Becoming a sannyasin or monk in the Hindu tradition is a radical and consequential choice. The implications of this choice for the individual are clearly revealed in the profound steps of the initiation ceremony that marks entry into monastic life.
With the ritual of renunciation, monks commit themselves to the safety and wellbeing of all. This is non-negotiable.
One of the steps of this ceremony is the performance of a funereal or postmortem offering called the shraddha. This offering is normally done by the family members of a departed person. Balls of rice, mixed with sesame seeds, are prayerfully offered for the peace and wellbeing of departed ancestors. The candidate for Hindu monasticism, however, completes this offering for himself/herself (atma shraddha).
Having severed ties with family and community, the monk assumes that there will be no one to make such offerings on his/her behalf. A normal shraddha ceremony is performed after death; the monk-aspirant performs his ceremony before the death of his body. In actual fact, the monk performs his own funeral ceremony.
Sitting before a sacred fire, the aspirant participates in a ritual (viraja homa/yajña) of making offerings into the fire. Traditionally, the offerings are material (rice, sugar, sesame seeds etc.). In this case, however, the aspirant offers his/her passions (rajas), aiming to be free from these. Chanting mantras, he reduces to ashes his anger, lust, greed, and hate.
Finally, he makes a symbolic offering of his body, signifying his non-attachment to the physical and his identity with his true self (atman). The initiate is given a new name by his guru and ochre robes signifying the fire of wisdom in which his harmful passions have been consumed.
These steps precede what is, for me, the most beautiful moment in this powerful ceremony when, in the presence of the guru, the monk reassures all beings that he will not cause fear or harm to them. The Sanskrit words used are “Om abhayam sarvabhutesha mattah” – I offer fearlessness to all beings. The monk commits himself to having no enemies and to being a friend of all.
This commitment is not limited by anything – religion, species, gender, or nationality. In the monk’s presence, no being should experience fear; the monk will not harm by words or by actions. Free from the desire to incite fear and hate and to cause suffering, the Hindu monk aspires to embody peace and universal love. He renounces narrow loyalties for the sake of a universal love.
“With a sense of humility,” according to the Sannyasa Upanishad (113), “the renunciant shall strive for the welfare of all beings.”
I reflect on this beautiful ideal in this time, lamenting the reality of the many Hindu monks who, betraying the most fundamental ideals of a valued ancient tradition, choose to be purveyors of fear and to issue strident and reckless calls for violence against Muslim and Christian communities in India.
They weaponise the veneration and authority of the Hindu monk in ochre robes to arm and to mobilise followers for purposes inimical to the core ideals of Hindu monasticism that include peace-making, inclusive love, non-hurting, and a value for all human beings.
I am also saddened by the Hindu monks who do not make public calls for violence against minority communities but who choose to be silent when such appeals are issued and result in violence. They do nothing to protect communities from fear or speak up for the ideals of Hindu monasticism that are so blatantly and alarmingly contradicted.
Hindu monks are united by an ancient ritual of commitment to offering fearlessness to all. That fundamental commitment ought not to be construed passively but understood as an obligation to join in building communities where all live without fear. Hindu monks must hold each other responsible and accountable for this commitment and be protectors of the noble ideals of renunciation.
I am not advocating for monks who are indifferent to the challenges of life in community. I support and welcome monks who are advocates for social justice and human dignity, who are committed to the flourishing of all beings and who are champions of an active love that transcends boundaries.
On the basis of these splendid spiritual and ethical ideals of Hindu monasticism, I lift my voice against those who corrupt these ideals to spread hate, sow division, and justify harm to our fellow human beings.
Anantanand Rambachan is Emeritus Professor of Religion at St Olaf College in Minnesota.