Vaisnava culture emphasises renunciation therefore ISKCON has many people who have accepted a role as a sannyasa, or traveling monk. However, in the past many aspirants have had difficulty maintaining their vows which created controversy and scandal. ISKCON responded to the issue by developing a system by which we can better ensure the maturity and qualification of candidates.
ISKCON News approached Prahladananda Swami, GBC minister of sannyasa, to help clarify the system by which an ISKCON member can take sannyasa.
If you've spent much time in or around ISKCON or other Gaudiya Vaishnava communities, you'll be somewhat familiar with sannyasis. But what is the essence of being a sannyasi, and how does one become one?
According to one verse in the ancient scripture Bhagavad-gita, a sannyasi is someone who has completely dedicated his activities – for the service of God for His satisfaction without any material desire. Of course, by that definition, any advanced Krishna devotee could be considered a sannyasi. Still, those who have taken a vow of complete celibacy and are fully engaged in spreading Krishna consciousness are given special honor because of their practical renunciation.
So can just anyone who decides they're disgusted with family life, desires some special honor as well as free plane tickets around the world become an ISKCON sannyasi?
Nope. Unfortunately for you, if that's your plan, your intention must be far purer and deeper. In the purport to Caitanya Caritamrita, Madhya-lila 3.6, ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada writes: "If one accepts the sannyasa order, his main business is to devote his life completely to the service of Mukunda, Krishna. If one does not completely devote his mind and body to the service of the Lord, he does not actually become a sannyasi. It is not simply a matter of changing dress."
It's pretty clear that Srila Prabhupada, following the example of previous Vaishnava leaders, wanted ISKCON devotees to accept sannyasa only if they had the highest spiritual qualifications.
And that's where the GBC Ministry for Sannyasa Services comes in. "Every year, at the GBC General Meeting in Mayapur, we systematically assess sannyasa candidates and give recommendations to the GBC Body," says International Sannyasa Minister Prahladananda Swami. "This assessment process for sannyasa candidates, as well as the training that follows, seems to have significantly improved the quality of the sannyasa ashrama in ISKCON."
First off, every sannyasa candidate must have a sponsor, usually a senior devotee in their location. The sponsor must hand in an initial report of the candidate's qualifications according to the GBC Rules of Order, "The Qualifications for Sannyasa."
Then the candidates being assessed must fill in a thorough application form which includes:
1. Age of the candidate.
2. Data necessary to do an astrological analysis.
3. Marital status.
4. If previously married, information when separated or divorced from the wife, including legal separation or divorce papers. How are the former wife and children maintained? When applicable, written statement by the wife that she is in agreement that her former husband is taking sannyasa.
5. Scriptural tests passed. Passing the Bhakti Sastri exam is a minimum qualification to apply for becoming a sannyasa candidate.
6. Service within ISKCON. Preaching experience and future preaching plans. Past responsible positions held within ISKCON.
7. A letter with a resume detailing the devotee's devotional career in or outside of ISKCON.
8. A letter explaining the devotee's reasons for wanting to take sannyasa.
9. Information about any possible criminal record.
10. Information about their opinions on certain controversial subjects.
11. Signed oath of loyalty to ISKCON.
12. A letter of endorsement from the local GBC and managerial body.
13. Names of 10 senior ISKCON devotees (i.e. sannyasis, GBC's temple presidents etc.) who can give an assessment of the devotee's qualifications to take sannyasa.
14. Names of 5 senior devotees who you trust can act as your mentors and give the Sannyasa Ministry feedback as to the devotee's preaching and devotional advancement.
15. An affirmation by the devotee that he is willing to travel and preach in areas designated by the Sannyasa Ministry and the GBC Executive Committee for one to two months a year.
"When the candidate hands in this application, we review it, and interview them, as well as others who are familiar with the candidate and his qualifications and devotional history
and when applicable make a recommendation to the GBC Body," says Prahladananda Swami.
"Of course, if you're accepted, that doesn't mean you take sannyasa immediately! Instead you're put on a waiting list for different amounts of time according to what age you are and other factors - at 45, the wait is three years, at 40, it's four years, and at 35, five years."
This seems to indicate that the GBC would rather sannyasa candidates are at a reasonably mature age, and have experienced family life for long enough to genuinely be able to renounce it.
Any requirements for being placed on the sannyasa waiting list or being accepted as eligible for taking initiation in the sannyasa ashrama can be waived, but only in exceptional cases and by a vote of at least 4/5th majority of the GBC.
Once the candidate has taken on their new role as sannyasi, their sponsor must send in annual reports on them, as well as making sure that any discrepancies on their conduct, behavior or attitude are rectified.
"Each year, the new sannyasis themselves must also submit reports on their preaching, devotional practices, and finances," Prahladananda Swami says.
On top of that, the candidate is requested to travel with an experienced sannyasi who can train them and give feedback on their qualifications and progress.
Sounds like a process that couldn't possibly get more detailed. But the Sannyasa Ministry are well aware of how serious the post of sannyasa is, and want to make sure they've covered every inch of ground. "We're always looking for suggestions on how to improve our process of selecting ISKCON sannyasis," Prahladananda Swami says. "We'd really appreciate any valuable suggestions you may have."