The question may arise why ISKCON is offering its initiated members the possibility to enter the sannyasa asrama as sastra states that sannyasa in Kali-yuga is forbidden. The below posted article is a response to that question.
A Deeper Understanding of the Significance of Sannyasa (in Kali-yuga)
Excerpt of a lecture given by HH Bhakti Rasamrita Swami at the Sannyasa Candidate Training Seminar in Mayapura (February, 2012).
There is a verse in the Puranas that states that sannyasa is forbidden in Kali-yuga:
kalau parca vivarjayet
[Cc. Adi 17.164]
In this age of Kali, five things should be avoided: one is performing sacrifice by offering cows; performing sacrifice by offering horse; and oblation offering to the forefathers with meat; and then to get child by the husband’s younger brother. Maybe it was practiced formerly. According to Vedic rituals, the husband’s wife… That is permanent relation; there is no divorce, nothing of the sort. But in case of the husband being sick or dead, the women was allowed, if she has no children, to get children by the husband’s younger brother. Devarena. That is also now not allowed. So these five things are not allowed in this age, Kali-yuga: sacrifice offering cows, sacrifice offering horse, sannyasa—renouncing family life—sannyasa order, offering oblations with meat to the forefathers, and begetting children through the husband’s younger… These five items are forbidden.
If you consider the matter more deeply then you can see that there is something deeper to be considered. We see that in both, the vaishnava and mayavadi sannyasa sampradayas, sannyasa was taken. Sankaracarya for example took sannyasa. Many other sannyasis of the mayavada school also are there. All the four Vaishnava sampradayas, their acaryas, also took sannyasa. Visnuswami, Nimbarkacarya,.. In our own sampradaya we see there is Prabhodananda Sarasvati, Madhavendra Puri, Isvara Puri,..
When Mahaprabhu’s brother Visvarupa took sannyasa, Mahaprabhu was known only as Nimai. At that time he was in his pauganda stage, the age from five to ten.
In the Sri Caitanya-lila, Adi-lila, Srila Krishna Kaviraja describes that Jaganatha Misra and Sacidevi, were filled with grief when Visvarupa had taken sannyasa. But Nimai pacified them. He said: “What happened is good. Visvarupa has taken sannyasa. Now Visvarupa has delivered his ancestors from both sides”. And some years after that, of course, Sriman Mahaprabhu himself took sannyasa.
And following in his footsteps Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura also took sannyasa and gave sannyasa to many of his disciples. One the one hand, we have a sastric quote that appears to say that sannyasa is forbidden in Kali-yuga and, on the other hand, we have the practical examples of so many great acaryas in all the different sampradayas including that of Sriman Mahaprabhu Himself. So, how does one reconcile this?
In his purport on the verse Adi 15.14 Srila Prabhupada writes:
It is sometimes said that Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu disapproved of the acceptance of the sannyasa order in this Kali-yuga because in the sastra it is said:
kalau parca vivarjayet
[Cc. Adi 17.164]
“In this Age of Kali, five acts are forbidden: the offering of a horse in sacrifice, the offering of a cow in sacrifice, the acceptance of the order of sannyasa, the offering of oblations of flesh to the forefathers, and a man’s begetting children in his brother’s wife.” (Brahma-vaivarta Purana, Krsna-janma-khanda 185.180)
Nevertheless, we see that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu Himself accepted sannyasa and approved of the sannyasa of His elder brother, Visvarupa. It is clearly said here, bhala haila,—visvarupa sannyasa karila pita-kula, mata-kula,—dui uddharila. Therefore, should it be thought that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu made statements that are contradictory? No, actually He did not. It is recommended that one accept sannyasa to dedicate his life for the service of the Lord, and everyone must take that kind of sannyasa, for by accepting such sannyasa one renders the best service to both his paternal and maternal families. But one should not accept the sannyasa order of the Mayavada school, which has practically no meaning. We find many Mayavadi sannyasis simply loitering in the street thinking themselves Brahman or Narayana and spending all day and night begging so they can fill their hungry bellies. Mayavadi sannyasis have become so degraded that there is a section of them who eat everything, just like hogs and dogs. It is such degraded sannyasa that is prohibited in this age. Actually, Srila Sankaracaraya’s principles for the acceptance of sannyasa were very strict, but later the so-called Mayavadi sannyäsis became degraded because of their false philosophy, which propounds that by accepting sannyasa one becomes Narayana. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu rejected that kind of sannyasa. But the acceptance of sannyasa is one of the items of the varnasrama-dharma. How then can it be rejected?
Thus, Srila Prabhupada explains:
1) Sannyasa is part of varnasrama dharma, it is one of the four asramas
So, how can you say that sannyasa cannot be there in Kali-yuga.
There is no injunction that varnasrama should be rejected in Kali-yuga. Mahaprabhu himself took it. So, Srila Prabhupada gives a second reason.
2) We can understand that the prohibition of this verse in the Brahma-Vaivarta Purana is specifically meant for certain classes of people.
a) It is meant for those mayavadi sannyasis who live some form of degraded lives. Prabhupada says: “They loiter in the street just to fill their belies and they eat many times substances that a sannyasi should not be eating”.
b) Sankaracarya was very staunch. He set very high standards of conduct for sannyasis. But many of his followers, down the generations, they became loose. Srila Prabhupada says in the purport: “Such degraded sannyasa wherein a mayavadi thinks that by accepting sannyasa he becomes Narayana, that is prohibited”.
Elsewhere in the Sri Caitanya Caritamrita (Madhya 18.109) we hear: danda-grahana-matrena naro narayano bhavet “Simply by accepting the order of sannyasa, one is immediately transformed into Narayana”. Srila Prabhupada says that people who apply this principle or this kind of philosophy, that is a degraded conception, and therefore such sannyasa is forbidden.
3) The third reason Srila Prabhupada gives in other parts of his teachings are:
a) That in this age of Kali most people are sudras by qualification and by quality and therefore they are unable to follow the rules and regulations. So, how can they take sannyasa? But if there are some people, who by dint of their Krishna consciousness can follow the rules and regulations, then there is no harm in taking sannyasa.
4) Another reason Srila Prabhupada mentions elsewhere is that in this Kali-yuga, which is the age of hypocrisy and cheating many charlatans will pose as exalted saints, as swamis and sannyasis, and fool the public just for profit, adoration and distinction, name, fame, prestige for material facilities, money, and so on. Obviously, such sannyasa is forbidden.
If we have a look at what previous acaryas has said also, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati specifically mentioned that there are three kind of sannyasa. He quoted from the Padma-Purana. One kind of sannyasa is called karma-sannyasa, the other is called jnana-sannyasa, and the third is called veda-sannyasa. Veda-sannyasa is the Vaishnava-sannyasa, the tri-danda sannyasa, which the Vaishnavas take. Jnana-sannyasa is the sannyasa that the impersonalists take. The Vaishnavas have a tri-danda, But the impersonalist they get one stick, an eka-danda because they follow the path of jnana.
Karma-sannyasa refers to basically that kind of sannyasa one takes within the varnasrama system when one gets old; but if one does that without the requisite spiritual knowledge or understanding and without the qualifications required for sannyasa, then that is called karma-sannyasa. The jnana-sannyasa and veda-sannyasa are not prohibited.
Also in the Brahma-vaivarta Purana there are many verses where sannyasa appears in different places. But that kind of sannyasa mentioned there is this karma-sannyasa. Actually in the five prohibited items mentioned that appear in the Sri Caitanya Caritamrita also; they are part of karma-kanda. Like worshipping the forefathers, offers to animals in sacrifice. It is all part of karma-kanda. The sannyasa that follow the process of karma-kanda, that is forbidden. But Vaishnava sannyasa is not prohibited. This clarification is actually important.