Sattwic Renunciation and Works

The type of inner renunciation recommended by the Gita starts from the basis of the application of Sattwa in the understanding and approach taken. Sattwic renunciation develops an inner freedom from bondage while the individual undertakes whatever work needs to be done. Sri Aurobindo describes the characteristics of sattwic renunciation: “The sattwic principle of renunciation is to withdraw not from action, but from the personal demand, the ego factor behind it. It is to do works not dictated by desire but by the law of right living or by the essential nature, its knowledge, its ideal, its faith in itself and the Truth it sees, its sraddha. Or else, on a higher spiritual plane, they are dictated by the will of the Master and done with the mind in Yoga, without any personal attachment either to the action or to the fruit of the action.”

From this perspective there is “…no attachment to pleasant, desireable, lucrative or successful work…”

“There must be no aversion to unpleasant, undesirable or ungratifying action or work that brings or is likely to bring with it suffering, danger, harsh conditions, inauspicious consequences; for that too has to be accepted, totally, selflessly, with a deep understanding of its need and meaning, when it is the work that should be done, kartavyam karma.

To give up the desire for the fruit also encompasses rewards that we expect in some future life or location. The idea of attaining a place in heaven, for instance, incorporates a “reward” that is not part of the sattwic form of renunciation. Only such a poise can liberate the individual from the bondage of the chain of cause and effect, karma. “Action he will do, for some kind of action, less or more, small or great, is inevitable, natural, right for the embodied soul,–action is part of the divine law of living, it is the high dynamics of the Spirit. The essence of renunciation, the true Tyaga, the true Sannyasa, is not any rule of thumb of inaction but a disinterested soul, a selfless mind, the transition from ego to the free impersonal and spiritual nature. The spirit of this inner renunciation is the first mental condition of the highest culminating sattwic discipline.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 19, The Gunas, Mind and Works, pp. 479-480

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