In 1807, William Thackeray concluded in his Report on Canara, Malabar and ceded districts that “In India, the haughty spirit, independence and deep thought which the possession of great wealth sometime gives ought to be suppressed.” Eventually, the British managed to break the spirit and change the identity of India. But, the most interesting part of this profound observation is the relationship between the possession of great wealth and deep thought. While it stays true to Maslow’s hierarchy, it doesn’t do justice to Sanyasam, a way of life in India that produces a lot of seekers of the unknown.
Great wealth does produce a lot of thought. But, it doesn’t necessarily have to be deep. Likewise, deep thought is not a byproduct of great wealth. All a sanyasi needs is a few morsels of food when he is hungry. And, he can go without food for days together. A sanyasi is somebody who prefers the spirit to the body, metaphysical to the physical, and the unknown to the known. He keeps probing at the peripheries incessantly as he is neither limited nor bounded to the boundaries of the society.
More importantly, it is not the pursuit of some religious goal, but, the idea of aligning his soul to the one true God transcending all religions and uncovering the secrets of the universe that inspires him. Sometimes, society frees him of his struggle for the basic needs as it feeds him and shelters him, so that, he can elevate his self, and with it society, to a higher plane. Anyone who goes in search of the unknown for the sake of knowing the truth and truth alone is a sanyasi.
“Anyone who goes in search of the unknown for the sake of knowing the truth and truth alone is a sanyasi.”
And, then I stumbled upon the words “secular sanyasi” when I was reading The Man Who Knew Infinity. In the context of the book, the secular sanyasi in question is the mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. He goes in search of infinity, philosophically and numerically, only when society comes together and helps him escape poverty. As long as his body survived without much ado, the spirit remained unbroken. So, Ramanujan is a sanyasi because he is dependent on others for his day-to-day needs as he goes in pursuit of the unknown, albeit, in mathematics. But, Ramanujan is secular because the field of mathematics is unrelated to God.
I couldn’t come to terms with this distinction. It reeks of discrimination against another way of life and a refusal to provide meaning to a foreign culture in the current context. The word secular is redundant as it introduces a religious angle to the word sanyasi. In fact, it muddies the essence by incepting an alternate viewpoint that alludes to religion. It considers sanyasis as messengers of God, thus, the forceful introduction of the word “secular.”
When we read the term “secular sanyasi,” it narrows our outlook and incarcerates our interpretation by introducing an alternate viewpoint that is obnoxious and unwelcome. Our minds start mapping the sanyasi to a non-secular, bearded, shirtless Hindu mendicant dressed in a saffron sarong. In short, the sanyasi becomes a one-dimensional and abstract idea which makes us react to the idea of a sanyasi depending on our allegiance to God. We fail to see the scientists discovering new things, explorers finding new lands, and archaeologists excavating new sites. Or, that person who keeps digging like a mole to make sense of the nonsensical, completely unaware of the environment in which he is operating, but who is ready to bravely face the consequences of his actions. We fall short of appreciating such sanyasis in our midst.
The various inventions of mankind, starting from the invention of cooking to the recent invention of the internet, are the results of the untiring and unwavering efforts of the sanyasis to discover the truth. Ultimately, it is how the sanyasi provides answers to an ordinary man’s questions or how he finds meaning to the plentitude of problems faced daily that measures his true worth. And, this isn’t restricted to one particular religion because it touches humanity as a whole.
Truth, in the end, is the same for every human being as it doesn’t change based on religion, race, class or creed.
There isn’t any secular sanyasi. A sanyasi can only be secular.
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Aadarsh Srinivas Raghavan grew up in Madras (Chennai). He spaces out in an IT firm during the daytime as a reward for his post-graduation in program management and under-graduation in engineering. During the evenings, he comes alive and tries to read and write as much as possible. The original version of this essay appeared on aadarshintothewild.wordpress.com.