Some time ago, a sannyāsī who could not maintain his vows of renunciation wrote an apologetic letter on the internet addressed to his disciples and friends wherein he explained the numerous reasons why he could not continue in the renounced order of life.
In order to excuse his weakness, the apologetic sannyāsī quoted a verse from the Brahma-vaivarta Purāṇa to substantiate his opinion that sannyāsa is not meant for the people of Kali-Yuga.
aśvamedhaṁ gavālambhaṁ sannyāsaṁ pala-paitṛkam
devareṇa sutotpattiṁ kalau pañca vivarjayet
“Five things are forbidden in the age of Kali – horse-sacrifice, cow-sacrifice, acceptance of sannyāsa, offering flesh to the forefathers and begetting a child in the womb of the wife of one’s elder brother.” (Brahma-vaivarta Purāṇa, Kṛṣṇa-janma Khaṇḍa 185.180).
Regrettably, by quoting this verse from the Brahma-vaivarta Purāṇa as evidence that the sannyāsa-āśrama is ineffective in Kali-yuga, this former sannyāsī has inferred that his own spiritual master, Śrīla Prabhupāda, as well as his parama-guru, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura and all other great ācāryas like Śrī Rāmānuja and Śrī Madhva were misguided or even foolish for having accepted sannyāsa and having awarded sannyāsa to their disciples in Kali-yuga.
The now retired sannyāsī has unwittingly fallen into the clutches of the anti-devotional parties who use this very same argument against Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura and his pure representatives. The anti-devotional parties argue that in the Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Śrī Caitanyadeva Himself quotes this verse indicating that even if one has the qualities of a sannyāsī, it is not recommended in the age of Kali.
However, this verse was quoted by the Lord in connection with cow killing during his conversation with the Chand Kazi, and not in connection with sannyāsa. Furthermore, soon after His dialogue with the Kazi, Mahāprabhu traveled to Katwa in order to take sannyāsa Himself from Śrī Keśava Bhāratī. We also find that when Mahāprabhu resided in Puruṣottama-dhāma, many of His close associates were sannyāsīs. Śrī Svarūpa Dāmodara, Paramānanda Purī, Raṅga Purī, Viṣṇu Purī, Brahmānanda Bhāratī, Keśava Purī, Govinda Purī, Sukhānanda Purī, Brahmānanda Purī, Nṛsiṅgha Purī, Nṛsiṅgha Tīrtha and others were all in the renounced order of life. Mahāprabhu’s own dīkṣā-guru, Śrīpāda Īśvara Purī Gosvāmī, was also a sannyāsī – so how could Mahāprabhu possibly be against the acceptance of sannyāsa in Kali-yuga?
In the book, The Golden Staircase, Śrīla Śrīdhara Deva Gosvāmī Mahārāja explains what type of sannyāsa has been forbidden in this present age:
“The answer is explained in Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta. This is a general question not only for the Gauḍīya sampradāya, but also for the followers of Rāmānuja, Madhvācārya, and even Śaṅkarācārya. The Buddhists may not care for the directions of the Purāṇas, but the Sankara school and the Vaiṣṇava schools accept sannyāsa. Śaṅkara was a sannyāsī and, for the most part, his successors were all sannyāsīs as well. This is true of Rāmānuja also, Madhvācārya, and the Viṣṇusvāmī sampradāya also.
The interpretation is this: in this present age, sannyāsa in the strict sense of karma-sannyāsa is forbidden. Karma-sannyāsa means that you leave everything, and that type of sannyāsa is not possible in this present age. It is described in the śāstras that in Satya-yuga, as long as a man’s bones exist, that is how long he will live. Along with the longevity of the bones, the life will be there. In Treta-yuga, life may be maintained by the nervous system; but it is stated that in kali-yuga ‘kalāv-anna-gatāḥ prāṇaḥ’ – one’s longevity depends on food. Therefore sannyāsa in the strict sense is not possible in Kali-yuga.
Previously, Vālmīki was engaged in tapasya for so many years that the insects captured his whole body and reduced his flesh into earth, yet he remained present within his bones. Then later, by the help of some spiritual miracle his whole body was restored. But in this present age, without food it is not possible to live. All penances have been especially adjusted for Kali-yuga, and the only continuous fast allowed in this present age is for twenty-four hours – not more than that. In other ages, at least twelve days fasting was generally done. If a person had done anything wrong, then according to the smṛti-śāstra, twelve days fasting was the standard punishment for any sins. But in Kali-yuga, twenty-four hours fasting is the maximum because without food a man cannot survive.
If he were to take karma-sannyāsa while being so extremely dependent on material giving and taking, then he wouldn’t be able to maintain his existence. But the life of Vaiṣṇava tridaṇḍi-sannyāsa, which is not very extreme – take prasādam, do service – is a sort of modified form based on yuktāhara vihāras ca, and one living according to this principle can take sannyāsa.
Mahāprabhu took sannyāsa, Śaṅkarācārya, Rāmānuja – all the pioneers of the different sampradāyas took sannyāsa. That has been interpreted as karma-sannyāsa, but still, sannyāsa is of several kinds. There is also vidvat-sannaysa, which is considered by the salvationist section to be the highest. Their idea is that when one has fully realized that his connection with this material realm is a negative one, he will finish his material encasement and enter into the spiritual sphere. When he is fully established in this firm consciousness that ‘my connection with the material world will be injurious to me,’ he will then relinquish his body and go away to the spiritual sky. That is vidvat-sannyāsa.
There is also narottama-sannyāsa:
yaḥ svakāt parato veha jāta-nirveda ātmavān
hṛdi kṛtvā hariṁ geyāt pravrajet sa narottamaḥ
In the narottama system of sannyāsa, one has realised the presence of or existence of God within his heart, and thinking of Him, he leaves his present engagement and duties of the household and remains outside, anywhere and everywhere – under a tree or in a cave or wherever – careless of his physical needs. He does not immediately relinquish his body, but he takes whatever food he gets and when he does not get any food he fasts, and in this way he goes on. He leaves his household for good; that is narotttama-sannyāsa.
And there are also different stages of sannyāsa mentioned in the śāstra – kuṭīcaka, bahūdaka, haṁsa and paramahaṁsa progressively. But tridaṇḍi-sannyāsa is when the sannyāsī engages himself in the service of Godhead by spreading His message and doing some good to the public, and that characteristic is different. It is categorically different. The tridaṇḍi-sannyāsī is not adopting an attitude or tactic of leaving all the engagements of this world as a result of becoming disgusted with its many temptations. Rather, he is engaging himself in the higher duty of the upper world through an agent, so his body has got utility. Remaining here, maintaining connection here, he is drawing some higher thing from above and distributing that in the environment. That is another conception of sannyāsa, and it has positive value.
This is a similar engagement to that performed by the Lord’s closest associates. When an incarnation of God comes down, His favourite pārṣadas, His friends and servitors, are also sent by Him to come down to do some service to help Him. There are also sub-agents who have received some engagement from the higher agent, and by moving within this world in that capacity, they can earn more spiritual wealth than those who are very eager to disconnect completely from this material plane. They want to try to utilise their connection with this mundane plane to earn some substantial wealth of the upper house. So like the Lord’s pārṣadas, the tridaṇḍi-sannyāsīs want to work as God’s agents.”
Although members of the anti-devotional parties and their unwitting dupes attempt to condemn the sannyāsa-āśrama by using the aforementioned verse from the Brahma-vaivarta Purāṇa, the following verse from the same Purāṇa has conveniently escaped their attention.
daṇḍam kamandaluṁ rakta-vastram mātrañca dhārayet
nityaṁ pravāsī naikatra sa sannyāsīti kīrtitahḥ
“A sannyāsī accepts only a daṇḍa, water-pot, and saffron-cloth and resides near a village – this is the wealth of the sannyāsa āśrama.”(Brahma-vaivarta Purāṇa 2.36.9)
In fact, throughout the vast body of Vedic literature, only one verse can be found wherein the sannyāsa order is apparently forbidden in the age of Kali. In all the other śāstras that were written for the people of this present age a man is repeatedly urged to take up sannyāsa.
brahmacārī gṛhastho vāmrtadaro vanecaraḥ
jñātvā samyak param-brahma tyaktvā saṅgan-parivrajet
“After he has come to understand the nature of the Supreme, a student, a householder, or a forest-hermit should become detached and become a wandering mendicant.” (Smṛti-śāstra)
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura desired to reinstitute the system of daivi-varṇāśrama and with this in mind took up the tridaṇḍa of a sannyāsī to preach the sublime message of Śrī Caitanydeva all over the world. It is bewildering that one can claim to be a follower of Śrīla A.C. Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Prabhupāda, in the line of Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura and in the same breath imply that sannyāsa has no value in today’s society!
Indeed, it is lamentable that in this age many men have taken up the garb of renunciation and later discarded it to enter family life. What is even more unfortunate is that when such persons cannot admit that the fault lies with themselves, they instead vilify the sannyāsa-āśrama as being impractical, useless, or even dangerous in Kali-yuga. Such a ‘sour-grapes’ philosophy betrays a significant lack of faith in Śrī Guru, the sāttvika-śāstras, the Vaiṣṇavas and Śrī Caitanyadeva who has Himself accepted the sannyāsa-āśrama in the age of Kali.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura accepted sannyāsa for the purpose of preaching Kṛṣṇa consciousness all over the world and he passed that on to his disciples, who in turn passed that on to their godbrothers and disciples, who in turn passed that on to their disciples, and who in turn passed that on to their disciples. Therefore the conclusion is that if a man wants to preach Kṛṣṇa consciousness and serve his Gurudeva with all his energy, then he should certainly take sannyāsa. This is called sādhu-vṛtti – following in the footsteps of great ācāryas.