ISPCK ed. 1975, page 42 to 53, extracts.)


(p. 42) SANNYASA confronts us as a sign of that which is essentially beyond all signs indeed, in its sheer transparency, it proclaims its own death as a sign. This is bow it has been handed down from generation to generation by the dominant tradition of renunciation in India. This also is how it appears above all to those whose heart and mind is overwhelmed by the call to sannyasa, and to whom the Spirit has given a glimpse of that infinite Space that is within the heart.

However the sannyasi lives in the world of signs, of the divine manifestation, and this world of manifestation needs him, 'the one beyond signs', so that it may realize the impossible possibility of a bridge between the two worlds; the kesi bears up the two worlds, keeping them apart, and yet being the way through which man has access to the brahma-world (Chandogya Upanishad, 8.4.1; Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.22).

These ascetics who flee the world and care nothing for its recognition are precisely the ones who uphold the world. They are like the Vedic stambha (column) which maintains the stability of the universe (Atharvaveda 10.7 and 8). It is their renunciation which is symbolized by all the yajnas and homas offered by the priests. In them the primordial sacrifice of this Purusa is accomplished in the full reality of the Spirit. From their inward fire, the agni manifested in their austerity (tapas), all sacrificial fires are lit.

As far as they are concerned, being known or unknown is of no importance. They go their way in secret. There is no sign to identify them, they run alinga, avyaktacara. But society needs to know them. It needs to know that they are there, so that it may preserve a reminder of transcendence in the midst of the transient world.

For this reason, despite the risk of sclerosis in anything human that becomes an institution, it is none the less good for society to allow a place for monks and publicly to acknowledge their condition as 'apart'. Further, it is normally through the institution of monasticism that the Spirit reveals himself in making his call heard by those whom he chooses, even if, later on, this very same call thrusts them remorselessly beyond all signs. Sannyasa-diksa can never be made obligatory, but no more can it be denied to those who sincerely ask for it, not to gain prestige from its special status, but that they may be free to devote themselves more entirely to the quest for Brahman, "dedicated to Brahman, established in Brahman, in search of the supreme Brahman" (Prasna Upanishad), in fact, 'seeking: God' (quaerere Deum), as St Benedict says.

It would certainly be wrong to regard sannyasa-diksa as an empty sign with no real content. Its rich significance entitles it to be termed a symbol rather than a sign (to adopt the widely accepted distinction in corintemporary thought, with which is related the recent treatment of the Christian sacraments as symbols). Sannyasa- diksa in fact, carries all the concreteness of a symbol whose roots penetrate to the very source of being itself - so deepily that in some sense it bears within itself the very reality which it signifies. The sign of sannyasa - and equally that of diksa - stands then on the very frontier, the unattainable frontier, between two worlds, the world of manifestation and the world of the unimanifest Absolute. It is the mystery of the sacred, lived with the greatest possible interiority, It is a powerful means of grace - that grace which is nothing else than the Presence of the Absolute, the Eternal, the Unborn, existing at the heart of the realm of becoming, of time, of death and life; and a grace which is at the same time the irresistible drawing of the entire universe and its fullness towards the ultimate fullness of the Awakening to the Absolute, to the Atman. This sign, this grace is supremely the tarana, the raft by which man passes over to the 'other shore' ('the ultimate' shore of theBeyond'; Katha Upanishad 3.2). Finally, it is even the taraka, the actual one who himself carries men across to the other shore, the one and only 'ferryman', manifested in manifold ways in fhe form of all those rishis, mahatmas, gurus and buddhas, who throughout history have themselves been awaken and in turn awake their brother-men.

While it is true, that monastic life is transcendent in relation to any dharma, it is perfectly natural for the 'profession' or initiation which marks the official entry oin monastic life to be performed within the particular religious tradition into which each individual is born and in which he has grown up in the spirit. As long as we remain at the level of signs, the best-signs for us are normally those among which we first awoke as men, and as men devoted to God, even if later on those signs have to he purified and freed from their limitations and particularity. However, there is in Hindu sannyasa something so strong, such a burning savour of the Absolute, that it is irresistibly attractive to those who have discovered within that ineffable mystery to which the Upanishad give their insistent testimony. Then, no matter which dharma happens to be theirs - and even more when they feel themselves unrelated to any dharma - they have a strong desire to be coopted into the great Indian tradition of sannyasa. Through the sign of the vamsa, linking thein with the ancient rishis, their hope is to discover more surely the unique Seer, ekarsi, who reposes in the depths of their heart.

Let us take first the case of Christian monks, who are already bound - and freed - by their religious profession. when they come into contact with their Hindu brother-monks and meet with the uncompromising ideal of sannyasa, they discover in their own dedication a compelling summons, even more interior than exterior, which no longer allows them any respite. They feel a natural urge to take the garb of the Indian sannyasi and to observe at least the most essential of their customs in matters of poverty, abstinence, abhayam,(fearlessness) etc. Even more fundamentally, they surrender themselves to that freedom breathed in their hearts by the Spirit. In such cases to receive a new diksa would be without meaning, since in the total surrender of their original profession, expressed in the prayer "Suscipe ....," the essential oblation was already made. Their case is comparable with that of the paramahamsa who, when the full light shines within him, passes over, quite naturally and without further thought, to the condition of a turiyatita or of an avadhuta.

There are, however, others who come to India with no previous monastic or even religions affiliations and, when here,'awake', sometimes as a result of hearing the Scriptures, or more particularly through contact with a true guru, in whom they encounter a burning fire which consumes all their desires and previous aspirations. Then, whether or not they intend, or are allowed, to remain in India, or perhaps have to return to the country of their birth, they often dream of pronouncing their vow of renunciation in the Indian manner, and seek permission to do so, that they may be officially set apart from society and may thereafter spend their life in undivided attention to the mystery within (Nārada parivrajaka Upanishad, 5.1) . This raises a problem; for, although it. is true that sannyasa diksa means an end of all rites and a final passing beyond the world of signs, the fact remains that diksa is so intimately connected with Hindu ritual and tradition that it can have no meaning for those who do not belong to the Hindu dharma.

For a Hindu the initiation to sannyasa belongs to the series of rites which mark the stages in the life of a the dvija (twice-born) from his conception to his being carried to the funeral-pyre. Indeed it actually anticipates the performance of that funeral agnihotra (Chandogya Upanishad, 5.4-9). Sannyasa-diksa is therefore regularly accompanied by rites which signify the end of all rites; thus the candidate repeats the gayatri one thousand times at each of the two sandhyas which precede his initiation.

Further - at least in the case of a krama-sannyasi - the ceremony concludes with the guru handing over to the disciple the paraphernalia of sannyasa, namely, the danda and kamandalu, the kaupinam and the kavi covering. These insignia are barely intelligible outside the particular social and cultural context of India, and their handing over by the guru has little meaning in the case of a non-Indian sannyasi who will have to live outside India, despite the rich significance inherent in this ceremony.

One might dream of investing sannyasa with signs of universal significance, both as regards the rite and in the external appearance of the sannyasi. But by definition all signs are particular, belonging as they must to some given culture and milieu. Once again we are face to face with the paradox (or rather, the contradiction) at the heart of sannyasa, that it is at the same time not at home in any world (aloka) and also present to all worlds (sarvaloka), the sign of what is beyond signs. Inevitably we are led back to the original sannyasas described in the ancient texts as 'without sign' (alinga), 'without rules' (aniyama).

The ambivalence of sannyasa is such that, in the last resort, when stripped of all rules and outward signs, it can no longer be differentiated from the spontaneous inner renunciation of any awakened man. Nothing external can serve as the sign of the sannyasi, just as there is nothing that could be the sign of a jivan-mukta. He may roam through the worlds like the kesi of the Rig-Veda, he may hide himself in caves and jungles, and equally he may live in the midst of the multitude and even share in the world's work without losing his solitude. The unperceptive will never notice him; only the evamvid (the one who knows thus) will recognize him, since he too abides in the depth of the Self. However, anyone who is already in the slightest degree awakened cannot fail to experience something of his radiance - a taste, a touch, a gleam of light - which only the interior sense can perceive, and which leaves behind it a truly wonderful impression.

If then there cannot possibly be any universally meaningful sign of sannyasa, and if social pressures compel the sannyasi ultimately to divest himself of all signs, is there any remaining justification for the retention for an outward form of initiation, since in any case its value is debatable from the point of view of what sannyasa essentially is?


Always he will remember that his essential obligation is to silence, solitude, meditation (dhyana) (cp. Nārada parivrajaka Upanishad, 4.17,18: "Let him remain in a single place... established in his meditation"), and this he can never abandon.


(p. 49) Sannyasa can only be given (and this applies all the more to the cases under consideration) when the guru feels confident that the disciple has really seen, is evamvidvan, and possesses the physical, mental and spiritual strength to remain faithful under any circumstances to the fundamental demands of the ascetic life. Normally he should have given proof of his quality, not only in his life in the guru's company (antevasin) but also in solitude and wandering (parivrajya); and even more, in the case of a westerner, in the persevering practice of the acosmic life in the midst of a world which rejects such acosmism. It is also understood that his diksa will involve for him the actual departure for a period of wandering and bhiksacarya (living on alms), which should last as long as possible. The candidate should also renounce the possession of all that could be called his; and if actual and legal dispossession is not possible, he must realize that he no longer holds any right of ownership in anything at all, and must be ready to set out with anything or nothing whatever, when circumstances call for this. Only then can the guru agree to be the witness before earth and heaven to the final commitment of the candidate.

The days which precede the diksa are passed in retreat, that is, in silence, meditation and appropriate reading, either alone or in the company of the guru. Immediately before the initiation the Scriptures prescribe a day of fasting and a night of prayer. That night will be spent in silent meditation, and possibly in reading over again those Upanishadic texts which have most strongly formed the spiritual experience of the aspirant. (For instance the texts of the Sannyasopanishads, of which the most important have already been quoted; the texts on renunciation in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.5, 4.4.22; and Mundaka Upanishad 1.2 ; those on non-desire in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.6 and on the departure of Yajnavalkya in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.5; those who contains the mahavakyas; also Chandogya Upanishad 7 with its climax in Brahman, 8.1 on the discovery of the place of the heart; the hymns of jubilation of the awakened man in Chandogya Upanishad 8.13-14, in Taittireya Upanishad 1.1.4 and 10; the first three chapters of the Katha Upanishad - for the aspirant is none other than the young Naciketas who compelled Death to reveal his secret, and discovered himself in himself beyond death and rebirth.)

The homas and sraddhas which take place during that night in the ritual of a dvija are unnecessary when the candidate does not belong to the Hindu fold and has not been invested with the sacred thread. Nor need he repeat the gayatri, the supreme mantra which until now has been an essential element in the life of a Brahmana (Brahmanachari).

[...] Now all the preparations are finished, completed. Only the rite of the diksa itself has to be enacted in the bare simplicity of its symbolism. All signs are about to be fulfilled in that ultimate sign which bears the elect one beyond all, to the final discovery of himself. All graces are to be summed up in that definitive gift of grace, beyond which there is only the unique and non-dual mystery of grace in itself. The rite will be the supreme symbol of the interior departure beyond oneself to the Self, who alone permits "aham brahmasmi" to be uttered in truth. Now the whole life of the aspirant comes to its final point, and his spirit, freed from all bonds, takes light into the infinity of the Self, as is expressed in the mantra from the Chandogya Upanishad which he will soon recite. As Jesus said on the eve of his great departure: "The hour has come.... I go to the Father". Guru and disciple come to the river bank - if possible, to the Ganga which in the course of many centuries at countless points along its banks or at its prayagas (confluences) has so often witnessed such initiations. Below them is the Water, the Ganga; above them in the sky is Agni, the Fire of the rising Sun; water and fire, the two sacred elements in which is made the oblation of everything that has to be consecrated. They first sing the hymn to Dakshinamurti, the supreme Guru. Here indeed it is not only one man who gives the initiation. For the disciple in whom the Inward Light has shone, this man is only the manifestation at this moment of the unique Guru who manifests himself at every place and time, whenever the heart is opened from within. "OM! Salutation to all gurus! OM! Salutation to the unique Guru!"
All gurus are present here, all the awakened ones, the unique Awakened One, for there is but one awakening and a single Awakened one. The aspirant enters the water waist-deep. He takes a sip (acamana) of the holy water, as if to purify the mouth which will offer the great vow. Then, turning to the East, he repeats after the guru the formulas of the vows, which do not so much indicate a decision now taken for the future, but rather manifest that which is already true in the depths of the soul and transcends all past and future: "Om bhur bhuva suva sannyastam maya" I have renounced all worlds ", this world of earth, the so-called world of heaven, all possible worlds in between, all lokas, all places where I might rest and find security (pratishtha), whether in the materiel or the mental sphere, in that of human fellowship, or even in the so-called spiritual sphere. My adoration, my total dedication (upasana) is to the unique Self, the Brahman that I AM. I have risen beyond all desires, desire for progeny, desire for riches, desire for any loka whatever. "Let no creature have fear of me, since everything come from me" (Nārada parivrajaka Upanishad, 4-38).

The new sannyasi plunges into the water. Then the guru raises him like the Purusha of the Aitareyopanishad "Arise, O Man! Arise, wake up, you who have received the boons; keep awake!" (Katha Upanishad, 3.14).

Both of them then face the rising sun and sing the song to the Purusa from the Uttara-Narayana: "I know him, that supreme Purusha, sun-coloured, beyond all darkness; only in knowing him one overcomes death; no other way exists". (V. Samhita 31.18).

Then they recite the sacred mantra of the Chandogya Upanishad, which so powerfully sums up the mystery which is taking place: " In total serenity he rises up from this body, reaches the highest light, and is revealed in his own proper form; he is the supreme Purusha, he is Atman, he is Brahman, he is the All, he is the Truth, he is beyond fear, beyond death, he is unborn. And I myself am He " (Chandogya Upanishad 8,3,4 & 8.12.3).

The new sannyasi then unties all the clothes he may be wearing and lets them float away in the stream. Then the guru calls him back to the bank and receives him in his arms, dripping with water and naked as he was when he came forth from his mother's womb. He then covers him with the fire-coloured cloth of the sannyasi, the flame-colour of the Purusha, of the golden Hamsa (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.11); All has been burnt up; he is a new man - or rather, he is the unique Man, the unique Purusha, the unique Spirit, whom no garment can ever again clothe, other than the garment of fire, which consumes all other garments superimposed on the essential nudity of the original Purusha, the non-dual Spirit. Now the guru makes him sit before him and gives him his last brief instructions. He reminds him of the uniqueness of the Atman, and so of his total freedom towards all beings, of his lack of obligation to anyone apart from the unique Spirit, and of his sole duty is to remain fixed in the vision of his self, the inner mystery which is the non-dual Brahman, while his mind remains totally absorbed in repeating endlessly the sacred OM with every breath he takes and every beat of his heart.

The guru stands beside him. With all the power that springs from the inner awakening he imparts from mouth to ear, and still - more from heart to heart, the OM and the mahavakyas. He says "OM! Brahma is consciousness "(Aitareya Upanishad 5.3) and the disciple repeats it after Him. "OM! This self is Brahma" (Mandukya Upanishad, 2) and again the disciple repeats it after him. But when he comes to what is, properly speaking, the mantra of initiation, the upadedesha-mantra of the Chandogyopanishad (6.8.7 ff): "OM! Thou art That!" the disciple answers with the fundamental mantra of the Brihadaranyakopanishad (1.4.10) which now issues with full spontaneity from his deepest self; "OM! I am Brahma !OM! Aham asmi OM! Aham OM!"
Now the last sign itself is over; the time has come for the great departure from which there is no possible return. Hence forward the guru has no right to recall his disciple.

" Go, my son, in the freedom of the Spirit, across the infinite space of the heart; go to the Source, go to the Father, go to the Unborn, yourself unborn (ajata), to the Brahma-loka which you yourself have found and from which there is no returning."(inspired by Chandogya Upanishad, 8 end). Immediately the new sannyasi sets out on his path, the path of the Self, the 'ancient narrow path' (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.8).

In this world, out of this world, seer of what is beyond sight, he goes secretly and hidden, unknown, mad with the madness of those who know, free with the freedom of the Spirit, filled with essential bliss, established in the mystery of the non-dual, free from all sense of otherness, his heart filled with the unique experience of the Self, fully and for ever awake...

Henri Le Saux o.s.b., Swami Abhishiktananda. summary

Sannyasa index