This is a work that is as interesting as it is informative. It is interesting on account of the several nuances that it is able to reveal pertaining to the Hindu ascetic tradition. Some of the information available here, as the author rightly claims, may be little known to the world outside maths and akhadas; on the other hand, there are also disclosures that might take the unsuspecting reader by surprise. Apparently, the world of Hindu sanyasins (I prefer to stay with this simpler version than the more ornate samnyasins) remains differentiated not only among lines of older ritual or doctrinal differences but also in their handling of modern challenges. As can only be expected, Vaishnav-Vedantins, associated with the spiritual lineages of Ramanuja and Madhva, are visibly separated from the advaitic order of Sankara. What also emerge, however, are deep-seated internal differences even within a sub-tradition (sampradaya) and a significant reversal of traditional roles and functions.
Of late, Udupi maths have been rocked by controversies surrounding key issues like whether or not the head of a math (mathadhish) may travel to foreign lands or whether women are at all to be admitted to sanyas. Swami Visveswara Tirtha, a Madhvite sanyasi who censured a fellow sanaysi (Swami Sugunendra Tirtha) for travelling abroad is himself known to have flouted another longstanding convention accepted by Udupi maths of not initiating women. Interesting too is the way many sampradayas do not quite live up to the roles traditionally ascribed to them. Some of the sanyasis belonging to the Vaishnav orders interviewed by Rukmani have alleged that contrary to their traditional functions, advaita maths in the neighbourhood had more successfully taken to everyday worship of deities and the revival of Vedic ritual acts such as the yajna. Given Acharya Sankara’s penchant for a fully impersonal and transcendental Brahman and his categorical rejection of Vedic ritualism, this is indeed a sharp break with past conventions. It might also interest readers to note that sanyasis belonging to advaitic orders, though generally known for their social conservatism, now appear to have turned decidedly liberal in admitting sanyasinis (female ascetics) in respect of both maths and akhadas. Sankara himself, as is well known, would not allow the study of shruti (canon) to sudras and women only upon which one gained the requisite qualification (adhikara) to sanyas.
Indeed, changes on this front began to occur in modern times but not quite where both our author and her several respondents seem to locate it. Contrary to general perceptions, it was Raja Rammohun Roy and not Swami Vivekananda who first tried to usher in some form of spiritual democracy by upholding the rights of women and sudras to the study of Vedas. By reciting the sacred Gayatri Mantra before women, again in violation of orthodox convention, and in arguing in the manner of a tantric sanyasi that a woman (more specifically, the mother) was most eminently qualified to be a diksha guru (spiritual preceptor) Rammohun Roy defied the tradition of Sankara to which he was otherwise affiliated. Importantly though, rules of sanyas were not progressively liberalized over time. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) does not admit women to sanyas notwithstanding its late origin and roots in the socially liberating Gaudiya Vaishnavism of Chaitanya.
Rukmani’s researches appear to take forward previous works by G.S. Ghurye (1964), Bansidhar Tripathi (1978), David Miller (1976) and (she might have added) Baidyanath Saraswati (1975) but placed within an analytical framework that is not overly academic. The narrative style is consistently lucid and unpretentious and this, I imagine, will make this book more enjoyable for readers who might want to keep away from complex cultural theory and highly classified anthropological data. For the most part, Rukmani lets her subjects speak for themselves, not omitting however, to occasionally embellish their responses by astute comments and observations of her own.
Structurally, this book is made up of four parts: an historical overview of the Hindu ascetic tradition, scholarly perceptions of Hindu sanyasis, interviews with select sanyasis/sanyasinis (based on a questionnaire appended to the book) and a summing up of her findings. At this point I am persuaded to remark that to this she might have added a fifth, however brief or superficial that might have been. Rukmani’s project, as I gather, was officially titled ‘The Samnyasi and Samnya-sashram as based on Sanskrit Texts’. Curiously, it is precisely this component that has gone missing from the work. There are passing references to the Yatidharmasamuccaya of Yadav Prakash and to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad on the qualities of an ideal sanyasi and these, not by the author herself, but her respondents. Assuming that the objectives of our author were really to bring out the palpable differences between prescriptions and practice, even a brief listing of the relevant works and their contents would have been helpful. Two more points relating to methodology are in order. First, this book reproduces transcripts with respect to only 31 respondents as against a total of 55 inter-viewed in all. One would have liked to have known on what grounds selections and eliminations were made. Evidently, this book covers a lot of ground but altogether omits certain traditions, as for instance, Saktaism and Tantra. Second, the interviews themselves go back to 1998-2000 and unless the author can prove to the contrary, one might reason-ably presume that important changes may have occurred in the last decade or so as well.
The historical overview appears somewhat confounding at places. Rukmani finds Vivekananda symptomatic of the Hindu sanyasi as he evolved between the years 1000-1900. This is problematic to say the least. What further adds to the confusion is that this timeframe is succeeded by one that runs between 1885 and1947! As a cultural historian and particularly in the context of Hindu sanyas, I found no special relevance in these dates. Also surprising is the author’s tendency to confuse (p.36,137) Vishishtadvaita, a philosophical sub-tradition within Vedanta, with the organizational category, sampradaya. Technically, she would have been more correct in identifying the Vadakalais and the Tengalais (who philosophically are indeed with Vishishtadvaita) with the Srivaishnava sampraday. Inattention to historical detail may have also clouded our author’s judgment at a few other places. On p.7 Rukmani tells us that the practice of going to an established guru in a reputed ashram for spiritual apprenticeship and initiation began to be widely accepted after Vivekananda. The irony here is that Vivekananda himself does not appear to have performed the same. For one, Dakshineswar, where he met his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, was never an ashram and neither was Ramakrishna himself an established guru at the time. Second, judging even by the official history of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, the initiation of Vivekananda (and several others with him) was both abrupt and accidental. I have often wondered why, notwithstanding their claims to this effect, Swamis of the Ramakrishna Mission do not suffix their names with ‘Puri’, indicating their guru lineage (Ramakrishna’s own guru was a Punjabi Vedantin by the name of Tota Puri) which others of the Dasnami Order (including those listed in the present work) are apt to do. I have to say I have never heard of a Swami Vivekananda Puri! Retrospectively speaking, the importance of Vivekananda in the historical evolution of the modern Hindu sanyasi may probably be said to lie elsewhere. It is important to recall for instance, how the swami was able to constructively combine a humanistic rejection of religious orthodoxy or superstition with the Hindu’s burgeoning cultural pride in his tradition, more so in his trips to the West. Rightly or wrongly, it was Vivekananda who first affirmed the theory that the West, more than India, was in need of spiritual emancipation-a belief that underlies much of the work that the Ramakrishna Mission and other comparable bodies are presently carrying out in the West. Finally, he also appears to have been the first prototype of the modern, English knowing guru to whom a growing Hindu middle class at home and the Hindu diaspora might have been more easily attracted.
In this book Rukmani offers us valuable and insightful reasons as to why the advaitic tradition has been most successful in expanding the world of the Hindu sanyasi. Among the reasons that she lists are the non-sectarian credentials of this tradition, the commonplace perception that Acharya Sankara was the first to organize and institutionalize Hindu sanyas and a demeanour adopted by most advaitins that prima facie looks more socially responsible. Admittedly, it was ethical activism that separated men like Vivekananda from Sankara and helped to modernize the Hindu tradition in ways that silenced Evangelists at home and met with some approval from the West. What I never understood though is why despite deviating sharply from Sankara in many respects, Vivekananda still situated himself in the same spiritual lineage. Unlike Sankara, Vivekananda did not find karma (worldly activity) to be inconsistent with gyana (gnosis), had no qualms in socially mixing with women (and even admitting them to sanyas) and found intuitive experiences (anubhava) more than scriptural knowledge to be the foundation of all spirituality. On the other hand, like Sankara (and his own guru, Sri Ramakrishna) he took sanyas to be the more exalted station in life when compared to grihastha (domesticity). Finally, notwithstanding his consistent emphasis on social service, the Swami also remained a moksha-centric celibate. Especially in his last years, with his social and religious missions producing little or no lasting results, Vivekananda increasingly fell back on his inner self. ‘After all, I am only the boy who used to listen with rapt wonderment to the wonderful words of Ramakrishna’, he wrote on 18th April 1900, ‘….that is my true nature, work and activities, doing good and so forth are superimpositions’.
What I liked most about this book is the candour with which the respondents have spoken their minds. Some have pointed to the sheer greed and avarice (never mind aparigraha!) that has penetrated the world of sanyasis who now have individual bank accounts where money is stealthily stashed away. One Saiva Siddhanta Math, as I recall, admitted to possessing Rs. 80 lakhs in bank deposits. No less revealing is the sense of unease that comes through at times: unease at spending far too much time and effort on social service at the cost of personal sadhana and as one particular swami remarked, at the modern tendency to ‘twist’ the shastras for securing bodily comfort. Notwithstanding the fact that women are now being admitted to sanyas, this institution continues to be gendered in many ways. We are reliably informed that in the case of women, initiation rites are deliberately diluted and simplified. Besides, female sexuality still appears to be a threat to male spiritual quests. Financially and administratively, the Ramakrishna and Sarada Maths stay apart just as in the days of Ramakrishna, male and female devotees would not be seated in the same room. In some other cases, where male gurus and acharyas have declined to directly initiate women into sanyas, women have been forced to collectively adorn the kasya vastra (the ochre robe) and start organizations of their own. Even today, it would appear, sanyasinis are not wholly accepted socially; one respondent notes how in the perceptions of locals, the ochre robe on a woman looks to be more of a fancy dress!
The work under review offers much food for thought and indeed, I would be remiss if I did not admit to have greatly profited from it both intellectually and socially It is also my hope that T.S. Rukmani’s researches will soon prove to be the starting point for many more comparable works.