Category Archives: i. Sankara’s Radical Non-Dualism (Advaita)

Dasanami Samnyasins

The development and the components of Hindu monasticism may appear complex. Sankara, the famous Indian philosopher, founded a Hindu monastic federation referred to as the Dasanami Order (Wade nd). Hindu monks, known as samnyasin, were divided into ten lineages which trace back to Sankara and compose the Dasanami Order. The ten different monk/renouncer groups were then divided up among the four monasteries founded by Sankara (Clark 2). The four monasteries (mathas) are located in the east, west, south, and north of India and they are respectively called Govardhan, Sarada, Srngeri, and Jyotir (Clark 115). This order is the most respected and influential in the Hindu tradition (Werner 148).

Historically, it has been viewed that the four monasteries are representative of Sankara’s travel and his spiritual authority. Sankara’s life is regarded as somewhat legendary. He lost his father at a young age and he was an admirer of the samnyasin life style. Sources claim that at the age of eight, Sankara was captured by a crocodile while he bathed in a river. Sankara told his mother that if he did not receive her blessing to become a samnyasin the crocodile would have taken his life (Pande 31). Historians believe that three factors contribute to why Sankara is held in the highest regard. It is said that Sankara was an incarnation of Siva (Pande 73). His strong connection to and the belief in his embodiment of Siva could be due to Sankara’s connections to miracles. Secondly, the implementation of authentic practices was to emphasize the social and spiritual claims of the reorganized monasteries. The final aspect which made Sankara legendary was the expansion of the Advaitic and non Advaitic schools (Pande 73). The rationales behind legends of his incarnation have been to fortify the Vedic faith and help spread the spiritual way of living across India (Pande 82).

Samnyasin (renouncing) is the final stage of one’s life. One may renounce after they have completed the householders’ stage grahastha (Miller 3). However, some Hindus enter renunciation earlier, once they have completed their education, though such young renouncers are less common. A renouncer is considered to be a wise holy man. He is expected to withdraw from society. From that point on, his life is dedicated to the attainment of moksa (Werner 147). A renouncer’s withdrawal from society is theoretical because, he may live in close proximity to society and interact with its members however, physical detachment is essential (Olivelle 272). One must leave their family and possessions in order to discover the meaning of life and gain inner peace (Burghart 635). Renouncers are placed outside of the caste system and are highly valued. A renouncer who receives offerings and praise from Hindus is not uncommon.

Once Hindu monks formally renounce, they are categorized in relation to the method of initiation and their way of life (Wade nd). Renouncers may fall into one of three distinct categories: the dandis, nagas, or paramahamsas. However, all Dasanami consider themselves as Siva (Clémentin 2). Many Dasanami renouncers decorate themselves with rudrāka beads and put three white horizontal stripes on their forehead to embody the symbolism of Siva and Visnu (Clémentin 3). Each type of renouncer group is affiliated with one of the four monasteries. To formally renounce, a monk must attain a new identity. He is given one of the ten surnames which made him a part of that particular spiritual lineage. The name one receives is linked to the monastery they are associated with and reflects their caste as well as their renouncing lifestyle. The monasteries from the south and west are mainly composed of dandi renouncers. The lineages commonly assigned to these monks, once they formally renounce include: Bharati (speech), Sarasvati (learning), Tirtha (sacred bathing), and Asrama (hermitage). Puri (town) and Giri (hill) are lineages linked to naga renouncers. Other names, sometimes received by all types of renouncers include: Vana (woods), Aranya (forest), Parrata (mountain), and Sagara (ocean) (Dazery na). Receiving a new name is significant because it symbolizes the relationship one has under a guru which acts as an investiture. An opportunity for the new renouncers to teach and ordain followers is given (Clémentin 16). Once a name is received, one is able to initiate another person into the samnyasin stage of life. All three branches of the Dasanami (dandi, nagas, and the paramahamsa) have networks of mathas (monasteries) spread across India.

The dandis traditionally come from a high caste background and hold knowledge of the Sanskrit language. They are the wanderers who usually carry a staff. The staff may be embellished with a saffron cloth with an axe head under it (Clark 28). Generally, dandi renouncers were previous householders, have short hair, and believe that they are the true samnyasin (Clark 41). Their initiation ceremony is completed by a guru and the name given depends on what matha one is affiliated to (Clark 41). One of the four brahmacari names is given at the ceremony either being Svarup, Prakasa, Ananda or Caitanya (Clark 42). The second ceremony a dandi partakes in is called the viraja home (Clark 89). A short sacred utterance that presumably encapsulates the essential wisdom of Vedanta from the monk’s monastic lineage is spoken (Wade nd).

Renouncers, who fall under the paramahasa grouping, discard all belongings including their staff, perform the most asceticism and obtain the highest amount of respect (Clark 102). They more frequently live in mathas and are affiliated to an akhara. However, paramahamsan monks are not deeply connected to the akharas life compared to the nagas (Clark 42).

Lower caste members form the naga renouncer group (Clark 39). Some scholars refer to them as “naked fighting monks” (Wade nd).  The naga have been known to travel nude and they cover their entire bodies (sometimes just their private areas) in ash, especially on festive holidays (Clark 35). The nagas are organized into seven akharas (Clark 48). To be initiated into the akhara as a naga, one must go through a third process referred to as the tang tode (Clark 98). This is a unique initiation among the three groups.

Typically, males are the ones who enter the stage of renunciation. However, women renouncers have recently been reported. About ten percent of female renouncers belong to the Dasanami (Clark 31). However, women may become brahmacarini, but they cannot enter the second stage of initiation in becoming “full” samnyasin (Clark 33). Women remove all jewelry as a symbol of their renunciation. The majority of women belong to the paramahamsa renouncer group. Two known monasteries exclusively admit women. The least number of women belong to the naga group (Clark 34).

A life apart from society cultivates detachment through a community which shares similar perspectives (Clémentin 2). Some renouncers may choose to join a monastic community (Tambiah 300). Monastic communities provide a shared living space between many samnyasin monks. It is where asceticism is ingrained through tradition (Clémentin 2). This concept of communal settlement was introduced by Sankara, and is referred to as the matha system (Miller 4). The purpose was to create a sense of solidarity through group support. The matha was a larger unit comprised of temples, a traditional Sanskrit school, a library, and a shelter for lay followers (Clémentin 4). The caste system was embedded into the institution. Individuals were born to specific gurus. Gurus raised money to support children’s education for their caste (Aya 58). Donations from patrons allow for monks to teach, provide medical care, and help feed the community (Miller 5). Service to the community was viewed as important and resembled Hindu cohesion. Monks may continue traveling, but if they remain in a community for an extended period of time they are less respected, except if it is the rainy season (Olivelle 271).  Clémentin addresses that, “the important point to stress is that they do not owe their allegiance to a monastery, but to a lineage of spiritual succession” (3). Sankara’s successor, a Sankaracarya (head of 1 of the 4 monasteries) essentially becomes “the teacher of the world” by representing the founder of his lineage (Clémentin 6). Sankaracaryas have substantial spiritual power and settle disputes within the matha by helping with court cases (Clark 79). For example, cases may include initiation and personal affairs, adultery, abuse, and caste pollution. Sankaracaryas help decide the punishment of a fine, a fine, forms of social exclusion, and sometimes even excommunication ceremonies (Clark 80).

The origins of the Dasanami Samnyasin illustrate the prominence of Sankara’s philosophical influence in creating the order. Spiritual lineages of the samnyasin monks are traced back to Sankara. The samnyasins aquire a new religious identity in which they abide by certain roles, codes, and practices (Clark 2). The different groupings of renouncers across the four cardinal directions are symbolic of Sankara’s spiritual journey and the prominence of Brahman (Wade nd). The caste system is significant to the Dasanami Order because it allows for different renouncer groups to exist. Subtle differences exist among the samnyasins such as, their appearance, initiation process, status, and their affiliation to a distinct lineage (Clark 39). The matha system was important for the development of education and philosophical ideas for the samnyasin and their lay followers (Clémentin 4). Life consisted of days of expressing bhakti in prayer, meditation, and lectures (Werner 147). Overall, evidence suggests that the Dasanami Order has been very influential and is a representation of Sankara’s philosophy. 


References and Further Recommended Readings

Burghart, R., (1983) “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia”. Man18(4), 635–653.

Clark, Matthew (2006) Dasanami Samnyasis. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Clémentin-Ojha, C. (2006) “Replacing the Abbot: Rituals of monastic ordination and investiture in modern Hinduism”. Asiatische Studien, Etudes Asiatiques, Vol.60, 535- 573.

Ikegame, A (2012) “The Governing Guru”. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London & New York, NY: Routledge 5, 46.

Miller, D. M., & Wertz, D. C (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

 Olivelle, P. (2001)”The Renouncer Tradition”. In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism,  G. Flood (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing  271-287.

 Pande, G. C (1994) Life and thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

 Tambiah, S. J. (1982) “The renouncer: his individuality and his community”. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 15(1), 299-320.

Wade, D. (2012) “Dasanamis.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from < hinduism/dasanamis-BEHCOM_9000000043>

Werner, Karel (2013) Love Divine: Studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism, London & New York, NY: Routledge 147-152.


Topics for Further Investigation

The Ramanadi Order



The Four Monasteries




Noteworthy Websites


Article written by: Miranda Deringer (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.


Supported by writings as early as the Brhadaranyaka, the Hindu concept of Jivanmukti is gaining knowledge that one’s self is the non-dual, Brahman. It is knowing even further that the body is not the Ultimate Reality and the self was never actually embodied. It is in the destruction of this binding form of thought that brings about liberation; the destruction of the body does not. Freedom from the cycles of rebirth, the ultimate goal of liberation (moksa), places a distinct emphasis on the desirelessness which brings about immortality, bodilessness and the Ultimate Reality (brahman) (Fort 3-5). This release comes from the understanding and accession that humans are already liberated and the soul is free.

Advaita means “non-dual”. The school of Advaita Vedanta is named as such for it does not disassociate “us” or the universe as separate from the Ultimate Reality; they are one in the same or non-dual. The school of Advaita Vedanta relies heavily on three forms of knowledge transference being: (1) revelation, (2) reason and (3) teachings of beings who are in a state of living embodiment through the realization of Brahman (Sharma 13). This system is intrinsic to the Advaitic core teachings of living liberation, in contrast to all other schools of Hinduism which believe that for one to experience freedom from the cycle of birth and death (samsara) they must actually experience the death of the physical body in order for the enlightened soul to escape the physical bondage holding it to this place of existence. Only at the point where there is no physical bondage polluting the soul can it attain the Ultimate Reality which is Brahman (Mishra 293-297). Though this key aspect which varies in schools, there are more similarities than not regarding samsara and the attainment of Moksa or Jivanmukti. Attainment of Brahman liberation in mostly performed in the renouncer stage (sannyasa) of Hindu life. The renouncer is one who practises a solitary path conducive to self-realization. Through the ritual performance of multiple Yogic practises [For a more in depth look at various forms of Yogic rituals see Fort (1998)], especially that of Jnana Yoga, a renunciate is able to still one’s passions and attain a form of Nirvana liberation (Indich 108-112). The mind is cleared and kept clear by meditation. The Yogic actions are performed to purify both the body and the mind, freeing one from conscious and unconscious attachment. Through this continued practise one is able to completely withdraw into a meditative state required to attain and maintain a state of a Jivanmukti (Fort 79-83)

Jivanmukti is possible because after the onset of knowledge the body still persists. The persistence of the physical body after the release of the soul is for the purpose of being given the opportunity to teach those who have yet to experience Brahman. A Jivanmukti is said to be actionless in that there is no residual effect from actions, for actions are not performed due to desire-seeking, for a Jivanmukti cannot have a desire when everything that may have been wanted has already been fulfilled, thus leaving all acts performed for the purpose of example setting or maintenance of the body (Shah-Kazemi 110). Through liberation one is able to remove the cosmic principle which is the cause of world illusion (avidya), though a trace of this illusion persists through the continued existence of the physical body. Though as a body in time will be extinguished, all traces of avidya will fade as well (Chari 170). The body-soul relationship of a Jivanmukti was likened in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisads as that of a sloughed off skin and the remaining body of a snake, it is a housing which has been cast off and discarded, yet still exists in the physical universe (Fort 23). Sankara worded the continued existence a bit more eloquently in the overall loss of karmic experience in the transition to liberation. There are three forms of karma which a non-liberated individual is affected by: karma which has been accumulated throughout past existence, accumulating to one’s total cosmic debt (sancite), instant karma which is created in one’s current life time, which may be added to and worked on through daily action (kriyamana) and the portion of sancite karma being worked upon in one’s current life time (prarabdha). When looking into forms of karma, sancite and kriyamana karma respectively deal with actions performed in the past which have yet to affect the present; and actions performed in the present which have yet to affect the future (Indich 110-111). When one experiences Brahman these two karmas are burned away in the fires of knowledge (jnana). Because prarabdha is solely working away at a past life’s karma its path will not be affected by jnana and so it remains even throughout liberation (Indich 110-111) and will remain until “final peace”, being the death of the physical body in which the Jivanmuki remains alive and is then subject to the unfolding of their prarabdha karma (Shah-Kazemi 213). In the Advaitic teachings Moksa is what is considered to be the final release; Moksa allows for the state of omniscience to manifest completely when the spirit is no longer bound by karma (Chari 172-173).




Fort, Andrew O (1998) Jiivanmukti in Transformation: Embodied Liberation in Advaita and Neo-Vedanta. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sharma, Arvind (2004) Advaita Vedanta. New Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd.

Mishra, Kamalakar (1999) Kashmir Saivism: The Central Philosophy of Tantrism. New Dehli: Sri Satguru Publications.

Indich, William M (1980) Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta. Columbia: South Asia Books

Shah-Kazemi, Reza (2006) Action and Prarabdha Karma. Paths to Transcendence: According to Shankara, Ibn Arabi, and Meister Eckhart. Bloomington: World Wisdom, Inc.

Chari, Srinivasa S. M (1976) Advaita and Visistadvaita: A Study Based on Vedanta Desika’s Satadusani. New Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Bhagavad Gita

Bhakti Yoga




Deep Sleep




Jivanmukti Yoga

Karma Yoga





Nine Schools






Waking State



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Advaita is Simple


Article written by: Laura York (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sankara and Radical Non-dualism

Sankara’s philosophy is known as radical non-dualism or Advaita Vedanta. It was first outlined somewhere around the 8th century C.E. according to most scholars (Cenkner 29). The basis of this philosophy is that there is only one indivisible thing in existence and that is Brahman [Brahman is not to be confused with the creator god Brahma or the priestly class brahmin. All three come from the root brh meaning to grow in Sanskrit and is often used to connote greatness (Masih 66)]. Brahman is indescribable and cannot be fully understood by teachings alone. Since Brahman is indescribable, it is often spoken of in terms of what it is not. For example it could be said that Brahman is not acit (unreal), nor asat (ignorance), nor is it dukkha (suffering). This method of describing Brahman is the reason for Sankara’s philosophy to be termed non-dualism instead of simply monism (Masih 66).

Sankara gives us his ideas on Brahman and Advaita through his commentaries on certain Upanisads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma

Sutra (the three together are known as the prasthana-traya) (Masih 64). Because these texts give seemingly contradictory statements on the nature of Brahman, several schools of thought emerge from them, Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta being one of if not the most highly renowned.

Brahman is said to be changeless and indivisible. The Upanisads describe it as “one without a second”. It is knowledge, consciousness and bliss; it is all things because it is the only thing. Brahman is the source of everything in existence but also the only thing in existence. Its non-existence cannot be imagined. It is essentially derived from itself. These are a few examples of the ways in which Brahman is described. Many attempts in many teachings and scriptures have been made, but according to Sankara they will always be misinterpreted because Brahman is beyond the known and even beyond the unknown (Masih 69-70). All teachings of Brahman are therefore merely aids in discovering it for yourself.

Atman is to be equated with Brahman. Atman is pure consciousness or one’s true self. Atman is the unchanging part of you, the part that is left

after all false identities have been stripped away. Realizing Atman is to realize that there is no you, as an individual, for you are Brahman and

indivisible from it. To realize Atman and therefore Brahman is the ultimate goal in life according to Sankara (Masih 67-68). The essence of his entire philosophy can be described in the sentence “Brahman alone is real, the world is illusory and Atman is identical with Brahman” (Masih 66).

Maya is the power of illusion that comes from Brahman. It is the reason that people find it difficult to realize themselves as Brahman. When

someone achieves liberation (moksa) maya ceases to have an effect on them and they gain ultimate enlightenment. Maya is not different from Brahman,

nor is it an attribute. It is the nature of Brahman and as indivisible from it as anything else (Masih 84).

The origins of the term maya trace back to the oldest of the Vedic literature, the Rg Veda. It is used to describe the superhuman powers of Varuna (Varuna is the Vedic god of the sky and the ocean) and Indra (the Vedic god of thunder) in several different hymns (at least four times for Varuna and as many as thirty times for Indra) (Masih 78). The Upanisads, which Sankara relied on heavily to develop his doctrine, also mention maya in a similar way to the Rg Veda. (Masih 79). The definition of the word maya in these texts is decidedly different than the one Sankara uses. It was however used in sense similar to Sankara’s by a philosopher predating Sankara by a hundred years named Gaudapada (Masih 79). It would seem that Guadapada influenced Sankara in his interpretation of the prasthana-traya texts.

According to Advaita teachings, once liberation has been achieved, one is free from any further karmic rebirths. It would be incorrect to say that one is returned to Brahman, as they were never separate to begin with.

Instead it could be said that one breaks through the illusion of maya and realizes the truth about reality.

When an attempt is made to prove the existence of God, it is usually through one of three arguments: ontological (the existence of the concept of God proves God’s existence), cosmological (all things must have a cause and so the first cause must be God), or teleological (the design of the world is one that must have come from an intelligent source, i.e. God). Sankara uses all three in an attempt to prove the existence of Brahman. Sankara gives these proofs only as an aid to attempt understanding Brahman (which he believes is impossible) and not definitive proof of its existence. He also claims that these proofs do not show Brahman has any quality at all to be proven (Masih 92).

Sankara’s ontological proof is basically the same as that used by any other philosopher. It states that because we have a concept of Brahman it must exist. Even when one tries to refute the idea of Brahman, its existence is established simply by having the idea of the concept of which one is trying to deny. This argument, if believed, is only enough to prove the existence of Brahman, not what it is (Masih 93).

The cosmological proof given by Sankara is slightly different than that used by most. Most cosmological arguments do not explain how it was that God came into existence. Sankara gets around this by saying that Brahman is above causality (Masih 93). To say that Brahman is not above causality is to say that something must have created Brahman, the question could then be asked “what created the creator of Brahman”, this line of thought could continue into an infinite regress making it an unacceptable form of reasoning. Sankara thus claims that logically there must be a “fundamental causal substance” (Masih 95) which is Brahman.

Sankara’s teleological proofs, like his ontological proofs are similar to those given by many religious philosophers. It states that the design of the world must have come from an intelligent source, i.e. Brahman. Sankara uses the reasoning that something with a design cannot come from nothing and must therefore come from Brahman (Masih 96).

Works Cited and Related Readings

Masih, Yakub (1987) Shankara’s Universal Philosophy of Religion. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Cenkner, William (1983) A Tradition of Teachers: Sankara. New Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Roy, Shiva Shankar (1982) The Heritage of Sankara. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Related Websites

Related Research Topics

Mathas founded by Sankara

Modern followers of Sankara

Govinda Bhagavatapada, Sankara’s guru

Article written by Scott Oberg (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.