The renunciation is not measured by things a man gives up. True renunciation is of the will and of desires. – J P Vaswani
The Sanskrit term for renunciation is “Sannyaasa”, which comes from Samyak (Very well) + Nyaasa (given up).
The popular meaning of a sannyaasi is – the one who has renounced all family ties, who roams around wearing an ochre robe or stays in some ashram, with holy marks all over the body, with matted locks or a clean-shaven head, who lives on bhiksha (alms) etc.
But according to the scriptures, true renunciation is not the outer garb on the body but an inner state of the mind. In the Bhagavad Geeta, we find the definitions of a true Sannyaasi:
अनाश्रित: कर्मफलं कार्यं कर्म करोति य: । स सन्न्यासी च योगी च न निरग्निर्न चाक्रिय:||6.1||
(The one who performs all his duties without any expectation of the results is a true Sannyaasi, and not the one who has merely renounced outwardly.)
ज्ञेय: स नित्यसन्न्यासी यो न द्वेष्टि न काङ्क्षति । निर्द्वन्दो हि महाबाहो सुखं बन्धात् प्रमुच्यते ||5.3||
(Know him to be a true Sannyaasi who is free from likes and dislikes, and is unaffected by the pairs of opposites.)
This is a story from the great epic, Mahabharata.
An ascetic named Kaushika was once reciting the Vedas at the foot of a tree, when a she-crane sitting on the tree befouled his body. With an angry look of the ascetic, it fell down dead. The ascetic regretted his cruel act and his uncontrolled anger.
He then got up and went to the nearby village for alms. Standing outside in front of a house, he called out, “O Mother! Please give me alms!” A female voice from inside requested him to wait.
And while the housewife was engaged in cleaning the vessel for alms, she saw her husband entering the house afflicted with hunger. The chaste housewife gave her lord water to wash his feet and also a seat; and after that, placing before her lord savoury food and drink, she humbly stood beside him desirous of attending to all his wants.
That obedient wife every day used to eat the remains of her husband’s plate and always conducted herself in obedience to the wishes of her lord. Skilful in all domestic duties and attentive to all her relatives, she always did what was agreeable and beneficial to her husband. She also attended to the worship of the gods and the wants of guests, her mother-in-law and father-in-law.
And while she was still engaged in waiting upon her lord, she remembered that she had asked the Brahmana to wait. Taking something for alms, when she came out, she saw the ascetic standing there, boiling with rage.
The lady said, “O holy one! Please forgive me. My husband came hungry and tired. I was serving him.” Hearing this, the Brahmana said, “Do you think your husband is superior to a Brahmana? Even Lord Indra bows down to a Brahmana. Proud woman! You don’t know – Brahmanas are like fire. Their anger can consume the entire earth!! “
At these words, the woman answered, “I am no she-crane, O holy one, that you can burn me with your angry glance!”
The ascetic was shocked in disbelief. He wondered, “Unbelievable! How did this ordinary household lady know what happened in the deep forest?”
The lady continued, “I do not disregard Brahmanas. Endued with purity and austerity, they are like gods themselves. O holy one! It behoves you to forgive this fault of mine.
“I serve my husband whom I regard as the highest deity. Behold, O regenerate one, the merit that attaches to the service of one’s husband! I know that you have burnt a she-crane with your wrath. But, O holy one, the gods know him for a Brahmana who has cast off anger and passion, who always speaks the truth, who though injured never returns the injury, who has his senses under control, and who looks upon all equal to himself.
“Please forgive me, if what I have said is unpalatable. I think, O holy one, that you do not know what spirituality in reality is. Please go to the city of Mithila and enquire of a virtuous butcher. He will reveal all the mysteries of religion to you.”
Kaushika, filled with wonderment and disbelief thanked the lady with all reverence and set out for Mithila. He traversed many forests, villages and towns and at last, reached Mithila that was ruled over by Janaka.
There the Brahmana saw the butcher selling pork and buffalo meat. The butcher, seeing the ascetic from a distance, suddenly rose from his seat, went to him and said, “I salute you, O holy one! You are most welcome! I am the butcher whom that chaste woman was mentioning about. I am aware of the purpose of your visit too.”
This was the second shock for the Brahmana! The butcher then said unto the Brahmana, “O holy one! This place is not proper for you. If you permit, let us go to my home.” “So be it,” said the Brahmana to him, gladly.
The butcher took him to his abode. Reverentially offering him a seat, he gave him water to wash his face and feet. The ascetic then said to the butcher, “It seems to me that this profession does not befit you. I deeply regret that you should follow such a cruel trade.”
The butcher replied, “I have inherited this profession from my ancestors. O regenerate one, grieve not for me owing to my adhering to the duties that belong to me by birth. The forsaking of one’s own occupation is considered to be a sin. The Karma of a former existence never forsakes any creature. I discharge the duties ordained for me by the Creator.
“I sell pork and buffalo meats that have been slain by others. I never eat meat myself. I always speak the truth and never envy others. I live upon what remains after serving the gods, guests, and those that depend on me. I never speak ill of anyone. I am charitable, truthful and assiduous in attending on my superiors and holy men and free from pride and idle talk. Even though the profession of one’s order may be inferior, a person may yet be himself of good behaviour.”
Later, the butcher and the ascetic had elaborate question and answer sessions on righteous living, on duties of the four castes, on the four-fold purusharthas (dharma, artha, kama and moksha), on the need for mastering the mind and the senses, on spiritual enlightenment etc. To all the questions of the ascetic, the butcher had convincing answers steeped in the wisdom of the Vedas. (This portion is famously known as the “Vyaadha Geeta” in Mahabharata-Vana Parva.)
Then the ascetic was taken to the inner apartment where the butcher’s revered parents clad in white robes, having finished their meals, were seated at ease. The butcher prostrated himself before them with his head at their feet.
His aged parents blessed him thus, “Rise, O man of piety, rise! May righteousness shield you; we are much pleased with you; may you be blessed with long life, with knowledge and fulfilment of your desires. You are a good and dutiful son, for, we are always looked after by you, and even amongst the celestials you have no another divinity to worship. By constantly subduing yourself, you have become endowed with all the divine virtues. In thought, word or deed it seems that you have no other thought other than how to please us.”
Then the butcher said to the ascetic, “O worshipful sir! My parents are the idols that I worship; whatever is due to the gods, I do unto them. They are my four Vedas. My wife and children are all dedicated to their service. With my own hands, I assist them in bathing, wash their feet and give them food. I say to them only what is agreeable, leaving out what is unpleasant. It is this service to them that has given me spiritual enlightenment. For a householder, no other sadhana is needed other than doing one’s duties in a spirit of sacrifice!”
After some pause, the butcher lovingly advised the ascetic, “O holy one! Now I shall explain what is good for you. You have wronged your father and mother, for you have left home without their permission to learn the Vedas. You have not acted properly in this matter, for your aged parents have become entirely blind from grief at your loss. Return home to console them, this very day.”
Thanking from the depth of his heart, the ascetic took leave of the wise butcher promising him to return home and to lead a life of service to his parents.
True renunciation is not giving up the world, but giving up the worldliness (i.e. attachments of the mind.) It is not giving up actions, but giving up the doership behind actions. It is not physical, but psychological. It is not an outcome of bitterness, but the end result of wisdom. It is not a painful isolation, but a joyous expansion. It is not running away, but rising above.
O M T A T S A T