Renunciation Or Mastery Over the Modes of Nature

There comes a time in most people’s lives where they yearn for a resolution that does not keep them perpetually enslaved to the vicissitudes of nature. Sometimes this comes about through disappointment or frustrated desire, sometimes from pure exhaustion and depression, and sometimes through an enlightened sense of the meaninglessness and hopelessness of the attempt to gain peace in the midst of the action of life. However it comes about, there are two primary directions this movement generally takes. The first, and by far the most common one, is to take up a life of renunciation, called sannyasa in Sanskrit. In many cases this direction is justified and supported by religious traditions and we see the anchorites, the monks and nuns of various traditions, and of course the sannyasins of India.

The second direction is to try to attain mastery over the action of the modes of nature by establishing oneself in a consciousness beyond the action of the modes, and from that standpoint, undertaking action with a sense of equality.

Sri Aurobindo describes Arjuna in this light: “The former is the first impulse of Arjuna recoiling from the calamitous culmination of all his heroic activity in the great cataclysm of battle and massacre, Kurukshetra; losing his whole past principle of action, inaction and the rejection of life and its claims seem to him the only issue.”

Sri Krishna, however, does not want to give in to what amounts to a tamasic response to the conflict in Arjuna’s mind, by supporting his desire to become a renunciate and lay down his arms, discontinue his efforts, and remove himself from the work to be done. “But it is to an inner superiority and not to the physical renunciation of life and action that he is called by the voice of the divine Teacher.”

Achieving the standpoint of inner renunciation, while fully engaged in the action of the world, is a subtle and difficult task, and it is much harder to define. That is however, the path that Arjuna is asked to take up.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 6, Man and the Battle of Life, pp. 49-50,