The Uses and Limitations of the Power of Renunciation

When we consider the meaning of the term “renunciation” as it is current in the world, and more particularly in the traditional spiritual paths, it takes on a sense of self-denial, avoidance and limitation. Over time, this has become virtually an “absolute” in terms of the position the seeker should take in order to achieve true and complete spiritual realization. “The refusal of the ascetic” is the standard by which spiritual dedication has been measured. In some cases we find that renunciation has gone beyond simple rejection into forms of self-mortification–self-torture of the body in order to “cleanse the soul”.

Sri Aurobindo observes that due to the attachment of the human soul to the objects of the senses and the pleasures obtained from the fulfilment of desire, there is a necessity for this type of external renunciation at a certain stage of the seeker’s progress, and that there are real benefits derived from it. Yet, the external renunciation is not something to be sought for itself, idealized or used as a measure of spiritual progress. Eventually, it must be recognized that the internal renunciation is the essential action. The soul must not be attached to the fulfillment of desires or achievement of worldly goals, but it must also be capable of acting within the framework of the outer life and dealing with the forces, energies and objects that therein present themselves.

“The rejection of the object ceases to be necessary when the object can no longer ensnare us because what the soul enjoys is no longer the object as an object but the Divine which it expresses; the inhibition of pleasure is no longer needed when the soul no longer seeks pleasure but possesses the delight of the Divine in all things equally without the need of a personal or physical possession of the thing itself; self-denial loses its field when the soul no longer claims anything, but obeys consciously the will of the one Self in all beings. It is then that we are freed from the Law and released into the liberty of the Spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 5, Renunciation, pp. 317-318