What Is Real Renunciation?

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Yogis used to retreat to the Himalayas (some still do), but there's a better way to pursue spiritual truth.

With all of life’s ups and downs, it can be frustrating to live in the material world. When things get really tough, it's easy to want to retire from everything and just renounce the world. After all, you wouldn’t have to deal with all the inconveniences of modern life if you just ran away to the Himalayas.

Of course, many people throughout the ages have done just that. In an attempt to escape the miseries of material existence, yogis have taken shelter in secluded places like the Himalayas to renounce the world. That would make life a lot simpler, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t have to worry about the stresses of modern life, like getting a good job or paying the bills. Even Arjuna, the great warrior of the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata, was prepared to leave the battle and become a beggar instead of fighting in the bloody Kurukshetra War.

But trying to renounce the world in such a way presents a problem. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (3.6),

karmendriyani samyamya
ya aste manasa smaran
indriyarthan vimudhatma
mithyacharah sa uchyate

“One who restrains the senses of action but whose mind dwells on sense objects certainly deludes himself and is called a pretender.” Even though we may be aloof from the world and not engaging the senses materially, we may still have material desires and will thus think about material sense objects, like food, TV, and sports. We may try to renounce the world artificially, but ultimately, because the mind is active by nature, we will simply dwell on material desires.

The Vedic literature tells of sages who failed to renounce the world by retiring into the forest. One was Vishvamitra Muni, who took to the forest to perform severe austerities and penances. However, his attempts to renounce the world were foiled when the beautiful Menaka approached him. Vishvamitra Muni simply heard the sound of her ankle bells, and he broke his meditation and copulated with her. Since someone who retires to the forest is supposed to observe celibacy, Vishvamitra Muni thus fell down from his chosen path of renunciation.

Now you might be thinking, well, if being in the world causes suffering and retiring from the world also doesn’t work, what can we do? We have to work to maintain ourselves, but work often entangles us and leads to further complications. If only there was some way that we could act within this world and fulfill our soul’s need for activity while remaining detached and free from further entanglement.

Renouncing While Engaging

Well, luckily there is a way. Rupa Goswami, a great saint of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, speaks about yukta-vairagya, or real renunciation (literally "engaged renunciation"). He describes it as follows, "When one is not attached to anything, but at the same time accepts everything in relation to Krishna, one is rightly situated above possessiveness. On the other hand, one who rejects everything without knowledge of its relationship to Krishna is not as complete in his renunciation." (Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu 1.2.255-256) Thus, real renunciation means engaging everything in the service of God, or Krishna, who states in the Bhagavad-gita (9.10) that the material nature is one of His energies. Therefore it can be used in His service. By following the principle of yukta-vairagya, someone can work honestly in the world and live a typical life, but still be more renounced than someone who has retreated to the Himalayas to withdraw his senses from the world.

Srila Prabhupada demonstrated this principle effectively through the use of a dictaphone, a voice-recording machine that he used it to write his books. He would record his translations and purports, and his disciples would transcribe the recording into text. Although normally a dictaphone might be seen as something material, by using it in the service of God, Prabhupada was able to spiritualize it and use it to spread Krishna consciousness all over the world.

An example from the Vedic literature is the great King Ambarisha, who had tremendous wealth. You might think that a wealthy king would be an unsuitable person to follow a spiritual path. But King Ambarisha was a very advanced transcendentalist. He was so exalted in fact, that when the sage Durvasa cursed him, the curse backfired because King Ambarisha had gained the Lord's special protection.

Though King Ambarisha had great wealth, he didn’t become attached to it, because he used it all for the Lord’s service. He worshiped the Lord with great opulence, and as a result he became very spiritually advanced. King Ambarisha was able to continue on the path of spiritual life, unlike Vishvamitra Muni, who fell down despite leaving for the forest. Thus, one who practices yukta-vairagya can remain steady in spiritual life even in the midst of great material opulence.

Moreover, those in the renounced order of life (sannyasa) can also adopt the principle of yukta-vairagya. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Srila Prabhupada's spiritual master, demonstrated the principle of yukta-vairagya effectively through the use of dioramas. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati created large diorama exhibits depicting the Lord’s pastimes. These exhibits attracted many people, and as a result he was able to spread his mission more rapidly. He even applied yukta-vairagya to his wardrobe by dressing in suits, which was unheard of for someone in the renounced order of life. He did this so that the British would take him seriously and listen to his teachings.

Avoiding Pitfalls

Because the soul is active by nature, it can't refrain from activity. A life of artificial renunciation in the forest can’t satisfy the soul, because the senses need some type of engagement. But when we work to enjoy the result of our work, we can become frustrated. Krishna describes in the Gita (2.62-63) how attachment for sense objects results in frustration:

dhyayato vishayan pumsah
sangas teshupajayate
sangat sanjayate kamah
kamat krodho ‘bhijayate

krodhad bhavati sammohah
sammohat smriti-vibhramah
smriti-bhramshad buddhi-nasho
buddhi-nashat pranashyati

"While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises. From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool." By the process of yukta-vairagya, however, and ultimately by bhakti-yoga, we can avoid the pitfalls of material frustration as well as inactivity.

When adopt the principle of yukta-vairagya, we also open our hearts more. By leaving everything and retreating to a solitary place, we close down our hearts and lose our innate compassion for other living beings. But instead, we can use our material assets to serve God and others. The great king and devotee Prahlada Maharaja is an exemplar of this idea. He states,

prayena deva munayah sva-vimukti-kama
maunam charanti vijane na parartha-nishthah
naitan vihaya kripanan vimumuksha eko
nanyam tvad asya sharanam bhramato ‘nupashye

"My dear Lord Nrisimhadeva, I see that there are many saintly persons indeed, but they are interested only in their own deliverance. Not caring for the big cities and towns, they go to the Himalayas or the forest to meditate with vows of silence [mauna-vrata]. They are not interested in delivering others. As for me, however, I do not wish to be liberated alone, leaving aside all these poor fools and rascals. I know that without Krishna consciousness, without taking shelter of Your lotus feet, one cannot be happy. Therefore I wish to bring them back to shelter at Your lotus feet." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.9.44) Rather than retire from all material activities, Prahlada Maharaja used his status as a king to enlighten others in spiritual knowledge. We can learn from his example and use whatever material facilities we have to guide others along their spiritual path.

Yukta-vairagya is not limited to gross material objects. Students or seekers of knowledge can use their learning in the service of the Lord. Prabhupada comments in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.5.22, Purport), “Therefore, all the sages and devotees of the Lord have recommended that the subject matter of art, science, philosophy, physics, chemistry, psychology, and all other branches of knowledge should be wholly and solely applied in the service of the Lord.” Thus, one does not have to abandon the pursuit of material knowledge, which can help one on the spiritual journey if applied properly.

Ultimately, by following the principle of yukta-vairagya we can become detached from the distresses and disturbances of life while still acting responsibly in this world. Moreover, by using everything for Krishna's service we not only become detached from the material world, but we also become attached to Krishna. Such attachment benefits us because the soul hankers to relate intimately with Krishna. We have an eternal loving relationship with Him, and through service we can revive this dormant love for Him and become eternally blissful. Moreover, Krishna reciprocates with us, as He describes in the Bhagavad-gita (4.11),

ye yatha mam prapadyante
tams tathaiva bhajamy aham

"As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly." Therefore, when we render service to Krishna, He reciprocates with our devotion and takes a greater interest in our lives, so that we may ultimately come back to Him and enjoy a life of eternal bliss and knowledge.

About the Author: 

Akshay Gupta

Akshay Gupta is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.