Total Inward Renunciation Is the Key To Complete Realisation

It is relatively straightforward for the seeker to acknowledge that certain things must be renounced in order to progress in the spiritual quest. The teachings stress that the seeker should adopt a sattwic lifestyle, and give up sloth, ignorance, torpor, desire, greed, hatred, lust etc. and most will find this prescription to have little cause for argument. The same teachings tell us to adopt practices that lead to contentment, peace, truth, harmony and virtue in dealing with others, and again, most will find little cause for argument. There is no doubt that for a long way in our journey towards the absolute spiritual heights, these prescriptions stand us in good stead.

Sri Aurobindo reminds us however that in the seeking for the Absolute, we cannot rest on our laurels, and eventually all attachment must be renounced. “We must be prepared to leave behind on the path not only that which we stigmatise as evil, but that which seems to us to be good, yet is not the one good. There are things which were beneficial, helpful, which seemed perhaps at one time the one thing desirable, and yet once their work is done, once they are attained, they become obstacles and even hostile forces when we are called to advance beyond them. There are desirable states of the soul which it is dangerous to rest in after they have been mastered, because then we do not march on to the wider kingdoms of God beyond.”

The seeker must be prepared to always move on to higher realisations: “Even divine realisations must not be clung to, if they are not the divine realization in its utter essentiality and completeness. We must rest at nothing less than the All, nothing short of the utter transcendence. And if we can thus be free in the spirit, we shall find out all the wonder of God’s workings; we shall find that in inwardly renouncing everything we have lost nothing. ‘By all this abandoned thou shalt come to enjoy the All.’ For everything is kept for us and restored to us but with a wonderful change and transfiguration into the All-Good and the All-Beautiful, the All-Light and the All-Delight of Him who is for ever pure and infinite and the mystery and the miracle that ceases not through the ages.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 5, Renunciation, pp. 318-319

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

Integral Knowledge For Acting With Renunciation

The integral Yoga does not accept the traditional form of outer renunciation as the true basis of spiritual realization. For the integral Yoga, which seeks to transform life rather than abandon it, the renunciation asked for is more subtle: an inner, rather than an outer, renunciation. Sri Aurobindo observes that normal action is driven by egoism. Arjuna, the protagonist of the battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata, was driven by rajasic egoism when he appeared on the battlefield. His realization of the sin and harm to the social structure that would result from the battle led him to respond with the tamasic ego and express the will to quit the fight and renounce the kingdom, the fame and wealth, and even his life is necessary. Sri Aurobindo notes that in a purely traditional sense, this renunciation would be seen as noble and would have been accepted, bringing another great soul to the recognition of the illusion of the world and its fruits, and focusing that soul on its own salvation. But Sri Krishna rejects Arjuna’s renunciation, upbraids him for his weakness and enjoins him to fight, win and enjoy the kingdom. Sri Krishna’s admonishment is that Arjuna should practice the inner renunciation, not the outer renunciation. He should give up seeking the fruits of the work he is doing, and eventually give up even the sense of himself as the doer of those works.

Sri Aurobindo summarizes: “The criterion is within, as the Gita insists. It is to have the soul free from craving and attachment, but free from the attachment to inaction as well as from the egoistic impulse to action, free from attachment to the forms of virtue as well as from the attraction to sin. It is to be rid of ‘I-ness’ and ‘my-ness’ so as to live in the one Self and act in the one Self; to reject the egoism of refusing to work through the individual centre of the universal Being as well as to egoism of serving the individual mind and life and body to the exclusion of others. To live in the Self is not to dwell for oneself alone in the Infinite immersed and oblivious of all things in that ocean of impersonal self-delight; but it is to live as the Self and in the Self equal in this embodiment and all embodiments and beyond all embodiments. This is the integral knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 5, Renunciation, pp. 316-317

Understanding and Renouncing Egoism In All Its Forms

Sri Aurobindo observes: “But the centre of all resistance is egoism and this we must pursue into every covert and disguise and drag it out and slay it; for its disguises are endless and it will cling to every shred of possible self-concealment.”

This self-concealment acts like a chameleon in that it takes on the appropriate acceptable garb for the environment within which the individual is placed and can look like self-denial, renunciation or altruistic service while secretly enhancing and strengthening the ego within. It is this characteristic of the ego-self that makes it so difficult for the seeker and which requires the effort and the vigilance along the path. “Altruism and indifference are often its most effective disguises; so draped, it will riot boldly in the very face of the divine spies who are missioned to hunt it out.”

Sri Aurobindo provides us a solution to this riddle: “Here the formula of the supreme knowledge comes to our help; we have nothing to do in our essential standpoint with these distinctions, for there is no I nor thou, but only one divine Self equal in all embodiments, equal in the individual and the group, and to realise that, to express that, to serve that, to fulfil that is all that matters.”

The touchstone of the action and its freedom from egoism is the demand of the Spirit within rather than the approval or disapproval of those outside who would try to judge by outer appearances. “If the realization, fulfilment, service of the one Self demands from us an action that seems to others self-service or self-assertion in the egoistic sense or seems egoistic enjoyment and self-indulgence, that action we must do; we must be governed by the guide within rather than by the opinions of men. The influence of the environment works often with great subtlety; we prefer and put on almost unconsciously the garb which will look best in the eye that regards us from outside and we allow a veil to drop over the eye within; we are impelled to drape ourselves in the vow of poverty, or in the garb of service, or in outward proofs of indifference and renunciation and a spotless sainthood because that is what tradition and opinion demand of us and so we can make best an impression on our environment. But all this is vanity and delusion. We may be called upon to assume these things, for that may be the uniform of our service; but equally it may not. They eye of man outside matters nothing; the eye within is all.”

The essential principle here is that as long as we act from the human standpoint, we are subject to the action of the three Gunas and the ego-personality remains entrenched. When we switch to the Divine standpoint, we no longer see, think or act as an individual, separated, and limited human personality but as a nexus of the Divine action. Until that can occur, we must be vigilant to address the manifestations of ego as they arise and renounce them.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 5, Renunciation, pg. 316

Renunciation of Self-Will in Thought and Action

If we observe our own internal mental working we can easily identify the predilection to accept certain ideas, thoughts, ideologies, sentiments, feelings, emotions, concepts and opinions as being what we would identify as “our own”. We are attached to these and consider the collective bundle of these things to be what makes us “unique” and “ourselves”. These represent the knot of the ego in the individual personality and while they may help us form a sturdy ego and individuality,–an advantage at a certain stage of evolution,–they become a liability for the seeker who wants to go beyond the limitations of the outer life, the action of the three Gunas, and the pre-determined thought-patterns into which they have developed or been indoctrinated.

A form of this ego, the Sattwic-ego, can actually be a very serious obstacle because we become attached to the form of teaching or truths and believe so whole-heartedly in them that we find it difficult to let them go.

Sri Aurobindo observes that at some point, the seeker must be prepared to abandon all these limited truths in order to achieve the status of the unlimited: “Not only must we give up the ordinary attitude to the world and life to which the unawakened mind clings as its natural element; but we must not remain bound in any mental construction of our own or in any intellectual thought-system or arrangement of religious dogmas or logical conclusions; we must not only cut asunder the snare of the mind and the senses, but flee also beyond the snare of the thinker, the snare of the theologian and the church-builder, the meshes of the Word and the bondage of the Idea. All these are within us waiting to wall in the spirit with forms; but we must always go beyond, always renounce the lesser for the greater, the finite for the Infinite; we must be prepared to proceed from illumination to illumination, from experience to experience, from soul-state to soul-state so as to reach the utmost transcendence of the Divine and its utmost universality. Nor must we attach ourselves even to the truths we hold most securely, for they are but forms and expressions of the Ineffable who refuses to limit himself to any form or expression; always we must keep ourselves open to the higher Word from above that does not confine itself to its own sense and the light of the Thought that carries in it its own opposites.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 5, Renunciation, pp. 315-316

The Role of Renunciation In the Integral Yoga

Since the goal is transformation not abandonment of life, Sri Aurobindo observes that renunciation cannot be treated as the sole or primary action by the seeker: “Therefore renunciation must be for us merely an instrument and not an object; nor can it be the only or the chief instrument since our object is the fulfilment of the Divine in the human being, a positive aim which cannot be reached by negative means.”

In order to achieve any goal, or focus on any object of concentration, there must be an ability to “renounce” those things which represent distractions. This can be sense-objects or it can be desires, ambitions, predilections or dogmatic opinions. The power of renunciation however must go beyond this to achieve the far-reaching goals of the integral Yoga: “It must be a renunciation, a complete renunciation of all that is other than and opposed to the divine self-fulfillment and a progressive renunciation of all that is a lesser or only a partial achievement. We shall have no attachment to our life in the world; if that attachment exists, we must renounce it and renounce utterly; but neither shall we have any attachment to the escape from the world, to salvation, to the great self-annihilation; if that attachment exists, that also we must renounce and renounce it utterly.”

There are three specific forms of attachment that need to be renounced: “…a renunciation of attachment and the craving of desire in the senses and the heart, of self-will in the thought and action and of egoism in the centre of the consciousness. For these things are the three knots by which we are bound to our lower nature and if we can renounce these utterly, there is nothing else that can bind us.”

“Again, our renunciation must obviously be an inward renunciation…” This clarification helps us avoid the extremes of an outer renunciation that cuts off the basic powers of body, life and mind from their action and their ability to interact and uplift life in the world. “And this does not mean that there is nothing at all that we shall love, nothing in which we shall take delight; for attachment is egoism in love and not love itself, desire is limitation and insecurity in a hunger for pleasure and satisfaction and not the seeking after the divine delight in things. A universal love we must have, calm and yet eternally intense beyond the brief vehemence of the most violent passion; a delight in things rooted in a delight in God that does not adhere to their forms but to that which they conceal in themselves and that embraces the universe without being caught in its meshes.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 5, Renunciation, pp. 314-315

Integral Yoga Addresses the Motives of Renunciation

The seeker practicing the integral Yoga does not seek existence in a silent Beyond, nor does he seek to avoid the issues and difficulties of life in the manifested world.  The object of the integral Yoga, being the transformation of life itself, the seeker cannot take refuge in some form of individual salvation to be achieved through renunciation of life and action.

Sri Aurobindo observes that this Yoga is not founded on weakness or avoidance of suffering:  “With weakness and selfishness, however spiritual in their guise or trend, he can have no dealings; a divine strength and courage and a divine compassion and helpfulness are the very stuff of that which he would be, they are that very nature of the Divine which he would take upon himself as a robe of spiritual light and beauty.”

The seeker is here to take up the challenge of the transformation:  “The difficulty of harmonizing the divine life with human living, of being in God and yet living in man is the very difficulty that he is set here to solve and not to shun.”

“If there is an opposition between the spiritual life and that of the world, it is that gulf which he is here to bridge, that opposition which he is here to change into a harmony.  If the world is ruled by the flesh and the devil, all the more reason that the children of Immortality should be here to conquer it for God and the Spirit.  If life is an insanity, then there are so many million souls to whom there must be brought the light of divine reason; if a dream, it is it real within itself to so many dreamers who must be brought either to dream nobler dreams or to awaken; or if a lie, then the truth has to be given to the deluded.”

The challenge is here in the world and the example to be set is to take up all the powers, forms and actions of life and transform them into a true and undistorted manifestation of the Divine.  The seeker must be prepared to take up his role and play his part in this “Divine play”.

“…for us renunciation of life cannot be the goal of life nor rejection of the world the object for which the world was created.  We seek to realise our unity with God, but for us that realisation involves a complete and absolute recognition of our unity with man and we cannot cut the two asunder.  To use Christian language, the Son of God is also the Son of Man and both elements are necessary to the complete Christhood; or to use an Indian form of thought, the divine Narayana of whom the universe is only one ray is revealed and fulfilled in man; the complete man is Nara-Narayana and in that completeness he symbolises the supreme mystery of existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 5, Renunciation, pp. 312-314

Causes Leading to the Spiritual Tradition of Complete Renunciation of Active Life in the World

In order to ascertain an appropriate application of the principle of renunciation in the practice of the integral Yoga, Sri Aurobindo finds it useful to first appreciate the underlying causes and motivations for the traditional path of renunciation.  As with everything else in the world, these may be developed based on Sattwic, Rajasic or Tamasic grounds.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Many causes have contributed to the growth of this pure, lofty and august tradition.  There is first the profounder cause of the radical opposition between the sullied and imperfect nature of life in the world as it now is in the present stage of our human evolution and the nature of spiritual living; and this opposition has led to the entire rejection of world-existence as a lie, an insanity of the soul, a troubled and unhappy dream or at best a flawed, specious and almost worthless good, or to its characterisation as a kingdom of the world, the flesh and the devil, and therefore for the divinely led and divinely attracted soul only a place of ordeal and preparation or at best a play of the All-Existence, a game of cross-purposes which He tires of and abandons.”  We may consider the impulse here to be primarily Sattwic.

“A second cause is the soul’s hunger for personal salvation, for escape into some farther or farthest height of unalloyed bliss and peace untroubled by the labour and the struggle; or lese it is its unwillingness to return from the ecstasy of the divine embrace into the lower field of work and service.”  We see here admixtures of Rajasic motives.

Additional causes include “strong feelings and practical proof of the great difficulty, which we willingly exaggerate into an impossibility, of combining the life of works and action with spiritual peace and the life of realization; or else the joy which the mind comes to take in the mere act and state of renunciation,–as it comes indeed to take joy in anything that it has attained or to which it has inured itself,–and the sense of peace and deliverance which is gained by indifference to the world and to the objects of man’s desire.”

Then we have the more Tamasic motives:  “Lowest causes of all are the weakness that shrinks from the struggle, the disgust and disappointment of the soul baffled by the great cosmic labour, the selfishness that cares not what becomes of those left behind us so long as we personally can be free from the monstrous ever-circling wheel of death and rebirth, the indifference to the cry that rises up from a labouring humanity.”

Whatever the impulse, the various causes have led to the development of a strong and vibrant spiritual seeking based on renunciation, whether it is to the cave, the forest, the desert, or the monastery, in spiritual traditions throughout the world and throughout human history.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 5, Renunciation, pp. 311-312

Renunciation As a Power of Yogic Practice

There is a long tradition in Indian spirituality of the renunciate, the Sannyasin, the yogin who abandons life in the world to dedicate himself totally to the life of the spirit.  Renunciation of material goods, renunciation of vital striving and success and the fulfillment of desires, renunciation of name, fame, and reward of any kind is adopted in this tradition as an essential part of the spiritual life.  In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo terms this path “The Refusal of the Ascetic” and it is clear that there is a strong case made by those who follow the path of renunciation for the importance and benefit of this approach to spirituality.

At the same time, Sri Aurobindo observes that the world is a manifestation of the Divine and not just some illusory distraction from the spiritual truth.  Renunciation of action in the world is not the central tenet of the integral Yoga.  Yet there is a truth behind the action of renunciation that makes it an essential power in the practice of Yoga, as Sri Aurobindo has explained:

“By discipline or positive practice we confirm in ourselves the truth of things, truth of being, truth of knowledge, truth of love, truth of works and replace with these the falsehoods that have overgrown and perverted our nature; by renunciation we seize upon the falsehoods, pluck up their roots and cast them out of our way so that they shall no longer hamper by their persistence, their resistance or their recurrence the happy and harmonious growth of our divine living.  Renunciation is an indispensable instrument of our perfection.”

Every act of concentration constitutes, at the same time, a renunciation of the various impulsions and sense-impressions that seek to take the focus away in some other direction.  The question of what the proper application of renunciation is for the integral Yoga and how to put this power to work, is a subject for serious review for the seeker of the integral Yoga.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga,  Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 5, Renunciation, pg. 311

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