The Stages of Life (Part 4)

Sanyas, the fourth stage of life, is a very unique one. This is a stage of final accomplishment, and ultimate fulfilment.

The first stage (brahmacharya – student life) is a preparation for the second stage (grahasthya – social life). The second stage leads to the third stage (vanaprashtha – retirement). Our role changes from stage to stage; yet there is continuity. The three stages are interrelated. The fourth stage, however, “Can” stand by itself.

First, the literal meaning of the word: Sanyas has been translated as the renunciation of all conventions, or paths (nyasa). And attaching, adding or integrating (sam) oneself with/to the path of negation, putting down or letting go (ni asa).

It is the total and complete freedom from all kinds of conditionings, credos, dogmas and doctrines. It is the taking of full charge and responsibility of one’s life.

Traditionally, this fourth stage of life happens after retirement (vanaprastha). And one may or may not pursue it. There is no compulsion whatsoever. For those who would like to pursue it, however, sanyas calls for the total detachment from the world, worldly things, worldly way of life (vanaprastha or “entering the forest” is still part of the worldly way of life), spouse, children, family, friends, house, hut, fixed place to stay and so on.

The great scholar Manu (8000 BC) speaks highly of this stage. At the same time, he also warns that one should fulfil all the obligations in the first three stages of life before entering this fourth stage.

Latter-day scholars and thinkers, however, differ from Manu in their understanding of sanyas. The first three stages of life, they argue, are more physical in nature, whereas this fourth stage is more mental in nature. As such, it can actually happen anytime. If it happens in the first stage of one’s life, then one can skip the second and the third stages and straightaway enter the fourth.

Manu, the great man of law of letters, seems to have foreseen such arguments. He was not in favour of skipping any of the four stages. He defended his stand by pointing out that it was given to the grahasthi (those who are in the second stage of life) to take care of the economy and social wellbeing. Therefore, the decrease in their number could affect the social infrastructure, and cause it to collapse.

He was right, but perhaps a bit too cautious. Not too many people are prepared to make the jump from the first to the fourth stage of life without experiencing the second and third stages.

A new definition of Sanyas is given by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (3000 BC). “True sanyas,” according to him, “is not detaching oneself from action, but from the fruits of action.” He defines sanyasi as one who is engaged in the affairs of the world, albeit with a detached spirit.

Now, detachment is not the same as indifferent. Being detached is not being indifferent. A sanyasi is not indifferent toward the affairs of this world. He/she is engaged in all such affairs befitting his/her role, but works with a detached spirit.

I remember reading somewhere that a renowned Japanese surgeon with a brilliant track record, who had saved thousands of lives, could not save the life of his own grandson. He admitted that the boy had not died due to any complication, but because his hands had wavered while performing the surgery on him. It was a simple surgery. The surgeon could not live with the sense of guilt. He committed suicide after leaving behind a note admitting his mistake.

What was the reason of his earlier success while operating on others, and his failure while operating on his own grandson?

A surgeon performing an operation on someone unknown, a stranger, does so with a detached spirit. He does his best without thinking of the end result. All his energies are focused upon what he is doing. The mind is not distracted, and this is the secret of his success.

However, when the same surgeon performs an operation on someone who is known to him, moreover a family member, then the mind is distracted. Clouds of doubts blur the vision. There is an anxiety about, and attachment to, the end result. The hands waver, and a single mistake made could be fatal, as in the above case.

You do not have to leave your profession, withdraw from the world, renounce your family and wander as a monk to become a sanyasi. You can continue with your profession, remain in the world, take care of your family and yet become a sanyasi in your head, in your mind, in your heart and in your soul.

There is, indeed, no need to detach from the world and its affairs at the age of 60, 70 or 80. Your detachment at that age is not beneficial anyway. What can you do as a wandering monk with your weakening body? How can you even wander? Most probably you would end up in an institution and become a burden to both the state and society.

Enter sanyas here, and now. In whichever stage of life you are, you can become a sanyasi. For sanyas has nothing to do with your physical age. It has got to do with your mental awareness.

As a brahmachari, a grahasthi or a vanaprasthi – a student, a householder or a retiree – you can live your life in the spirit of sanyas.  Sanyas is synonym with success. It is the Total Success, which defies all definitions. Sanyas is, indeed, the only way to succeed in life, to live life successfully and to embrace death with a smile of success.

Do your best, and leave the rest to Existence. This is the true spirit of sanyas. Try it!

The writer is a spiritual activist and author of more than 130 books, several in English (, His organization runs Holistic Health/Meditation Centers, a National Plus/Interfaith School, a Charitable Clinic and a Public Reading Room in Bali. For more information, call Aryana or Debbie at 0361 7801595, 8477490.

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