Outer and Inner Renunciation

Making the transition away from a life dominated by desire and the fulfillment of the ego to one that can carry out disinterested action from Oneness with the Divine takes place in a process that is known as renunciation. Religious and spiritual traditions throughout the world have acknowledged the essential nature of this step and human history shows us a number of paths of renunciation, including vows of celibacy or poverty, abandonment of the worldly life, giving up family, position and achievement in the world, or taking up a strict life of discipline in a monastery or cloister.

As a result of these numerous attempts we also have learned that an outer renunciation does not necessarily always coincide with a true inner freedom. We thus see evidence of individuals who have abandoned the life of the world for a strict meditation discipline coming out into the world and being overcome by desire, greed, lust etc. Or cases of sexual predation and abuse carried out by individuals who have taken a vow of celibacy.

Most people have not taken such “ultimate” vows but still experience the real difficulty of overcoming the impulsion of desire. They try controlling their desire for food, for example, and find that it is difficult. As we become conscious and try to master the impulses that drive our life-actions, we begin to understand that overcoming desire is easy to say, difficult to accomplish in reality.

The Gita goes to the heart of this issue by pointing out that there is both an outer form of renunciation, which is the form most frequently adopted and practiced, and an inner form of renunciation. The outer form must eventually take up and implement the inner form or it is unable to achieve the ultimate goal and the attachment will remain inwardly even as the outer action is artificially controlled, suppressed or simply prevented by physical isolation or avoidance. And once someone gains the inner foundation of renunciation, the outer isolation no longer makes any difference!

The Gita distinguishes between sannyasa, the outer renunciation and tyaga, inner renunciation, and clearly points out that the seeker needs to strive to attain inner renunciation as the basis for the spiritual development. Sri Aurobindo clarifies: “It is not the desirable actions that must be laid aside, but the desire which gives them that character has to be put away from us….Action, all action has indeed to be given up in the end, not physically by abstention, by immobility, by inertia, but spiritually to the Master of your being by whose power alone can any action be accomplished. There has to be a renunciation of the false idea of ourselves as the doer; for in reality it is the universal Shakti that works through our personality and ego. The spiritual transference of all our works to the Master and his Shakti is the real Sannyasa in the teaching of the Gita.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 19, The Gunas, Mind and Works, pp. 476-478