Tridandi Sannyasi – None other than Lord Narayana


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The ascetic is a symbol of holy life, who rises above that of the householder (grihasta) and leads a life conforming to the rules laid down in the sastra-s

In the Srivaishnava tradition, the Sanyasa asrama (the other three being brahmacharya, grihasta & vanaprasta) is considered as a very exalted stage of one’s life and is assigned to the later part of one’s life. It has been sanctified by Sri Yamuna, Sri Ramanuja and so on. It is said that there were over 700 Sannyasis in Ramanuja’s entourage. Ramanuja was so zealous to uphold the ideals of this asrama that he commissioned his disciple (former Advaita preceptor) Yadavaprakasa to write out a treatise on this subject called the Yatidharmasamucchaya.

The ascetic is a symbol of holy life, who rises above that of the householder (grihasta) and leads a life conforming to the rules laid down in the sastra-s. Sage Yagnavalkya states that the difference between a Sannyasi and a grihasta is comparable to the difference between the resplendent sun and the fire-fly; the difference between the huge Mt.Meru and the minute mustard seed:

Soovya Kadyotayor yadvat meru sarshapayor yatha |
Antaram hi mahaadrishtam tatba biksbup’hastayoh ||

He is a sarvasangaparityaagi i.e. he abandons all earthly possessions father, mother, wife, son, daughter, house, riches etc. It is a total secession from domestic life followed by certain purificatory ceremonies as laid down in the sacred texts. Thereafter he becomes a bhikshu (beggar) living purely on alms, a parivrajaka (itinerant) wandering around homeless. He is given to severe austerities and self-mortification and is concerned principally with restraint of senses and contemplation of the highest reality- Brahman.

The Lord Himself has declared in the sraadhaprakarana of the Mahabharata thus:

Yatra bhikshuraham tatra tam cha maam viddhipandava |

‘Wherever you see a Sannyasi Oh Pandava! Know him to be myself’. Through this we come to know that the Sannyasi (ascetic) is of the nature of Lord Vishnu. Sage Dattatreya reiterates this:

Trihndi roopavat viprah saakshaat narayanaatmakah
Yastu Dooiavate bhaktvaa vishnus tena prapoojitha |

Dve roopa vaasudevasya chalam cha achalameva cha
Chalam samnyaasinaam roopam achalam pratimaadikam ||

‘A tridandi Sannyasi is none other than Lord Narayana and one who worships a Sannyasi is actually worshipping Lord Vishnu Himself. Lord Vasudeva has two forms one moving and the other fixed. The moving form is the Sannyasi and the fixed form is the archa-vigraha form (archa roopa) as worshipped in the temples.’

The Srivaishnava ascetics fall into four groups namely Kutichaka, Bahuduka, Hamsa and Paramahamsa, each latter one being superior to the previous one. The Yatilingasamarthana of Vatsya Varadacharya describes in detail the characteristics, qualifications and duties of the four classes of Srivaishnava ascetics. Sannyasa is to be resorted to in the Uttarayana when the sun is in its northward course. The intendant has to find an ascetic possessed of the virtue of quiescence. He should observe him and note for three months the duties of an ascetic. He should purify himself with the chanting (japa) of the sacred Gayatri mantra and should perform sacrifice to Prajapati. Sage Harita states:

Tridandam vainavam soumyam satvacham samaparvakam |
Veshtitham krishnagovaaLarajjvaa tu chaturanguhm ||

‘An ascetic should take three staves of bamboo and tie them together with a rope made of the hair of the cow’s tail, four angulas in length.’

‘A tridandi according to Manu is one who has restraint over his speech, mind and body and does not imply mere physical appearance of carrying a tridanda. ’

Vaag dando atha manodandah kaayadandas tathaiva cha |
Yasyaithe nihitaa buddhau tridanditi cha uchyate ||

‘A Sannyasi should always possess the following five things; yajnopavita (sacred thread), tridanda (holy staff), jalapavitra kaupina and kati vastra (the covering cloth)’.

Upavitam triddndamcha paatram jalavitrakam |
Kaupinam kativasram cha na tyaajyam yaavdaayusham ||

‘The tridanda itself is vishnuroopa and has to be carried always’.

Vishnuroopam tridandaakhyam sarvathaa dhaarayet yatih|

Says the Yatilingasamarthana.

A Panchratra text, Tattvasaagara Samhita lays down that the tridanda should be mentally divided into five parts and that the five vyuha forms of the Lord Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna, Aniruddha and finally Lord Narayana are integrated into these five parts: paramesbyaatma, purusbautma, visvaatma, nivrittyaatma and sarvaatma are respectively their attributes.

Tridandasyaagrabaagam tu samsmaret parameshthinam
Dvitteeyam puurushaatmaanam Vishvaatmaanam tu Madhyamam |

Turyam nivruttipurusham Sarvaatmaanam tu Panchamam
Tridandam Samudaayena Vishnuroopam Smaredyatih: ||

The ascetic should meditate on these five forms of Lord Vishnu and whenever the tridanda is placed down a mantra is uttered “Oh ground! May you become the sanctified place for this tridanda which envisages Lord Vishnu’s form”. Hence whenever the tridandd is carried the following mantra is uttered sakha me gopaaya’. ‘Friend, protect me’. Can a mere achetana (inanimate) bamboo tridanda afford protection? Obviously no. It is the vishnusvaroopa (Lord) within it that protects. The shika (tuft) and yagnopavita (sacred thread) are essential for the Srivaishnava ascetics.

A Sanyasi has to form saucha(purifactory rites) like brushing teeth, taking bath etc like a grihasta(householder) but three or four times as much. He is to beg for his food and should eat only once a day and a specific quantity. He should eat food not to satisfy himself but for his sustenance. He should bow to God and other elder ascetics of his order but he should not pay obeisance to a householder however exalted he maybe. The ascetic is not to utter any benediction when a person bows to him, but should only utter the name of Lord Narayana.

A tridandi according to Manu is one who has restraint over his speech, mind and body and does not imply mere physical appearance of carrying tridanda.

Samskrutdam ina vadet vaneem baalavat mookavat charet ||

‘He should not mingle freely and should not speak in a flowery language that will attract people. He has to behave like a child, a dumb person’.

When a Sannyasi dies he is to be buried in a pit and covered with salt. No mourning is to be observed and no ceremonies (sraaddha-s) are to be performed except paarvana on the eleventh day.

The pontifical head (Mathadipati) is primarily an ascetic (yati) and in addition he is expected to perform administrative and social duties too. He has to perform five purificatory acts (pancha samskaara) for his disciples, receive acts of total surrender (bharanyaasa) from whomsoever so desires, propagate Sri Ramanuja’s philosophy by giving discourses and by holding meetings of learned scholars (vidvat sadas). Hence even though an ascetic should not acquire wealth, for the sake of the Math the spiritual leader is empowered to raise funds says the Parasara samhita.

Maathapatyam yatih kuryaat Vishnu Dharmaabhivriddhaye Vishnor
Nityotsavaarthaya Vedaantasthapnaya cha|
Anyathaa yaha karotyevyam saha yaati narakam dhruvam||

So the rules are very strict; the pontifical head should nurture vaishnava dharma, conduct daily worship of the Lord, expound, establish and elaborate upon the Vedanta-s through discourses.

The four-month vow (chaaturmaasya vrata) has to be performed annually. This vow starts on aashaada poornima day. The rainy season is supposed to start from this month. As the roads and terrain will be infested with insects, worms etc at this time, the ascetic may incur the sin of killing these during his tours. Hence, it is ordained that the Sannyasi should reside in one place during this season. This vow is very essential for pontifical heads and hence it is termed as the sankalpa mahotsava:

Praayena praavrishi samkulam vartma drishyate|
Athsteshaam ahumsaartham pakshaan vai sruthi samsrrayan|
Sthaasyaamah chaturo maasaan atraivaasat baadhake||

In the Vedas it is said that that a month can be considered to be a fortnight (paksha) and hence nowadays the sankalpa is observed for four fortnights only. This vow begin with vishvaksena aradhana and then bhuvaraaha aaradhana, followed by prayers offered to Mother Earth requesting Her for forgiveness for digging the mud. This is collected for bath and other purificatory rites during this period and is termed mristangrahanam. From the mud thus collected two big balls are offered to the ascetic reciting a mantra and then they should be taken back from him reciting another mantra saying- ‘May this mud protect me’. Then as formulated for the ascetics after kshaura, mahanadi snaana and maadhyaanika duties and after worshipping their presiding deity and acharya-s, worship should be done with kumbha and chantings of pancha shantimantra and then the holy water should be sprinkled. Then the house holders who have assembled in large numbers should request the ascetic who has performed the chaaturmaasya sankalpa vrata thus:

Nivasantu sukhenaatra gamishyaamaha krutaarthatam|
Yathaa sakthi cha sushrooshaam karishyamo vayam mudaa||

‘Thou shall reside comfortably in this place. We are grateful to you and on our part we will serve you happily’. Thus saying, coconuts should be offered to the Sannyasi.

After these preliminary rites, worship of the Lord should be performed by the ascetic. During the concluding function, after four pakshas have elapsed after the ascetic’s bath and daily duties, the remaining mud should be mixed with water and disposed off.

The jiyar-s of Sri Ahobila Math belong to theparama hamsa category and are carrying on this holy sannyasa tradition with great fervor, dedication and enthusiasm.


SrI Nrisimha Priya

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