Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part XLV


Continued from Part XLIV

In common parlance among the Indian religions, the renunciation refers to an act of abandonment of the pursuit of material comforts and worldly possessions with the intention of achieving spiritual enlightenment. In Hinduism, the renounced order of life is referred to as Sannyasa free from the cravings of material comforts, lust and desires; Buddhism talks of renunciation in the context of giving up the world to lead a holy life and Jainism too accords high value to renunciation. As already discussed in previous parts, the Sannyasa is also a life stage within the Hindu Sanatana Dharma order of four age-based stages in life popularly known as Ashramas; the other three being Brahmacharya (celibate), Grihastha (householder) and Vanaprastha (retired/forest dweller), in the same order. Traditionally, one may renounce worldly order and material life for the spiritual pursuit after living first three stages but every person also has a choice to do it at any stage of life skipping any or all age based Ashramas.

Shree Krishna made renunciation rather simple in Bhagavad Gita when he said that a person, who is free from any desire and hates nothing, can be treated as one having renounced the world. Such men are also free from all dualities and liberated from the bonds of material world. A true Karma-yogi is one who continues to perform his temporal duties while simultaneously practicing detachment. In other words they are able to accept favourable as well as unfavourable outcome of their action with equanimity. It is difficult to achieve but then only such renunciation can pave the path towards spiritual progress and attainment. Since ancient times, Hindu scriptures have stressed the need of renunciation from the material life and pursuit of the spiritual life necessary for liberation as in the following verse of the Bhagavad Gita.

Jneyah sa nitya-sannyasi yo na dveshti na kankshati,
Nirdvandvo hi maha-baho sukham bandhat pramuchyate.

(The karm yogis, who neither desire nor hate anything, should be considered always renounced. Free from all dualities, they are easily liberated from the bonds of material energy.) (BG: Chapter 5, Verse 3)

Renunciation - Sanyaas and Tyaag

The literal meaning of renunciation is abandonment, relinquishment or sacrifice; and in Hinduism, the corresponding terms Sannyas and Tyaag do not convey exact but somewhat similar meaning and connotation. Renunciation from the material life in pursuance of the spiritual life either as part of some monastic community or as individual has been a historic tradition in Hinduism since ancient times. Ordinarily, when we refer to Sannyas, it reflects a simple life with minimal or no material possessions and association with a deep scriptural study, meditation and ethical living. Those who undertake this mode of living whether within the community or as loner in isolation, are referred to as Sannyasis or Sadhus. On the other hand, Tyaag (sacrifice) refers to acts of relinquishment of personal holdings or personal surrender to certain cause(s) without desire of rewards or fruits of such action. In Bhagavad Gita, Sannyas is described as under:

Shubhashubha-phalair evam mokshyase karma-bandhanaih,
Sannyasa-yoga-yuktatma vimukto mam upaishyasi.

{By dedicating all your works to Me, you will be freed from the bondage of good and bad results. With your mind attached to Me through renunciation (Sannyasa-yoga), you will be liberated and will reach Me.} (BG: Chapter 9, Verse 28)

According to the concept of reincarnation, both bad and good actions contribute towards the continuity of the cycle of birth and death. In the aforesaid verse, Shree Krishna used the term Sannyas-yog as a handy solution for eliminating the karmic consequences of various actions, which essentially refers to renunciation of selfish motives in various acts. According to this concept, when a person is detached from the fruits of actions and dedicates all his actions for the sake of God, he is freed from the shackles of both good and bad consequences. Sannyasis who establish themselves in such consciousness are called yog yuktaatma (united in consciousness with God) and become jivan-mukt (liberated in consciousness) even in their mortal body.

Traditionally in Hinduism, Sannyas has been a stage of renunciation wherein the Sannayasi exercises ahimsa (non-violence), peaceful and simple life in spiritual pursuit. A 15th century Indian mystic poet and Nirguna saint Kabir Das described the features of a true Sadhu or Sannyasi as under:

Tira talavar se jo larai, so shuravira nahin hoya,
Maya taji bhakti kare, shura kahavai soya.

(One is not brave by virtue of fighting with arrows and swords; that person is truly brave who renounces Maya and engages in bhakti.)

True Sannyasis usually follow the path of Bhakti-yoga by doing everything for the sake of God; however, most people cannot completely abandon material life but can still pursue spirituality through the acts of sacrifice (Tyaag) by relinquishing fruits of their actions. Hindu scriptures provide age or stage based Ashram System but also cater that one or more stages could be skipped to practice Sannyas. In other words, a celibate or householder could still be a sannasi while discharging their righteous duties prescribed in scriptures. Shree Krishna asked deluded Prince Arjuna to give up attachment to the fruits of action while engaged in the righteous duty (Chapter 4, Verse 20) to achieve inner peace and satisfaction and the same was reiterated again in the following verse.

Athaitad apy ashakto ’si kartum mad-yogam ashritah,
Sarva-karma-phala-tyagam tatah kuru yatatmavan.

(If you are unable to even work for Me in devotion, then try to renounce the fruits of your actions and be situated in the self.) (BG: Chapter 12, Verse 11)

In earlier verses, Shree Krishna gave three options in the course of renunciation for joining consciousness with God. The first was to firmly fix the mind on Him (God) alone; if a person cannot do it steadfastly on Him, he can endeavor to achieve it through constant practice; and if one is unable even to do that, he may trustfully dedicate his all actions to God in the course of God-realization. However, all these actions are required to be performed by a purified and resolute mind. An ordinary practitioner may find even all the three steps difficult, so for them Shree Krishna offered yet another (fourth) option. This option entails one to continue his (or her) work on temporal duties but become detached from the fruits of such actions. Such detachment too purifies mind from the modes of ignorance (Tamas) and passion (Rajas), and inculcates goodness (Sattva). Also such action fall under the category of highest level of sacrifice (Tyaag), and that is why the great warriors like Bhishma became Jivan-mukta while still alive.

Traditional Outlook of Hinduism on Renunciation

Notwithstanding finesses and connotations of renunciation, traditionally it had been linked with Rishi and Muni i.e. monks, mendicants or holy man in Hinduism; as it appears, the term Sannyasi came much later in usage. The earliest reference in the Rig Veda (10.136.10) mentions Munis as with Kesin (long-haired) and Mala attire (yellow, orange or saffron clothes) engaged in meditation.

Keshyagnim keshi visham keshibibharti rodsi,
Keshi vishvam swardyshe keshidam jyotirruchyate. (1)

Munyoh vatrashnah pishdungah vasate malah,
Vatsyanu dhranji yanti yaddevasoh avichchatah.

(He with the long loose locks (of hair) supports Agni, moisture, heaven, and earth; He is all sky to look upon: he with long hair is called this jyoti i.e.flame. The Munis, girdled with the wind, wear garments of soil hue; they, following the wind's swift course, go where the Gods have gone before.)

The ancient Munis, by the virtue of their lifestyle and spiritual pursuit, appeared to follow renunciation on the concept of Sannyas. However, there were no hard and fast rules and Sannyas has also been accepted as one of the four stages in life, wherein the Sannyasi need not essentially abandon household or community living. Even from the ancient India, there are many examples of Rishis and Munis who were householders yet led life of an accomplished Sannyasi. This freedom traditionally led to diversity and differences in the lifestyle and goals of many who pursued renunciation (Sannyasa). However, the common traits among all such people remained simple life, detached from worldly comforts, wandering or vagabond attitude, and no material possessions and emotional attachments. The lifestyles, attire and equipage still varies among different such people and groups.

As pointed out in the beginning, the Bhagavad Gita identifies a Sannyasi as one who neither hates nor desires and is free from dualities. There are 19 Sannyasa Upanishads with dedicated chapters on renunciation (Sannyas) with different kinds of renunciates and lifestyles; one of them describes a renunciate (Sannyasi) as one with “ a pot, drinking cup and flask, a pair of shoes, a patched robe giving protection in heat and cold, a loin cloth, bathing drawers and straining cloth, triple staff and coverlet.

Seventh century BC vintage Baudhayana Dharmasutra underlined the following behavioral vows for a person who opts for Sannyas:

“Abstention from injuring living beings, truthfulness, abstention from appropriating the property of others, abstention from sex, liberality (kindness) are the major vows. Five minor vows are; abstention from anger, obedience towards the guru, avoidance of rashness, cleanliness, and purity in eating. He should beg (for food) without annoying others, any food he gets he must compassionately share a portion with other living beings, sprinkling the remainder with water he should eat it as if it were a medicine.” (Baudhayana Dharmasutra: II.10.18.1-10)

Paradigms of Renunciation from Ancient India

Hindu Puranas, Epics and other literature provide dozens of stories from ancient times which are paradigms and exemplary illustrations of personal sacrifice and/or relinquishment of significant worldly possessions including kingdom, wealth, own life, social prestige, charity sake, and so on. For instance, the legendary king Harishchandra gave away his kingdom and enslaved self along with family to fulfill his promise made to the sage Vishwamitra. Similarly during the war of Mahabharata, the accomplished warrior did not blink once to part with his invincible protective gear at the cost of endangering own life. We will, however, discuss here two paradigms of extreme sacrifice one each from the all-time great Hindu Epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

1. Ram Relinquishes Ayodhya Throne

Legendary King of the Ikshvaku dynasty, Shree Ramchandra is well known worldwide. He does not need introduction and an overwhelming Hindu majority even treats him an incarnation of God. When as elder son and crown prince, he was prepared to take greater responsibilities following the necessary training and skill acquisition, his father King Dasarath decided in consultation with ministers, councilors and peers in the kingdom that Ram should succeed him to throne at Ayodhya. He directed Prime Minister Sumanta to make preparations for Rama’s coronation with full gaiety and galore and requested Guru Vashistha to alert and brief Prince Ram about the responsibility of the kingdom. However, destiny had something else in store as revealed by previously unforeseen events. At the instigation of the personal maid Manthara, younger Queen Kaikeyi obstinately invoked two boons promised by the king to her long back: one, her own son Bharata shall be crowned as king; and two, the step-son Ram be sent to live in exile for the next fourteen years forthwith.

Consequently, Dasaratha was swooned and Ayodhya fell into gloom with this development. Prince Ram was not only the eldest son but was also the most suitable, competent and acceptable among four princes equally to the elite and common people in kingdom. He had many options in hand, some of which are listed here: Ram could have confronted Dasaratha reminding of his legitimate right to throne being eldest son and most competent among brothers; He could have relied on own mother and principal Queen Kaushalya to pursue his cause; He could have reverted to Rajguru Vashistha to remind king of his Dharma (righteousness) and moral duty; He had option to call on Royal Assembly of family members to pressurize Dasaratha and Kaikeyi to reconsider their decision; He could have requested ministers and councilors of the king’s court to protect his rights; He could have gone to people as wronged heir to fight for restoration of his right to crown; or He could have led a rebellion to accomplish his claim on throne, even by bumping off adversaries, if necessary.

Notwithstanding several options available, Shree Ram accepted the decision of the father king and step-mother queen with grace and humility, and immediately started preparations to proceed to woods, instead of getting angry or agitated with this shocking and unlawful development. This was an extreme case of setting paradigm of personal sacrifice for honouring the wishes of elders in the family. Such sobriety and elegance of a prospective king of the most powerful empire of the time indeed makes the person a jewel of the mankind and it is not surprising that Hindus treat him like God even after over seven millennia of this event. In fact, any other option would have led to negative developments like fibrosis of tension, intrigue, polarization, rivalry, machination, unrest, conflict and even open war in the royal family and kingdom. On the other hand, it is so cool to gracefully accept a situation which is not our creation and on which we have no control; undoubtedly, the highest paradigm of moral ethics and sacrifice.

2. Devavrata’s Bhishma Pratigya

Devavrata was the original name of Bhishma, the son of King Shantanu of Hastinapur and mythical goddess Ganga; he became popular as Bhishma only after taking the oath to lifelong remain celibate and faithfully serve the Hastinapur dynasty irrespective of who was the ruler, as the latter name signifies “a fierce oath”. As the only son of his father, Devavrata was an unparalleled archer, exalted warrior of high moral values and heir apparent of Hastinapur. Consequently, he was extremely popular among the state subjects and his father was also proud that his kingdom would remain secure in his able hands. However, towards the older age Shantanu met Satyawati, the foster daughter of a fisherman, and fell madly in love with her. When Shantanu approached the fisherman for her hand in marriage, he put a condition that he would allow this matrimony only if the king would proclaim the children born to her as his future heir of Hastinapur.

Obviously, it was a difficult condition against the dharma of prevailing merit-based hereditary rules of Bharat; besides, legally Devavrata was already the designated successor of his throne. Therefore, Shantanu rejected the offer but he was so enamoured with the beauty and demeanour of the fisherwoman that he became terribly despondent and gradually started losing interest in the bonafide duties of the king. This made Devavratra anxious and he discreetly found out the truth behind his despondency. He met Satyawati’s father and even agreed to cede his claim to the Hastinapur throne. Now the fisherman reposted yet another tough condition what if Devavrata’s children later stake claim to the throne.

Then for the sake of his father, Devavrata took the Pratigya (oath) of a lifelong celibacy, thereby sacrificing his title of crown-prince and denying himself the pleasures of conjugal bliss forever. Also to bail out King Shantanu from the criticism of his subjects, Satyavrata declared that it was his decision and his father should not be blamed as he didn’t accede to Satyavati's father. There was also worry about the nobility and ability of Shantanu and Satyawati’s children, promised to the throne even before being born; hence Devavrata took another oath that he would always see his father's image in whoever became the king of Hastinapur and would serve the king faithfully and truthfully. Due to these tough and sacrificial oaths, Devavrata became popular by his nickname “Bhishma”. Needless to mention, this was yet another exemplary event of personal sacrifice by the crown-price of the most powerful dynasty of the time, which was dutifully honoured by Bhishma till his death.

Shree Krishna’s Views on Renunciation

The renunciation is a common term for both to Sannyaas and Tyaag, broadly the former implies the renunciation of actions while the latter is applicable to the renunciation of the desire for the fruits of actions. In Chapter 18 of the Bhagavad Gita, Prince Arjuna requests Shree Krishna to explain the exact nature of Sanyaas and tyaag as also the distinction between the two. While the two were already explained in his earlier discourse, Shree Krishna now summarized the essence of the two in about 12 verses of chapter 18. To begin with, he explained the prevailing views and understanding among the sages and wise men about the Sannyas an Tyaag as also how some of them believe that all actions have some measure of evil and, therefore, should be entirely given up while others feel that the acts of sacrifice, charity and penance must be continued. Thereafter, he concludes as under.

Nishchayam shrinu me tatra tyage bharata-sattama,
Yago hi purusha-vyaghra tri-vidhah samprakirtitah.

(Now hear my conclusion on the subject of renunciation, O tiger amongst men, for renunciation has been declared to be of three kinds.) (BG: Chapter 18, Verse 4)

Shree Krishna agrees with the wise men’s submission that the acts of sacrifice, charity and penance shall not be given up; instead, they must be performed by every Karma-yogi because these attributes are the biggest purifier of the mankind. What is important that these acts as also other actions mandated by Dharma must be performed without attachment and expectations of the return or reward. A person can aspire to fulfill higher aspiration only by abandoning the cravings for the lower desires; and by performing actions accordingly, one can achieve the path of enlightenment. Then he goes on to describe renunciation as Sattvika, Rajasika and Tamasika, and of paramount importance due to being the basis for higher life.

Niyatasya tu sannyasah karmano nopapadyate,
Mohat tasya parityagas tamasah parikirtitah.

(Prescribed duties should never be renounced. Such deluded renunciation is called Tamasika in the mode of ignorance.) (BG: Chapter 18, Verse 7)

The Bhagavad Gita provides that the prohibited acts and ones which are driven by desire should undoubtedly be given up. Similarly, renouncing desire seeking the reward of actions is also right; but renouncing prescribed duties is never right. Righteous duties actually help to purify mind and elevate it to superior level and thoughts. Abandoning Dharma (righteous duty) in the name of renunciation also falls under the category of ignorance or tamasic guna. Every living person in this world has some obligatory duties and fulfilling them helps develop in him qualities like tolerance, responsibility, discipline of the mind and senses, and so on. On the other hand, abandoning one’s duties due to sheer ignorance leads to the degradation of the soul. These obligatory duties for a householder could be the acts of earning wealth and maintaining family; while for an elevated soul, the same obligatory duties would change to sacrifice, charity and penance.

Duhkham ity eva yat karma kaya-klesha-bhayat tyajet,
Sa kritva rajasam tyagam naiva tyaga-phalam labhet.

(To give up prescribed duties because they are troublesome or cause bodily discomfort is renunciation in the mode of passion i.e. Rajasica. Such renunciation is never beneficial or elevating.) (BG: Chapter 18, Verse 8)

The aforesaid verse emphasizes the need for recognizing one’s responsibilities and duties and act accordingly in a detached mode without being passionate about it. Some spiritualists too as beginners do not understand this truth and nurture spiritual ambitions mainly to escape the pain and hardship in discharge of obligatory duties. On the contrary, the advance spiritualists are not those who remain undisturbed because they do not perform any actions; instead, they are ones who retain their inner peace despite carrying a huge burden placed upon their shoulders. In fact, this situation fits well on the plight of Prince Arjuna himself, who wished to leave battlefield because he found it unpleasant and bothersome to face own elders and kin in a righteous war. In fact, since beginning the Bhagavad Gita stresses to need of hearing to the call of duty; hence Krishna called his action as ignorance and weakness and declared through the aforesaid verse that giving up duties because they are troublesome is the renunciation in the mode of passion (Rajasika).

Karyam ity eva yat karma niyatam kriyate ‘rjuna,
Sangam tyaktva phalam chaiva sa tyagah sattviko matah.

(When actions are taken in response to duty, Arjun, and one relinquishes attachment to any reward, it is considered renunciation in the nature of goodness.) (BG: Chapter 18, Verse 9)

Shree Krishna explained the superior and most desirable renunciation in the above verse where people are still involved in the worldly chorus but perform their obligatory duties without attachment to the fruit of actions (Sattvika). He describes this as the highest variety of renunciation in the goodness (sattvic) mode necessary for spiritual attainment. The majority of people do not understand this and they continue to link renunciation with the abandonment of material things while internally still contemplating upon the objects of senses. The merit of sacrifice made by Shree Ram and Bhishma exactly come under the sattvic category while there are many modern Gurus/ascetics in India, whose minds are not yet detached from the objects of senses. In a way, they are hypocrites cheating on their followers and people at large. What Shree Krishna meant in the aforesaid verse is that the person should try to achieve internal detachment before renouncing things externally.

Na hi deha-bhrita shakyam tyaktum karmany asheshatah,
Yas tu karma-phala-tyagi sa tyagity abhidhiyate.

(For the embodied being, it is impossible to give up activities entirely. But those who relinquish the fruits of their actions are said to be truly renounced.) (BG: Chapter 18, Verse 11)

Shree Krishna further amplified that those who neither avoid disagreeable action nor seek an action because it is agreeable are ones who have truly renunciated because they are neither miserable in disagreeable circumstances nor they are attached to agreeable situations. They simply carry out their righteous duty under all circumsances, without feeling elated or dejected. Such sattvic men retain their equanimity through the rising or falling events around them without succumbing to any negative emotions. In the modern age, Mahatma Gandhi could be illustrated as one Karma-yogi who led the nation’s freedom struggle sticking to ahimsa and satyagraha and when the independence came as fruit of the long struggle, he neither joined the victory celebrations nor accepted any position in the government formation of the independent India.

Some wise men argue that instead of renouncing the fruits of actions, it would be better to renounce all actions to mitigate distraction from the meditation and contemplation. Theoretically, this may apply to a sannyasi but Shree Krishna rejected this as a viable option because it is impossible for an embodied being to settle in a complete inactivity . For instance, eating, sleeping, bathing, thinking, sitting, standing, walking, talking, etc. are activities that cannot be abandoned. This is why he said that only if the person could give up attachment to the fruits of actions, it would be perfect renunciation. In the following verse, three-fold fruits of actions - pleasant, unpleasant and mixed – are explained. They accrue even after death to those who were attached to personal reward during the life.

The three kinds of rewards that the soul reaps following the death are: 1) ishtam, or pleasant experiences in the celestial abodes, 2) anishtam, or unpleasant experiences in the hellish abodes, and 3) mishram, or mixed experiences in the human form on the earth planet. In other words, souls who perform righteous actions are awarded the celestial realms; those who perform unrighteous actions find place in the nether realms; and those who perform a mix of good and bad come back to the earthly realm again. This is, however, applicable to those who performed their duties with a desire for fruits (rewards); and those who had renounced the desire for fruits and worked merely as a duty to God, do not reap such rewards and become truly liberated souls.


The term renunciation has two major connotations Sannyas and Tyaag in Hinduism. The former is a much professed term in Hinduism with elaborate literature in terms of Upanishads, Dharmasutras, and so on, describing lifestyles, attributes and goal of different groups/individual Sannyasi. However, the Bhagavad Gita encompasses a complete overview and essence of renunciation. The Sannyas-yoga is a high-end spiritual practice whereby the practitioner becomes completely subservient to the will of God and is able to experience God-realization as a liberated soul. The common practitioners should, however, endeavor to sacrifice their selfish motive in all actions and by remaining dispassionate irrespective of a favourable or unfavourable outcome. If he could only renounce selfishness, it will be easier for him to be detached from the fruits of actions in his temporal duties.

Continued to Next Page


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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