Chapter 4: The Rise of Organisational Sannyasa
This organisational type of Sannyasa arose, I should say, after Buddha. Prior to Buddha, there was no organisational Sannyasa—no Sangha, as we call it. “Sangham saranam gacchami,” the Buddhists say. There was no Sangha before Buddha. Each individual, each Sannyasin, was independent by himself. He used to stay in his own kutir, cottage, or in the forest or somewhere, or he would be a wandering mendicant. He did not live in an organisation or a monastery. There were no monasteries of this kind. It was Buddha who organised monks into a group and constituted a body, called a Sangha, for the first time; and Sankaracharya followed suit. So Buddha and Sankara should be regarded as the founders of the organisational system of Sannyasa, though Sannyasa did exist even before Buddha and Sankara, in an individual form. People were living Sannyasa in their individual capacity as mendicants, taking bhiksha, or alms, from house to house, and so on. No ashram of this kind existed. It started after Buddha; and Sankara learned from him, in one sense.
But Sankara learned something else from the Buddhists' system of Sannyasa. That Sannyasins had to be organised into a group was a need felt by Buddha. Sankara accepted it, and he also did the very same thing. But there is one thing which Sankara did not do, which Buddha did: admit women into the monasteries. Buddha was also not for it. If you have read the life of Buddha, you will know this. Buddha was not interested in arguing on these matters. He kept quiet.
One day Mahaprajapati, his own mother and the queen of the palace, wanted to embrace Sannyasa. She came and stood at the gates. The disciples came and told Buddha, “Lord, Mahaprajapati, your mother, is standing at the gate.” Buddha did not say anything; he kept quiet. After a few minutes Ananda, his dearest disciple, came and said, “Lord, Mahaprajapati, your mother, is standing at the gate.” Buddha kept quiet. For the third time Ananda said, “Lord, Mahaprajapati is waiting in the hot sun.” Buddha still did not say anything. Then Ananda said, “Lord, is the Lord only for men, or for all beings?” “All right, let her come. But the dharma of the Buddha will not last for more than 500 years,” Buddha said. And then she was taken. The first woman who entered Buddha's order was Mahaprajapati, from his own palace. Well, this is only a philosophical commentary, we can say, which Buddha gave with a single sentence or remark on this incident that took place. But later on, after Buddha, it became a very difficult affair to manage.
If we read the history of Buddhism, there were many causes—not one cause—behind the thinning out of Buddhism in India. Some say Sankaracharya was the cause, some say Kumarila Bhatta was the cause, some say the Gupta emperors were the cause, but there were so many causes. No illness comes from a single cause. One of the causes was a kind of psychological deformity that crept into the minds of people in the order, due to there not being a proper understanding of the relationship between monks and nuns.
Sankaracharya stopped admitting women. We will find that Sankaracharya had no lady disciple, although Buddha did. For some centuries—for very many years—no women were admitted into the order of Sannyasa of Sankaracharya. No Sannyasi would initiate a woman. He would never do that, because it was not in his tradition.
There are at least three stages of the development of Sannyasa. The first is prior to Buddha, and the second is after Buddha. The Sannyasa up to the time of Buddha was purely individualistic. There was no mutual social relationship of Sannyasins, no brethren among Sannyasins. But after Buddha, brethren started; and the brethren of the group formed monasteries.
Then a third stage came into existence after Swami Vivekananda. He brought a new atmosphere into the Sannyasa order by introducing a greater social sense. There was very little social sense in the Sankaracharya order, though there was an order. The Buddhist monks were an order; Sangha was an order. There were thousands of Buddhist monks living in monasteries—in Nalanda, Taxila, and in so many places. The Maths of Sankara in Sringeri, Joshimath, Puri and Dwaraka were very important centres, but they were not social in the sense we understand society. They were devoted to their own scriptural studies and service of the Guru, and meditation according to the techniques of their order, with moksha or liberation as their goal. So in spite of the fact that the monks joined together in monasteries and there was organisation of Sannyasins after Buddha and Sankara, still the Sannyasins kept aloof from human society. They would not mix with laymen; and laymen were regarded as not spiritually mature enough to get deeply associated with Sannyasins.
But Swami Vivekananda brought a new turn. Monks who were originally spiritually oriented also became socially oriented in response to a need of the times. We should say that all these changes took place on account of the needs of the time. During the period of the Vedas and the Upanishads, this kind of organisation was perhaps not necessary on account of the lesser number of Sannyasins. When the number of Sannyasins went on increasing, an organisation became necessary. Buddha called it Sangha, and Sankaracharya called it Maths, and so on.
But now the world has changed, and Sannyasins cannot be the same type that they were during the time of the Upanishads, during the time of the Manu Smriti and the Mahabharata, and even during the time of Acharya Sankara and Buddha. These days humanity has come together into a closer relationship on account of modern scientific inventions. There was also the impossibility of Sannyasins to live such a kind of life because of a later development of human society, which was that no bhiksha could be obtained. There was no question of bhiksha. A very difficult affair it was. Either the Sannyasin should die without bhiksha, or he must find another means of existing. Royal patronage also ceased. During the time of Buddha, Sankara, etc., huge estates were leased out to monasteries by the Rajas. Nalanda was such, and there were many other instances of this type. There was royal protection for the monasteries, and afterwards that ceased. Society still protected the monasteries, and so the tradition continued; but society also became a little different later on. Social conditions necessitated the formation of a new type of Sannyasa organisation, which we find today. This started after Swami Vivekananda, Swami Rama Tirtha; afterwards, everybody had to accept it, because it was the right step that they took.
Thus, social work and spiritual activity came together; they were not bifurcated. Later on, it became incumbent upon monks to recognise social activity as a kind of spiritual activity itself, not outside Sannyasa. It became very difficult for Sannyasins to stomach all these changes, and some resented it. During the time of Swami Vivekananda, there was resentment even from his own nearest brothers. There was one Latu Maharaj, later on called Swami Adbhutananda, a very good soul. Like Swami Vivekananda, he was one of the first disciples of Sri Ramakrishna.
In those days, there was no compulsion and order for the sake of obedience. Obedience and compulsion imposed by a superior upon an inferior was unknown to the monks and Sannyasins. They had never experienced it. So when Vivekananda started a new trend of thinking and said, “Tomorrow morning the bell will ring at 7 o'clock and all will sit for meditation,” Adbhutananda said, “I am quitting this place today itself.” He rolled up his bedding and said that he was leaving. He said, “You are giving trouble to me by saying that the bell will ring at such and such time tomorrow and we have to sit for meditation. I don't want this kind of thing. Ramakrishna never did this. He never rang the bell and troubled us like this. Now you start ringing the bell, so I am quitting.” He really rolled up his bedding and was about to leave. Then Vivekananda made it a little milder and said, “Don't go, don't go.” He introduced some change, and it was not as strict as in the beginning. Some brothers resented it. “We don't want to be ordered by anyone, and won't tolerate it. We are humble souls, humble disciples trying to attain mukti in our own way, and we don't want to be ordered or expected to do something when a bell rings.” They did not like it. In the beginning everything is difficult, and afterwards it gets accommodated.
Then finally, after the passing of Swami Vivekananda, the first social monastic organisation was the Ramakrishna Mission. I am particularly using the word 'social' because they were the first to directly associate themselves with laymen, which earlier was not there. Sannyasins would not associate themselves with laymen, lay people. They would always be isolated. After the institution of the Ramakrishna Mission by Swami Vivekananda, and especially after his passing, it became more socialised. Now the Ramakrishna Mission lays tremendous emphasis on social service of various types—educational, medical, famine relief, etc. Wonderful social work is being done by them. This emphasis was given first of all by Swami Vivekananda himself, because in the same way as society changed, the individual also changed—even the Sannyasins.
Due to the changing times, it was difficult for people to sit for meditation throughout the day. How could they live a life of meditating throughout the day? Try it yourself. It is impossible. Then, what will you do? An idle mind is the devil's workshop, because all unwanted ideas will enter it. These unwanted ideas need not necessarily be criminal or anti-social, but they are unwanted, from the spiritual point of view at least. Very difficult it is to live a spiritual life. This was realised very early.
Swami Sivananda was one of those who said that tamas has to be first overcome by rajas, and rajas has to be overcome by sattva, and then sattva has to be transcended. Raga, dvesha, kama, krodha, lobha, moha, mada, matsarya, irsha, asuya, dambha, darpa and ahamkar are the thirteen Sanskrit names of the types of tamasic gunas, and are enumerated in Vedantic textbooks. These are the thirteen kinds of dirt in the mind. They are tamasic qualities—the lowest bestial forms, we may call them. How can one get out of this? How can you meditate with these qualities in your mind? Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj used to ask this question to his disciples.
It was Swami Vivekananda who started this trend of thinking. A person cannot sit and meditate. It is useless to say, “I am meditating. I am doing japa.” You are not doing japa. You are not meditating. You are unnecessarily wasting your time. Instead of building castles in the air and having unwanted thoughts, and not progressing spiritually, really speaking—in other words, instead of wasting your life—why don't you do something good? Divert your energy towards good activities. Let it be rajas. You want sattva—meditation means sattva—but you cannot go directly from tamas to sattva; it is impossible. Therefore, you pass through rajas. Rajas is activity. If you do not accept rajas and think that you are ready for sattva alone, you are thoroughly mistaken, and you will fall into tamas. Sometimes tamas and sattva look alike. You may be sleeping, and yet you may think that you are meditating.
I quote an analogous passage: “Genius is to madness near allied; a thin partition divides them both.” Meditation looks like sleep, and sleep looks like meditation. You will be thinking that you are a highly advanced soul, but you will be on the lowest pedestal. If you rub a person, you will know what that person is; otherwise, you cannot know. Scratch a person, and then you will know him. He may appear to be a spiritually advanced soul, great, but try scratching him. Then you will see how far he has advanced spiritually.
Karma yoga was detestable to traditional Vedantins. Whether they were bhakti yogins or jnana yogins, it made no difference; they both hated social service because they thought that it is a kind of entanglement in society, from which they had already extricated themselves by so much service to the Guru, so why should they be expected to go to society once again? This was an argument against karma yoga. Sankaracharya was against a particular type of karma yoga, and many people did not understand what he was against. And the bhaktas said, “God, Thou art everything. Don't talk about karma yoga. There is no question of service.” So devotees as well as philosophers both rejected karma yoga.
Though it is understandable and reasonable from one point of view, it is impracticable from the realistic point of view. You cannot pray to God and be as emotionally devoted as you would like to be continuously throughout the day; nor is it possible for you to be a philosopher of such type as to be continuously conscious of the Absolute. Neither of these things is possible. Therefore, modern teachers suggested an alternative—or, in the language of psychologists, a substitution. But it is a way to sublimation, and does not end merely with substitution. You are not doing karma yoga, activity or social service only because you cannot meditate, though that may be one of the reasons. “I cannot meditate; therefore, I will do some work.” That is not the reason. The reason is something else also: that you can sublimate your energies by properly channelising them into good work. Though rajas is not sattva, it is better than tamas. This should be accepted. Instead of going on sleeping for fifteen hours a day, which will do no good either to you or to anybody else, would it not be proper to do a little service to your brothers and sisters? What do you lose by doing a little service? On the other hand, you gain psychologically, you gain socially, and you also gain spiritually if it is properly done with the right attitude. So now we have ashrams of this kind, where there is a blend of society, social service, spiritual aspiration and mystical meditation.