Vanaprastha Sanskar and Sanyasa Sanskar

Sankaras are the rites of passage as per the Vedic way of life that are required to be done by the Hindus, from the time of conception of a baby until death. They are 16 in total and each one of them has its own significance, importance and time when it needs to be done.

Vanaprastha Sanskar

The Vanaprastha Sanskar is one of the last rituals of the 16 Sanskars, and means ‘the time when one leaves worldly desires and life and takes up interest for spiritual and religious work to know the real purpose of their soul’. It is one of the fours Ashrama stages of life, and is a part of the Vedic Ashram system.

This ritual starts when a person officially hands over each one of his household responsibilities to his/her next generation, and withdraws themselves from the worldly matters. They then follow their spiritual instincts and decide to living their life as an ascetic. This phase is thereby considered as a transitional phase and lays emphasis on greater purposes of life, like attaining Moksha or Spiritual Liberation or detachment from worldly desires.

'Vana' means ‘foreign land’ or ‘distant land’ and 'prastha' means ‘going to, or journeying to’, thus ‘Vanaprastha’ meaning 'retiring to the forest'. Hindu traditions respected freedom and personal choice, and this was a recommended Sanskar for all those who wanted to follow it and continue likewise in their lives, and renounce all materialistic pursuits to attain spiritual pursuits.

Sanyasa Sanskar

Among the 16 Sanskars, the Sanyasa Sanskar is one such Sanskar which is actually not just a ritual or celebration, but is a stage in life that is known as ‘renunciation’. It falls within the Hindu philosophy of four age-based life stages known as Ashrams, with Brahmacharya (bachelor student life), Grihastha (householder family life), and Vanaprastha (forest dweller or retired), as the first three, and Sanyasa being the last.

Sanyasa is traditionally conceptualized for both men and women for their later years, but even then young Brahmacharyas have always had a choice to skip the housel holder and retirement stages and to renounce the worldly and materialistic pursuits and dedicate their lives to spiritual pursuits.

What is the Sanyasa stage?

The Sanyasa stage in life is represented by a state of disinterest and detachment from material life, and gives the one who goes through it the experience of spending life in a very simple, yet peaceful, love-inspired, and spiritual way of life. An individual who is in Sanyasa, is known as a Sanyasi if he is a male, and a Sanyasini, if she is a female. They are in many ways parallel to a Sadhu and Sadhvi, or Monks, and nuns, etc.

Apart from being a stage of renunciation, Sanyasa has always been a believer of ahimsa (non-violence), and in the pursuit of a simple spiritual life based on Indian Vedic traditions. Sanyasa is a form of ascetism, wherein one avoids every kind of self-indulgence prevalent in the materialistic world, and follows a strict life of self-discipline, for religious or spiritual reasons.

In Sanskrit, the word Sanyasa means "Purification of everything". And if we to literally translate the meaning, it would be, "to put down everything, all of it."

When can a person renounce and take Sanyasa?

According to the Vedic traditions, anyone who has finished Brahmacharya (student life) life stage may become an ascetic immediately, and take up the Sanyasa life. Any childless couple may enter Sanyasa stage of life anytime they wish to, even a widower might choose Sanyasa if desired, no matter the age. But in general, Sanyasa is suited after the completion of age 70, and after one’s children have settled down well in their lives. So, as per the ancient texts the age of 75 is regarded as being appropriate for going for the Sanyasa stage in life. Manusmriti describes the ashrams as the sequential stages that would allow one to pass on from Vedic studentship or Brahmacharya, to the householder or forest-dwelling hermit, to becoming a renouncer.

Who all can be renounce?

The people following the Vedic tradition have been categorized into different Varnas or castes. These depicted the class of the person, and which category he belonged to. Which of the Varnas may, or may not renounce, is never blatantly stated in the medieval Vedic literature, yet the modern Dharmasastras and texts discuss much about renunciation, and it being followed by dvija (twice-born) men. However, many such texts also document people, both men and women, entering Sanyasa and practicing it will all its sanctity.

Renunciation in Daily Life in this modern world

Indian literature debates whether the benefit of renunciation, liberation and moksha, can be achieved without asceticism, and Bhagavad Gita even has examples for the same. They believe that various alternate forms of yoga and the yogic discipline could also be the right way towards spirituality and ultimately would help one reach Moksha.

With time, four paths which emerged towards liberation and spirituality, emerged in Hinduism, and they were known as Jñana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga and Raja yoga. These four yogas have different meanings and principles, like for eg., Karma yoga is considered detachment in life that is very similar to life, and it preaches acting without greed or craving for results. It means in the greater sense that Karma yoga is not what one does, but also how one does it that should be taken into consideration. One can then become liberated if he knows what he is doing and whatever it might be. Just the need to sop having any attachment with the results while doing his/her Karma is what is should be kept in mind, and to do it to the best of ability.