The Bābā Rāmdev episode has thrown up a key question — should sanyāsis be involved in social activism instead of leading a quiet monastic life? It would seem that sanyāsis cannot be a social leader since they are not supposed to own any worldly belongings or be attached to the material world. After all, a sanyasi is ‘one who has renounced material life, isn’t it? But with Bābā Rāmdev’s social activism, is Sanyāsa also about making a difference in the society?
Born to a farmer in Haryana, around 1965, is a yoga Guru who took to yogic discipline at 14 and got ordained as a monk at 30 to become Swāmi Ramdev in 1995. Thereafter Bābā Rāmdev began to propagate Yoga from 2002 and that too mainstream media. He used television to bring Yoga into our bedroom and reintroduced Indians to India’s best known global brand i.e. ‘Yoga’.
In the less than 10 years or so Bābā Rāmdev has led the way to bring ‘Yog, Prānayām and Āyurved’ to millions of homes in India and overseas. Moreover he is said to command a yoga and Ayurveda business empire estimated to be worth more than US $250 million (Rs.1100 crores). This amount is huge but relatively small compared to the money, resources and people many religious leaders across the world have access to.
What started as a mass education on yoga and Ayurvedic practice has now diversified into social activism on ‘Swadeshi’ lines. All this has been achieved by Bābā Rāmdev who is ordained as a ‘Sanyāsi’. Given the background of Bābā Rāmdev’s Satyāgraha, there is an opportunity to understand the perception and concept of Sanyāsa in the modern world; especially the role Sanyāsis have played in political life.
In Indian culture, ‘Sanyāsa’ is the most revered stage of life and glorified by the Holy Vedas. In fact there are atleast 16 Upanishads (called Sanyāsa Upanishads) that directly speak on sanyāsa. Traditionally even the richest men or the supreme leaders have bowed to sanyasis who possess nothing else except their steadfastness. In Indian tradition, renunciation is considered to be the ideal and heroes are those who have renounced or sacrificed.
So what does ‘Sanyāsa’ really mean? The word sanyāsa comes from the Sanskrit word 'sam-nyāsa' derived from two roots: ‘sam’ meaning complete or total and ‘nyāsa’ meaning 'renunciation’. So a sanyasi is understood as one who has renounced everything i.e. all egocentric actions and one who turned towards a higher discipline of austerity and asceticism. The Holy Geeta defines sanyāsa as “kāmyānām karmanām nyāsam sannyāsam kavayo viduh” meaning “The Sages understand sanyāsa to be ‘the renunciation of desire prompting actions’".
The sanyāsi resolves to transcend the rigmarole of fleeting pleasures to achieve a permanent state of unbroken happiness (Godhood). In the Vedic tradition, the sanyāsi’s oath therefore renounces the pleasures of this world, and even pleasures of the astral world and of the heavens i.e. all the three worlds, while the average politician doesn’t seem to go well when asked to relinquish his kursi.
Talking about politicians and rulers, India has a legacy of charitable rulers like the great Paari Vallal, the legendary 9th century Tamil Chola king who donates his golden chariot to a wild jasmine creeper in the forest, when he found that the creeper had entwined itself around one of his chariot wheels. Paari seems to have that intrinsic sanyās (āntarika sanyās) that is the hallmark of philanthropists.
So sanyāsis per se don’t have any possessions and relinquish all material wealth as they have outgrown worldly pleasures out of right thinking. That’s what a prince Siddhārta Gautama did to become a Gautam Buddha and later influence millions across the globe. That’s what a ten year old boy Shankara did to become the great Ācharya Ādi Shankarā. History tells us that the Vedic Rishis, the Buddha, Acharya Shankara, the exalted Thirthankar Mahāveer championed the path of renunciation over other paths.
But the sanyāsa heritage in India has seen both extremes from the most austere to the seriously opulent – from a naked Mahāveer, to Swami Nityānanda in a loin cloth to the most affluent Osho Rajneesh. The Kaupina panchakam praising the person with the least needs says “the person who is reveling in the thoughts of Vedantic declarations, whom does a meager portion of begged-food satisfy, who is walking around without a trace of sorrow. The man with just the loincloth (Kaupina) is indeed the lucky one (bhaagyavanta)”.
While some sanyasis lived a quiet teaching life in a remote place, others got really dynamic in social life for public welfare. In many ways, the ancient order of sanyāsa was influenced by great Gurus, saints who were also reformers. Swāmi Krishnananda of the Divine Life Society observes “Swāmi Vivekananda brought in a new atmosphere into the Sanyāsa order by introducing a greater social sense...Monks who were originally spiritually oriented also became socially oriented on account of a need of the times that was felt.”
What is the role of renunciates in this modern age? The Sanyasi’s role is generally bound by a convention depending on their Guru, lineage and also their personal level of spiritual attainment. But sanyasis in India from time immemorial have played a huge part in social life, especially when times demanded. A quick review of the Indian spiritual and religious organizations shows that we have had many active monks. It is also interesting, and often neglected, that many of the sanyasis created incredibly large organizations, with much resources and follower base.
Historically it is well known that a learned Chanakya was responsible for the creation of the mighty Mauryan Empire. Swāmi Rāmdas had Shivaji Mahārāj’s patronage. Though they were sanyasis Swāmi Vivekānanda and Sri Aurobindo did not always wear orange or white robes but influenced great thinkers from political circles and even Rājā-Mahārājās. Also many illustrious Gurus were renunciates (sanyasis) like Parahamsa Yogananda, Swāmi Rama, Swāmi Sahajānand, Swāmi Shivānand, Swāmi Niranjanānand, Swāmi Satyānand among others who supported social upliftment.
In the not so distant past India has had larger than life social-reformer-saints like Sree Nārāyanguru (Kerala), Swāmi Keshwānand (Rajashtan), Jai Jalāram Bāpa (Gujarat), Swāmi Dayānand Saraswati (Gujarat), Sathya Sāi Bābā (Andhra Pradesh) among others. In ancient times Gurus like Vashisht, Agastya and Vishwāmitra advised the rulers.
This heritage shows that yoga Gurus and Godmen of India were not just showing society their way to God but also spearheaded many social causes thereby influencing polity. In fact people who are quite detached to material things have been known to have served the society in a better way than some of the elected ones who officially have social mandates but end with a corruption kalank.
The Indian sourcebooks of spirituality and well being also allude to ideal society. For example, the most fundamental text of Yoga is the ‘Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika’, a classic written by Swāmi Swātmarama in the 15th Century C.E. This textbook mentions (in Ch-1, v12) that yoga should be practiced in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully. Is India one such country? May be that’s the India the social-reformer-Gurus want to see us in!!!
Editor – Baba Ramdev wants us to lead healthy lives. He tries to make us do so by, amongst others, asking us to do Yoga and use Ayurvedic products instead of Allopathic ones. The latter reduces our intake of chemicals. Ever since a friend gifted me a hamper of Baba Ramdev’s products last Diwali I am hooked. Today I use hair oil, toothpaste and soap produced by Baba’s company. I am a happy customer. To buy Baba’s products online visit http://www.ramdevproducts.com/
Much is made of Baba’s Rs 1,100 crores empire! Acquiring wealth is not bad per see. What matters is how wealth is used? If it is used for the benefit of others there is nothing wrong in being wealthy. The problem arises when wealth is used to satisfy materialistic and self-centered desires.
1. Foreign Funding of Indian NGO’s