Samnyasa (Renunciation)

Hindu renouncers from the Vaisnava sect on their way to the Kumbha Mela in Nasik
Hindu renouncers from the Vaisnava sect on their way to the Kumbha Mela in Nasik

 The exact roots of samnyasa (renunciation) in the Hindu tradition have been a subject of some debate by scholars. Many scholars propose that the roots of renunciation are found in the Vedas, specifically the Rg Veda [For a list of conclusions linking renunciation to the Vedas, see Tiwari (1977)]. With the creation of the Upanisads (c. 8th century BCE) and the philosophy expounded in them(Vedanta) , there was a switch in paradigm which focused not solely on the external merit provided by completing sacrificial rituals, but rather on the internal experience of individuals and the ultimate attainment of moksa (liberation from cyclic worldly existence). The Upanisads introduced moksa as the idea of atman (individual soul) seeking union with Brahman (the universal soul). Moksa was an individual concern, which needed no deities or intermediaries and, therefore renunciation was a release of bonds from both the indenture of society to the brahmins (the priestly caste) for spiritual mediation and the body (see Thapar 843-852). In Brahmanism, samnyasa is the fourth asrama (stage of life) in which the samnaysin (renouncer) turns his [the Vedas and Vedanta texts were most likely written by men and so reflect a male perspective, for a female perspective on renunciation, see Olivelle 84-85] or her focus away from the attainment of worldly concerns, such as artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure) to the pursuit of moksa (liberation) (see Rodrigues 89-94).

Introspection and the growing urbanization broke the system of control and reciprocity established by Vedic ritual, namely the payment of daksina (payment given to a priest so that the merit from the ritual will transfer from the priest to the patron). In theory, the idea of renunciation could negate the class system altogether, as it was the jnana (knowledge) motivated karma (action) of an individual and not status which determined salvation. In some cases this new doctrine took a path of heterodoxy rejecting the supremacy of the Vedas. Some of the major sects which rejected the Vedas and promoted asceticism and renunciation were Jainism and Buddhism, both of which stressed that knowledge could not be given by a deity and that it must be gained by the individual (ultimately through the distancing of an individual from society in order to attain liberation). The formation of such sects caused a disruption of the power the brahmins held over the other classes and eventually the doctrine of renunciation was incorporated into Brahmanism as one of the four asramas. The asramas linked the samnyasins to a socially productive life through delineating an ideal sequence to life, each stage aiming at specific goals (see Thapar 840-848) [There is debate as to whether or not samnyasa was included in the original creation of the asrama system, for more information, see Kaelber 110-124].

The asramas begin with the brahmacarya (student life) and are followed by the grhasta (the householder’s life), the vanaprastha (the retired life, also called the forest dweller stage) and the fourth and final stage in the asrama system is the samnyasa (life of complete renunciation) (see Tiwari 121,). The goals associated with the stages are dharma (righteousness) attributed to the student, kama (pleasure) and artha (skill, wealth) to the householder, and moksa, being the ultimate goal of all the stages but only being truly attainable after leaving retired life and entering samnyasa. In the Asrama Upanisad, the asramas are further divided into four subsections each, with the goal of each stage being to seek self through the completion of sacrifices. In the last asrama true liberation is found by the mendicant that abandons all perceptions of the world gathered throughout the prior stages, viewing all experiences and people (regardless of class) with lack of judgement. In this way, the samnyasin enacts a final sacrifice, that of her or his worldly self and bridges the notion of sacrifice associated with the Vedas and the complete renunciation of the world elevated in Vedanta (see Olivelle 154-157).

Before the new philosophy of moksa and samnyasa had become established, karma (action) alone was seen to be the way to immortality. The performance of sacrificial offerings of Vedic ritual, was considered to be right action, however without the proper jnana (knowledge) of proper ritual action, as was known to a brahmin priest, ritual action was ineffective. [Texts such as the Brahmanas, Srauta Sutras, and the Dharma Sutras stress the importance of karma and performance of proper ritual, see Kaebler 75] By knowing Brahman, as the brahmin priest claimed to know, one could know all. Moksa and the necessary renunciation to attain it were then dependent on jnana (knowledge) of Brahman and the meaning of karma was extended to cover every action, not just the right action of sacrificial offering. This view coupled with the notion of samsara (the view that a person was part of a cyclic existence of death, rebirth, sorrow, and suffering) illustrated the ineffectiveness of karma to truly attain immortality. All actions are tied to results and are motivated by worldly desires, such as kama and artha, thus only true knowledge could motivate true actions and liberate one from the fruits of their actions (see Kaebler 73-79). Karma, to the elightened one, would be nullified of its imprint as all actions would be filtered through true jnana in its purest sense. The knowledge of Brahman could not be gained through intellectual learning alone, it could only be fully understood through the revelation of self through deep introspection into atman itself. It is here that dhyana (meditation) becomes paramount to the person who wishes to attain moksa. This is evident in a passage from the Katha Upanisad: “This self cannot be attained by instruction nor by intellectual power, nor even through much hearing. It is to be attained only by the one whom he chooses. To such a one the self reveals its own nature” (see Tiwari 68).

So the task of the samnyasin becomes to uncover the forgotten knowledge of self through sruti (revelation) of self in relation as Brahma. In this way, renunciation is not of the true self; it is a renunciation of avidya (ignorance) of the self, and thus, the cause of errors through karma (actions). Renunciation is then directed to the world and its phenomena, or rather the attachment one feels toward the worldly occurrences. This philosophy seems to suggest the outright rejection of the world as a whole, however it is actually a reinterpretation of it. Brahman is the ultimate reality of the universe, so removing the falseness of the self removes the false view of the world, leaving only the absolute reality of both self and the world. Brahman as the pure world also illuminates the goals of the asrama system (dharma, artha, kama, and moksa) as legitimate goals provided by the world, provided that the individual does not become attached to the fruits of their actions in order to obtain them (see Tiwari 67-73, 73-85).

Accomplishment of moksa through self realisation can only be achieved by ridding the self of all of the passions and judgements that make up human conditioning. Realising the atman (self) will free the self from egoism and the desires of the self for gratification, and will also unite the samnyasin with all humankind as atman is seen to be synonymous with Brahman. In this way the samnyasin can turn their focus outward and love all others as one being, regardless of caste, gender, race, or any other social marker. In order to cultivate this, one must rid themselves of the illusions of the mind which give rise to ego and the latent desires which constitute emotional response to one’s experiences (see Tiwari 91-97). In ridding the self of its human conditioning, the Vedanta teaches the overcoming of egoism, as do other renuncitory traditions such as Buddhism, which deny the self as being permanent. As mentioned, this also allows individuals to find their existence in the existence of all living beings. This functions to remove the rights of the individual and still allow the person to fulfill their obligations without the satisfaction of self.

The true self is also revealed by ridding the self of vasanaksaya (latent desires and emotions that give rise to mental conditioning such as anger, jealousy, covetness). In other words, the samnyasin is expected renounce their attachment to ego and to the external phenomena of the world which prevent one from reaching liberation (see Tiwari 97-103). Within the Bhagavad Gita, Krisna tells Arjuna of the importance of meditation to rid the self of passions and ego, “Who puts desire aside without reserve, together with their aims, and binds the senses fast on every side, with intellect held firm, he comes to rest, keeping his mind intent upon the self, thinking of nothing; but, then if the mind should wander needlessly, he leads it back towards the jurisdiction of the self. The highest bliss awaits the taintless man whose passions are subdued, of peaceful mind, for whom all things are Brahman and nothing else” (Hodgkinson 69-70).

The renunciation of society poses some interesting concerns about the progress of society, as a person is given the freedom to leave the obligations of society and no longer is bound by the institutions set up to contain society. The importance of sacrifice in order to sustain rta (cosmic order) is compromised, as the samnyasin is expected to abandon their family ties and to discard the sacrificial string and topknot, extinguish the sacred fire [they are important symbols of the status of a dvija (twice born) and of ritual obligation], and give up any other material possessions that they have acquired during their life (see Rodrigues 78-80). The samnyasin then dons a begging bowl, a staff and an ochre robe as their only possessions and spends the remainder of their life as a vagabond, depending solely on the charity of others for food. It is in this dependency on and opposition to the goals of the grhastha (householder) that highlights the connection of the samnyasin to society. The samnyasin depends on the alms given by the grhastha and, in exchange the grhastha receives the merit from helping a samnyasin in their holy pilgrimage, and also teachings from the samnyasin about the righteous path of life. The acquisition of samnyasa into the asrama system, particularly as the terminal and most noble asrama, affirms the samnyasin as a model of ideal selfless behaviour and also prevents young people from leaving their obligations prematurely (Thapar 882-890,891-900).

The requirement of the samnyasin to leave all accumulated wealth to their loved ones serves as a tool for the smooth transfer of wealth to kin and promotes a work ethic for Indian society which mirrors the Protestant ethic. A person should then work hard with true detachment from the fruits of their actions and yet work hard to attain the fruits for the purpose of passing them on to kin. This is an effective way of dispelling greed, ego, domination and exploitation while reinforcing commitment. As an institution, the renunciants serve to correct social problems, being that samnyasins are renowned for their spiritual discipline and control over their personal behaviour. Samnyasa serves a similar purpose to religious founders in other religions, as it unites followers in a common practice with a universal goal and makes the institution accessible to all persons. This universality can be seen through the reoccurring theme of renunciation in the popular stories of both Rama, and of the Pandavas, which are known to the majority of Indians. These stories reinforce the righteousness of renunciation, even in the life of kings. The universal goal of samnyasa, by recognition of the true self as manifest in all being, also warns society against murder, lying, and other actions which harm others (see Tiwari 118-126,132).

Samnyasa promotes the spiritual growth of the individual, but also allows for the individual to participate in social cohesion. Its institutionalisation through incorporation in the Vedanta literature, helps to make the ideas of renunciation both universal and still remain a profoundly individual endeavour. Jivanmukti (attainment of moksa in one`s lifetime) is obviously a difficult goal, and must be looked at as an ideal to be attained through faith and dedication and not as a guaranteed attainment . The significance of samnyasa lies in the recognition of the actual possibility to reach a stage in this life in which ultimate peace is found. It becomes an enlightened view of the world and the individual as part of it (see Tiwari 111).

References and Related Reading

Hodgkinson, Brian (2003) The Bhagavad Gita: A verse Translation. Delhi: Books For All.

Kaelber, Walter, O (1989) Tapta Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Olivelle, Patrick (1992) Samnyasa Upanisads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary P (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Thapar, Romila (2000) Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History. New Delhi: Oxford University Press

Tiwari, K.N (1977) Dimensions of Renunciation in Advaita Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related topics For Further Investigation


Bhakti Yoga (Loving devotion as the path to liberation)

Gayatri mantra (Vedic verse to be chanted thrice daily for twice born classes)

Jati (Hereditary Occupational Caste)

Jnana Yoga (Knowledge as a path to liberation)

Karma Yoga (selfless action as a way to liberation)

Monastic renunciation

Pativrata ideal (renunciation of self for the well-being of one’s husband)

Renunciation specific to Buddhism or Jainism

Rg Veda evidence of asceticism and renunciation


Samsara (Cyclic worldly existence)

Samskaras (rites of passage)

Sraddha ritual (death ritual)

The asrama system (four life stages)

The Bhagavad Gita

Upanayana (Investiture with the sacred thread)


Vanaprastha (forest-dweller stage)

Varna system (class system)

Women as samnyasin

Helpful Related Websites (The Bhagavad Gita and the Siva Samhita online) (Directory of sites related to numerous Hindu topics) (online versions of many texts) (insider views on Yoga and philosophy) (archived articles about renunciation and other topics

Article written by Daniel Manson (2008) who is solely responsible for its content

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