What is a Swami? What is Sannyasa? What is renunciation?

Swami Vivekananda

Swami means Master, that is, one who is "Ma" Master over "Swa" or the Self. While this really is the fundamental idea, the word swami has many layers of meanings.

What is sannyasa or renunciation?

To understand who or what a swami is, we must first understand sannyasa. The word sannyasa is a general term and means renunciation. It can mean external renunciation or tyaga in which worldly objects such as wealth, alcohol, meat, marriage and family are renounced. It can also mean internal renunciation or vairagya. In internal renunciation the worldly objects are not renounced only the attachment to the worldly objects is renounced. The term sannyasi is generally used for a person who takes external sannyasa. It does not mean he or she is completely detached from worldly objects.

4 levels of sannyasa or renunciation

There are essentially 4 levels of sannyasa or renunciation.

  1. A member of a Swami order: This is an institutional form of external renunciation or sannyasa. Such a person is called Swami or sannyasi. Women swamis are known as Swaminis, and called Ma meaning Mother. Men of the Swami order are known as Swamis and also called Swami meaning Master. Taking vows of sannyasa in a swami order is a lifelong commitment. Giving up the swami order and returning to a life of a householder is not socially accepted in India and such a person may be rejected by society.
  2. A part of an ancient Sannyasi Tradition: This is a non-institutional form of external renunciation or sannyasa. Female sannyasins are known as sannyasinis and may be called Ma. Sannyasis are known as muni, yogi, jogi, sadhu, brahmachari or sannyasi and are called by different names. Baba meaning wise man or elderly man, being the most common. One may live the life of sannyasis for a short period of time or lifelong. Sannyasis do not take an oath or vow and may return to the life of householders whenever they want.
  3. Internal Renunciation or internal sannyasa: This is form of internal renunciation is known as vairagya and one who knows this state may be known as Vairagi. Internal renunciation means that the Vairagi has given up all attachment to the objects of the world, but he need not give up the objects themselves. Therefore, a vairagi may be a householder or sadhu or swami.
  4. The highest state of renunciation or sannyasa: This is known as Paramvairagya. In this state the person has attained Sakshi Bhava, that is, remains a Witness, observing that everything is transient and changing. In this state the Self rests in the Self. Such a person may be called yogi, jnani, paramahansa, muni, maharshi.

Swami as an institutional form of external renunciation (tyaga)

The tradition of sannyasa or renunciation is as old as time itself. Over thousands of years, during the vedic period sannyasis came together in the forest caves and deep jungles and developed in to informal groups and communities of the like minded. There was no centralized authority and only a few unwritten codes of conduct, ethics and values that brought these people together. They were known by different names then, such as shramana, muni, sadhu, yogi, depending on the school of thought they were connected to. Supported by the great Emperor Ashoka, around 100 B.C. the teachings of Buddha or Sankhyamuni spread widely and hundreds of thousands renounced family life to follow his teachings. With the wealth and support of the great Emperor, the monasteries of the Buddha Dharma were systematically organized over centuries. Adi Shankara organized the monastic orders of Sanatana Dharma, sometimes called Hindu Dharma, along similar lines. Western historians date great Yogi, Tantrik, philosopher, poet Shankara as 788-820 A.D., traditional sources however believe that he lived in the 6th century A.D. 

The Dasanama: The 10 Swami Orders

The Swami Order is headed by an unbroken lineage of spiritual teachers (Acharyas) called Shankaracharya. This title is named after Shankara who was the first head of the Swami Order. Shankara was called Adi Shankarcharya; Adi means the first. Adi Shankara formed the first 4 maths or spiritual seats in the four different parts of the country. Joshimath in north India, Dwarka in western India, Sringeri in the south and Puri in the east. Besides these there is a fifth one in Kanchipuram. Each of the maths was led by a spiritual leader with the title of Shankaracharya. Shankara established 10 orders owing allegiance to the maths called the Dasanamas. After the 13th century, muslim invaders took over northern India, and non-muslim spiritual leaders were persecuted. For many centuries the seat of the Shankaracharya lay vacant. An underground movement led to the creation of titles and positions below the Shankaracharya, such as Mahamandaleshvara. These title holders were spread out over a large terrain and were mobile, escaping persecution and assuring the continuation of the lineage of swamis and the transfer of spiritual knowledge. The institutional nature of the dasanama order in India continued to expand in to the Akhara system or clans, with duties and responsibilities.

The 10 Swami Orders are:

  • Giri -mountain
  • Sagar - sea
  • Bharati - land
  • Puri - town, city
  • Saraswati - river
  • Aranya - woods
  • Tirtha - place of pilgrimage
  • Ashram - resting place
  • Vana - forest
  • Parvata - hill
The Dark Side of Swamis

Many swamis are considered to be kidnappers, crooks, drug addicts, alcoholics, and social drop outs. This reputation has built up over centuries and not entirely without reason.

Some indulge in drug and alcohol consumption and have little interest in the spiritual tradition, for them it is convenient to don saffron robes and trick innocent people. Such addicts have given the concept of renunciation a bad reputation. Others have created ashrams and organizations only to trick trusting folk out of their money. Many such frauds have been exposed recently.

Sometimes, an aged sannyasi who can no longer fend for himself, would kidnap a young boy and raise him as a son and disciple so that the boy would eventually take care of him. Often innocent village folk, desiring progeny come to a wandering swami asking for his blessings. The swami blesses them with a son stipulating a condition that the first son should be given to him and the spiritual cause. While, for some swamis this ensures the continuation of the lineage for others it ensures support in old age.

For some becoming a swami is just escapism. Those disappointed in love, have failed in life, lost a dear one or mentally unstable also take to renunciation. Of such renunciates, Swami Rama has said: "Mere renunciation will not make you a sage, especially if your mind remains confused and clouded. Do not forget this: leaving home does not make anyone a sage. Failing to meet your responsibilities does not make you enlightened; escaping from the world does not enlighten you either." (Art of Joyful Living)

The Order of Duties

Not all swamis are fake and engage in fraudulent activities. The genuine sannyasis and swamis are motivated by a higher calling to leave aside their worldly duties. According to Sanatana Dharma, the Indian philosophy of life, there is an accepted order of duties and responsibilities that each person has, since we all have duties to perform so long as we live in the world. The order of our duties is as follows:

  1. Yourself: Your first duty is to yourself. This is not meant in the egotistical way but in the sense of taking care of yourself and being gentle towards yourself.
  2. Your family: When the circle of love and respect expands, when you grow and develop you are ready to take care of others. We learn selflessness by caring for our immediate family, that is, spouse, children, and parents.
  3. Work: Our next duty is towards our work. From our work we earn not only our livelihood, but also respect and recognition. We feel productive and contribute to the continuation of society.
  4. Close relatives and friends: As the circle of love expands, we include in it other relatives and friends. These enrich our life further in the spirit of mutual respect and service.
  5. The Neighbourhood and Community: As the circle of love expands, as we mature and develop, we learn to include, rather than exclude people. We can serve our neighbourhood and community in various ways. There is a tradition in many countries and cultures of service towards the elderly, underprivileged, poor etc. in our immediate environment.
  6. The Society and Country: As the circle of love keeps expanding, the person may serve society in general for example by working actively against social injustice. He may choose to serve the country as a whole, for example as a leader, assuming this service is of a selfless nature and not motivated by desire for power.
  7. Humanity: Vasudhaivam Khutumbakam, the World is One Family. As our sense of selflessness grows, we continue to include more persons in our circle of love. Such a one does not discriminate or distinguish between people of different gender, nationality, race, religious beliefs. Such a person serves all selflessly. It is this ideal of selfless service to a larger family, the universal family that leads a swami to renounce all personal ties and engage in selfless work for all of humanity. Swamis engage themselves not only in spiritual work, but also in the field of education, healing, social work and development. While most swamis do not engage in politics, some do, to promote their philosophical beliefs. Thus the service may take many different forms.
  8. Renounce All for the Self: Such a one has already served humanity, in this life or in a previous one, and is ready to plunge in to the ocean of bliss, the Self or Pure Consciousness.

A genuine sannyasi or renunciate is motivated by the desire to serve humanity and eventually to renounce all for the Self. It is the intention or motivation that makes one a swami.

How to become and live as a Swami

Generally only a swami can initiate another in to the dasanami order of swamis, establishing a lineage. There are also swami orders beyond the dasanama orders. Swami Vivekananda, from the tradition of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, started the Ramakrishna Mission and Ramakrishna Order of Swamis. In recent times, many large organizations have started their own Swami orders, such as the swamis of Mata Amritanandamayi Ma, known as Amma, the hugging saint.

To become a swami, generally one spends a long period of time with a teacher who guides the aspirant. When the aspirant expresses desire to renounce, it is the duty of the teacher to convince the aspirant that this is not necessary in order to attain the Highest. A good teacher will test the sincerity of the aspirant, and explain difficulties of life as a swami. He will explain the code of conduct and the deeper meaning of renunciation. A good teacher will emphasize the importance of the 3 eshanas. A swami must renounce the 3 eshanas, these are:

  • desire for sexual pleasure,spouse and children (putra eshana)
  • desire for wealth, possessions and comfort (vitta eshana)
  • desire for name and fame (loka eshana)

A good teacher will elaborate on the path of renunciation and the path of the householder, explaining that both lead to moksha. If the aspirant still wants to renounce, a good teacher will prepare him. This process includes many intense practices and may take 5-10 years. The duration depends on the intensity of desire and quality of the aspirant.

On the other hand, it is also possible to convince any wandering swami to initiate you and within minutes you can become a swami, shave your head, get a new name and wear saffron robes. All you have to do is give him a guru dakshina, that is an offering, generally some money.

A Swami may be initiated in the Order either in the bibidisa (elaborate) manner or in the manner of bidwat (non-cermonial).

The Bibidisa or ceremonial initiation: Becoming a swami is not a matter to be celebrated since the ceremony is a death ceremony. Before the death ceremony begins, the priest asks the aspirant if he has permission to take sannyasa from all those he needs to take permission from, that is, his parents, spouse, children (if any). This aspect is important so that the aspirant is not running away from his duties and indulging in escapism. The most famous example of a man who left home to become a swami without the permission of his wife and parents was Vithal Panth, father of the great 13th century Indian saint, Sant Jnaneshvara. Vithal Panth became Swami Chaitanya Ashrama but was asked by his teacher to return to the life of a householder even though he had already taken the vows, when his teacher found out that he had a wife who had not given him permission to take sannyasa.

The importance of getting permission from the family must be emphasized once again with the example of Adi Shankara. Shankara did not leave home until his mother gave him permission.

The bibidisa ceremony includes a fire ceremony during which the symbolic funeral rites are performed. In this solemn ceremony the aspirant symbolically puts all his physical body parts and all the tattvas, that is the senses, the faculties of the mind, into the fire, until only pure consciousness remains. His head is shaven and he receives a new name. To his new name a Swami adds one of the dasanamas indicating a connection to one of the subdivisions of the order. He dons the saffron robe, symbol of the fire that burns the samskaras of the past. He is new born.

The swami is neither man nor woman. He is only pure consciousness. And no one need fear him, for he is completely harmless.

This ceremony has been promoted by some swamis as the only and right way of becoming swami. However, one wonders at the paradoxically nature of this idea: Does one really need a ceremony in order to renounce?

Bidwat or non-ceremonial initiation: In this initiation, the teacher and initiator will give the aspirant a new name, the student shaves his or her head and dons saffron garments. To some this seems suspicious and indeed it has been misused by many a fake swami. But it seems appropriate that one should not need elaborate ceremonies in order to renounce. Merely expressing an intense desire to become a swami is sufficient. The most famous swami who was initiated in a bidwat manner was Paramhansa Yogananda.

Code of Conduct for Swamis

Becoming a swami means being part of an institutional form of renunciation. This brings with it a code of conduct. Swamis are bound by the vow of celibacy. He may not keep money and therefore must beg for alms. He has few material possessions. He wears saffron robes and keeps his head shaven. On becoming a swami he loses all his property; it is transferred to his heirs just as if he were really dead. If he builds an ashram or any other institution this goes to his students and disciples.

A swami learns to live in the moment, trusting that he will be cared for by the divine forces. This is beautifully expressed by Swami Rama:"Begging alms is a must for a monk, but a humiliation to others. I realized that those who totally live on the grace of the Almighty receive the necessary food to eat and shelter to live. Worrying for food and shelter is not complete faith. I will believe till the last breath of my life that God alone is my property and depending on any other thing except God will bring disaster in my life. I find my Lord always walking before me providing all the things that I need."

The 4 stages within Sannyasa
  • Kutichaka: When one takes sannyasa, he is expected to beg for alms. But in the beginning this may be difficult and the sannyasin moves gradually from one stage to another. Thus in the first stage, he makes a hut or kutiya outside his village or town and the food comes from his home.
  • Bahudaka: When he is practiced and goes from house to house within his own village or town, he is in the second stage called Bahudaka.
  • Parivrajakacharya: Then comes the time to give up the ties with his home town and become a wandering monk, teaching and practicing non-attachment. He finds shelter among kind householders, temples and ashrams. He wanders throughout the year, except the monsoon months. This tradition developed over thousands of years, that wandering monks, called parivrajakas, settle down in one village or town for the 4 month period of the monsoon. During this time the people of the village take care of his needs, while he counsels and guides the folk in the teachings of the spiritual tradition.
  • Paramahansa: Having lived out his desire to serve and having overcome his own attachments, the sannyasi is now ready for deeper meditation and settles down in one place. This phase is known as Paramahansa, and the sannyasi if he has evolved during the course of the years is himself a Paramahansa, the one with the sharp buddhi, who like the legendary swan (hansa) can separate milk from water. The swan is a legendary symbol for one who can distinguish that which useful from that which is not useful.
Do you have to be a swami to be self realized?

You do not have to be a swami to be fully realized. In fact if you think about it, what kind of self realization would that be if it would be limited to either a man, an Indian or wearing saffron robes. Any one can be self realized who practices sincerely, irrespective of gender, race, religion or social status.

Do you have to be self realized to be a swami?

Any one who feels the longing to be a swami can become one. Most swamis are also people who are themselves learning and evolving. The word swami means master of the Self, but a fully enlightened swami is rare. In his classic book Living with the Himalayan Masters, Swami Rama explains:"People do not realize that some swamis are still beginners on the path, that others have trodden the path a bit, and that only very few have attained the goal. This lack of differentiation creates expectations which confuse both the people and the swamis.It is not necessary for one to wear the garb of a renunciate to attain enlightenment. What actually matters is the constant spiritual sadhana of disciplining mind, action, and speech. How wonderful it is to be a swami—but how difficult it is to be a real one."

Swamihood is an institutional concept of external renunciation. There is still another approach to external renunciation, that appeals to those who do not wish to be part of this system. This is the non-institutional form of external renunciation.

The Sannyasi Tradition as a non-institutional form of external renunciation

There are 4 ashrams or phases of development and life. The Sages believed that one who followed the natural rhythm of life would not only live long but also live a creative and selfless life on the path of dharma.

  1. Brahmacharya: Brahma means divine and achara means walking. Brahmacharya, thus means walking in the divine. Truly childhood can be a phase of bliss and joy, when enjoy learning and cultivate the right attitude. This is the phase for a newborn to grow through the phases of childhood, adolescence to adulthood. Interestingly, the ancient sages, considered this period to last about 25 years. For decades medical science believed that the individual was an adult after puberty and the body and brain was completely developed. Recent studies show that brain development continues until the individual is around 25 years. This fits in beautifully with the phases of development according to indian philosophies or Darshan. The vedic life ordained a pure and simple lifestyle to create a solid foundation for later phases of life.
  2. Grihasthashram: Grihastha means householder. This phase also lasts around 25 years and the individual can enjoy conjugal bliss and family life and thus live out his karma. He or she can enjoy material objects and worldly life fulfilling the desires that bring us to this worldly plane. If the individual leads this phase in his life based on values and sees this phase as a development, he will not be caught up in the deep whirlpool of samsara.
  3. Vanaprasthashram: Vana means forest and prasthan means going to, to begin. Thus this phase means going to the forest In the vedic times the elders, the wise members of the society established schools or Gurukuls in the forests. They were also called Aranyaka. Those who were experienced and learned shared their wisdom with the younger members of the society, ensuring an unbroken tradition of knowledge. This transfer of knowledge was an established part of society and vedic life and elder members of the society were respected and appreciated rather than feeling unwanted and useless. They left the life of householders behind, devoting themselves to a larger family and expanding their circle of love, repaying their debts to society and gracefully making way for the younger ones to enjoy the centre stage of life. In some respects this is reflected in modern society through the voluntary and honorary work being performed by senior members of society.On having lived one’s life and repaid their debt to society the cycle is complete and a mature person is ready to leave society and prepare himself for the final journey. However this does not happen, if we do not live our lives based on dharma.
  4. Sannyasashram: The ancient sages visualized a healthy and progressive society where it was considered appropriate to desire a long life if this life was productive and useful to others. Thus after a 25 year period of Vanaprasthashram, the individual looked forward to another 25 years of renunciation or Sannyasashram. If we look at the phases, then it is clear that one has lived out one’s own desires in the phase of a householder and repaid one’s debt to society and humanity in the phase of Vanaprasthashram. After this desires no longer disturb his sadhana or practice and he can devoted himself fully to this. Thus the vedic life phases accepted sannyasashram as a natural culmination of a vedic lifestyle based on dharma.

In spite of this, members of society who felt a deep calling to take to sannyasa could do this as part of an informal non-institutional form of sannyasa by becoming sannyasis, sadhus or babas, for an unspecified period of time, searching for their path, their tradition, their teacher, wandering in the Himalayas and through out the land. They do not have to change their names. They may wear saffron, ochre or white. And in some cases black robes.


Some return to society and carry these values in to their lives touching others with this fire, such as the great Advaita teacher Nisargadatta from Mumbai or in modern times, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.


Nisargadatta Maharaj



Others never return to society yet serve society and all of humanity, such as the great jnani and sage of Arunachala, Ramana Maharishi, who was never a part of the institutional form of swami hood. A few leave society, never to return, preparing themselves for the final journey, preferring to remain unknown.

Unfortunately this ancient and noble tradition has too often been misused for escapism. This informal and non-institutional form of renunciation is still external. As these 4 wonderful verses by the great Indian mystic Kabir say, the external appearances and way of living are of no importance:

If being naked were the qualification
 That would surely bring us liberation;
 Then wild animals fulfill the prerequisite And they would be the first to attain it.

If celibacy could lead to liberation
 Then the eunuchs need no preparation. Those who gain liberation, please hear,
 Have obtained the Lord's name, says Kabir.

How simple would be the path to tread
 If one could be enlightened by having shaven head.
 See the distance a sheep is from the Lord sublime, Though the sheep is shaved from time to time.

Turning mala beads the whole day through, Thinking shaving your head is the thing to do, Wearing orange clothers is only fleeting - For none of these things make a holy being.

If none of these things make a holy being, then what does?

Internal Sannyasa or Vairagya: Renounce, not the worldly objects, but attachment to worldly objects

Both, the institutional form as well as the informal traditional form of renunciation or sannyasa are external. A deeper form of renunciation is internal renunciation which is the Samaya way. In the internal form of renunciation the seeker does not feel the need to give up the worldly objects themselves, rather the attachment to these worldly objects.

Many of the most famous and highly regarded saints and mystics did not become swamis or sannyasis, such as Sant Jnaneshvara. In fact most of them were householders, such as Kabir, Tukaram, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Lahiri Mahasya, Anandamayi Maa and many saints and mystics from different spiritual traditions.



Ramakrishna Paramahansa


In all the spiritual scriptures of India, almost all great spiritual leaders were householders, Lord Ram, Krishna, King Janaka, Sage Vasishtha. Why is this so? This is well explained by Swami Rama in this excerpt from the book, Living with the Himalayan Masters:

"Renunciation is a path of fire, and should be followed only by those who have burned their worldly desires. On the spur of the moment many students become emotionally disturbed and disappointed by worldly gains and losses and consequently think of retiring from the world. Even though they may find an external situation that is very pleasant, the unstable world inside is still carried by such students no matter where they go. Disappointments, greed, lust, hatred and love, anger and jealousy cannot be renounced without spiritual discipline. A frustrated and dissatisfied soul is not fit to tread the path of renunciation. Sitting in the cave and thinking of worldly pleasures is misery.

The path of renunciation is like walking on the razor’s edge. It is so difficult that with every step there is a chance of falling. Selfish desire is the strongest of all the obstacles one encounters. Only those who are fearless and free from the charms, temptations, and attractions of the world can tread this path. One who has directed all of his desires one-pointedly, strengthening only the desire for enlightenment, can succeed.

If you are a seeker after enlightenment doing your practice and people repeatedly come and disturb you, you will not be able to complete your practice successfully. Yet in India it is a custom that if you are a swami you have to answer the questions of all those who come to you. Many people think that swamis have the remedies for all the ills of life. Such people sometimes benefit from this belief and are healed. The result is likely to be exaggerated stories and the acceptance of a beginner as an accomplished healer. This poor creature cannot continue his practice, and forgets his goal. He wastes his time and life, remaining a swami, but unrealized. One of the best ways to escape from such problems is to remain in disguise and to do one’s sadhana.

There are many mystics who are really great in their actual life, but pretend to be imbalanced so that they are not disturbed.There are two well-known paths: the path of renunciation, and the path of action in the world. My path was the path of renunciation. I realized that even after renouncing wealth, home, relatives, wife, and children, one cannot easily renounce the lust for name and fame, nor can one easily purify the ego and direct his emotions toward self-realization. Cultivation of a new mind is a necessary step for enlightenment. Mere renunciation brings unhappiness and frustration. Renunciation without being aware of the purpose of life creates problems for the renunciates and for the people of the world who look for examples from them. The people of the world think that renunciates are the best examples to be followed. But I have met many householders who are far superior to renunciates.

The inner condition is more important than the external way of living."


Swami Rama of the Himalayas

When the mind is naturally and effortlessly content; it is attracted neither to the external world nor has it desire for some higher states or powers described in some scriptures. This state of utter desirelessness or renunciation is called Non-attachment. Such an internal renunciate is called a vairagi or jnani.

It is impossible for a person to recognize such a master or vairagi, who has internally renounced. Many such vairagis have been harassed and persecuted because they were misunderstood, such as Sant Jnaneshvara or Sant Eknath. Only a thief recognises a thief, only a jnani recognizes a jnani.Thus, those who renounce the concept, “This is mine, that is mine,” they are true renunciates.

Paramvairagya: Master of the Self

There is a still higher state of desirelessness or renunciation known as Supreme Non-attachment. When we recognise that the ripples of thoughts, mental images, emotions and desires are transient and constantly changing and that our true nature is Pure Consciousness, this is the state of Supreme Non-attachment.

There is no higher state and the Self rests in the Self.

The institutional and the informal traditional methods of external renunciation can be seen as manifestations of Nivritti marga. Nivritti marga is the path that leads away from the world and towards the Self or Pure Consciousness. In the internal forms of renunciation one lives in the world yet above, one renounces yet rejoices, “Tena tyak tena” (Renounce and rejoice, Isha Upanishad). This is Purna marga, the complete path where the master attains complete understanding of the laws of the external as well as internal worlds.Such a great one, may be called vairagi, Paramhansa, Maharshi, Jnani, Maharaj, Muni.

This state is indescribable and thus the Upanishads have said of it, “Neti, neti” which means, “Not this, not this”. Such a master, one established in the Self says:

I have no scruple of change, nor fear of death,Nor was I ever born,Nor had I parents. I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute, I am That, I am That. 

I cause no misery, nor am I miserable;I have no enemy, nor am I enemy.I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute,I am That, I am That.

I am without form, without limit,Beyond space, beyond time,I am in everything, everything is in me.I am the bliss of the universe,Everywhere am I.I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute,I am That, I am That,

I am without body or change of the body,I am neither senses, nor object of the senses,I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute,I am That, I am That,

I am neither sin, nor virtue,Nor temple, nor worshipNor pilgrimage, nor books.I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute,I am That, I am That.

(I AM THAT By Swami Rama Tirtha)