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Is Sanyasa about making a political difference?


The Baba Ramdev episode has thrown up a key question — should sanyasis be involved in social activism instead of leading a quiet monastic life? It would seem that sanyasis cannot be a social leader since they are not supposed to own any worldly belongings or be attached to the material world. After all, a sanyasi is ‘one who has renounced material life, isn’t it? But with Baba Ramdev’s social activism, is Sanyasa also about making a difference in the society?

Here is a yoga Guru estimated to be born in 1965 in Haryana to a farmer, takes to yogic discipline at 14, then gets ordained as a monk at 30 in1995 to become Swami Ramdev. Thereafter Baba Ramdev, as he is popularly known, in 2002 propagates India’s best known global brand called ‘Yoga’ and that too through mainstream media.

In the less than 10 years or so Baba Ramdev has led the way to bring ‘Yog, Pranayam and Ayurved’ to millions of homes in India and overseas. Moreover he is said to command a yoga and Ayurveda business empire estimated to be worth more than US $250 million (Rs.1100 crores).  This amount is huge but relatively small compared to the money, resources and people many religious leaders across the world have access to.

With Baba Ramdev, what started as a mass education on yoga and Ayurvedic practice is now diversified into social activism on ‘Swadeshi’ lines. All this has been achieved by Baba Ramdev who is ordained as a ‘Sanyasi’. Given the background of Baba Ramdev’s Satyagraha, there is an opportunity to understand the perception and concept of Sanyasa in the modern world; especially the role Sanyasis have played in political life.

In Indian culture, ‘Sanyasa’ is the most revered stage of life and glorified by the Holy Vedas. In fact there are atleast 16 Upanishads (called Sanyasa Upanishads) that directly speak on sanyasa. Traditionally even the richest men or the supreme leaders have bowed to sanyasis who possess nothing else except their steadfastness.  In Indian tradition, renunciation is considered to be the ideal and heroes are those who have renounced or sacrificed.

So what does ‘Sanyasa’ really mean? The word sanyasa comes from the Sanskrit word ‘sam-nyasa’ derived from two roots: ‘sam’ meaning complete or total and ‘nyasa’ meaning ‘renunciation’. So a sanyasi is understood as one who has renounced everything i.e. all egocentric actions and one who turned towards a higher discipline of austerity and asceticism. The Holy Geeta defines sanyasa as

“kamyanam karmanam nyasam sannyasam kavayo viduh” meaning “The Sages understand sanyasa to be ‘the renunciation of desire prompting actions’”.

The sanyasi resolves to transcend the rigmarole of fleeting pleasures to achieve a permanent state of unbroken happiness (Godhood). In the Vedic tradition, the sanyasi’s oath therefore renounces the pleasures of this world, and even pleasures of the astral world and of the heavens i.e. all the three worlds, while the average politician doesn’t seem to go well when asked to relinquish his kursi.

Talking about politicians and rulers, India has a legacy of charitable rulers like the great Paari Vallal, the legendary 9th century Tamil Chola king who donates his golden chariot to a wild jasmine creeper in the forest, when he found that the creeper had entwined itself around one of his chariot wheels. Paari seems to have that intrinsic sanyas (antarika sanyas) that is the hallmark of philanthropists.

So sanyasis per se don’t have any possessions and relinquish all material wealth as they have outgrown worldly pleasures out of right thinking. That’s what a prince Siddharta Gautama did to become a Gautam Buddha and later influence millions across the globe. That’s what a 10year old boy Shankara did to become the great Acharya Adi Shankara. History tells us that the Vedic Rishis, the Buddha, Acharya Shankara, the exalted Thirthankar Mahaveer championed the path of renunciation over other paths.

But the sanyasa heritage in India has seen both extremes from the most austere to the seriously opulent – from a naked Mahaveer, to Swami Nityananda in a loin cloth to the most affluent Osho Rajneesh. The Kaupina panchakam praising the person with the least needs says

“the person who is reveling in the thoughts of Vedantic declarations, whom does a meager portion of begged-food satisfy, who is walking around without a trace of sorrow. The man with just the loincloth (Kaupina) is indeed the lucky one (bhaagyavanta)”.

While some sanyasis lived a quiet teaching life in a remote place, others got really dynamic in social life for public welfare. In many ways, the ancient order of sanyasa was influenced by great Gurus, saints who were also reformers. Swami Krishnananda of the Divine Life Society observes

“Swami Vivekananda brought in a new atmosphere into the Sanyasa order by introducing a greater social sense…Monks who were originally spiritually oriented also became socially oriented on account of a need of the times that was felt.”

What is the role of renunciates in this modern age? The Sanyasi’s role is generally bound by a convention depending on their Guru, lineage and also their personal level of spiritual attainment. But sanyasis in India from time immemorial have played a huge part in social life, especially when times demanded. A quick review of the Indian spiritual and religious organizations shows that we have had many active monks. It is also interesting, and often neglected, that many of the sanyasis created incredibly large organizations, with much resources and follower base.

Historically it is well known that a learned Chanakya was responsible for the creation of the mighty Mauryan Empire. Swami Ramdas had Shivaji Maharaj’s patronage. Swami Vivekananda and Shri Aurobindo though they were sanyasis did not always wear orange or white robes but  influenced great thinkers from political circles and even Raja-Maharajas. Also many illustrious Gurus were renunciates (sanyasis) like Parahamsa Yogananda, Swami Rama, Swami Sahajanand, Swami Shivanand, Swami Niranjananand, Swami Satyanand among others who supported social upliftment.

In the not so distant past India has had larger than life social-reformer-saints like Sree Narayanguru (Kerala), Swami Keshwanand (Rajashtan), Jai Jalaram Bapa (Gujarat), Swami Dayanand Saraswati (Gujarat), Sathya Sai Baba (Andhra Pradesh) among others. In ancient times Gurus like Vashisht, Agastya and Vishwamitra advised the rulers.

This heritage shows that yoga Gurus and Godmen of India were not just showing society their way to God but also spearheaded many social causes thereby influencing polity. In fact people who are quite detached to material things have been known to have served the society in a better way than some of the elected ones who officially have social mandates but end with a corruption kalank.

The Indian sourcebooks of spirituality and well being also allude to ideal society. For example, the most fundamental text of Yoga is the ‘Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika’, a classic written by Swami Swatmarama in the 5th Century C.E. This textbook mentions (in Ch-1, v12) that yoga should be practiced in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully. Is India one such country? May be that’s the India the social-reformer-Gurus want to see us in!!!

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