Ashtavakra Samhita, Chapter 3, Verse 14
Dheera, the Stable Minded Seer
yadrichchayagato bhogo na duhkhaaya na tushtaye
He who has given up the impure thoughts of his mind and who is free from dualities and desires feels neither pleasure nor pain for what comes to him or happens to him by chance.
The true meaning of renunciation
In very practical terms, sanyasa means leading a free and effortless life, or living as life happens, without choice, effort, desire, expectation or likes and dislikes. A sanyasi is the one who is not bound to anything, not even to the idea of a particular God or to his own vows, which he may observe without any attachment. He has to be mentally and physically free from everything and remain steadfast, unrestrained by the attractions and temptations of life.
That freedom is expressed by the renunciants (sadhus, swamis and sanyasis) in every aspect of their lives. It primarily begins with the name and form (nama rupa) and caste rules. The initiate has to forego the name given to him by his parents, including his family or caste name, along the observations or rules associated with it, and assume whatever name that is given to him by his teacher. Secondly, he has to give up his preference for caste marks, clothing and shelter and become a homeless wanderer, wearing a simple garment or a piece of cloth to cover his nakedness.
Thirdly, he has to forego his taste for food and stop cooking food for himself, pledging to live solely by begging and eating whatever food that is offered to him. These rules are imposed on the practitioners by almost all ascetic traditions in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism to teach them the importance of living at the mercy of fate, circumstances or chance, without using their will or exerting their minds and bodies to take control of the situation.
Renunciation is not just about restraint only. A sanyasi does not have to reject each and everything that comes his way as if he is enslaved to his own will, unless he or she has explicit guidance or instruction from the teacher as part of a vow or transformative practice. The idea is that renunciants should not have a choice or preference and live as life happens. As a part of it, if something good comes their way, they can enjoy it. Similarly, if they encounter any pain, adversity or difficulty, they must endure it, without complaining.
This verse alludes to that state of a self-realized yogi who has overcome the duality of attraction and aversion and stabilized his mind. He not only gives up desire or aversion to things, since he considers them to be empty in themselves but also all manners of choice and preference. He sets no priorities, nor any agenda, aim or goal. Contented with whatever happens, he embraces life with the steadiness of his mind.
Thus, the religious and spiritual traditions of India approach renunciation from a broader perspective. Their aim is not to restrain or bind the followers, but to set them free. The practice is not just about giving up, resisting, controlling, avoiding or escaping. Renunciation does not mean that you give up everything for the sake of giving up, without corresponding inner transformation. The litmus test is whether one has given up the inner impurities (antah tyakta kashaayasya) and attained purity.
The Bhagavadgita clearly affirms that true renunciation is renunciation of desire for things or for the fruit of your actions. It is practiced by having neither desire nor attachment to worldly things and becoming indifferent to everything, starting from one’s own identity or ego (anava) and relationships (pasas). To be free from the bonds of life one must cultivate inner freedom, without which no one can be truly free or achieve liberation. Freedom from desire is in itself the highest and the ultimate freedom.
Nowadays, you may come across a few spiritual gurus, who engage in protests or sit outs to express their anger or displeasure towards some events or statements, which they find objectionable. They may have their own spiritual or personal reasons for it. However, traditionally it is not what a Sanyasi is supposed to do since he is not supposed to have any explicit or implicit connection with the world or worldly life. He is supposed to be a recluse, undisturbed by the happenings in the world, which are part of God's will.
As the Bhagavadgita states, a true yogi is one who practices nonviolence in letter and spirit as the highest virtue. He neither disturbs others nor feels disturbed by them or by the world. He remains in this state because he is detached, free from preconceived notions and gives up choice.
We have seen in the previous verse that ordinary people establish relationship with things and others according to their intrinsic or perceived value. They see something in them that they like or dislike, rather than seeing nothing. In contrast, the stable minded one sees everything as empty in itself, having no lasting value or worth, whereby he becomes equal to all, and is not disturbed by their presence or absence.
A renunciant carries upon himself the burden of not only his vows and austerities but also the unconditional freedom that comes with it. He has to exercise a perfect balance between using his will upon himself and letting go of it when needed to let the will of God take over. He cannot do it, unless he has discretion or discerning wisdom (buddhi), which shines only when the mind and body are pure with the predominance of sattva.
We often come across spiritual gurus who live in opulence or who enjoy the luxuries of life. Outwardly they may appear as bhogis (enjoyers) rather than yogis (renunciants), for which they are criticized, and their spirituality is questioned. It is possible that some of them may be tricksters who exploit their gullible followers. However, our tradition does not condemn a spiritual person who enjoys the things of the world and the luxuries of life that come to him by chance.
If he or she shows any particular preference, one may question them. Spiritual masters may also have some weaknesses which they cannot easily get rid of. For example, some babas smoke cigars or prefer a particular food item. These are probably because of past life impressions (vasanas), which no amount of spiritual effort can remove. As long as they are not harmful and not encouraging others to practice the same, they can be condoned.
Due to the influence of Abrahamic religions many Hindus believe that yogis, sadhus and spiritual masters should shun all worldly things and lead austere lives. This is a mistaken notion. Austerity is an essential part of spiritual transformation. An initiate must take vows and abstain from every worldly pleasure until he overcomes all attachments and become stable and pure. However, once the foundation is set, he has to forego even those vows and austerities and respond to life without choice and preference.
In renunciation, the emphasis is not upon avoiding things, but mainly upon controlling desires and overcoming attachments to become free from everything that limits and binds the practitioner. The ultimate purpose of spiritual practice is to cultivate detachment and dispassion rather than shunning worldly things. Restraint is needed on the path, but at some stage in the practice even the restraint has to be renounced, because whatever you hold on to becomes an obstacle to total freedom.
A true renunciant who reaches that level of perfection on the path is not disturbed by positive or negative circumstances. He is not conditioned by having or not having things. He accepts what comes to him by itself, be it pleasures or pain, without judgment, choice and expectation. This is the ideal state of renunciation, a life without effort, choice, desires and attachments.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Om, Aum, Pranava or Nada in Mantra and Yoga Traditions
- Brahmacharya or Celibacy in Hinduism
- Atheism and Materialism in Ancient India
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- Creation in Hinduism As a Transformative Evolutionary Process
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- Understanding Death and Impermanence
- Lessons from the Dance of Kali, the Mother Nature
- Letting your God live in You - The True Essence of the Hindu Way of Life
- prajnanam brahma - Brahman is Intelligence
- Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs From The Perspective Of Hinduism
- The Definition and Concept of Maya in Hinduism
- The Meaning of Nirvana
- Self-knowledge, Difficulties in Knowing Yourself
- Hinduism - Sex and Gurus
- The Construction of Hinduism
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- The Origin and Significance of the Epic Mahabharata
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- Why Hinduism is a Preferred Choice for Educated Hindus
- Essays On Dharma
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- The Origin of The Sanskrit Language
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- Essays on The Upanishads
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- General Essays
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