Monday Morning Greetings 2022 #51 – Has the Sannyāsa Āśrama become Obsolete?

December 19th, 2022

There used to be a framed photograph on the wall on the temple side of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s house just to the right of his bed that I always found intriguing. It was an arranged portrait of Śrīla Prabhupāda standing in front of the Krishna-Balarama Mandir with most of his sannyāsis, a couple of dozen or more at the time. I seem to remember the picture had been there during Śrīla Prabhupāda’s time.[1] One day in the early eighties I walked into his room, and it was gone. I was a bit disturbed. Who has the right to take down a picture that was there during the life of Śrīla Prabhupāda? Then I realized why. If you study that picture carefully almost every one of those sannyāsis couldn’t maintain their vows of celibacy and left. Perhaps it was taken down out of personal embarrassment by one of those fallen sannyāsis who was still around, or maybe a loyal disciple just felt it didn’t look good for Śrīla Prabhupāda’s legacy. Even Śrīla Prabhupāda admitted that his experiment of giving young men sannyāsa did not fare well.


“My godbrothers criticized me for many things, but one thing they were right about, that I gave young men sannyāsa.” He then described in terms of a Bengali proverb his dilemma of needing to establish the sannyāsa āśrama but having a paucity of candidates who were qualified: “But what could I do? When there are no trees in the forest, the castor oil tree looks big.”[2]


Śrīla Prabhupāda needed to form an institution to carry out his mission and to maintain his legacy, which required a hierarchical corporate structure. For managing and guiding ISKCON he formed a governing body commission, more well-known by its acronym “GBC”. In order to help inspire the preaching mission and to maintain the spiritual standards of his society, following in the footsteps of his own guru maharaja, he also gave sannyāsa to his leading preachers, an order in society meant to serve as the spiritual authority of all other āśramas. And as he started his mission at the age of seventy, there was also an intense urgency in everything he did, including creating the organizational structure of his mission. What choice did he have but to appoint young and inexperienced men as its leaders?


But the more pressing question is about the present necessity of maintaining a sannyāsa āśrama, especially as its integrity seems more under question than ever before. Still, cases seem to arise almost yearly of a sannyāsi either not being able to follow his vows of celibacy or setting an inappropriate example of renunciation. When leaders falter, the discussions of a spiritual society tend to veer from the beauty of God to the people who misrepresent Him, and what follows is a significant social disturbance as predicted.[3] It is no wonder that the legitimacy of an āśrama of committed life-long celibates in today’s world is questioned.


Besides these obvious challenges to the viability of maintaining the purity of the sannyāsa order, and the devastating result when one of its members falters, there is another doubt that arises about its relevance today. The influence of the sannyāsa āśrama is predicated on the fact that the society it serves understands and respects its role. When Śrīla Prabhupāda was here that was not a problem. The Hare Krishna movement was directly under the jurisdiction of ISKCON through its local centers, so the order of sannyāsa was within a society where people were trained to honor it. In contrast today, the Hare Krishna community, at least in the first world,[4] is increasingly outside the jurisdiction of the temples, where sannyāsa, in and of itself, has little societal relevance or influence.[5] And as the devotee community and the greater community for outreach is composed mostly of people, who by their culture, practice little restraint in the social interaction between men and women, and a majority in fact seem to be women, one must question if a spiritually advanced married person[6] is better suited for the service of preaching and intimately guiding those people.


Kripamoya das, in his book The Guru and Disciple Book,[7] coined the phrase “saffron cardinals” to invoke some discussion concerning sannyāsis in ISKCON taking up the position of guru. It is not difficult to see why. As sannyāsis were the natural leaders of ISKCON during the time of Śrīla Prabhupāda, they naturally also took up the leading roles in managing his society, and when Śrīla Prabhupāda left the world, they also took up the service of initiating disciples. With those responsibilities naturally came a substantial number of followers and resources, which makes it challenging to lead a renounced life. Although it is understandable that when a sannyāsi assumes that level of responsibility he needs more material facility than a traditional sannyāsi, he still runs the risk of living more like a Prince of the Church,[8] than a simple monk who inspires renunciation. And that’s where the problem lies.


In varṇāśrama, the recommended social structure of India described in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, the purpose of the sannyāsa āśrama was to inspire the populace in the direction of a simple and spiritual life by the power of their example as renunciates. If they fail to set that example, however, the spiritual growth of society will be stunted. Even worse, anyone who veers from their duty, and especially a sannyāsi, will impede their own spiritual development. Although a man who enters household life has allowance to enjoy material facility, he also had the austerity of a wife and family to become purified, but if a sannyāsi lives excessively, then what means do they have to be further cleansed of attachments?


My post here is not a definitive thesis of this subject. It is just meant as a part of the discussion of an obvious problem[9]—the serious disturbance in society suffered when those with the responsibility of setting the example of renunciation either falter or set a bad example. Because of the limited scope of my weekly posts, certain points must be briefly clarified about sannyāsa before I end this particular post.


I am not discounting that, whether renunciation is adopted in a formal manner or not, there is an obvious time in life where one needs to become completely detached from family life. My article also doesn’t discount that despite the risk of taking sannyāsa, it affords one a great facility to dedicate oneself to God unencumbered by social and economic restraints. I am also not minimizing the very substantial things accomplished in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mission by those who have made a commitment to the renounced order of life, even the ones who have later faltered in their vows. Likewise, I can’t help but honor the honest renunciates who, at tremendous sacrifice, continue to push on in the mission of Śrī Caitanya today, even if some by dint of their service, nature, health, or age they may require a little more facility than is traditionally prescribed.[10] Finally, it is my opinion that those souls who are exemplars of a simple and renounced life are still a much-needed inspiration in society.



I was inspired by remembrance of a picture in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s room with his sannyāsa disciples to write something on the status of the sannyāsa āśrama today, especially as it is an issue that seems to be on people’s minds. I have far from exhausted the discussion on this subject. I have shared my thoughts, and I welcome yours.[11]



[1] I really can’t exactly remember the time frame of when I saw the picture. To the best of my memory, it was there during the time of Śrīla Prabhupāda, especially since they try to preserve the room as it was during his presence, and people don’t add pictures whimsically or take them down.

[2] https://vaniquotes.org/wiki/Castor_tree_and_oil

[3] śruti-smṛti-purāṇādi-
pañcarātra-vidhiṁ vinā
aikāntikī harer bhaktir
utpātāyaiva kalpate

“Devotional service of the Lord that ignores the authorized Vedic literatures like the Upaniṣads, Puranas and Nārada-pañcarātra is simply an unnecessary disturbance in society.” (Brs. 1.2.101, from Brahma-yāmala)

[4] I am well aware that I am writing mostly from my experience preaching in North America and that the relevance of sannyāsa in the today’s world may vary from country to country, or even from institution to institution.

[5] When we grew up in ISKCON we understood the traditional system to be that at age fifty a person takes sannyāsa. I think that is very much a thing of the past. I think many mature devotees have analyzed the situation for themselves and no longer see the benefit in terms of their practice of Krishna consciousness and their service as preachers to take sannyāsa, even if they are qualified in terms of renunciation, and that includes even some older and renounced brahmacārīs (celibate students).

[6] Older married couples can also be in the vānaprastha āśrama where they preach together but detached from family life. Another reason why staying married rather than taking sannyāsa may be preferred for the preacher is that people outside can identify more with people who are in a similar āśrama to themselves, and often the woman is a powerful preacher herself.

[7] https://www.amazon.com/Guru-Disciple-Book-Kripamoya-Das-ebook/dp/B08G9ZZ114/

[8] “Cardinals in the Catholic Church” also are referred to as “Prince of the Church” because of their almost royal status. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_of_the_Church

[9] In all fairness this has been an ongoing discussion in ISKCON, and sannyāsis are now carefully vetted, and especially young men are not given sannyāsa.

[10]I can’t locate the particular verse and purport as of this writing, but I had read a long time ago in one of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purports where he comments that we can’t be sannyāsis like days of yore, but we should avoid social intercourse. I took it to mean we can’t perform the rigid austerities of the days of yore, but we must be vigilant to remain aloof in ordinary mundane social dealings. I can’t find that verse now. I think the bottom line now, however, and I am thinking for myself as I am writing this, that those who are sannyāsis need to be more vigilant and set a better example.

[11] I welcome hearing your thoughts on the matter if you have anything that can add to the discussion. You can write me here.


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