The sannyasa ashram, or renounced order, is extremely influential in ISKCON. A high percentage of the society’s Governing Body Commission (GBC) members are sannyasis; while the majority of ISKCON’s initiating gurus are too. Yet a large proportion have fallen by the wayside over the years, struggling to maintain their monastic vows.
In his new book “The Lives and Challenges of Vaishnava Sannyasis in Modernity: A Study of the Renounced Order in ISKCON” Yadunandana Swami takes an uprecedently honest look at these challenges.
The principal of Bhaktivedanta College for many years, he began his research for the book as an MA dissertation in order to learn more before taking sannyasa himself in 2009.
“It is important that we do a constructively self-critical study of the sannyasa ashram,” he says. “Especially because of the level of influence it has in ISKCON.”
Through anonymous interviews with nineteen current and former sannyasis, he explores their struggles, and the reasons why they have left or remained in the sannyasa order. He also offers some helpful suggestions for ISKCON leaders to implement, to create a brighter future for the sannyasa ashram.
One of the factors that has led to struggles, according to his interviews, was that many ISKCON sannyasis, especially in the early days, took sannyasa at a very young age. While at the time they may have felt strong, committed, and inspired by Srila Prabhupada’s personal presence, when Prabhupada left this world, and they had to face personal and institutional challenges, they were not able to sustain their vows.
Midlife crisis also created challenges, with some sannyasis wondering later in life if it was actually a lifestyle they wanted to follow after all. “Sometimes in our youth we think we can do everything, and then when we become more mature in age, we tend to reconsider – what do I want to do with the rest of my life?” says Yadunandana Swami.
He adds, “If the sannyasa ashram is going to be so influential in terms of guruship, guidance, initiation and missionary work, then it would be better to have a policy that sannyasa is given at a later age in life.”
Also detrimental were immature motivations for becoming a sannyasi. “For example, taking sannyasa for having a position of respect within the organization, and not for serving the community of devotees,” says Yadunandana Swami. “Some of the ex-sannyasis I interviewed were very candid in admitting that they took sannyasa for pride. That of course is bound to bring problems in the future.”
Another factor that caused problems was loneliness, and a lack of deep personal relationships and spiritual support. Many sannyasis experience what some religious communities call being “alone at the top.” Because they don’t have sufficient close, personal friends they can trust, they can’t confide about their challenges to get help, out of fear that they may be judged.
Their fears are not unfounded. According to Yadunandana Swami, ISKCON culture exhibits a lack of maturity in dealing with individuals’ personal challenges. “One anonymous Swami, who is an influential figure in ISKCON, told me that he went to his godbrothers for personal help and support, and they posted everything on the Internet,” he says. “Now he doesn’t go to his godbrothers for help anymore.”