SAMNYASIN, SAMNYASA – The renunciate stage of life

The four life stages (asrama-dharma) are viewed by many scholars as joining the Vedic model of three life stages of the Aryas (“the noble ones,” who were twice- born) with a fourth stage, that of renunciation, which developed outside of the Aryan or Brahmanical tradition. The renunciation movement spanned such diverse movements as Buddhist and Jains, Ajivikas and indigenous ascetics (munis, yogis, and the like), as well as some anti-Brahmanical Aryas, those who produced the earliest elements of the Upanishads. But the genius of the Brah- manical tradition was its ability to embrace what could be embraced and push aside the rest. Yogis and munis were brought into the Brahmanical tradition as ascetics by having them affirm the Vedas as authoritative (sruti) and allowing the disciplines of yoga to be interpreted as internalized Vedic sacrifices. A sys­tem of caste and stages of life (varna-asrama-dharma) became obligatory for all. Those who had become liberated from rebirth while still in the flesh (jivan- muktas) were the only ones who were not subject to this system.
Thus, the renunciation of all social ties (samnyasa, sannyasa) by the renouncer (samnyasin, sannyasi) was paradoxically made the fourth stage of Brahmanical society. It was a brilliant way of both legitimating the activities and lives of the renunciates and marginalizing them politically. All that was impor­tant was left in place: priests would still be the intermediaries in public rituals and in temple worship, the caste system would remain just as it was, and asce­tics would serve as models of giving up everything but the bare essentials for sur­vival. Any attempt on the part of the samnyasins to acquire wealth, property, or even worldly power would be self-refuting.
Samnyasis were homeless, dead to the world and worldly obligations. Tech­nically, only brahmins (some sources said the three upper classes) were eligible to renounce worldly obligations—and only after they had completed the earlier stages of student, householder, and forest dweller. A grown son would thus be left as head of the household and the one responsible for the annual rituals (sam- skaras) to tend the ancestor spirits (pitris).

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