Cultivating the Attitude of Renunciation

Sanyasa, Renunciation

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about cultivating the attitude of renunciation (sanyasa) in everyday life.


We are going to discuss here the practical implications of sanyasa or renunciation for those who want to practice spirituality. It is not easy to live as a renunciant or an ascetic person. Our law books put a number of restrictions on people who take up sanyasa as way of life. For example, Gautama, one of the proponents of Hindu code of conduct proposed that an ascetic should not keep any possessions, must be a celibate, should not change his residence during the rainy season or enter any village except for begging. He also stipulated that he must live by begging alone and should beg late in the day after people finished eating.

Other proponents of Hindu ethical laws concur. They declare that renunciants should not entertain any desire, including the desire for tasty food, nor should they wear any clothes except a small rag to cover their nakedness. Accordingly, in ancient India, renunciants led a very harsh and restrained life. They subsisted on roots and fruits, as they took vows not to cook food using fire or eat parts of any living plant or tree. In the final phases, renunciants gave up food and water and slowly allowed their bodies to weaken and perish as a mark of ultimate sacrifice.

The Bhagavadgita suggests that those who desire liberation should live in a secluded place, renouncing desires, and practice meditation, with their minds fixed upon the Self or God. The Mundaka Upanishad declares all kinds of sacrifices as inferior and obstacles to overcome death and rebirth. Those who engage in them are ignorant and deluded, while those who practice austerities, dwell in forests and cast-off desires reach the immortal heaven through the door of the Sun.

According to Hinduism, liberation (Moksha) is the highest goal. All goals are supposed to lead to it. For that, renunciation of desire is the best means, whether one is a dutiful householder, seeker of knowledge or a renunciant. However, it is not easy to practice renunciation as prescribed in our religious texts or enter the life of sanyasa without struggle and prior preparation. Before casting off everything into the fire of renunciation, one must be mentally prepared to engage in that sacred journey.

Most people are not ready for the austere and rigorous life of renunciation. They are also not meant to be, since it is a part of Nature’s design to ensure the order, regularity and continuity of the worlds. However, until that resolve becomes firmly established in the mind, one can cultivate an attitude of renunciation and purify the mind and body. As a householder or a student, you may have many obligations. Yet, living your normal life, you can bring the ideals and principles of renunciation into daily practice by infusing them into your thinking and behavior.

By doing so, you can protect yourself from the disappointments, uncertainties and frustration which we commonly face and live with certain spiritual awareness, presence of mind, courage and conviction. It will also help you build character and integrity and elevate your consciousness to a higher level where you will have a different perspective about things, people and situations, as you view them with detachment and dispassion.

It is up to each individual how they cultivate the attitude of renunciation. They can do it by understanding what renunciation implies for people in today’s world, especially those who have not yet made up their minds about how they want to balance their material and spiritual aspirations. Buddhism and Jainism prescribe vows and guidelines for lay followers for the same purpose only. They mentally and physically prepare people for the life of sanyasa, while allowing them to pursue worldly goals with certain spiritual awareness and sense of responsibility.

Hindu ascetic traditions also follow a similar approach. If you are not ready for the harsh life of renunciation, you can still cultivate the attitude of renunciation and let it firmly settle in your mind through daily practice. For that, you require certain important changes and adjustments in thinking and expectations. You may not yet be able to live like a renunciant, but you must learn to think like one. In this regard, the following suggestions are worth remembering.

1. Spend time with yourself. The world grows upon you. It wears you down. When you are deeply involved with the world and people, you will have little opportunity to introspect or find the sanctuary of peace within you. Many people cannot live alone even for a short time. They seek company to avoid the boredom or to escape from themselves or their problems. You may be habitually accustomed to finding happiness, comfort and assurance in others. However, you know that you cannot always control that process or rely upon the people. You are your best sanctuary. You can find peace and happiness within you by going beyond your surface thoughts. Withdraw from whatever that keeps you busy and look within to clarify your thoughts, know yourself or find solutions to your problems. Avoid running to others when you are alone or disturbed and use those moments to focus upon yourself and find peace within yourself.

2. Become your own person. From your childhood, you are influenced by numerous people, ideas, opinions, values, groups, institutions and authority figures. They do not let you be free, as they condition you and establish an invisible control upon you. In your eagerness for approval and acceptance, you may not see it happening, but the reality is that all your thoughts, opinions, judgments, actions, attitudes and behavior are shaped by them or by the knowledge which you accumulate from them. As you become deeply attached to them, you do not even bother to check whether you have the right knowledge or understanding of anything, including yourself. If you want to bring out your uniqueness and cultivate your authentic self, you must free your mind from irrational beliefs, conditioned thinking and unverified knowledge. It is possible only when you mentally renounce your blind allegiance to authority figures, institutions, scriptures, etc., and subject them to scrutiny, reason and reality check. When you free your mind from all mental and emotional crutches, you will be less prone to perceptual errors, irrational beliefs and thinking errors.

3. Learn to let go of the possessions and accumulations. Ownership is a burden, although in worldly life it gives you certain power, prestige, status and control. Anything that you claim as yours, be it knowledge, an opinion or a possession, is a potential cause of conflict, desire, sin and suffering, and everything, which settles in your mind, consciousness or memory and with which you form an attachment or a feeling of ownership, is an accumulation, a burden or an obstacle. It is the burden which you carry, or the shadow that dutifully follows you. It not only limits your freedom to be yourself and think for yourself with an open mind but also draws you into the objective world and keeps you involved and bound to the things that you like or dislike. Even the knowledge or religion in which you take pride or which you tend to defend is a burden if you refuse to let go of the attachment. Think of all the things which you think you own or possess. Mentally give up your attachment to them, so that you can set your mind free, and lightly walk on the surface of impermanence without drowning yourself in it.

4. Peel of all labels and identities that define you. You are always someone or something to the world. The world recognizes you and deals with you, using numerous labels that are associated or derived from your personality, appearance, social, cultural, racial or ethnic background, ownership of things, status, profession, position, authority, religion, nationality, language, birth, friendships, relationships and so on. They not only define you but also create expectations from you and in you. In the process, you do not know who you truly are. You become lost in such labels. However, have you ever thought what you are if you had none of those labels? Your core personality is hidden beneath layers of these identities. What remains when you take them all out and stand alone, empty, without any title, name, association, achievement, possession, recognition or status? Finding your pure persona or true identity beyond all names and forms by renouncing them and peeling them off is the essence of sanyasa.

5. Give up the urge to promote or protect yourself. In worldly life, defending or protecting yourself and those who seek your protection is considered a virtue and an obligatory duty. If someone criticizes you, you have the right to respond to it mildly or aggressively, rationally or emotionally, according to your predominant nature or the situation. However, in spiritual practice, it is not encouraged since it is a sign of egoism and selfishness. Spiritual people are expected not to defend themselves or engage in any form of emotional or violent actions to promote, protect or preserve their name, reputation, status, identity or individuality. They may express their opinions or counter those of others in a sattvic way, without losing control or showing any emotion or aggression. True renunciants do not even bother to do it. They respond to everything with silence. Hence, they are called Munis, meaning the silent ones. The attitude of renunciation enjoins that you respond to criticism with tolerance and avoid forcing your opinions upon others. You should remain indifferent to what the world thinks about you or how it judges you.

You can cultivate the attitude of renunciation in numerous other ways according to your judgment and discretion. The rules and restraints (yamas and niyamas) in the Yoga tradition, the practice of virtues on the Eightfold Path in Buddhism, the vows which are meant for lay people and advanced followers in Jainism are meant for this purpose only. The Bhagavadgita expects God’s devotees to live like householders but think like renunciants. By that, it brings the wisdom of ageless traditions into daily practice. In today’s world, such an approach is even more appropriate for people who want to pursue their material goals without losing their minds or peace and happiness.

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