By Kesava Krsna Dasa
Does anyone aspire to become a sannyasi? Simply having this ambition in the first place is not the desire of a truly renounced person. On the other hand, all those who relish genuine taste in Krishna consciousness, will know what proper renunciation is. For this reason, both men and women can live as sannyasis without having that title.
To emphasise renunciation before taste indicates a lack of understanding on the path of Bhakti. Devotees often preach about the importance of following the four regulative principles, before or without first getting a taste for chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. Without this taste, then Krishna consciousness just becomes a strict form of adherence, not much different from “dry” renunciation.
Yet this strict adherence is what sets vaisnavas apart from those with average religious effort. So highly respected is the avoidance of the four sturdy pillars of Kali’s rule in this age, that it is not hard to see why the renounced order is highly abused. Didn’t King Indra assume a sannyasa guise to prevent loss of his heavenly rule? Didn’t Ravana do likewise to abduct Mother Sita? And what of those who desire this position for reasons, other than for preaching?
Out from this “dryness” come the usual polemics that beset our male and female dynamics among us. Where there is a lack of taste, issues of power, influence, and inordinate focus on threats to one’s renunciation, can overtake the natural rhythm of life based on preaching. In other words, if there is an excess of such controversies, it is an attempt to compensate the same lack of taste.
But fortunately for us, the official status of sannyasa is held in high regard. For instance, if we observe the standing of a devotee before he takes sannyasa, compared to his standing after taking sannyasa, when he is suddenly invited to people’s homes and is deluged with preaching opportunities and great respect, we see how this renounced order has enabled quite a transition. He is the same devotee, before and after, but his sannyasa obligations have added something dramatically different to his life. It is equally dramatic for those observers who knew the sannyasa, before and after.
This “before and after” effect usually raises some questions for other devotees. After taking sannyasa it is sometimes observed that they become withdrawn or aloof, and perhaps quite different from their “before” approachability. Some devotees wonder, “Are these types of behaviour to be expected? Is being renounced, and being somewhat socially withdrawn, part of the self-protection of a sannyasa?
It is this “in demand” difference that can be a source of ambition. Certainly, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu took sannyasa because people would more readily listen to Him while preaching. This means that on one level it is essential to earn respect in order to preach. But in the Western countries, the audiences hardly know the asrama differences, except to notice various shades of white or saffron colours. It is more advantageous when preaching in India or to Indian communities where inbred cultural respect prevails.
It is also easier to be heard and respected among our community of devotees. Another question can arise here; “What is the distinction between earning respect as a sannyasa, as opposed to earning respect for preaching alone?” There is no doubt that the enthusiasm of our renounced devotees spurs even more enthusiasm and inspiration in others. But many married devotees and Matajis alike do the same, but do not earn the same level of respect, and their taste for Krishna consciousness may be greater. Who is to decide on this, when asrama differences officially define who is respected more than others?
We are all familiar with the “param drstva nivartate” order of things (BG 2.59). Srila Prabhupada goes further to say that a devotee with true taste, “…is fixed in consciousness.” What is this “fixed in consciousness” in relation to our deciding who is renounced and who is not? Obviously, choice has a role to play, and these choices are not always appreciated. This is why differences of opinion play out either between the sexes, or with married and unmarried role players. Are we all convinced that we have achieved total harmony in these areas?
If not, then we need to see “taste” as the defining factor. Taste equals renunciation. For instance, our doyen of renunciation, Srila Raghunatha Dasa Goswami was requested by Lord Chaitanya to live a normal family life, and then in time they would join up. Did Srila Raghunatha Dasa Goswami’s taste for Krishna consciousness lessen while he lived dutifully as a family member with a wife? Obviously not. For informed observers, there was no difference in terms of “before and after” for him.
When we read of all the many eternal associates of Sri Chaitanaya Mahaprabhu, say, in Chaitanya Charitamrta, we know most of them were married. Do we see Srila Krishna Dasa Kaviraja singling out the sannyasis for special mention above all the married devotees? Not really. All were unique and abounded with taste in love of Krishna. We do however read of distinctions based on age, experience and seniority. Was the renounced order of life in general, as highly optimised during those times as it is today?
Another question asked frequently in private, but is usually avoided for fear of impoliteness is, if the sannyasa order as we know it today were shorn of the privileges associated with it, and was less of a dramatic social “before and after,” and more of an integrated role within our devotee community, would the ambition to take sannyasa still be alluring? If “taste” means to be fixed in consciousness, is there any scope to lessen this for the renounced order, as sometimes happens in real life? Yet another argument put forth is that Srila Prabhupada had a great sense of urgency, which is why he had many sannyasa disciples going worldwide to preach. Is that same urgency with us today to justify the official renounced order?
With the equally dramatic transition of our devotee communities from temple orientated service to “outside” or congregational settings, does this still warrant a need for sannyasis? Or is the need greater than ever before? On a practical level, a new devotee chants a minimum of 16 rounds a day and follows the four regulative principles. A sannyasa also chants a minimum of 16 rounds a day and follows the four regulative principles. What is the difference in practice?
Acknowledging that the possession of vijnana, taste and raised consciousness should differentiate the new devotee and the renounced devotee, many devotees still wonder why we need such marked differences reflecting the asrama orders. More significantly, how and who is going to determine the Varna roles for vaisnavas who are supposed to be above social identification?
Within our present worldly times of equality for gender and related work opportunities, and the pressure for adopting and allowing them into vaisnava culture as we also know it today, it has generated ambivalence, for example, in whether women should give class in the holy dhama. The moment this topic arises and another host of issues flow, concerning tradition, protection of the sannyasa order, women’s rights, lustful agitation, liberalism and the rest.
Although all these issues are important and have to be dealt with for our social wellbeing, they still elude the question of “taste.” This taste and fixed consciousness does not belong to any asrama or Varna. And neither does any spiritual order claim sovereign right over it. How this taste is relished, and how it is expressed for others to hear, we have made an issue over it. And for something highly subjective as taste to fit into social and gender acceptances, is something that will continue. Better we all become sannyasis at heart.