Introduction to article
Sankaracharya’s contribution to Sanatana Dharma is revolutionary. The pioneering effort in organising sannyasis into the Dasanami order is one of his most vibrant contributions. Every aspect of Hinduism, every sacred place and temple in India bears his imprint. Hinduism owes to this great sage its very continuation to this day.
The numerous sannyasis and Nagas I spoke to during the Kumbh Mela never failed to commence a conversation without offering obeisance to Sankaracharya, and speak about him at length with pride and devotion. They all belong to the Dasanami sampradaya, which Sankara established.
Sankara’s pioneering effort in organising sannyasis into the Dasanami order is one of his most vibrant contributions. Before the establishment of the Dasanami sampradaya, tantric sects were dominant. Uniting the diverse and chaotic masses of ascetics into organised groups was no easy task; Hindu religion was fragmented and fractured owing to frequent skirmishes between Buddhism, Jainism, Tantric and Vaidik sects. Sankara institutionalised the celibate sannyasi culture through four Amnaya maths, many subsidiary maths and the Dasanami parampara. He restructured the sannyasin orders, organising them into ten traditional paths to reach Godhead, and gave each of them a unique title – Sarasvati, Tirtha, Aranya, Bharati,Ashrama, Giri, Parvata, Sagara, Vana and Puri.
The Dasanami sanyasins are divided into two categories— staff holders (dandadharis) and non-staff holders (paramahamsas). Another functional categorisation of Dasanami sadhus are astradharis (weapon holders, militant ascetics) and sastradharis (scripture holders, learned ascetics). The militant sannyasis are recruited from all ten orders, and are known as Naga sannyasis. The Naga headquarters is known as Akhada.
Sankara restructured the sannyasa order by freeing sannyasis from all ritualistic sacrifices, orienting them towards the scriptures by allocating them Vedantic disciplines connected with the Upanishadic texts, advocating renunciation (Vairagya) and mendicancy (Parivrajaka), stressing upon the fourfold practice of discrimination (viveka), detachment (vairagya), moral code (sat-sampatti) and liberation (moksha), and most importantly, creating a strong hierarchy and a strict guru-parampara to be followed to ensure that these precepts were enforced. The guru, whilst initiating a pupil into sannyasa, carefully chooses one of the ten titles based on the physical and mental disposition of the disciple. The title is a constant reminder to the sannyasi to seek God through the path prescribed by his guru. Dasanami sannyasis preserve their guru parampara fastidiously.
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