Some time ago, a sannyasi 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 sannyasi quoted a verse from the Brahma-vaivarta Purana to substantiate his opinion that Sannyasa is not meant for the people of Kali-Yuga.
asvamedham gavalambham sannyasam palapaitrkam
devarena sutopattim kalau panca vivarjayet
“Five things are forbidden in the age of Kali – horse-sacrifice, cow-sacrifice, acceptance of sannyasa, offering flesh to the forefathers and begetting a child in the womb of the wife of one’s elder brother.” (Brahma-vaivarta Purana, Krsna-jnama Khanda 185.180).
Regrettably, by quoting this verse from the Brahma-vaivarta Purana as evidence that the sannyasa-asrama is ineffective in Kali-yuga, our former sannyasi has inferred that his own spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, as well as his parama-guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura and all other great acaryas like Sri Ramanuja and Sri Madhva were misguided or even foolish for having accepted sannyasa and having awarded sannyasa to their disciples in Kali-yuga.
The now retired sannyasi has unwittingly fallen into the clutches of the anti-devotional parties who use this very same argument against Srila Sarasvati Thakura and his pure representatives. The anti-devotional parties argue that in the Caitanya-caritamrta, Sri Caitanyadeva Himself quotes this verse indicating that even if one has the qualities of a sannyasi, 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 sannyasa. Furthermore, soon after His dialogue with the Kazi, Mahaprabhu traveled to Katwa in order to take sannyasa Himself from Sri Kesava Bharati. We also find that when Mahaprabhu resided in Purusottama-dhama, many of His close associates were sannyasis. Sri Svarupa Damodara, Paramananda Puri, Ranga Puri, Visnu Puri, Brahmananda Bharati, Kesava Puri, Govinda Puri, Sukhananda Puri, Brahmananda Puri, Nrsingha Puri, Nrsingha Tirtha and others were all in the renounced order of life. Mahaprabhu’s own diksa-guru Sripada Isvara Puri Gosvami was also a sannyasi, so how could Mahaprabhu possibly be against the acceptance of sannyasa in kali-yuga?
In the book, The Golden Staircase, Srila Sridhara Deva Gosvami Maharaja explains what type of sannaysa has been forbidden in this present age.
“The answer is explained in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta. This is a general question not only for the Gaudiya sampradaya, but also for the followers of Ramanuja, Madhvacarya, and even Sankaracarya. The Buddhists may not care for the directions of the Puranas, but the Sankara school and the Vaisnava schools accept sannyasa. Sankara was a sannyasi and for the most part his successors were all sannyasis as well. This is true of Ramanuja also, Madhvacarya, and the Visnusvami sampradaya also.
The interpretation is this: in this present age, sannyasa in the strict sense of karma-sannyasa is forbidden. Karma-sannyasa means that you leave everything, and that type of sannyasa is not possible in this present age. It is described in the sastras 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 ‘kalav-annagatah pranah’ – one’s longevity depends on food. Therefore sannyasa in the strict sense is not possible in kali-yuga.
Previously, Valmiki 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 smrti-sastra, 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-sannyasa while being so extremely dependent on material giving and taking, then he wouldn’t be able to maintain his existence. But the life of Vaisnava tridandi-sannyasa, which is not very extreme – take prasadam, do service – is a sort of modified form based on yuktahara viharas ca, and one living according to this principle can take sannyasa.
Mahaprabhu took sannyasa, Sankaracarya, Ramanuja – all the pioneers of the different sampradayas took sannyasa. That has been interpreted as karma-sannyasa, but still, sannyasa 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-sannyasa.
There is also narottama-sannyasa:
yah svakat parato veha
hrdi krtva harim geyat
pravrajet sa narottamah
In the narottama system of sannyasa, one has realized 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-sannyasa.
And there are also different stages of sannyasa mentioned in the sastra: kuticaka, bahudaka, hamsa and paramahamsa progressively. But tridandi-sannyasa is when the sannyasi 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 tridandi-sannyasi 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 sannyasa, 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 favorite parsadas, 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 utilize their connection with this mundane plane to earn some substantial wealth of the upper house. So like the Lord’s parsadas, the tridandi-sannyasis want to work as God’s agents.”
Although members of the anti-devotional parties and their unwitting dupes attempt to condemn the sannyasa-asrama by using the verse from the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, the following verse from the same Purana has conveniently escaped their attention.
dandam kamandalum rakta-vastram matranca dharayet
nityam pravasi naikatra sa sannyasiti kirttitah
“A sannyasi accepts only a danda, water-pot, and saffron-cloth and resides near a village – this is the wealth of the sannyasa asrama.”(Brahma-vaivarta Purana 2.36.9)
In fact, throughout the vast body of Vedic literature, only one verse can be found wherein the sannyasa order is apparently forbidden in the age of kali. In all the other sastras that were written for the people of this present age a man is repeatedly urged to take up sannyasa.
brahmacari grhastho va mrtadaro vanecarah
jnatva samyak param-brahma tyaktva sangan-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.” (Smrti-sastra)
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura desired to reinstitute the system of daivi-varnasrama and with this in mind took up the tridanda of a sannyasi to preach the sublime message of Sri Caitanydeva all over the world. It is bewildering that one can claim to be a follower of Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Svami Prabhupada, in the line of Srila Sarasvati Thakura and in the same breath imply that sannyasa 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 sannyasa-asrama as being impractical, useless, or even dangerous in kali-yuga. Such a ‘sour-grapes’ philosophy betrays a significant lack of faith in Sri Guru, the sattvika-sastras, the Vaisnavas and Sri Caitanyadeva who has Himself accepted the sannyasa-asrama in the age of kali.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura accepted sannyasa for the purpose of preaching Krsna 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 Krsna consciousness and serve his Gurudeva with all his energy then he should certainly take sannyasa. This is called sadhu-vrtti, following in the footsteps of great acaryas.