Sannyasa is the fourth Hindu asrama (Vedic stage of life) in which the male attains spiritual liberation (moksha).
At this stage the Indian sannyasin practices celibacy, renounces all worldly trappings, and pretty much acquires the legal status of a dead person. He either travels about freely, helping others to grow in spiritual matters, or enters a monastery.
Traditionally the sannyasin was predominantly male but today the situation is changing, with women sannyasins increasing in numbers.
The following excerpt from “Arsha Vidya Gurukulam’s Response to “Hinduism Here” and Michele Moritis’s Paper” outlines several important points concerning the evolution of Hinduism.
Except for the role of the priest, women participate equally in all the activities at the gurukulam. As in all religious traditions, there are stipulations for those who officiate at religious ceremonies. In the Hindu tradition, one of these is that the priest must be a Brahmin male and cogent reasons are given for this. However, the status of a sannyasin (a renunciant) is higher than that of a priest, and women are allowed to be sannayasins, as Michele’s report illustrates in her interview with a white American female sannyasin. And these female sannyasins can assume the role of a guru to a male Brahmin priest.
The precedent for lack of gender discrimination is embedded in the iconography of Hinduism. Most deities, including the deity at Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Lord Daksinamurti, are ardhanarishvara, half male and half female, since the Lord is looked upon as both male and female. In the Vedas, though there are certainly fewer women than men, they are not absent. In the Upanisads there are dialogues on Brahmavidya with women (Maitreyi and Gargi) and there are female rishis (Visvavara and Romasa) composing Vedic hymns (rks).¹
¹ Arsha Vidya Gurukulam’s Response to “Hinduism Here” and Michele Moritis’s Paper http://www.barnard.edu/religion/hinduismhere/arshresponse.html
- “Bhakti Nrsinga Swami receives sannyasa initiation at the Durban Rathayatra 2008”