“The Supreme Lord said, To give up the results of all activities is called renunciation [tyaga] by the wise. And that state is called the renounced order of life [sannyasa] by great learned men.” (Bhagavad-gita, 18.2)
काम्यानां कर्मणां न्यासं सन्न्यासं कवयो विदु: ।
सर्वकर्मफलत्यागं प्राहुस्त्यागं विचक्षणा: ॥
kāmyānāṁ karmaṇāṁ nyāsaṁ
sannyāsaṁ kavayo viduḥ
prāhus tyāgaṁ vicakṣaṇāḥ
“I am having difficulty understanding the concept. It seems everyone wants to jump right into this status. It makes sense, considering the level of importance associated with the institution. You get servants to help you. You never have to cook another meal in your life. People will pay for your travel across the world.
“I am speaking of sannyasa. This is the fourth ashrama designated in the varnashrama system passed down by Shri Krishna. He explains the divisions and their origin in Bhagavad-gita and other places. I understand the visual. I know there is some nuance, such that not every sannyasi is necessarily travelling around like a beggar.
“But then there are places where I read that the ashrama is forbidden in the present age. I hear some people say that you don’t need to go that far, that if you are happily engaged in service while at home, then you are as good as the person seated on the vyasasana, with their surrounding disciples listening attentively.
“Which is it? I feel as if the standard is too high, that I will fail to reach the institution in this lifetime.”
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada explains that a real sannyasi is someone who works without interest in the result. The impetus for such action is duty in service to the Supreme. The Sanskrit word is dharma.
A person who follows dharma can be considered a sannyasi, irrespective of their specific occupation or stage in life. This means that they could be living at home with wife and children. They could be actively engaged in attempting to expand a business empire. They may appear daily on the field of play, ready to both entertain the paying audience and best their worthy opponent.
It is an important principle to understand because in the general sense, the sannyasi by occupation garners respect. They are considered elevated due to having renounced the world. They have committed something like suicide within society. No more friends. No family. No interest in a bank balance or how future generations will access the inherited fortune.
They rely entirely on the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Shri Krishna, to take care of everything. In the same way He ensured the proper outcome to the Bharata War for the Pandava army and their leading fighter, Arjuna, so He handles the daily needs of the person fully renounced from work.
A person outside of the official order can be within the same category. The determining factor is consciousness. Are they following dharma? Are they adhering to duty and righteousness as a means to please God? Is there any personal or worldly interest?
We see from the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu that the highest transcendentalists documented to date are village girls. They were dependent on their husbands. They were a protected class within society. They did not run local yoga schools or travel to teach classes in the ancient art of breath control and sitting postures.
They earned the acclaim through fixed devotion to the son of Nanda and Yashoda. Some of the gopis were married; some weren’t. Some had their own children and family to manage, but the center of everything was Krishna. They could speak to the devotional culture through a shining example, which was appreciated by intelligent eyewitnesses like Uddhava.
The material world is full of duality. As we can mistake a rope for a snake, we might be fooled by the pretender dressed as a renunciant. A person firmly established in family life might have the most valuable insight to offer into the glories of Bhagavan and those who serve Him.
The dress does not make the man, and the formal assignment does not necessarily make a sannyasi. Arjuna firing arrows on the battlefield was just as renounced as someone chanting the holy names in a remote cave. Shri Hanuman burning down the entirety of the city of Lanka was equally fixed in yoga as the person observing the mauna-vrata.
This is not to say that the formal institution is not necessary within society. The ashramas are there for a reason. The Vedas emanating from the original person are for our benefit. As best as can be followed, even in a degraded time such as Kali-Yuga, will bring a world of benefit. But as bhakti-yoga is ahaituki and apratihata, the presence of an institution or lack thereof cannot check the unbounded love and affection a person wants to offer to the Lord: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
A sannyasi speaking to me,
At advanced level is he.
The entire world he renounced,
While my attachments pronounced.
How ever to that standard to rise?
A task of impossible size.
Truth that from consciousness to come,
Renouncing results to action done.