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”. Man, 18(4), 635–653. http://doi.org/10.2307/2801900
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 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/brill-s-encyclopedia-of 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
Article written by: Miranda Deringer (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.