Transliteration Key

The advaita tradition can be described in terms of two aspects - the textual/philosophical tradition of commentaries and sub-commentaries to the vedAnta works, and the religious tradition of renunciation (sam.nyAsa), which is emphasized to a great deal in SankarAcArya's works. The two aspects are quite intimately related to each other - most of the notable authors in the advaita tradition were members of the sam.nyAsa tradition, and both sides of the tradition share the same values, attitudes and metaphysics. The philosophical tradition is described in other pages at this site. This page is devoted to the sam.nyAsa tradition which continues to the present day. Sankara is traditionally said to have organized the daSanAmI sampradAya and established four maThas (monasteries) at Sringeri (in Karnataka), Puri (in Orissa), Dvaraka (in Gujarat) and Jyotirmath (in Uttar Pradesh). These maThas are representative of the geography of India, with one monastery each in the eastern, southern, western and northern regions. The successive heads of these and other advaita maThas are also called SankarAcAryas, after the original founder. In fact, Sankara is often called Adi SankarAcArya, or the first SankarAcArya, in order to distinguish him from his successors.

The daSanAmI sampradAya: The daSanAmI order is so called because of the ten (daSa) name (nAma) suffixes which these sannyAsIs adopt. These names are - bhAratI, sarasvatI, sAgara, tIrtha, purI, ASrama, giri, parvata, araNya and vana. These ten names are supposed to be distributed among the four maThas. However, the affiliation is nominal at best. The daSanAmI sannyAsIs do not have to be ordained at one of the maThas, nor do they have to reside at a maTha for any period of time. On the other hand, they are supposed to be peripatetic (parivrAjaka - monks who constantly keep traveling), with no fixed home, except for the period of cAturmAsya in the rainy season, when they stay put at one place. The heads of the maThas are also supposed to travel around the country for the better part of the year.

In northern India, the daSanAmI sannyAsIs are organized into a number of akhADas - jUnA, niranjanI, mahAnirvANI, aTal, AvAhan, Ananda and agni. Except for the agni akhADa, which is is for brahmacAri initiates, the membership of all other akhADas is made up of daSanAmI monks. These akhADas have leaders known as mahAmaNDaleSvaras, who are usually elected during a kumbha mela [1, 2, 3]. The kumbha mela also offers an opportunity for akhADas to initiate large numbers of new sannyAsIs. The daSanAmI sannyAsIs tend to have only a nominal affiliation with their maThas, but most maintain a closer relationship with their akhADas. Among the ten names, araNya, ASrama, parvata, vana and sAgara are quite rarely seen nowadays. All daSanAmI monks belong to the tradition of ekadaNDI sam.nyAsa. They carry a staff consisting of a single wooden stick, symbolizing the essential identity of brahman and Atman.

It is important to remember that the advaita sampradAya is not a Saiva sect. The fact that both the prominent non-advaita schools of vedAnta are vaishNava leads to a confusion among many modern researchers, who uncritically talk of all daSanAmI sannyAsIs as being Saiva ascetics. In reality, advaitins are non-sectarian, and they advocate worship of Siva and vishNu equally with that of the other deities of Hinduism, like Sakti, gaNapati and others. Modern neo-vedAntins, who are most strongly influenced by advaita vedAnta, have no trouble accepting Moses, Christ and Muhammad also. Philosophically, classical advaita would disagree as much with the Saiva siddhAnta and the Saiva vedAnta schools, as with the vaishNava schools of vedAnta. On the other hand, the God Siva is the archetype of the ascetic, and advaita vedAnta lays great emphasis on sam.nyAsa. Saiva schools also tend to be more non-dualistic in outlook than vaishNava schools, and SankarAcArya himself is venerated as an incarnation of Siva. Hence, the contemporary SankarAcAryas do wield a larger degree of influence among Saiva communities than among vaishNava communities, but that does not necessarily make them exclusively Saiva ascetics. The famous madhusUdana sarasvatI was an ardent devotee of kRshNa, while prakASAnanda was a Sakti-worshipper.

The major following of the gurus of the advaita tradition has been mostly among the smArtas, who integrate the domestic Vedic ritual with devotional aspects of Hinduism. The traditional pancAyatana pUjA scheme of smArta worship is offered to Siva, vishNu, Sakti, gaNeSa and sUrya, as aspects of saguNa brahman. skanda is sometimes added as the sixth important deity who is worshipped, especially in the south. The smArtas also regard themselves as followers of SankarAcArya and his successors at the various maThas, but there is a lot of regional variation in this regard.

The AmnAya maThas: The four maThas established by Sankara are known in the tradition as the AmnAya maThas. Sankara is said to have assigned one of the four vedas to each of these maThas, and the AcAryas and paNDitas of these four maThas continue the tradition to this day. Accordingly, the Puri maTha is associated with the Rg veda, Sringeri with yajurveda, Dvaraka with sAma veda and Jyotirmath with atharva veda. The ten daSanAmI suffixes are distributed among these four maThas - according to most traditions, purI, bhAratI and sarasvatI with Sringeri; tIrtha and ASrama with Dvaraka; sAgara, parvata and giri with Jyotirmath, and vana and araNya with Puri. Many notable post-Sankaran authors, including sureSvara, jnAnaghana, jnAnottama, Anandagiri, bhAratI tIrtha, vidyAraNya and others, can be found among the heads of these maThas. Of these four, Sringeri is the only institution that has had an unbroken line of succession from Sankara. Among the other three maThas, the succession has been interrupted at one time or the other, for a variety of historical reasons. The longest hiatus in the line of succession was in the case of Jyotirmath, where the seat lay vacant for around 165 years. In the recent past, the Sringeri maTha has been involved, directly or indirectly, in stabilizing the line of succession in the other three maThas.

From L to R: SrI svarUpAnanda sarasvatI (Jyotirmath), SrI abhinava vidyA tIrtha (Sringeri), SrI niranjana deva tIrtha (Puri), SrI abhinava saccidAnanda tIrtha (Dvaraka) - Meeting at Sringeri in 1979.

The successor to the title in a maTha is usually nominated by the presiding SankarAcArya of that maTha. It is quite normal to see SankarAcAryas who have become sannyAsIs directly from the student life, without ever having been gRhasthas. This is especially the norm in the Sringeri lineage. Thus, a SankarAcArya can be a very young man, sometimes barely out of his teens, when he takes charge at his maTha. On the other hand, the Puri lineage has seen many heads who have become sannyAsins quite late in their lives, after passing through the gRhastha stage. In cases where a SankarAcArya passes away without nominating a successor, or if there is a dispute about the succession, the head of one of the other maThas is consulted to resolve the issue. Within this century itself, there have been instances where the SankarAcAryas of Sringeri, Dvaraka, and Puri have been called upon to resolve succession issues in one of the other maThas. The Sringeri lineage names thirty-six successors to the SankarAcArya title, while Dvaraka has about seventy. The Puri list of SankarAcAryas has more than 140 names to date. The larger number of names in these two lists is probably because many of the presiding SankarAcAryas have been former gRhasthas, who took charge at a comparatively older age and consequently held charge for shorter periods. The line of the Jyotirmath has many gaps in it, an unfortunate circumstance of history.

The position of the SankarAcAryas in modern Hinduism has often (quite wrongly) been compared to that of the Pope in Roman Catholicism. The four SankarAcAryas do not issue catechisms for all Hindus, nor do they claim sole right to decide on doctrinal issues. SrImukham.s issued by the maThas are very different in nature from papal bulls or encyclicals, and unlike the Vatican City, the four maThas do not enjoy sovereign status. Rather, they are governed by the federal and state laws on religious and charitable trusts and endowments in independent India, and are often answerable to governmental bodies.

However, this should not be construed to mean that the SankarAcAryas are insignificant or that their importance is overrated. They are held in high respect by almost all sections of Hindus, but they also tend to get blamed by the modern media, somewhat unfairly, for everything that goes wrong in Hindu society! For all that, however, the SankarAcAryas generally lead quiet, secluded lives, as befits monks, and tend to avoid media attention. There are, of course, exceptions to this norm, and recent developments in India, especially the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue, have forced all of them to take more active roles in public life.

Recent history of the four AmnAya maThas:

Contact Addresses: Sri Sankaracharya Math, Joshimath, Badrinath, Uttar Pradesh 246 443, INDIA.
Swami Swaroopananda Saraswati: Sri Rajarajeswari Mandir, Paramhansi Ganga, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh 482 002, INDIA.
Swami Vasudevananda Saraswati: Shankar Math, Allope Bagh, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh 211 001, INDIA.
Swami Madhavashrama: Sri Keshav Ashram, Haridwar, Uttar Pradesh 249 401, INDIA

Other maThas: Other than the four AmnAya maThas, there are a number of well-known maThas owing allegiance to advaita and the SankarAcArya lineage. Many of them were originally branches of one of the four AmnAya maThas, established officially by the parent maTha, and which grew into more or less independent institutions over time. Notable among these are the branch maThas at Kumbhakonam (now based in Kancipuram, Contact Address: No. 1, Salai Street, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu 631 502, INDIA), Sankhesvar, Kudali, Virupaksha (Hampi), Kolhapur (Karavir pITham), Sivaganga, Sakatapuram etc. In recent times, the maTha at Kancipuram has been very active. Sometimes, notable sannyAsIs of the daSanAmI order start their own maThas, to cater to the spiritual needs of their followers. An example is the famous upanishad brahmendra maTha at Kancipuram, which was founded in the 18th century by rAmacandrendra sarasvatI. Sometimes, succession controversies (as in the present Jyotirmath) also leads to the establishment of separate maThas. A few maThas of the nambUdiri community in Kerala also trace their foundation to Sankara himself, as do the sumeru and pAdukA maThas in Varanasi. However, the Kavale maTha of the gauDa sArasvata community in Goa traces its origin in 740 CE not to SankarAcArya, but through another disciple of govinda bhagavatpAda.

In general, the various maThas in India operate quite independent of one another. The SankarAcAryas of the four original maThas do not normally interfere with one another, nor do they seek to exercise any control, administrative or spiritual, on any of the other advaita maThas in India, unless specifically requested to do so. Although their heads are sannyAsIs who lead completely detached lives, the advaita maThas are not immune to contemporary social and political pressures. Some maThas deal with these pressures better than others. Manifestations of these pressures can be seen in the sometimes acrimonious rivalries between followers of two different maThas, as also in the recurrent succession disputes in some of them. Such succession disputes sometimes lead to protracted litigation and the establishment of independent maThas elsewhere.

Modern Institutions: In addition to the more traditional advaita maThas and akhADas, various sannyAsIs of the daSanAmI order have established some of the more well-known modern institutions, like the Ramakrishna Math and Mission (swAmI vivekAnanda), the Self-Realization Fellowship (paramahamsa yogAnanda), the Divine Life Society (swAmI SivAnanda), Yoga Vedanta Center (swAmI vishNudevAnanda), the Chinmaya Mission (swAmI cinmayAnanda), and others. Among these, the founders of the Ramakrishna Mission, the Divine Life Society and the Chinmaya Mission trace their spiritual descent through the Sringeri paramparA. The Self-Realization Fellowship has links to the Puri paramparA. These organizations usually teach some variant or the other of advaita vedAnta, generally combined with yoga practice, or an acceptance of the prophets of the Semitic religions, and/or an emphasis on social service. These modern institutions tend to have as much a presence in the West as in India, and their ideologies have come to be called by the generic name of neo-vedAnta. It remains to be seen whether these institutions will be the catalysts for the growth of a truly universal philosophy/religion that has been a dream of most of their founders.

There have been countless other nameless, realized masters over the centuries, who have realized the non-dual brahman. As a living tradition of philosophy and religion, advaita is not always restricted to daSanAmI sannyAsIs in the lineage of SankarAcArya. For example, within the 20th century CE, one has the example of the famous mystic SrI ramaNa mahaRshi (1879 - 1950), who did not formally take sam.nyAsa, but was nevertheless a jIvanmukta, who taught pure advaita.


  1. Read an article at the Indology website, on the Jyotirmath succession.

  2. Sir Jadunath Sarkar, A history of Dasnami Naga Sanyasis, Mahanirvani, Allahabad, 1946.
    LC Call No.: n.a.

  3. G. S. Ghurye (with L. N. Chapekar), Indian Sadhus, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1st ed., 1953, 2nd ed., 1964.
    LC Call No.: Microfilm BUL-ENG-111 (B)

  4. Haripada Chakraborti, Asceticism in ancient India in Brahmanical, Buddhist, Jaina, and Ajivika societies, from the earliest times to the period of Sankaracharya, Punthi Pustak, Calcutta, 1973.
    LC Call No.: BL2015.A8 C47

  5. Swami Sadananda Giri, Society and sannyasin - a history of the Dasnami sannyasins, Kriyayoga Asrama, Rishikesh, 1976.
    LC Call No.: BL1245.D27 S2

  6. William Cenkner, A tradition of teachers: Sankara and The Jagadgurus Today, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1983.
    LC Call No.: B133.S5 C44 1983

  7. Yoshitsugu Sawai, The faith of ascetics and lay smartas: a study of the Sankaran tradition of Srngeri, Sammlung de Nobili, Institüt für Indologie der Universität Wien (Institute of Indology, University of Vienna), 1992.
    LC Call No.: acquisition in progress (as of September 9, 1997)

  8. Maulana Mohammed Ali, The historic trial of Ali brothers, Dr. Kitchlew, Shri Shankaracharya, Maulana Hussain Ahmed, Pir Ghulam Mujaddid and Maulana Nisar Ahmed, "New Times" Office, Karachi, 1921, with a foreword by Mahatma Gandhi.

  9. Wade Dazey, Tradition and Modernization in the Organization of the Dasanami Sannyasins, in Monastic life in the Christian and Hindu traditions - a comparative study, Austin Creel and Vasudha Narayanan (eds.), Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston (NY), 1990.
    LC Call No.: BL631 .M65 1990

  10. Wade Dazey, The Dasanami Order and Monastic Life, Ph. D. dissertation, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, 1987.


Last updated on May 5, 1999.

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