What are Sannyasi like?

In the last article we talked about the religious people in India who try to liberate themselves from the process of death and rebirth. They try to perform “no action”. To negate Karma. They are known in India as Sannyasi. But, what does it takes to live like this?

You might find it interesting to try to visualize for yourself what somebody like this will look like. I’ve given an abstract description to you of sannyasa. What would it be like to meet a sannyasi on the street and would it be like to try to become a sannyasi for yourself?

Leopold Fischer: An Unexpected Ascetic

The story that I often use to introduce students to this ideal in Indian life is one I think is in some way a little odd. Let’s start with once upon a time, there was a man named Leopold Fischer who was born and grew up in Viena, Austria, before the second world war. He showed an unusual aptitude for Indian languages. I’m sure he must have imagined that this was the result of some previous connection with that great civilization.

Anyway, he came of age during the second world war and joined the Nazi army, the army of the third Reich and he was assigned to the Indian legion, to defend the Normandy beach against the invading ally forces. He was captured with his Indian troops and was “repatriated”. He was sent with his troops to India, even if he never actually lived there. And when he got to India he tried to imagine what to do.

The Beginning of The Path

He went to Benares and tried to find a teacher who would initiate him as a sannyasi. Initially, his attempts to do this were not very successful because people was reluctant to initiate foreigners to this institution and style of life.

But he found finally someone who would do this for him. So the guru took him down to the Ganges, to the bank of the Ganges to the cremation ground, where the bodies are burned on the shore of the river. He asked him to go through a very simple ritual, which involved a ritual death. There was a cremation fire that had been set up for him. He striped off all of his clothes and laid down on the fire and was symbolically cremated to indicate that he no longer was the person that he was.

He rose up from the fire and went to take a bath in the Ganges, came out of the river and was rubbed in a robe of a sannyasi, he was given a begging ball, a new name and was sent off to walk the roads of India as a renunciant and ascetic.

A New Person

His new name was Agehananda Bharati, that means “homeless blessed”. He went on then to have a very distinguished and interesting academic career in India and ended up as a professor of anthropology at Syracuse University.

So, it doesn’t always work as expected. But the story is extraordinarily vivid and shows you something important about the sannyasa in India: that it involves ceasing completely to be the person you were to stop the cycle of transmigration.

Negate Karma

So you could imagine, I suppose, if you wanted to speak about this intellectually, the goal of this form of religious action in India is to negate karma. Simply to stop it.

You can really diminish the number of things you are responsible for in this world and the number of things you do. If you have less possessions, there is less to protect. Less to worry about and be responsible for.

They beg food everyday. Why? Because they don’t want to have to cook. They don’t want to be responsible for that kind of sustenance in their lives. So you try in a quite serious way, to diminish the number of things that you do and that you must do in this world. But in a more fundamental way, to erase the phrase “I produce karma”. To negate the concept that I am performing an action. To negate the “I”. To take the word “I” off the phrase, so it is no longer you who performs the action. It is no longer a you there who is connected in some responsible way to the actions of this world.

That’s what Agehananda Bharati did in that symbolic action by the Ganges when he laid on the cremation fire and was symbolically burned. But that too is a crucial aspect of the Buddhist tradition as well.

Buddhists also are trying to find a way to negate the essence of self that drives the cycle of death rebirth.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

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