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The Guru-Disciple Relationship
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 5: Initiation into Sannyasa

The initiation traditionally given today is of the same type as it was during the time of the Upanishads. The tradition has not changed, though these days Gurus do not insist upon twelve years of service or probation. Even though they still say it should be twelve years, actually it is a bit reduced. But Gurus are supposed to observe their disciples, and not give them Sannyasa immediately. Even initiation into Naishtika Brahmacharya is not done at once. Brahmacharya is of two kinds: Upakurvana Brahmacharya and Naishtika Brahmacharya. Upakurvana means preparatory Brahmacharya, and Naishtika means absolute Brahmacharya. An Upakurvana Brahmacharin may live under a Guru and study the Vedas and scriptures and so on, and then return to household life. He is allowed to leave the Guru after the period of the study is over and marry and become a householder, a layman; there is no objection. But a Naishtika Brahmacharin cannot do that. He is preparing himself for the higher order of Sannyasa. A symbolic distinction is made in the clothing. Upakurvana Brahmacharins wear white cloth because nobody can object if they return to their house; but a Brahmacharin who wears yellow cloth cannot return, because he is a Naishtika Brahmacharin who has accepted absolute Brahmacharya as a preparation for Sannyasa. After some years, when the Brahmacharin is regarded by the Guru as sufficiently fit for the order of Sannyasa, he is called for initiation.

The tradition is that a week before, a few days before or sometimes even a day before the initiation, the Brahmacharin is asked to observe a fast. The day prior to the day of initiation would be a day of fast, and the night prior to the day of initiation would be one of vigil. He would not eat and he would not sleep that day. Those who are ill and physically not ready may not be able to observe this rule to its letter, but that is what is prescribed. The minimum possible discipline that would be expected of a candidate for Sannyasa is fast for at least one day and vigil for one night, chanting the Gayatri Mantra or his ishta mantra. The tradition of Brahmins receiving one type of initiation and those other than Brahmins receiving another type of initiation still continues. It has not completely gone. Though bifurcation according to caste is not so much these days, the spiritual aspect of it still continues. For example, Gayatri mantra japa is the special mantra of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. Nowadays, Gurus do not insist on that mantra. They say, “Do your ishta mantra. Whatever be your deity, your God, your concept of the Supreme Being, do japa of the mantra of that deity throughout the night of vigil.” Generally, the Gayatri mantra is not given to women. In certain cases it may be permitted, but normally it is not advised for women. They do their ishta mantra.

The next morning there is the commencement of the rite, the ritual, which begins with a bath in the Ganga, or in a tank, a well, a river or a stream. Whatever it is, it is a bath in cold water. Then the candidate has a shave. A tuft of hair is left, which is very traditional and conservative. After that, he has to take another bath.

Then he performs what is known as shraddha. ‘Shraddha' is a Sanskrit word which cannot be translated into English. It can be explained, but there is no dictionary synonym for shraddha. It is an offering that is made to dead people—ancestors or pitris, as we call them. In India, among Hindus especially, it is the tradition to offer rice balls mixed with til (sesame) and some other items, coupled with libations, ablution in water, with the chanting of mantras for not only peace of the departed soul, but also for the soul's salvation.

Generally when a person dies, this shraddha, or offering to the departed soul, is made by the nearest surviving relatives. In the case of the candidate for Sannyasa, there is a special kind of shraddha which is called atma shraddhashraddha done by oneself for one's own self. The idea behind it is that if a Sannyasin physically dies, nobody will mourn him. Nobody will weep. If he goes, let him go; nobody is bothered about it. Who will do shraddha for him when he has severed himself from his family, from society? Nobody will do shraddha for his soul after his death. So what does this candidate do? He performs the offering now itself, even before death. “Even before I die, I reserve something for myself after my death.” Atma shraddha is the offering that is made to one's own self as a discarnate spirit. This is a very traditional ritual, which is done by pundits. We Sannyasins have already made the necessary provisions for ourselves for quitting this physical body because nobody will do it for us after our death. We have to do it ourselves because we have no relations, and have cut off all connections. After atma shraddha, he takes a bath. Nowadays they do not take so many baths. They take only one bath, because they can fall sick by going on dipping themselves in cold water. It is very difficult to take several baths, especially in the winter when the water is very cold. They cannot do it, so they have only one bath, but traditionally there are many baths.

After the penultimate bath, subsequent to the atma shraddha, they are asked to sit before a holy fire—before a sacred fire which is installed very ritualistically with the chant of mantras relevant to the occasion. In India, we have a concept of what is known as yajna. Yajna means sacrifice. We may say that in one sense the whole Hindu culture is based on the concept of yajna. If you understand what yajna is, you have understood the whole of Hinduism. It has such a vast meaning and many implications, though it literally means sacrifice.

The candidate for Sannyasa offers a sacrifice before the sacred fire; yajna is performed by him. ‘Homa' is another word for it. The particular name for this yajna is viraja, which means ‘free from rajas'. No passions will be there afterwards. Generally in the yajna, or the sacrifice, offerings are made in the form of certain materials such as til, rice, jaggary, ghee, and certain other preparations like gruel, etc. But in this viraja homa, though the medium of offering is of course ghee to symbolise the sacrifice, the passions of the performer are supposed to be offered. This is something very interesting. The Sannyasin offers the passions of his individuality. “No more passions in me hereafter; no love, no hatred in the sense of personal attachment.” He may have universal love, that is a different thing, but there is no personal love hereafter. “I won't love anybody, I won't hate anybody, I won't have lust, I won't have greed, and I won't have any kind of desire which is driven by the physical body.”

I mentioned earlier the thirteen types of dirt in the mind. These are the passions of the soul, physically associated. Lust, anger and greed are the primary passions. All these are offered, and he chants a mantra and says, “I hereby offer my passions into the sacred fire; they are burnt to ashes. My anger is offered into the fire; it is burnt to ashes. My lust is offered into the fire; it is burnt to ashes. My greed for wealth and property is offered into the sacred fire; they are burnt to ashes”—and so on. There are so many mantras. Finally he says, “I offer my physical body into this fire. I offer my pranas into this fire. I offer my senses into this fire. I offer my intellect into this fire.” What remains afterwards? Only pure Consciousness remains. When I have offered all my passions, I have offered my body and the senses, the mind, the intellect and the pranas, what remains in me? Only the Spirit remains, pure Consciousness remains, the Atman remains. The Sannyasin shines like gold in his concept of the Spirit, free from physical, psychological and social passions. This is symbolised by the viraja yajna. After this yajna is performed, he glows in the spiritual sense—brahmavarchas is introduced into him.

Then the Guru comes for initiation. The Guru does not come into the picture up to this time. He sits in the background. Now the Guru comes, and asks the disciple to sit facing him. The Guru and the disciple sit facing each other, and there is a spiritual communication, as it were, between the Guru and the disciple. The soul speaks to the soul. It is not some Swami speaking to some Brahmachari. The initiation starts with the chanting of the mantra Om, and is followed by so many other mantras, which all connote the introduction into the consciousness of the disciple the idea of the universality of the Spirit—Brahman, as it is called. The universal Atman is called Brahman; they are one and the same thing.

This goes on for some time, and the Guru asks the disciple to give fearlessness to all people. One of the very important vows that the Sannyasin takes at the time of initiation is that he gives fearlessness to everybody: “There is no fear from me hereafter. No fear shall come from me either to human beings or to animals. I will not kill a snake or hit a scorpion or attack a human being. Even by word, I will not insult others. No hurt from me will be there at any time.” This is called abhaya.

When you see a Sannyasin, you feel happy that your friend is there. A Sannyasin is a friend of all people. He has no enemies, and no person is afraid of him. No person in the world is afraid of a Sannyasin, because he will not harm anyone. He will not harm even by word. He will not say, “Get out, you idiot.” Such words will not come from the mouth of a Sannyasin. Even if a person is not physically injured, he can be insulted by words; but a Sannyasin will not do that either. Not only that, it is said that even animals are not afraid of a Sannyasin who is in a very advanced stage. Not to create a vibration of animosity even before subhuman beings such as reptiles, etc., is a difficult thing to achieve, but that is an ideal which is before the Sannyasin. He gives abhaya, fearlessness, to all creatures.

Then by loud proclamation he renounces the three worlds—the physical, the astral and the celestial. The three worlds are the physical world that we see with our senses, the astral world which we cannot see with our senses, and the celestial world which is called heaven. He does not want the pleasures of heaven either. So he renounces all the three worlds, all associations with the three worlds, and with the denizens of the three worlds. He gives fearlessness to all, and says, “I am free from the three evils of life.” In Sanskrit they are called eshanas. Eshana is subtle longing, passion in a rudimentary form. Love for wealth, love for sex, and love for name and fame are the three eshanas. He renounces all these three, and has no love for wealth, no love for sex, and no love for name-fame, which are the three pitfalls of a Sannyasin. If he escapes one, he will get caught by another.

Ordinarily speaking, no one can be free from all three. He will be caught by at least one. But he has to be free from all three if he is to lead a life of Sannyasa. So he takes a vow while gazing at the Sun and touching the waters of the holy Ganga: “I shall be free from these three evils, the passions of the individual being.” And he makes the Sun his witness. What a terrible thing it is to make the vow before the Sun! The Sun will know it. “This fellow has uttered these things before me.” It is a terrific vow which we are made to loudly chant.

Then the Guru says, “Go wherever you like.” That is the traditional order. “Go wherever you like. Blessed be thy soul, and attain salvation at the due time.” Traditionally speaking, the disciple will not return. He will go away; that is all. He does not live with the Guru afterwards, but goes wherever he likes. He moves towards the north, towards the Himalayas, and he will never be seen after that. But that is extreme, and nowadays very few people do it. Otherwise, the disciple says, “Guruji, where will I go? I will stay here and serve you, and do whatever you say.” This is a modern innovation.

But there is a danger that the disciple may forget the vows he has taken. Mostly the vows are forgotten because once again the idea of the body comes, the idea of society comes, the idea of name-fame comes. These three things are terrible, and nobody can escape them. But one must be free from these by very hard effort of deep study of the Upanishads. The Guru says, “All right, if you cannot go away, stay with me and study the Upanishads—the Mandukya Upanishad, the Chhandogya Upanishad, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, etc. Meditate on the glorious descriptions of the Absolute given in these Upanishads, spend as many hours as possible in study of these Upanishads and in deep meditation on their teaching, and regard yourself as the humblest of creatures.”