among the devotees. A cynic would say that even when people asked for sannyāsa and promised to preach they did it so that they got status, too, but I don’t want to see it that way even though status was always very important.

Lord Caitanya went on His preaching tour alone, accompanied only by one servant who we don’t even count this devotee among Lord’s eternal associates anymore, thanks of jīva falldown debate. Our sannyāsīs aren’t in the same position at all. Even though our preaching is directed at the outside population we must do it as an institution, as a collective rather than individual effort. People should see the strength of organization behind individuals presenting it. Whenever we preach, we refer to our success elsewhere, be it five thousand year long tradition in India, hundreds of temples all around the world, Beatles and George Harrison when they were relevant and so on.

This means that main job of our sannyāsīs is to organize the devotees – print books, build temples, get cars and buses for traveling parties, organize programs, reach out to supporters and do fundraising – basically act like politicians on campaign trail. The end product, a few words about policies or preaching speeches in our case, must always be delivered in manufactured and controlled settings. That’s why Bernie Sanders will never become a president even if he might have the right ideas. Without institutional support neither he nor our sannyāsī will be effective.

In my personal experience, our sannyāsī hardly ever talk to non-devotees at all, what to speak of preaching to non-believers. When they do they immediately go on their blogs and write about it, how they have sat next to someone on an airplane, for example. It’s such an unusual experience for them that it needs to be documented.

I’m not criticizing them for the lack of preaching but that’s what they are forced to do by circumstances. They preach to devotees non-stop, every minute of their waking lives. They are generals, not frontline troops in our saṅkīranta army, and we can’t fight without generals, there’s nothing wrong with that.

General, however, is a kṣatriya, not a sannyāsī – it’s a mismatch of varṇāśrama duties. Just think about implications of that.

I will continue tomorrow.


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