Sannyas: A Life of Monastic Consecration
More than one hundred years ago, in July 1915, Paramahansa Yogananda was initiated into India’s ancient swami monastic order when he received the vows of sannyas (renunciation from the world) from his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, in Serampore, India. This event not only marked a turning point in the life of the twenty-two-year-old Mukunda Lal Ghosh — who at that moment became Swami Yogananda Giri — but presaged his influence on the awakening global spirituality of the 20th century and beyond, not least because of the monastic tradition he established as part of his lasting legacy.
The ancient Swami Order to which Paramahansa Yogananda belonged thrives today in Yogoda Satsanga Society of India / Self-Realization Fellowship monastic communities, consisting of monks and nuns from countries all around the world. This monastic order sustains the global growth of YSS/SRF and helps the wider dissemination of yoga among all nations.
In describing the monastic order he founded, Paramahansaji wrote: “For myself, such complete renunciation as a monk of the Swami Order was the only possible answer to the ardent desire in my heart to give my life wholly to God, uncompromised by any worldly tie….
“As a monk, my life has been offered in unreserved service to God and to the spiritual awakening of hearts with His message. For those on the path I have followed who also feel called to complete renunciation in a life of seeking and serving God through the yoga ideals of meditative and dutiful activities, I have perpetuated in the Monastic Order of Self-Realization Fellowship/Yogoda Satsanga Society of India the line of sannyas in the Shankara Order, which I entered when I received the holy vows of a swami from my Guru. The organizational work that God and my Guru and Paramgurus have started through me is carried on…by those who have dedicated their lives to the highest objectives of renunciation and love for God.”
“I Become a Monk of the Swami Order”
By Paramahansa Yogananda
(Extracts from Autobiography of a Yogi)
“Master, my father has been anxious for me to accept an executive position with the Bengal-Nagpur Railway. But I have definitely refused it.” I added hopefully, “Sir, will you not make me a monk of the Swami Order?” I looked pleadingly at my guru [Swami Sri Yukteswar]. During preceding years, in order to test the depth of my determination, he had refused this same request. Today, however, he smiled graciously.
“Very well, tomorrow I will initiate you into swamihood.” He went on quietly, “I am happy that you have persisted in your desire to be a monk. Lahiri Mahasaya often said: ‘If you don’t invite God to be your summer Guest, He won’t come in the winter of your life.’”
“Dear Master, I could never relinquish my wish to belong to the Swami Order like your revered self.” I smiled at him with measureless affection….
To allot the Lord a secondary place in life was, to me, inconceivable. He is the sole Owner of the cosmos, silently showering man with gifts from life to life. There is but one gift man may offer in return—his love, which he is empowered to withhold or bestow….
The following day was one of the most memorable in my life. It was a sunny Thursday, I remember, in July 1915, a few weeks after my graduation from college. On the inner balcony of his Serampore hermitage, Master dipped a new piece of white silk into a dye of ocher, the traditional color of the Swami Order. After the cloth had dried, my guru draped it around me as a renunciant’s robe….
As I knelt before Sri Yukteswar, and for the first time heard him pronounce my new name, my heart overflowed with gratitude. How lovingly and tirelessly had he laboured, that the boy Mukunda be someday transformed into the monk Yogananda! I joyfully sang a few verses from the long Sanskrit chant of Lord Shankara:
Paramahansa Yogananda, with hands upraised, blesses his beloved disciple, James J. Lynn, on whom he had just bestowed sannyas, and the monastic name of Rajarsi Janakananda; SRF-YSS International Headquarters, Los Angeles, August 25, 1951.
Before Paramahansa Yogananda’s passage to America in 1920, other pioneer swamis from India, such as Swami Ram Tirtha and Swami Vivekananda, had briefly visited America and spoken about Yoga and Vedanta in the West. Swami Vivekananda and his brother disciples of the Ramakrishna-Vedanta Society had even initiated a few Westerners into the sannyas life in the late 19th century on an individual basis. But it was Paramahansaji in the 20th century who organized a system of monastic training, succession, and inter-generational propagation in monasteries such as had not been seen before.
Indeed, Paramahansaji’s specific mission of spreading the ancient meditation science of Kriya Yoga in the West and worldwide was integrally related with his historic expansion of the Swami Order in America. The monastic roots of Yogananda’s Kriya Yoga mission go back to the meeting of his guru, Sri Yukteswar, with Mahavatar Babaji, founder of the Kriya Yoga lineage in modern times. Babaji had first ordained Lahiri Mahasaya, a householder and family man, to begin the process of publicly teaching the Kriya science, which had been lost for centuries. Sri Yukteswar, like his guru, Lahiri Mahasaya, was also a householder (though widowed)—up until he met Mahavatar Babaji at a Kumbha Mela in Allahabad in 1894. Sri Yukteswar related that meeting as follows:
“Welcome, Swamiji,” Babaji said affectionately.
“Sir,” I replied emphatically, “I am not a swami.”
“Those on whom I am divinely directed to bestow the title of swami never cast it off.” The saint addressed me simply, but deep conviction of truth rang in his words; I was instantly engulfed in a wave of spiritual blessing.
Babaji told the new swami: “Some years hence I shall send you a disciple whom you can train for yoga dissemination in the West.” That disciple, of course, was Paramahansa Yogananda, as was later confirmed personally by the Mahavatar to Paramahansaji. By making Sri Yukteswar a swami before sending Yogananda to him for training, Babaji thus ensured that the principal transmission of Kriya Yoga in the West and worldwide would be accomplished by consecrated renunciants of India’s ancient monastic tradition.
After the establishment of Self-Realization Fellowship international headquarters in Los Angeles in 1925, Paramahansaji gradually began to accept for training men and women who came with the desire to devote their lives wholly to the search for God. With the arrival of Sri Daya Mata, Sri Gyanamata, and other deeply dedicated early disciples, the hilltop ashram at Mt. Washington became home to a steadily growing family of renunciants, in whom he instilled the spirit and ideals of the monastic life, which he himself had embraced and so perfectly exemplified. The Guru also gave to his closest disciples—those to whom he entrusted the responsibility for the future of his mission—specific guidelines for the dissemination of his teachings and the continuance of the worldwide spiritual and humanitarian work he had begun. Today, that same in-depth spiritual counsel and discipline that he gave to ashram residents during his lifetime are being passed on to new generations of monks and nuns.
Thus, through Paramahansa Yogananda, the ancient monastic Swami Order from India put down deep and lasting roots in America. In addition to initiating qualified Westerners, Paramahansaji modified the orthodox tradition in another way: by giving the same sacred vows of sannyas and positions of spiritual leadership to women as well as to men, an unusual practice for his time. In fact, the first monastic disciple of SRF to whom he gave swami vows was a woman—Sri Daya Mata, who later served as the spiritual head of SRF/YSS for more than half a century.
It was during Sri Daya Mata’s presidency that the senior head of the Swami Order in India—His Holiness the Shankaracharya of Puri, Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha—was the guest of Self-Realization Fellowship during his groundbreaking three-month visit to America in 1958. This was the first time in the history of India that a Shankaracharya (apostolic successor of Adi Shankara, eighth-century reorganizer of the Swami Order) had traveled to the West. The saintly Shankaracharya had a profound regard for Sri Daya Mata, and gave his formal blessing on her further expansion of the Swami Order in SRF ashrams that Paramahansa Yogananda had begun at Babaji’s behest. After returning to India, he stated publicly: “I found in Self-Realization Fellowship the highest spirituality, service, and love. Not only do their representatives preach these principles, but they live according to them.”
Monastics of Yogoda Satsanga Society of India further Paramahansaji’s work by serving in various capacities — including by touring various parts of the country, giving talks at Sharad Sangam, hosting the public at outreach events, doing office work, and counseling seekers on spiritual matters.
Community life in the Yogoda Satsanga Society of India ashrams affords numerous opportunities for joyous fellowship with kindred souls.
Single men who are free of family obligations, and who have a sincere desire to dedicate themselves to finding God and serving Him as a monk in the monastic communities of Yogoda Satsanga Society of India, are invited to contact YSS Headquarters for information.
For those who are interested in learning more about life in YSS ashrams, please visit our Monastic Order page.
“God First, God Always, God Alone”
By Sri Sri Mrinalini Mata
Extracts from remarks by the sanghamata and president of Yogoda Satsanga Society of India / Self-Realization Fellowship to SRF monks and nuns
Dear ones, the past few years have seen such rapid growth of our blessed Guru’s Self-Realization Fellowship [Yogoda Satsanga Society of India]; the work is expanding into a new era. So often we have remembered the words Master spoke many years ago to those of us who had come to dedicate our lives as monastics: “When I have left this body, the organization will be my body, and you all will be my hands and feet, my speech.” What a blessed opportunity, what a tremendously freeing experience is this life of consecration. Each one who wholeheartedly embraces it becomes like a glowing atom of Master’s being; each makes a necessary contribution to the whole, through which Gurudeva’s organization can continue to reach out in his spirit of love divine.
The world has so much lost sight of spiritual standards and morals. Those who choose the monastic path do so in response to the soul’s desire and ability to live a life above those ordinary materialistic norms. Though relatively few may embrace monasticism, those who live that life of disciplined striving help to keep the higher values before the gaze of the many. People do feel something different, special, from the purity of a life given to God alone. Abiding by the vows of simplicity, obedience, chastity, and loyalty, persevering in meditation and humbly trying to improve, make tremendous changes in the devotee. Even the little fleshly frame he lives in becomes recognizably spiritualized. Others cannot say what it is, but they feel from that devotee an aura that somehow uplifts them and speaks to them of God. The humble devotee makes no show of it; indeed, he may not even be aware of it.
There is no greater vocation — no greater success that one can attain, no greater fame in the eyes of eternity — than to dedicate oneself to the spiritual path. That one who succeeds, that one who serves from the soul, in attunement with God and Guru, silently and unbeknownst to himself changes thousands in the world. One day in the presence of God he can look back and say, “Oh, what Divine Mother and Gurudeva did with that little insignificant life!” The growth of Master’s work these many years is because of those in his spiritual family — the monastic community as well as the many devoted householder disciples — who have dedicated their lives toward becoming living examples of Guruji’s teachings and his spirit.
Master is the life and heart of Self-Realization Fellowship [Yogoda Satsanga Society of India]. His spirit is inculcated by our daily life in his ashrams. Master’s monks and nuns learn — in their behavior, in their demeanor, in their thinking, in their entire consciousness, no matter where their duties may take them — always to remember: “I have given myself to an ideal, the same spiritual criterion that lived in my Guru: God first, God always, God alone.” One whose life is truly consecrated to that ideal is someone to whom Guruji reaches out constantly in blessing, someone who becomes a fit instrument he can use to serve others, someone through whose life he can express God-love, God-understanding and caring, the forgiveness of Jesus, the wisdom of Krishna — all of the other godly qualities he manifested so beautifully, so joyously, in his own life. How blessed we are to have the opportunity in these ashrams he founded, not only to work for our own liberation, but in so doing to perpetuate the divine dispensation Gurudeva brought for the liberation of others and the upliftment of humanity.