Q. Swami, you say that one has to do certain things and not do others. How are we to know which is which? What is the authority?
A. The Shastras [scriptures] are the authority. The Manusmriti [a Hindu scripture] itself declares, for example, that varnas [classes] and ashramas [stages of life] are only for physical purification, and that they do not affect the gain or loss of the highest [self].
Q. If that is so, why should we bother about varna and ashrama, and the rules and regulations binding them?
A. Ah, they are required until you become free from attachment or raga. Until then, the regulations, limits and rules have to be obeyed to the very letter. The medicine has to be taken so long as the illness persists. Each type of illness has a special medicine for cure, and a different diet, and a special regimen. After one is rid of the illness, one can partake of a feast with the rest. Without accepting this, if the well and the ill both demand the same feast, it will lead to calamitous consequences. The varnas and the ashramas are the medicine prescribed for those who suffer from this bhavaroga, the ills of worldliness and worldly attachment. Raga (attachment) is the roga (illness), and roga can disappear only through a strict regimen. Unless you get well, you cannot be liberated. This is the true meaning of Vedanta [Hindu philosophy]; he who knows this, regardless of his ashrama, attains mukti [liberation].
Q. Swami! Have any great souls achieved moksha or liberation while in the grihasta ashram, the householder stage?
A. Janaka, Aswapathi, Dileepa [kings] — these are examples of persons who gained moksha as grihastas [householders].
Q. Swami! Is it not necessary to follow strictly the injunction of the Shruti, which enjoins on man the duty of completing and observing the limitations and regulations of the brahmacharya [celibate] stage, and then the grihastha, and vaanaprastha [seclusion] stages before ultimately taking on sanyasa, the life of full renunciation? Or, can one take sanyasa even without going through the other steps?
A. Yes, whenever one gets detachment from objects, one can take sanyasa. Unless such a chance is seized, man is bound to fall. Whatever may be the stage or ashrama you are in, when you get full renunciation, you can enter upon the sanyasa stage from that very moment. There is no hard-and-fast rule that you must live through the three earlier ashramas or stages. This, too, is the injunction of the Shruti. The reason is: such a pure soul has undergone the training available in the other stages—the purification—in the crucible of life in previous births. His destructive tendencies have been rooted out and the progressive ones, the uplifting ones, have already been developed in the past births.
Q. How are we to know that such transformation has already been earned in the past births?’ Are there any signs by which we can discover that such and such an ashrama or stage can be skipped? If there are, please tell me.
A. The fact that a person has no inclination for the three ashramas, that he has no attachment or attraction toward them is a clear sign. If detachment has developed in the past birth, the inclination will be absent. Since awareness that the atman [self] alone is real has dawned, the person is unattached to the three earlier stages of life. When renunciation has appeared, one can give up worldly life even though the series have to be over-stepped. Shruti approves this. But the person who confers sanyasa must examine fully and convince himself that the person on whom he is conferring it is devoid of sensual impulses and attachments. Sanyasa should be given only to one who has no agitation in the mind, or vrittis as they are called; only such can be said to be unattached. The candidate, too, should examine himself and see whether his inner consciousness is free from the gunas [characteristics], namely the dull, active, or even progressive. If it is not so free, he will not only break the vows of sanyasa and become an outcast, but he may even break down under the burden and meet a calamitous end.
Q. Is sanyasa of one kind or are there different kinds?
A. There are three types of sanyasa. They are dehasanyasa, manosanyasa, and atmasanyasa.
Q. What does dehasanyasa mean?
A. It is sanyasa in appearance of the outer body. He wears the ochre robe, assumes the name, but has no awareness of the atma; he wanders amidst all the objective desires clinging to external things. He is like ordinary men for all intents and purposes.
Q. And manosanyasa?
A. One who adopts the manosanyasa gives up all decisions and desires; he has the mind under strict control; he is not guided by impulses or agitations; and he is ever calm and collected.
Q. You mentioned atmasanyasa as the third.
A. Here, he breaks through all thoughts about things that are unrelated to the atma, for he is ever immersed in the contemplation of the true reality, “Aham Brahmasmi—I am that”. He is steady in the consciousness of his being atma. His ananda [bliss] is continuous, akhanda [unbreakable]. This is called amritasanyasa. Only the light that emanates from the splendid solar orb can destroy the thickest darkness; similarly, without the splendor of atmasanyasa, ignorance cannot be dispersed—the encasements that hide the heart cannot be shattered and the atma cannot shine in its own glory.
Q. How are these types of sanyasas attained? What are the signs that they have been attained?
A. Dehasanyasa is attained by discrimination between the eternal and the temporary, the evanescent and the everlasting. Manosanyasa is reached by conquering the waywardness of speech, senses, and mind. Atmasanyasa is won by filling oneself with the principles of vedantic thought. When these educative influences become strong and you are well established in these virtues and attitudes, then you can get liberated as a result of the combined effect of these stages.
Q. Who among these are really fortunate, their lives being spent in a worthwhile way?
A. Well, he who like the bee sucks in silence and in great bliss the honey in the flower, who is intent on uninterruptedly tasting the nectar of atmic bliss, and, who ignores this world as but a ‘scene’, a drsya; he indeed is the most fortunate; his life is the most worthwhile.
Q. Then, Swami, what is it that is spoken of by the elders as attaining satya, nitya, nirmala, and shanti? How are these— namely truth, indestructibility, purity, and equanimity —to be attained?
A. As I said already, he who does not attach himself to the “scene” but who is engrossed in his own atmic bliss, it is he who attains satya, nitya, nirmala, and shanti. It is enough even if he attains one of them, for one includes all.