Renunciation

It is very easy to totally misunderstand yogic ideas and to become bewildered by apparent contradictions. A good example is the idea of renunciation. One is often told to renounce the world and take up a life of contemplation. On the other hand, one hears that they should not discard objects and duties, but live fully in the world, while practising karma yoga. There seems to be an obvious and irreconcilable contradiction between these two viewpoints. But actually there is no contradiction - both ideas say the same thing. The confusion only arises because of wrong interpretation. Some people leave all their material possessions and duties, thinking that this is renunciation. It is not necessary to leave the actions and things of the world. One should try to renounce not the actions or possessions, but attachment to them. This is the meaning of renunciation. It is renouncement of the attachment to objects, not the actual objects or situations themselves. There is a big difference in these two meanings.

Whichever path or paths of yoga you adopt, the initial aim is to relax the mind-body complex, to make it healthy, to reduce the sense of ego and to bring about various other related, positive changes that we have already mentioned. Some people retire to a quiet place and start to practise hatha yoga and raja yoga. However, as we previously pointed out, this method is only for those who don't have too many inner conflicts or strong ties with the world. There are few people who can do this, for most have responsibilities and no great urge to leave the busy world anyway. Furthermore, it is not necessary to become a hermit; continue your daily activities and practise karma yoga. In both cases, living in solitude or in bustling surroundings, one should develop a sense of renunciation. This is necessary to gain the most from all yogic practices. If a man retires to a cave, with outward renunciation of the world, but with a deep inward longing for worldly objects and enjoyments, then he is fooling himself and will make no progress in his sadhana. This is not renunciation, for he is still very much attached. The path for most people is in and through the world and while practising yoga, including karma yoga. Continue to be involved with the things of the world, for these are part of life and there to be experienced. Why not? But at the same time you must try to become more aware and detached so that the ups and downs of daily life have less influence on you. The aim is to develop a mental attitude so that even grave crises will not shake you in a deeper sense. They may affect you superficially but not overwhelmingly. This does not mean that you should become like a vegetable, or hardened and totally indifferent, but that you accept life as it is, with its conflicts, hardships and apparent unfairness. This is renunciation.

Anyone can start to develop the attitude of renunciation. A king or a beggar can renounce and still live in the world of activity and duties. A king can be surrounded by fabulous wealth and still be totally detached. There were a number of kings in ancient India, such as Ashoka and Janaka, who epitomized renunciation. Conversely, a beggar can be completely attached, even though he has no material belongings. This is the case if he is continually craving objects and pleasures that he does not have - real renunciation is a mental attitude; it is not at all concerned with what one possesses or does not possess.

Does non-attachment or renunciation mean that people will become socially irresponsible?

This is a common question and criticism. No, this will not happen. In fact, exactly the opposite will occur. Those persons who become more detached in the real sense of the word, will become more responsible to society and mankind. The Bhagavad Gita makes this point very clear: "... he (who has renounced) delights in the welfare of all creatures" (5:25) In other words, one works better by being detached and so in this way everyone benefits more fully.

In the ashram there are two cars, both good cars. Many people say and think: "How can the sannyasins in the ashram be real swamis because they are still very much attached and absorbed in the material benefits of the world?" This is a total misunderstanding of the idea of renunciation. They fail to realize that there is little or no attachment to the cars in themselves. They are in the ashram merely for utility. Even though they are polished regularly and kept in good order, they are regarded as merely objects to be used. There is no sentimentality and no real attachment. It is the mental attitude that is important. The essence of renunciation is being able to renounce attachment to the objects yet still be involved with them.

This renunciation has to be cultivated and evolved gradually. At first it will be very limited renunciation, and will probably be more intellectual than anything else. There will be little depth of feeling. But as you continue to practise yoga you will find that renunciation will arise spontaneously and with more and more intensity. You will automatically become more detached as you progress along the path of yoga.

In karma yoga, work with total renunciation is called nishkama karma - 'selfless work'. Though no fruits are expected, it actually brings the greatest fruits, it brings peace of mind, higher awareness and knowledge.

Notes

1 Bhakti Yoga: Part 1 — Book II, Lesson 15, Topic 1; Part 2 - Book II, Lesson 16, Topic 1; Part 3 -Book II, Lesson 17, Topic 1; Part 4 - Book II, Lesson 18, Topic 1

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