Dictionary defines the word ‘Renunciation’ as follows:
‘the formal rejection of something, typically a belief, claim, or course of action.’
All over the world, we come across people who practice the spirit of Renunciation – There are some who renounce bad/harmful habits or renounce bad association, and there are some who renounce negative thoughts/words/deeds, etc. Again, we find people, who are a bit more serious and claim to belong to the Renounced order of life altogether, like the saints or sannyasis or Fakirs. Some of them have renounced family and while some have renounced the association of women; some have renounced riches or intoxicants, whereas some of them claim to have renounced all of the above.In this article we are going to discuss the role of Renunciation in our daily lives, and try to understand whether it is at all necessary to cultivate the spirit of Renunciation in our society.
Many times, we find in the News that so and so Sannyasi (one who is renounced) is doing such and such nonsense contrary to what he Preaches. In India, there has been hundreds of such instances in the past, which has shattered the faith of the common people upon the renunciates , in general. In the Previous days, these Renunciates, commanded huge amount of respect and reverence from the common masses.
But lately, news of such deviation of the renunciates from their own principles, are making people question the very essence of Renunciation and whether it is practically feasible to sustain such a spirit in our lives; They are beginning to question whether all the so-called renunciates are actually cheats only hankering after their money. It is against this background, with this context in our mind,that we are going to start off our discussion , so as to understand what is the actual purpose of renunciation , and what is its impact in our lives, so that we can differentiate between the genuine and fake renunciates and at the same adopt the principles of renunciation in our own lives as per our capacity and feasibility, and subsequently benefit from the same.
The Need for Renunciation
The Vedic literatures, which arguably are the oldest texts of the world, constituting the ways of life (Sanatan Dharma) of ancient India, throw the much needed light on the subject. According to the Vedic scriptures, we ,living beings, are essentially spirit souls, part and parcel of the Supreme Lord. But due to our association with matter from time immemorial, we have forgotten our original spiritual identity, and have come to identify ourselves with our own material bodies. As a result, we identify ourselves as either a black or a white, a hindu muslim or a Christian, an American or a Russian, a human being or a dog,etc. And misguided by our mistaken identities, we discriminate, fight wars, brood enemity and so on.
The Vedic literatures inform us that there are altogether 8.4 million species of life and at the time of death, depending upon the consciousness and taste of the particular individual,he is awarded a similar kind of body in his next birth. For example, if a person is too addicted to sleeping, he might be getting the body of a polar bear in his next birth, and one who is too addicted to eating meat , might be getting the body of a tiger/lion which is specially equipped for killing and having flesh, and so on.
Thus in this process of transmigration, the same spirit soul identifies himself with the body of a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, American, Russian, Pakistani, Indian, Dog, Cow, Lion, male, female, etc in his different births and is forever trapped in this material world enjoying and suffering his different material existences, unless he becomes completely frustrated and wants his way out of this quagmire.
The body, encapsulating the soul, suffers through birth, disease, old age and death in its life cycle and is subjected to the 3 kinds of miseries – miseries due to its own body and mind, miseries due to other living entities and the miseries that are caused due to natural disturbances like flood, earthquake, etc. While the soul is eternal, cognizant, and blissful and is immortal and unchangeable by nature, it remains trapped inside the body made of matter which enjoys and suffers the pleasure and pain of material existence.
The Vedic scriptures further state that a Human birth is very rare and is a golden opportunity for a fortunate soul to escape from the clutches of material nature. In an animal birth , the consciousness is not at a fully developed stage, but in a human birth , the consciousness is developed enough to be aware of the problems of material existence and with good intelligence we can start enquiring into the very purpose of life itself. The Vedas state that in a human life, we should enquire into questions like – Who Am I? Who is God? Why am I suffering ? And if a fortunate human being is God conscious and at the time of death can remember the Supreme Lord, he would at once be liberated and would go back home, back to the spiritual world, and would not take birth again here in this material world.
“And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Bhagavad Gita – 8.5)
The soul, being the part and parcel of the Supreme lord, is always hankering for His association ,not finding which, it is always in a state of lamentation. The soul interacts with the outside world through the medium of senses, and senses are always attracted to sense objects, which are nothing but dull material objects. For example, the tongue wants to have nice foodstuffs, the skin wants sexual pleasure, the eyes want to view nice pleasure objects, the ears want to hear one’s own glorification, etc. whereas the soul actually wants to associate with the supersoul, God. So when we try to satisfy ourselves by means of sense gratification, we ,being spirit souls, end up getting frustrated. So coupled with the pangs of material nature, the sorrow of not uniting with the Supreme Lord, makes our existence very miserable and gloomy.
The Vedic literatures hence advise us that we cultivate a spirit of renunciation from the sensual objects, as far as possible. Brooding over sense objects is only going to make us greedy, and gratifying our senses is only going to leave us frustrated. The more we are going to indulge in sense gratification, the more bewildered we are going to be, and more will the pangs of miseries be inflicted upon us by the material nature. And when we manage to bring our senses under control, we can then begin our journey towards God Realization. The Vedic literatures instruct us in the process of yoga, for the purpose of uniting the soul with the supersoul.
‘Yoga’ does not refer to the performing of some physical exercises, as is the common perception these days, but instead is a systematic process to elevate our consciousness to greater and greater levels of awareness to ultimately realize God.
Controlling the Senses
The first two steps of practicing Yoga is Yama and Niyama or the Dos and the DONTs, which help bring the senses under control.’Yama’ refers to the DONTs or the actions which need to be avoided and ‘Niyama’ refers to the Dos ,those favourable activities that need to be performed to achieve the desired goal. Thus we understand that to control the senses is the preliminary aim of any genuine yoga system , and in order to achieve that, we need to Renounce activities which are deemed unfavourable. This system of Do’s and the Dont’s is applicable not only in yoga but in all aspects of life, regardless of whether one wants success in material or spiritual life. For example, one can play or go to cinemas before exams or choose to stay at home and study instead, one can spend all his money on food and entertainment or save them for buying a car later on, etc. So renouncing the short term goals for the sake of long term success is a widely accepted formula.
“He who is regulated in his habits of eating, sleeping, recreation and work can mitigate all material pains by practicing the yoga system.” (Bhagavad Gita 6.17)
The Vedic culture lays a great emphasis on Sense control and Renouncing of unfavorable activities. In olden times ,Little Boys were sent to Gurukula (institutions) where they would be trained up on various subjects for the first 25 years of their lives. They were trained to live under austere conditions (even if they happened to be princes) and practice controlling their senses. Girls ,on the other hand, were trained up in chastity. Such value based education would lay the groundwork for successful families and ideal societies.
Of all the systems of Yoga mentioned in the Vedic scriptures, the process of Bhakti Yoga stands supreme. The word Bhakti roughly translates to loving devotional service, and this system of Yoga, emphasizes on developing a personal loving relationship with the Lord.
“And of all yogīs, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself and renders transcendental loving service to Me – he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.” (Bhagavad Gita 6.47)
In the process of Bhakti Yoga , whatever one does, whatever one eats, or whatever austerities (yama and Niyama) one performs is done as an offering unto the lord. So in the process of Bhakti Yoga, all the things/activities that the yogi Renounces, is done because the lord does not like them. Similarly, all the actions that the Bhakti Yogi performs, is because the Lord likes those activities.
“Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform – do that, O son of Kuntī, as an offering to Me.”(Bhagavad Gita 9.27).
The 9 processes of serving the Lord in devotional service, following which, one is sure to advance in Bhakti Yoga are:
- Sravanam (Hearing about the Lord)),
- Kirtanam (Chanting of the Lord’s name),
- Smaranam (Remembering),
- Pada-sevanam (serving His lotus feet),
- Arcanam (worshipping the Lord),
- Vandanam (Offering obeisances unto Him),
- Dasyam (becoming His servant) ,
- Sakhyam (becoming His friend),
- Atma-nivedanam (completely offering oneself unto the Lord).
They increase one’s attachment to the Lord, and help him progress in his devotional service. Of these Hearing and chanting of the Lord’s name and glories are especially very significant and help one progress very quickly in Bhakti.
The above mentioned are the activities(Niyama) that a devotee should perform. Similarly all the devotees of the Lord, practicing Bhakti Yoga, renounce activities (Yama) like – Eating meat, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. All these activities entangle one in sense gratification ,pushing him deeper into the ocean of material sufferings. As long as one is engaged in unrestricted sensual pleasures, one would continue to perform sinful activities, and would be going further away from the Lord and would hence continue to suffer in this material creation.
Hence in the process of Bhakti Yoga both enjoyment -like honouring (eating) Prasadam (food offered to the Lord) and Renunciation –like giving up illicit sex (sex outside marriage) or intoxicants is done with an objective of pleasing the Lord.
Markata Vairagya (False Renunciation):
One should not become a show-bottle renunciate. Here an analogy is often referred to – Even monkeys in the forest , make an external show of renunciation by not accepting any clothes and living naked , but they are always anxious to enjoy with dozens of female monkeys. Such Renunciation is called Markata Vairagya – the renunciation of a monkey. One cannot be really renounced until one actually becomes disgusted with material activity and sees it as a stumbling block to spiritual advancement. At the same the renunciation should not be temporary but should remain throughout one’s life.
When Raghunath Das Goswami(one of the six Goswamis of Vrindavan) wanted to renounce his family life and dedicate his life to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mission, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu warned Raghunath Das against becoming such a false Renunciate. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu told him:
“Be patient and return home. Don’t be a crazy fellow. By and by you will be able to cross the ocean of material existence. You should not make yourself a showbottle devotee and become a false renunciate. For the time being, enjoy the material world in a befitting way and do not become attached to it. Within your heart you should keep yourself very faithful, but externally you may behave like an ordinary man. Thus Kṛṣṇa will soon be very pleased and deliver you from the clutches of māyā.”
Yukta Vairagya (Perfect Renunciation):
One who renounces all his external activities and goes to live in the forest with a purpose to cease all his karma(work) and nullify its subsequent reactions, is not perfect in his renunciation because he still harbors the desire for sense gratification within his heart. That is why we see so many Jnana Yogis falling down from their position, and in their future ,take to politics or other societal activities, because they are not successful in escaping the material nature whose binding is very strong. Its like burning the bamboo trees in a forest with an objective of eliminating them. Such an activity meets failure, however, because the roots of the Bamboo remain under the ground, which may sprout up at any moment.
Then what exactly is renunciation? In the Bhagavad-gita (6.1-2) Krishna gives His definition: “One who is unattached to the fruits of his work and who works as he is obligated is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic, not he who lights no fire and performs no duty. What is called renunciation you should know to be the same as yoga, or linking oneself with the Supreme, O son of Pandu, for one can never become a yogi unless he renounces the desire for sense gratification.” According to this definition, a renunciate is not simply someone who gives up external duties. A renunciate is one who gives up all personal, selfish interests, while at the same time working for God’s interest.
Srila Rupa Goswami, one of the foremost of the 6 Goswamis of Vrindavan, states that “When one is not attached to anything but at the same time accepts everything in relation to Kṛṣṇa (God), one is rightly situated above possessiveness. On the other hand, one who rejects everything without knowledge of its relationship to Kṛṣṇa(God) is not as complete in his renunciation.” (Nectar of Devotion).
Hence if we harbor no interest of our own, but at the same time accept everything for the sake of serving the Lord, then we are acting in Yukta Vairagya. For example, if i consider, my job to be a service to the Lord, as it provides me a salary every month, from which I donate a portion to the temple or use it to serve the devotees, then I am acting in Yukta Vairagya. For instance if I consider my wife and children to be the devotees of the Lord, then serving them to the best of my ability is equivalent to serving devotees, and my service in that mood is Yukta Vairagya. Ofcourse before considering such, I need to make sure that my family is engaged in Bhakti Yoga and is practicing atleast one of the nine processes of devotional service mentioned above. In the same manner bearing children, with a view to train them up in Bhakti, and make them good devotees of the Lord is Yukta Vairagya. In other words, we need to dovetail our actions, consciousness and our entire existence to the service of the Lord.
It doesn’t matter whether such a Renunciate lives in his house or stays in the jungle. One of the most powerful Acharyas of our Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya sampradaya , Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur, was a family-man and had ten children. He was a renouned magistrate of his times. The books he wrote and his dear child , Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur, whom he trained up as a perfect devotee of the Lord, were instrumental in reviving the process of Bhakti Yoga and chanting of the Lord’s holy names throughout the world. Again if we look at the six Goswamis of Vrindavan, whose examples are an inspiration to one and all, were leading very austere lives, chanting the names of the lord in the forests and eating whatever little they obtained by begging. But, Both the six goswamis, who were living under the trees, and Bhaktivinoda Thakur, who was leading a householder’s life, were intensely engrossed in serving the lord to the best of their capacity, and hence perfected their lives.
Narottam Das Thakur, a renouned Vaishnava (devotee), conveys the essence of Perfect Renunciation appropriately in one of his Bhajans:
gaura-prema-rasarnave, se tarange jeba dube,
grihe ba vanete thake, ‘ha gauranga’ bo’le dake,
narottama mage tara sanga
Anyone who takes pleasure sporting within the waves of the ocean of Lord Caitanya’s distribution of love of God immediately becomes a confidential devotee of Sri Sri Radha-Madhava. It doesn’t matter whether such a devotee is in the renounced order of life or whether he is a householder. If he is actually taking part in Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana activities and actually understanding what it is, then such a person is always liberated. Narottama dasa aspires for his association.
Here Narottama Das Thakur exclaims that one, who is always engrossed in loving devotional service to the Supreme Lord and takes part in regularly chanting His holy names , irrespective of whether that person stays in the forest or is a householder, is a confidential devotee of the Supreme Lord and has perfected his life. Narottam Das Thakur aspires for the association of such saintly elevated devotees.
– Dwaipayan De , Kolkata