The scriptures mention six stages of sannyas:
This is the path of progressive realisation which leads from formal initiation up to liberation. Although there are many descriptions of sannyas life given in the ancient texts, it is described here as it is most relevant; and applicable to the modern world today.
After receiving initiation from the guru, the sannyasin spends the first few years living with him, imbibing practical spiritual instruction. By serving the guru and following his discipline, an inner relationship is developed which is the basis of further spiritual attainment. This is the guru-disciple relationship, the means of transmission of spiritual truth and higher understanding. During this period the mind is purified of old samskaras and attachments, and spiritual awareness is developed. The sannyasin seeks the guru's direct guidance for a period which is traditionally twelve years, but today this period depends more on the individual development of the sannyasin. Some may stay in the ashram for six months, others for six years, and others for a whole lifetime.
Nowadays there is also the possibility of training sannyasins in outside ashrams, perhaps in another city, state, or even in another country. In this case, the sannyasin still serves the guru and works very hard, running the ashram, giving classes, lectures, satsangs, seminars, addressing public meetings, and so on. Though he is in a more responsible position, he is still dependent on the guru's instructions, mental guidance and inspiration. Through such modern training, the sannyasin becomes independent much more quickly. However, it is usually only the more established and steady minded sannyasins who are ready for this type of training. Others need the guru's direct physical presence and guidance, and the strong spiritual vibrations of the main centre or the guru's home.
When the sannyasin has faith and confidence in the spiritual path, has experienced the inner world and is able to communicate with the guru on all levels, he leaves the ashram and becomes a mendicant or wanderer. At this stage, he is a responsible thinker, able to live outside without being captured by the illusions of the world. His purpose is strongly before his mind in all the circumstances of life which come before him. This is the homeless or wandering stage of sannyas. For some period he keeps moving, living with many different people and having a lot of experiences. Through this the sannyasin conies to understand the way people think, how and why they suffer, the purpose of life and what exactly it is that evolution means. By meeting thousands of people over a number of years, he discovers how to free people of their problems, how to help them.
Traditionally, the parivrajaka (wandering) sannyasin travelled by foot, without shoes or possessions, begging for food, avoiding cities and towns and rarely staying in one place for more than one night. Even today in India, many sannyasins and sadhus are wandering in this way. In keeping with modern society, however, the sannyasin today must undertake this stage of life in a more modern way. Using one of the outside ashrams as a base, he may make continuous extensive trips throughout the district, state or country giving lectures, classes and seminars wherever requested, and then moving on. During this period it may be feasible for the modern sannyasin to move about by train or plane or he may travel in a van in which he also eats and sleeps, meeting his travelling expenses with fees or donations collected from seminars and lectures. In this stage, the sannyasin is on his own. He no longer serves the guru or his mission directly and is not called upon to take up any responsible position in the ashram or institution. However, although he moves as a free agent, he is Very much linked with his guru on the higher planes, paying allegiance to him and sending all proceeds to the guru's ashram for propagation of the guru's mission.
When the sannyasin has travelled and seen much, when he has a good understanding of the people, their needs and their problems, when he has uprooted all personal identity with caste, state and nation, and feels that the whole world is his home and all people are his family, then he is ready to begin the third stage of sannyas life. Now is the time when the sannyasin stays in one place, preferably in complete solitude, for a long period of time in order to see the essence behind all things and to establish himself in highest consciousness. By remaining in the deepest state of meditation for long hours, without being aware of his own existence or of time, space and objectivity, just being in complete awareness of the totality, the state of highest consciousness is stabilised. The sannyasin may remain in this state for months or years. At the same time he reflects and investigates the mind as to the cause of suffering. Why does a man feel passion, hatred, jealousy and nervous depression? What are pain and distress? These and all kinds of things that man is suffering from are witnessed in order to discover their exact nature. This is the purpose of retiring into seclusion for a few years, but it must be done at the proper stage of sannyas life. Otherwise it will only halt the spiritual progress of the aspirant. During this period the dormant faculties- in the form of inner voices, visions, angels or sudden intuitive flashes- manifest themselves. Therefore the mind must already be purified, disciplined and illumined before attempting seclusion. Otherwise when the sannyasin sits all day for meditation he either falls asleep or becomes mentally imbalanced.
At the end of this period the sannyasin is so attuned to the cosmic forces which are now flowing through him in a mighty, raging torrent that his whole being is transformed. He is no longer a subsidiary stream flowing towards the source, but a mainstream which flows straight into the sea. He has merged with the source but still retains sufficient ego or individuality to live and function as an enlightened soul in the world. Now he has entered the fourth stage of sannyas life in which he establishes himself in one place and lets the disciples gather around. At this stage he is free to start his own mission or do whatever he feels would be most beneficial. He may even choose to do nothing at all; it is up to him. According to tradition this stage of sannyas is called Paramahamsa because now the sannyasin is able to separate the essence of things from the surface appearance, the real from the unreal, the truth from the untruth.
The final stages of sannyas cannot really be described, because they are in the realm of the ineffable states of highest consciousness. It is sufficient to say that the avadhoota is a fully realised being, a jivanmukta, (liberated soul) whose every obligation has been fulfilled.