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The limitations of Vairagya (renunciation)


Posted on March 14, 2015 by shantanup


In Religious Forms I referred to @Acintya_Ash ‘s statement in the thread Question for Gaudiya Vaishnava’s | ReligiousForums.com : ”Sri Madhvacharya says “bhakti combined with jnana and vairagya is the only path for attainment of Moksha, one should first practice ‘Vairagya’ which leads to ‘bhakti’ which in turn leads to the desire for ‘jnana’; once the path is laid the two, jnana and bhakti go hand-in-hand to lead us in the path of attaining His grace, which alone can grant us the ultimate goal of reaching His abode.”


This post is to explore the concept of Vairagya in terms of what it actually is as alluded to by Madhavacharya and developed by Sri Swami Sivananda. The thread is designed to collate as much information as possible on this topic and to analyse its role in the various ideas relating to Hinduism and therefore its limitations. I will start by quoting from the book by Sri Swami Sivananda (http://www.dlshq.org/download/vairagya.pdf) . He said: ”In enjoyment there is fear of disease, in social position, the fear of falling off, in wealth, the fear of (hostile) kings; in honour the fear of humiliation; in power, the fear of foe men; in beauty, the fear of old age; in scriptural erudition, the fear of opponents; in virtue, the fear of traducers; in body, the fear of death. All things of this world pertaining to human beings are attended with fear; renunciation alone stands for fearlessness” Thus Sri Swami Sivananda has clearly equated Vairagya with renunciation. He elaborates on how to get Vairagya as follows: ”1. Hari Om. Sensual pleasure is momentary, deceptive, illusory and imaginary. 2. A mustard of pleasure is mixed with a mountain of pain. 3. Enjoyment cannot bring about satisfaction of a desire. On the contrary, it makes the mind more restless after enjoyment through intense craving (Trishnas and Vasanas). 4. Sensual pleasure is an enemy of Brahma-jnana. 5. Sensual pleasure is the cause of birth and death. 6. The body is nothing but a mass of flesh, bone and all sorts of filth. 7. Place before the mind the fruits of Self-Realisation or life in the soul or Brahman or the Eternal, such as immortality, Eternal bliss, supreme peace and Infinite knowledge. If you remember the seven points always, the mind will be weaned from the cravings of sensual pleasures. Vairagya, Viveka and Mumukshtia (dispassion, discrimination from the real and the unreal, and keen longing for liberation from birth and death) will dawn. You should seriously look into the defects of sensual life (Dosha-Drishti) and into the unreal nature of worldly life (Mithya-Drishti) Read this once daily as soon as you get up from bed.”

I do not know why Sri Swami Sivananda begins his prescription with ‘Hari Om’. Hari is Sri Krishna as far as I know. Does Sri Krishna really want all humans to be renunciates who do not indulge in sensual pleasures? The whole of human biology and evolution that makes humanity progress in all sorts of ways (to improve living conditions and to ensure that there is a future generation) is centred on the fulfilment of sensual pleasures. Why would He create us in this way and then say that give up all your sensual pleasures and become renunciates. It does not make any sense to me. Secondly, we have our duties and responsibilities to fulfull, towards our families and to society as our dharma. Is that not a desire that has the blessing of Sri Krishna? So how are we to understand the words ‘attachment’ and ‘renunciation’ and their place in Hinduism. Sri Krishna advises to do ones duty and righteous actions without looking at the fruits of that dharma. That is the realisation or self-realisation of a bhakta of Sri Krishna. I do not think Gaudiya Vaishnavas will argue with that. I have no doubt that He says in the Gita, between karma and renunciation, the former is superior. This raises the question, does Sri Krishna advise people to aim for liberation from this world or to take part in it? Having said that I agree with Sri Swami Sivananda that sensual pleasure is the enemy of Brahma-jnana, which I take to mean Realisation through the process of truth-seeking that leads to the abode of Sri Krishna. Thus, the vairagya of renunciates is absolutely limited to people who want total liberation: sadhus and monks, who have no business getting married and having children and have no comment to pass on what happens in society. They should live in ashrams or in the forests or on the banks of Ganga river as sanyassis. This is not a criticism of renunciation, but a straightforward fact that needs to be understood. Specific to the original statement of this post on what Madhavacharya stated: it is incorrect to say that vairagya has to be practiced first as being the only path to His abode. Vairagya in its lesser form of pursing desires but with disattachment and faith comes during the process of jnana through bhakti in as much as is required for attaining His grace and reaching His abode. In conclusion, I do not believe God wishes us to be renunciates in preference to leading a life of dharma in which we use our bodies as we are endowed to do what is right in society.


It is quite possible for one to be a householder and do ones duties as needed and when these are done to live like a renunciate because one is living a minimalist existence with the bare minimum of involvements, not commenting on the world around one because of the realisation that God is there, and has been protecting and embracing the seeker so totally. As one is also no longer living to the gratification of the senses, perhaps this is what vairagya is.


The four stages in ashramas (brahmacharya through to sanyass) is just the practical method that has been devised by Hindus of using one’s age to various purposes in a logical sequence. Renunciation from realisation of God is something else.

In my experience, once a person has seen God’s power, wisdom, intelligence and glorious nature, as an individual the person cannot return to doing anything that harms Nature and so minimises his needs, which means controlling the senses as tightly as possible. In doing so he appears to be renouncing the material things around him and rids himself of his ego as well; for he sees that there is no point in trying to influence things in society because of who is actually in control over all our lives as human beings. This is just the reality that the person comes up against, the fact that it is not right to do anything other than take the bare minimum necessary from Nature to survive (as the person must do). This is what I mean by renunciation from realisation of God. I do not know for sure that renunciation for realisation works in its aim of attaining realisation of God; but it may have an effect of liberating the mind off attachments and desires. I do not know because I did not engage in this practice, so I do not have proof that control over one’s senses is seen by God as a good thing that deserves the yogadaan (gift) of God-realisation. I gave up living to desires as I began to know God. God has to assist the process of realisation, it is not an automatic thing that happens even if one practices any kind of yoga and meditation, let alone renunciation. But as I said perhaps it is a legitimate process for God realisation that others who have attained it have vouched for, not least Madhavacharya and Swami Sivananda. However, on the issue of ashramas specifically, what good is it to practice sanyasshood at 70 years of age when the body is no longer able to do much like having sex, playing sports, and doing other things for enjoyment to derive sensual pleasure. In no way can giving up things in old age be considered as any kind of control over ones senses. So I doubt if it can lead to God-realisation in any meaningful way. But of course it must be soothing to the mind to know that one is going out of existence in a spiritual way as a way of thanking God for the life one has lived.



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