Is Sanyasa about making a political difference- Reflections on the Baba Ramdev episode

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

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.

Also read:
1. Foreign Funding of Indian NGO’s

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