Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE ( (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 14 April 2021


A Dictionary of Hinduism

W. J. Johnson

saṃnyāsa (sannyāsa) (‘ laying aside’, ‘ renunciation’) 

The way of life of a Brahmanical renunciant (saṃnyāsin); also the name of the ritual by which a man becomes such a saṃnyāsin. More loosely, the renunciation of caste society in order to pursue personal liberation.

The historical process by which renunciation was incorporated into, or developed out of the Brahmanical ‘mainstream’ to become an institution which, in ideological terms, is complementary to the life of the householder (gṛhastha) ritualist, has been much debated. Some scholars have seen it as an organic and logical development of the role of the sacrificer (yajamāna)—i.e. as the internalization and perfection of the ritual life; others as the result of the gradual incorporation of extra-Brahmanical beliefs and practices into Vedic orthopraxy; others again as a complex combination of these two processes. Those looking to outside sources have often argued that the institution of renunciation has its origins in the socio-economic changes which affected North India, in particular, from about the 6th century bce onwards. Urbanization led to the breakdown in family and kinship networks, and, in the light of new uncertainties about how to live properly, gave rise to a religious individualism based on personal choice. The most immediately obvious result of this was the creation over a period of time of the ‘alternative’ societies of the Buddhist and Jain monastic institutions, although these in themselves clearly had śramaṇa antecedents. There were, however, no such institutional equivalents in the Brahmanical tradition: individuals who leave home to live lives conducive to liberation in the wilderness or forest (araṇya) appear in some Upaniṣads (Yajñavalkya in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka 2.4.1 is described as becoming a parivrājaka or ‘wandering ascetic’), but there is no suggestion that they are joining a parallel community.

Whatever the underlying process or processes, the mechanism for formally positioning renunciation, or for integrating it into the traditional Brahmanical way of life was the āśrama system. It is clear from the Dharmasūtras that renunciation, however understood, was initially seen as one of a number of voluntary alternatives, any one of which could be chosen as a lifelong āśrama by an adult male after a temporary period of Vedic studentship under a guru. By the time of the Dharmaśāstras, however, the āśramas had been arranged, for ideological purposes, into a single path through life marked by four successive stages, which each individual was supposed to pass through in turn. The last of these, according to the developed system, was ‘saṃnyāsa’, a term which had made its initial appearance at the end of the first millennium bce referring specifically to the abandonment of the Brahmanical fires in a ritual also called saṃnyāsa. (Although it is worth noting that in the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (3.2.6) (c.3rd–1st century bce) a single occurrence of the term appears to carry the wider sense of a particular ascetic way of life, albeit one conditioned by knowledge of the Vedānta.) The influential Manusmṛti, however, unlike later Dharmaśāstra texts, reserves the term ‘saṃnyāsin’ (6.86) for a man who has retired from the ritual life but lives at home under the protection of his son. For him the fourth āśrama is that of the homeless ascetic seeking mokṣa.

Once current, the term ‘saṃnyāsa’ was explicated in various ways: for instance, the Bhagavadgītā, a text opposed to the idea of societal renunciation, redefines it as the rejection of actions motivated by desires (18.2), i.e. it internalizes the idea to an attitude rather than an āśrama. At approximately the same time, however (the early centuries ce), ‘minor’ Upaniṣadic texts, subsequently called Sāṃnyasa Upaniṣads, began to appear whose theological purpose was to to provide Vedic authority for the institution of saṃnyāsa. In the process—and probably reflecting already well-established traditions—they give detailed and variegated information about the way in which saṃnyāsins should conduct their lives. Thereafter saṃnyāsa, as a specific term, continued to be treated in the context of the āśramas—either as the fourth in sequence, or as an alternative lifestyle embarked upon from one of the other orders of life. (Although according to some sources, renunciation from no āśrama at all was a possibility for those who were sufficiently detached.)

The procedure for taking saṃnyāsa, in the sense of the particular ritual of renunciation, is complex. The saṃnyāsin-to-be should belong to one of the upper three varṇas, and therefore be qualified to perform the Vedic rituals he is about the renounce. Under the direction of brahmin priests, he deposits the fires he has used for his sacrifices into himself, i.e. into his breath; his life thereby becomes a continuous, internalized sacrifice, fuelled by whatever he eats. This marks a break with the ritual world and the householder's life from which there is supposd to be no return. The idea that he is ritually dead (i.e. no longer alive in the normal social and sacrificial sense) is reinforced by various borrowings from the śrāddha rites, including the abandonment (‘cremation’) of his sacrificial implements, sacred thread, and top-knot. This association with death, and his status as the performer of his own self-sacrifice, make him impure as far as the rest of the world is concerned. The essential part of the rite is the renouncer's recitation of the praiṣa formula: saṃnyastam mayā—‘I have renounced’, which he repeats three times. This is followed by a formal vow that he will never kill or do violence to any living creature (abhaya). He then removes all his clothes, receives a new name from his guru (another saṃnyāsin), who also gives him what he needs to lead his new (‘re-born’) life, viz. a begging bowl, a staff, an old garment (sometimes ochre in colour), a water pot, a waistband, and a loincloth. The first three, in particular, continue to act as outward emblems (liṅgas) of his altered status, although some advanced saṃnyāsins (such as the Nāgas) may choose to go naked.