Category Archives: 3. The Sankaracaryas

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.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888 – 1975)

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a philosopher, politician and academic and was considered one of the greatest Indian thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was born on September 5, 1888 and lived to age 86.  Throughout his adult life he was a well known public figure in his native India, serving as both Vice-President and President. In addition to his political career, he was also a renowned writer on Hindu philosophy. Radhakrishnan is known to some as a “bridge builder” between the East and the West for his efforts to expand Western society’s knowledge about India and their understanding of Hindu thought and religion. He showed that the philosophical systems of each tradition are comprehensible within the terms of the other (Behur 1-4). One is hard pressed to find Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s own words about his life story since he steadfastly refused to write an autobiography (Braue 1-2).

Early Life

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born during a time when Hinduism was in the midst of being renewed and restored in the hearts of millions of Indians (Harris 2-3). He was the second of five sons and one daughter born to Sarvepalli Veeraswamy and Sitamma, poor Brahmins living in the town of Tirutani in Tamil Nadu state.  Tirutani had a population of about 170 000 and was considered a pilgrimage destination due to its major Subrahmanya temple (Minor 4). Radhakrishnan’s family kept the name Sarvepalli as an indication of their place of origin. In the middle of the 18th century the family moved from Sarvepalli to another village located in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. All were devout Vaisnavaties and worshipped the well-known god Krsna (Minor 3-4).  Radhakrishnan’s early life was spent in the religious centers of the small towns of Tirutani and Tirupati.  His father was employed as a subordinate revenue official in the service of the local Zamindar [landlord] and with limited income the family lived in relative poverty.


Radhakrishnan grew up in a traditional Hindu atmosphere (Harris 3). His parents were very orthodox and his father did not want his son to learn English [his mother tongue was Telugu] and pressed his boy to become a priest. However, despite their orthodox views, his parents sent him away to several Christian Missionary Institutions – the Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati (1896 – 1900), Voorhee’s college, Vellore (1900 – 1904) and Madras Christian College in Madras (1904 – 1908) (Kohli 38-39). Sarvepalli was an excellent student and was awarded multiple scholarships which helped sustain him throughout his academic career.

In 1906, he received a B.A. with honours in philosophy, and in 1909 obtained an M.A. and was a most distinguished alumni. He main interest was in the Vedas and Upanishads and spent much of his time specializing in these subjects as well as studying Hindi and the Sanskrit language. He wrote his thesis for his M.A. on the ‘Ethics of the Vedanta and its Metaphysical Presuppositions”. At only age 20 his thesis was recognized and published. Radhakrishnan’s passion for philosophy developed more by chance than choice. A cousin, recently graduated from the same college, was kind enough to pass on his textbooks in philosophy.  This generosity decidedly influenced his academic path (Kohli 40-41).

Marriage and Family

In 1903, at age 16, it was arranged by his family that Radhakrishnan was to be married to Siva Kumaramma, his 10 year old first cousin (Minor 4). The couple had their first daughter together in 1908, the first of six children over the proceeding fifteen years. Their family included four daughters and two sons, one of which died shortly after birth (Kohli 39). Their youngest son, Sarvepalli Gopal, would go on to become a distinguished and notable historian and biographer (Braue 4). Radhakrishnan’s devoted wife, Sivakamu, died on November 26, 1956 and their marriage was “the end of a long chapter”, as he put it.

Teaching Career

Sarvepalli’s education had shaped a most disciplined mind and strong individual, acquiring many qualities of a potentially great leader. Spanning from 1909 to 1952, his career had three notable phases, teacher of philosophy, leader in higher education and finally politician and statesman.

In 1909 he accepted a teaching position at the Madras Presidency College in the Philosophy department where he spent seven years teaching and researching in the area of Indian Philosophy and Religion.  In 1916, he advanced to a full professorship (Braue 4).  He impressed the senior professor of philosophy so much that his mentor actually ended up asking him to lecture his classes. Radhakrishnan was endowed with a great intellect and gifted with an amazing memory enabling him to employ a vast vocabulary and eloquent communication style, to great advantage (Kohli 38-40).

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calcutta took notice of this extraordinary academic mind and offered Sarvepalli the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science, a prestigious position which he occupied twice – from 1921 to 1931 and again from 1937 to 1941.  He was clearly honoured by this appointment and described the position as “the most important philosophy chair in India”.  As chair, he represented the University of Calcutta at the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire and the International Congress of Philosophy at Harvard in 1926.  Radhakrishnan also presented many lectures at numerous universities: Chicago, London, Manchester and Oxford.  He then accepted a position at Manchester College in Oxford in addition to teaching comparative religion at the University of Oxford (Braue 4).

In 1931, he was knighted by England for his great services to education and subsequently stepped down as the King George V Chair in order to accept the Sir Sayaji Rao  Gaekwad Chair at Banaras Hindu University. Later in his academic career he also occupied the Spalding Chair in England until 1952, when he was appointed Professor Emeritus at Oxford. (Braue 4-6).

The second key phase of Radhakrishnan’s life, as a leader in higher education, spanned from 1931 to 1962.  He was made the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University and served as a member of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. Throughout this time he delivered many presentations at universities all over his native India.

During World War II he also toured and lectured in China (Braue 6-7), and from 1953 to 1962 he held the post of chancellor of Delhi University.  In 1940, he achieved a milestone by being the first Indian to be elected as Fellow of the British Academy. As a professor, he was always very popular with his students and was loved and respected as a remarkable teacher. The genesis of his popularity was his genuine empathy and his great ability to engage people of all ages. This combination of attributes and skills continued to win him respect throughout his long and memorable public life (Behura 3).

Rise in Politics and Political Career

After the end of the Second World War, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan began a shift from his academic career with a view to apply his philosophy and religious studies toward political and social development.  He served as head of the Indian delegation to the UNSECO conferences held in Paris from 1946 – 1952 (Braue 7) and was later elected to the position of Chairman of UNESCO in 1948.

When India received independence from Great Britain in 1947, Sarvepalli was still India’s key representative at UNSECO. He would later also be awarded the titles and responsibilities of Ambassador-Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of India to the Soviet Union from 1949 to 1952 (Kohli 44).  Radhakrishnan was widely thought to be one of the most respected and successful of all diplomats in Moscow at the time. He had met Stalin twice, as the Ambassador of India, with Stalin commenting, “ You are the first person to treat me as a human being and not as a monster. You are leaving us and I am sad. I want you to live long.” (Kohli 45). Dr. Radhakrishnan, the diplomat, was considered a very sympathetic and humane person, open to other viewpoints, and never considered to be an elitist intellectual.

After his return to India in 1952, Sarvepalli was elected as India’s first Vice-President, an inaugural position that had been created under the new constitution. He would be re-elected in 1957, not long after the death of his wife. During his many tours around the world his main objective was to impress upon foreign leaders India’s viewpoint on major international issues and increase his country’s role on the global stage.

In many of his books and dissertations, Radhakrishnan takes great pains to interpret Indian thought in a way that Westerners could relate to. (Kohli 45) Through his public life he remained steadfastly committed to high principles, dignity and moral authority. This integrity of purpose made him a highly revered figure in India and internationally he became one of the best-liked and respected public figures of all time.

In May of 1962, this well regarded philosopher and statesman was elected President of the State of India, succeeding Dr. Rajendra Prasad, becoming the second Head of State of a newly independent India. During his presidency, India was faced with war on two separate occasions, first with China and subsequently with Pakistan. In 1967,  Sarvepalli made an emotional farewell broadcast to the nation and told his loving country that he would not seek another term as President and would retire from public life.

After the death of Nehru in 1964, he described the former leader as “an earnest of the age to come, the age of the world men with world compassion.” And went on to say, “The best way to honour his memory is to get on with the work which he left unfinished, his work of peace, justice and freedom at home and abroad” (Dehruy 8).  Radhakrishnan’s dedication and efforts made a great contribution towards the realization of Nehru’s objectives.

Philosophical Beliefs

Sarvepalli often described philosophy as “ the attempt to think out the presuppositions of experience, to grasp. By means of reason, life or reality as a whole”(Braue 42). He attained prominence due to his eloquence in describing Indian philosophy according to Western academic standards, enabling non-Indo cultures to understand and consider Eastern philosophies and, most particularly, from India. He once stated his greatest challenge was that western philosophers, despite claiming to be objective, were inevitably influenced by the theological teachings of their own cultures.

Radhakrishnan’s philosophical work took two distinct directions. His philosophy is Indian idealism (Braue 44). First, his Indian Philosophy was defined as Radhakrishnan interpreted it. Originally what he presented was no different than the “Vedanta” which he had defined earlier.  Later, he changed its designation to “Hinduism” or the “Hindu View”. The second direction was the construction of a philosophical system from experimental grounds without relying on Indian thought (Minor 43).

Radhakrishnan tried to clarify for his western audiences that Hinduism is a progressive unity and that the history of Hinduism is of evolutionary advancement. He saw the method of “Hinduism’s” historical development as characterized by a critical attitude toward the traditions of the past in a modern sense, not just accepting past thoughts (Minor 45). Radhakrishnan was also an advocate of the class system of Hinduism. He believed that it was the only democratic solution to racial problems. Caste was a way to organize society and suggested that it is entirely functional, not a “mystery of divine appointment” (Minor 45-46). Thus, the foundation of the caste system are the ideas of free will, equality and democracy (Minor 45-46).

Radhakrishnan wrote many books on his philosophical beliefs and he was well known for his ideas on the Prasthana Trayi, the Bhagavadgita, the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra.


Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan died on April 17,1975 after a prolonged illness. At that time, Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi said, “As a teacher, he was deeply involved with the welfare of youth. As a statesman, he had deep understanding of the practical problems of nation building. He contributed significantly to the consolidation of our political parliamentary traditions. Now death has claimed him, but the memory of his commanding presence, the resonance of his voice and the radiance of his thought cannot fade and will remain a part of our legacy.” (Kohli 48)

Every year on September 5th, on Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday, “Teachers Day” is celebrated all across India and the government gives national awards to teachers. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan will remain one of the greatest Indian philosophers of the 20th century and of all time (Kohli 48-49).


Braue, Donald A. (1985) Maya in Radhakrishnan’s Thought. New Delhi: Narendra Prakash Jain.

Dehury, Dinabandhu (2010) Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as Statesman. Orissa: Orissa Government.

Gopal, Sarvepalli (1989) Radhakrishnan, a Biography. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Harris, Ishwar C. (1982) Radhakrishnan: the Profile of a Universalist. Columbia: South Asian Books

Hawley, Michael (2003) “The Making of a Mahatma: Radhakrishnan’s Critique of Gandhi. Studies in Religion 32(1-2), 135-148.

Kohli, A.B. (2001) Presidents of India. New Delhi: Reliance Publishing House.

Kumar Behura, Dillip (2010) The Great Indian Philosopher: Dr. Radhakrishnan. Orissa: Orissa Government.

Michael, Aloysius (1979) Radhakrishnan on Hindu Moral Life and Action. Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

Minor, Robert N. (1987) Radhakrishnan A Religious Biography. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Minor, Robert N. (1997) Radhakrishnan as Advocate of the Class/Caste System as a Universal Religio-Social. International Journal of Hindu Studies 1(2), 386 – 400.

Murty, K. Satchidananda and Vohra, Ashok (1990) Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Schilpp, Paul A. (1992) The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Sharma, Arvind (2002) Modern Hindu Thought. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Indian political system

Rajendra Prasad

Sarvepalli Gopal

Comparative Religion



Jawaharlal Nehru

Rabindranath Tagore



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli

Article written by Ryan Booth (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.