In the technical and historical sense of the term, a saṃnyāsin is a member of one of the three higher varṇas who, through ‘taking’ saṃnyāsa, has formally renounced external Vedic ritual and the life of the householder (gṛhastha) in order to dedicate himself to the pursuit of mokṣa. Since the medieval period, ‘saṃnyāsin’ has also come to be used generically to refer to any ‘holy man’ or renouncer who has abandoned the normal restrictions and demands of caste society in order to pursue personal liberation—a way of life characterized by celibacy, homelessness, the abandonment of external ritual, economic inactivity, and mendicancy. The term is also applied to members of monastery- (maṭha-) based renunciant orders, such as the Daśanāmis (said to have been founded by Śaṅkara) and the Nāgas.
Some renouncers imitate lunatic and animal behaviour (following, for example, the govrata), or in the case of some Śaivas, imitate Śiva's antinomian behaviour by living in cremation grounds; most practise various forms of asceticism and tapas in order to subdue the passions, as well as yoga and meditation. Because he has internalized his sacrificial fires, and is considered already dead from a ritual perspective, a saṃnyāsin's body is not cremated, but is subject to burial, or some other means of disposal when he dies in the physical sense. The number of saṃnyāsins (in the wider sense) currently active in India is difficult to assess, but estimates vary from between five to fifteen million. See also asceticism; saṃnyāsa.