Chapter 1: In Ancient Times
According to tradition, Sannyasa is regarded as an external expression—a social form, we may say—of maturity of thought. Sannyasa is not taken at random, at the whim and fancy of any person.
In ancient times, prior to the time of the Manu Smriti for instance, there was no social order of Sannyasa. There was Sannyasa, but it could not be called an order in the sense that it is understood these days. In those days, even during the time of the Upanishads, we had Sannyasins and nuns, but they did not belong to any organisation. There were no organisations, no ashrams of the type that we see nowadays. Though there were ashrams of a Guru or Gurus with one or two disciples, there were no organisations like ours with hundreds of disciples or residents. That type of organisation did not exist.
During the time of the Upanishads and a little later—prior to the circumstances described in the Manu Smriti, as mentioned—there were individual Sannyasins, and they served a Guru for years together. Usually a candidate for ordinance into Sannyasa would be expected to serve a Guru for at least twelve years—not less than twelve years—and serve the Guru in every way, as if he entirely belongs to the Guru. He is not an independent person at all. The disciple, the chela, the sishya, is part and parcel of the Guru himself, and the will of the Guru is the will of the disciple. As a matter of fact, the disciple is expected not to have any individual way of thinking at all. He should not interpret the Guru in any manner whatsoever. He should not use reason in judging the instructions of his Guru. Whatever the Guru says is the final order, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, reasonable or unreasonable from the point of view of the chela.
There were occasions when a chela was tested by his Guru very severely, even to the point of the death of the disciple. The disciple never died, of course, but he was tested to such a point where any weak-minded or rational-minded disciple would have run away from that place. He would not have stayed with the Guru. But the Gurus were very able persons; they were only testing, and the test was very severe. After such a test period for twelve years, or sometimes even more, the Guru would summon the disciple, and without any premeditation, would initiate him.
In the Upanishads, we have some very interesting anecdotes referring to the type of life of a chela. In the Chhandogya Upanishad, for instance, there is the story of Upakosala, who served a Guru by the name of Satyakama. Although the Guru did not initiate the disciple even after years and years of service, and it did not appear that he was going to initiate him at all, he took service from him, and very exacting service. Many years passed, and the Upanishad says that even the gods took pity on the chela. It is very surprising indeed. The celestials saw the arduous life the chela was living, and took pity on him. They came in certain forms and initiated the disciple. Then the disciple, who was tending the Guru's cattle in the forest, having received this mystical initiation from the celestials in a mysterious manner, returned with the cattle to the Guru's abode.
When the Guru saw the chela, he said, “How is it that your face is shining today, a thing which I have not seen up to this time, as if you know something which you did not know earlier? Have you learned something new?”
The chela replied, “Yes.”
“Who taught you?” asked the Guru.
The chela's answer was, “Not anyone that is human. Something other than human taught me.”
The Guru was a man of insight, and he saw with his vision that the celestials themselves had initiated the chela.
He said, “I have nothing more to tell you. Whatever you have learnt is quite sufficient, and I only confirm it.”
There is another instance of the hardships which, in ancient times, disciples were made to undergo by their Gurus. There was a chela called Uttanka, who served his master for years and years. Not twelve years—he served for twenty, thirty, forty years. It appears that the Guru never uttered a word. One day when Uttanka, the chela, was carrying firewood from the forest to the Guru, one of his hairs got stuck in the firewood, and he saw that it was white. He started weeping, “Oh, I have become old.” His hair had become white, and he had never even observed it, poor man. He was so devoted to the Guru that he never had time to notice that his hair had become white. He saw it only when it got stuck in the firewood. “Oh God,” he said, “I have become old, and still I have not received initiation.” He wept and beat his breast. When he went to the Guru in that condition, the Guru took pity on him and initiated him. There are instances galore of this king.
There are also instances of this kind outside India. You must read the work of Professor Evans Wentz of Oxford. He did research in Tibetan mysticism, and wrote an English translation of the biography of Milarepa, a great Yogi of Tibet. You will start weeping if you read about Milarepa's life. You can never imagine that a chela can undergo such hardships. It was not mere hardship in the ordinary sense; they were actually tortured by the Gurus, but the Gurus had their own reasons for it.
Later on, Milarepa's Guru told him why he had tortured him. He said, “I do not want anything from you.” He said this a day before Milarepa was about to be initiated. “I have not put you to test or trouble because I want something from you. I have got everything by divine grace. But you have committed several sins, and all those sins had to be expiated, which is why I tested you, put you to hardship, extracted hard labour from you, and never even gave you a proper daily meal.”
Milarepa was starving, and was actually ill. He could not get up; he was crawling, and even in that condition he was asked to go and tend the cattle, to build a house, and so on.