Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Are there any organizations or institutions that have their own distinctive structures of leadership within any of the branches of Hinduism? Anything like monks or nuns?

As in so many other traditions, monastic and other religious orders have played a major role in the history of greater Hinduism. Different styles of monastic life have evolved in connection with the last two of the four traditional “life stages,” namely those of “forest-dweller” and “renunciant.” Individual Hindu males who have arrived at the last stage, that of sannyasi, have been crisscrossing India on their solitary ways for millennia. Since perhaps twenty-five centuries ago, informal organizations developed as disciples gathered around renunciants renowned as spiritual teachers. These forerunners of stable monastic residences continued to welcome as occasional guests their unattached itinerant counterparts. Evidence of the earliest formal monastic organizations, from as long as eighteen hundred years ago, suggests that they followed a strictly ascetic regime. But Shankara (788-820) is the first individual credited with founding an order. The renowned philosopher and theologian organized monasteries in sacred cities marking the four cardinal directions across India. Four subsequent orders were founded by religious leaders associated with four of the five major Vaishnava denominations, Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Madhva, and Vallabha. Important orders have arisen in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well, such as those founded by Ramakrishna and Mahatma Gandhi. Most of the orders have offered various levels of commitment from temporary residency to long-term affiliation of men and women with families or lifelong celibacy.


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