Stages of Life: Traditional Social Order for Society

The stage of life when one takes the vows of renunciation also makes a difference. In the system the four quarters of life were divided by twenty five years each; the brahmacharya, living a celibate life away from family, away from the opposite sex, up to the age of 25 and begging for alms and studying under a Guru; then the grihastha, for 25 years as a householder, have children and raising them.  When we study the laws of manu we see that the day a person sees his hair turning grey he should become a vanaprastha, a forest dweller, who is finished with the daily involvements with the world: and then sanyasa. Brahmacharya, grihsatha, vanprastha, and sanyasa. The life of a celibate student, the life of a householder, the life of a forest dweller, who may live with a spouse but as a celibate, and the life of a sanyasan, the life of a renunciate, a monk.

At what state one takes the vow makes a difference in many ways. The most highly prized are those who have taken the sanyasan vow right from the brahmacharya, right from the celibate student life. They are the most highly respected. Then one may take the vows right from grihastha, from the householder stage. One may take the vows from the vanaprastha stage, and on the other hand, one may take a vow anytime in life when one is absolutely certain that all debts have been paid, that one owes nothing to anybody and renounces.

In the theory of social organization in India, only one quarter of the population earns so that the other three quarters may be fed. The bharmacharis have to be fed by grihasthas. Vanaprasthas have to be fed by the grihasthas. Sanyasins have to be fed by grihasthas, the householder during that 25-year period when they earn and earn more. The Vedic injunction is to prosper. The Vedic injunction is not to decry wealth but to gain wealth. People have this idea that India believes in poverty. Not so; the traditions are not that way. Thou shalt prosper,” is the injunction. “Thou shalt proper so that the other three quarters of the population may be fed”. So you keep for yourself only what is necessary, and the rest is making the spiritual life of others possible. You earn, you divide your wealth just enough to keep for yourself, and the rest is for the other three quarters of the population. These are various categories of the social order.

In Sanyasa there are a number of categories. One sanyasa is the true sanyasan, the enlightening. That is the real sanyasa. Then the other one is the karma sanyasa (like kram mukti or karma sanyasa) – renunciation in the hope of receiving enlightenment. It is also known as “vidvat” or “vidvat sanyasa”. Vidvat sanyasa means that one has arrived at a certain knowledge and needs no Guru. He does not need anyone to initiate him. Just the knowledge itself is that renunciation. The other name for this renunciation is “vidyut sanyasa”, enlightening renunciation. Walking off, taking a dip in the Ganges, dropping all possessions and saying to the world, to all beings, to sun and moon, “I have renounced.”

Then there is what is called “atrua sanyasa.” Atura means someone who is desperate – desperate in the sense that one sees impending death, irreparable body, and there is a principle that many times sanyasa wards off the physical death. When the Bible, Granth Sahib, speaks of he alone lives who dies, they refer to this principle of renunciation, dying of the ego. It is a well-known principle that the Guru may decide that, by taking sanyasa, he can ward off his death because then you are no longer living for yourself. With the knowledge of impending death there is atura-sanyasa – renunciation of desperation. Not everyone does that. Not everyone is permitted to do that. Then again among sanyasans, there are two other categories that the different.

Whichever day one feels vairagya, one should walk off on that day.  One of the words for sanyasa is pravijaya or paravijarya. The Buddha also used that Pali equivalent pabbajaya. Pravaja and parivaja. The Pali form is pravija, pabbajja. Parivijaya or pravijaya is walking off, wandering off, and one of the words for a sanyasan is parivrajaka. It is an itinerant, one who wanders because, for such a renunciate, the rule is that one is allowed to stay at one place only one night and forms no attachment to any place. That has to be contrasted with the idea of establishing an ashram where you really stay. So it all depends on the particular lineage or it depends on what your Guru tells you. He may tell you to wander for three years and then establish an ashram or come back and serve in the Guru’s ashram.

Among the sanyasins there are different monastic orders. Two major branches of the monastic orders are dashanamis and udasis. It is derived from udasina but it is udasi. The dashanamis are the more highly respected. They are the ones who take the vows within the Shankaracharya tradition that reorganized the orders around the eighth century.

Udasis are those who do not fall into the dashanamis category. Throughout the history of India there has remained what is known as a Sant tradition. One may or may not be a formal renunciate. Because the words are similar they sometimes translate sant as saint. In Indian English “saint” means a sant. It does not mean somebody canonized by the Vatican. Any saintly person is a sant. In my Master’s passport, his profession was listed as saint. It is just a translation for the word sant. Anyone who is given renunciate vows has become a sant. (It is related to the word “sat” continuous participle of the verb root “sa”, to be). One who has discovered the true being, the meaning of true existence, he is holy and pure. There has been a long tradition of sants. It became very prominent in Hindu tradition during the centuries of Islamic rule to use the word sant. In the same way that the Sufi sants spoke the language of the local peoples of India in expounding Islamic faith, these saintly persons revitalized the Hindu faith.

Udasis are sadhus in the tradition. It is a non–Shankaracharya tradition. The dashanamis are called dashanamis because the word “dashanama” means ten names.


In establishing the order Shankaracharya placed them in ten different categories with slight differences in the ways of discipline, and so on. Those who can stay in a small cottage, those who can stay in an ashram, and so on. Four of these categories are known as dandin swamis or dandi. I do not use my danda anymore for a number of reason. Dandi Swamis are the holiest. Dandi Swamis are Saraswati, Bharati, Ashram, Giri. The surnames are taken depending into which of these sub orders one has been initiated – Saraswati, Bharati, Ashram, Giri, Tirtha, Sagara, Vana, Puri, and so on. Then there are six that are not the dandins. Dandins are those who are given a staff to carry, and the staff wears the saffron. If you are a dandin Swami, you may not even bow to your own Guru. The danda bows. If you have bent your danda, you pay danda pranama.

For the true dandi swamis, there are separate areas in Rishikesh where they eat. Even when we have these feasts for swamis here, we always invite five or seven or eleven dandi swamis who sit separately. That danda is the person. The world “danda” comes from the verb root “dan,” to control. It is a symbol of control, and a really good dandi swami will not eat from a plate. Whatever you put in his hand, he will eat standing up. He comes for biksha, for alms; whatever he can take in his hands, that he will eat. My friend, Swami Satyamrityanji Giri, who is a dandi swami, also walked into a Kumba Mela camp and took hot dahl in his hand. He says may I have some tea. The tea was hot, and he just took a handful of it and just drank it that way. There is no possession.

Once the strict sanyasins have taken the vows, they do not see and do not recognize any members of their previous family. The word used for the previous family is purvashrama family. In the strictest of traditions, and some still follow it, you cannot even know their pre–sanyasa name.

Today, with everything being electronically recorded, where passports, legal histories and properties and so on are done, your sanyasa has to be an internal one, a refinement of the attitude of me, mine, and I. But there are still some swamis who are not carrying out these types of international mission. They just lead the renunciate life and will tell you nothing about themselves, because the day they took the vow, that is the day they are born. Nothing exits before that; everything is totally erased, deleted like a computer file.

Among the Swamis, when we speak to each other, we do not say, ” Where are you from? We say, “Where is this body from?” We don’t ask, “How old are you?” We say, “How old is the present body? Rather than “I am not feeling well,” we say, “the body is not well.” If you do happen to meet or talk about something, such as the son or daughter you had when you were a householder, then it is expressed as the son of this body, of the current body or the daughter of this current body. These are all rules that different swamis follow with different degrees of observance depending on their own conscience, their own mission, the Guru’s orders, and so on.


In the Gita, the meaning of the word “sanyasa” is not taking the vows. It is simply renouncing the desires and fruits of actions. The word “dharma” is your duty according to your spiritual station. Be true to your dharma and do not overstep the bounds. Your dharma changes the moment you have reached a spiritual station. Your standard of behavior rises; then you are expected to behave that way. In the old days, when there was a proliferation of forests and animals, a king was allowed to hunt. But the day he renounces the throne and becomes a vanaprashtha or sanyasin, then his spiritual station has changed, and he must not hurt any living creature.

This concept of renunciation permeates all levels of society. As I said, prosper but renounce at the same time. The purpose of your prosperity is to feed others. A king should not die on the throne. He should take the vows of vanaprastha when his head turns grey. There are quite a few kings in the history of India who have done that. They call the assembly, and they propose the crown prince or whomsoever the assembly approves, and they renounce the throne. Dying on the throne, which is still the common practice, is a sort of a low standard.

In summary, when we are talking of spirituality in business we are also talking of these forms of renunciation. Earn with renunciation. Understand the purpose of that earning. It is understood as earning to support others, in an ever-expanding family. The Vedic principle is to prosper. Thou shalt prosper. Find ways to prosper. Create wealth and give of that wealth. That is the rule.

Editor’s Note:

This is an excerpt from the book – Swami: A Life Beyond Knowledge, pp. 43-53, by Swami Veda Bharati, published in 2007 by the SRSG Publications.

Kindly contact the Himalayan Yoga Publications Trust: if you would like to acquire a copy of the book. A kindle version of the book is also available on Amazon.