The Nature of the True Religious Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 10: The True Meaning of Renunciation in Religious Life

In our study of the essential message of the Isavasya Upanishad, we discovered the role of renunciation in religious life. This is a very important aspect of religious living, and its significance has been recognised in the practice of religion to such an extent that often it has been identified with religion itself. Religion goes as an equivalent to renunciation. The religious attitude gets identified with the spirit of the renunciate. The religious man is considered as an aesthetic, and the greater is this spirit of asceticism manifest in one’s personal life, in the light of religion, the greater is the respect that he commands in society, which only explains the extent to which the world considers renunciation as the essence of religion. But while it is possible to regard renunciation as the essence of religion, it can also be easily misconstrued and get transformed into an irrelevant accretion in the true spirit of religion. Anything can be understood and also misunderstood.

There is a great reason why renunciation is regarded as a very important essential of religion. There is also a reason why it can easily get identified with religion itself entirely, thus missing the point in the great admonition. With all his logical acumen, man cannot escape the subtle feeling that the ideal of religion is a transcendent and otherworldly futurity in spite of an academic acceptance of the omnipotence of God, or rather His omnipresence. Man is man, and he cannot be anything else.

The perception of the world as a transitory process – with which man’s mind comes into collision, as it were, every moment – and the impossibility to perceive the ideal that religion seeks both act as contraries in one’s life. A great hope is at the bottom of anyone taking to a religious life, a hope which passes ordinary understanding, a hope whose meaning may not be clear even to one’s own self. When you take to religion, you may not be clear as to what you are seeking, finally. It is an impulse, that is all, and there ends the matter. An impulse has no reason behind it. You are pushed onward in the direction of an overwhelming feeling going by the name of religion, and this feeling is constituted in such a way that it cannot easily get harmonised with what the eyes perceive in the form of a world of human beings, particularly.

The religious feeling is not always capable of getting clarified through human understanding and logic. Something tells you that God is not in this world, whatever philosophies may say, whatever anyone may proclaim. What tells you this peculiar thing? It is you yourself. Your involvement in the world is the factor that tells you that God is not in this world, and therefore, the world has to be renounced for the sake of the Realisation of God. How is it that this feeling arises in you? The perceiver of the world that you are gets involved in the world, and your perception of the world is the world itself perceiving itself. It is the transitory process recognising its transitoriness. When any one of us looks at the world as a changeful phenomenon, we cannot see anything permanent here. We have already gone a little deep into this interesting feature of religion, namely, the permanent cannot be visualised in this impermanent process we call the world.

The great doctrine of the omnipresence of God does not in any way help us here because the doctrine remains as a doctrine, while the feeling continues to press itself forward as an intractable element in our life. We have never seen God, and we cannot see Him with our eyes, and the feeling insists that it is so. The feeling has a greater strength than understanding, sometimes, in the present predicament of man. We know very well how largely we are governed by feelings rather than by understanding. We suddenly go out of gear in our life by the rise of a strong feeling, which need not necessarily be commensurate with a logical understanding. We may be highly intellectual with an incisive understanding of the nature of things, but in our own house we are an embodiment of feelings, and the feeling is the root of individuality.

This mysterious eluding operation within our own psyche, whereby the feeling seems to be getting an upper hand over the understanding, is perhaps the reason why even great thinkers like Schopenhauer thought that understanding is only an offshoot of the will. They thought all that we call intellectuality is only a phenomenon, not so very strong as the will that is behind, which can even be identified with the feeling of the individual. He became the founder of psychology with a metaphysical foundation of the West. It is an empirical outlook which gives rise to these conclusions, and our studies in libraries do not help us here because somehow or other, for reasons we cannot know, we seem to be governed by feelings rather than by logical understanding. We brush aside our intellect when feelings supervene. Feelings, emotions and impulses are almost one and the same thing.

So when we are fired up with a feeling of the religious ideal, we are prone to put down the understanding which might have been a brilliant torch before us in our academies, in our colleges and universities; we become heaps of feeling in a state of ebullition, and religion becomes a matter of feeling, rather than of understanding.

You must have heard it said again and again that religion is a matter of faith rather than of understanding, analysis, etc. And what does the feeling tell you? The feeling tells you that you are a finite individual involved in this process of a finite world. How can you recognise God in this world – a world which is fleeting, which is characterised by births and deaths of all finite entities, including our own selves? Therefore, God is not in this world. Hence, I have to renounce this world.

Here comes the masterstroke of the religious life: renounce the world. This dictum of the renunciation of the world wholesale, lock, stock and barrel, arises on account of the feeling, not the understanding, that we are far from the Infinite. The world is far, far away from it. The Eternal cannot be seen in the impermanent world, and therefore, renunciation is the masterstroke that we have to deal at the root of this tree of life. And then religious men become hermits, monks, ascetics.

In this context we have listened to the message of the Isavasya Upanishad, which need not be repeated again. Bring back to your memories to what I mentioned in regard to the meaning that seems to be hidden in the first two verses of the Isavasya Upanishad. There is, akin to this spirit of religion, a famous saying in the Mahabharata: tyajed ekam kulasyārthe grāmasyārthe kulam tyajet, gramam janapadasyārthe ātmārthe pṛthivim tyajet (Mahabharata 2.55.10). Literally translated it means: For the sake of the family, the individual may have to be renounced; for the sake of the community, the family may have to be renounced; for the sake of the country, the community may have to be renounced; for the sake of the Self, the whole world may have to be renounced.

While the first phases are intelligible, the last one is a dangerous saying when it is not properly understood. For the sake of the Self, the whole world may have to be renounced. Man is more prone to misunderstanding than to understanding this because of his involvement once again in the finitude that he is, and what the world is. Very easily he can misconstrue great statements of scriptures. “For the sake of the Self, the world can be renounced. Oh yes, now I understand what religion is.” He leaves the home, leaves the family, leaves relationships, cuts off connections, lives in a cave, for the sake of the realisation of the Self that is within, for the sake of the salvation of my Self, the soul. Ātmārthe pṛthivim tyajet. It is said for the sake of the Self or the soul, the world may have to be renounced. And what is this soul; what is this Self? Empirical-ridden man, overpowered by feeling and capable of seeing only his body and the world, cannot understand by the word ‘Atman’ more than a light which seems to be flickering within his own physical body, for the salvation of which he has to renounce the whole world.

This, though it is not the real meaning of religious asceticism, may be the form which it sometimes takes, to the woe of the religious man himself. Religion prescribes renunciation, and for the sake of the Self, for the liberation of the spirit, the world may have to be renounced. But, as I mentioned to you, here is the danger in understanding this injunction.

This verse that I quoted from the Mahabharata may itself serve as an explanation of the true meaning of renunciation in the interest of the salvation of the Self. If you had listened to me when I gave the translation of this verse, you would have noticed that the great teacher who made this statement had in his mind a gradual enlargement of the scope of your personality, in the interest of which the lower dimensions are expected to be renounced. An individual is a dimension, but the family is a larger dimension. He said the renunciation of the individual in the interest of the family is to be understood in its proper spirit, not merely in its letter.

The family is not a group of people, and similar is everything that is said afterwards – the community, the world, etc. When we speak of the family or the nation, we are not speaking of a group of people. The nation is not a heap of people. Likewise, the family is not a group of individuals. It is a qualitative transfiguration of a value that is usually attached to the individual. Your personality, your individuality, is a qualitative something, rather than a quantitative six-foot body. You know very well you are Mr. so-and-so, and you are likely to think during unguarded moments that you are only this body. This is a quantitative assessment of your personality: I am six foot, five-and-a-half foot, etc. But you know very well that you are not to be measured by a foot ruler or a yardstick. Yourself as a human being cannot be measured by a rod of metre, a yardstick. You are not an arithmetical or a geometrical physical appearance. You know that you have a quality, a status, a something. There is something in you; or rather, you may be said to be a something not easily capable of getting identified with this six-foot body. Sometimes, when you are angry, you say, “What do you think I am?” This statement is not made by the body. It is not the body saying this. Somebody else speaks from within you.

There is a status within you which cannot be translated into any other word. There is a position that you occupy, some importance. Don’t you feel that you have some importance? This importance is not the importance of the body. After all, what is the importance of the body? It has no more importance than what can be attributed to other bodies. But certain people feel that they are more important than others. Don’t you think it is so? Where comes the greater importance of one individual than the others while all look alike in the light of their geometrical figure or the length and breadth, etc., of their bodies? It is a quality which speaks in the language of an importance, a status.

This quality gets enhanced when you identify yourself with a family, so there is a self in family. This is why you have so much affection for family members. The affection, love, etc., that you evince to the members of a family to which you belong is not a love that you show to the bodies of people. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why you should be attracted to these bodies at all. What is there in these people? Why do you say this is my brother, this is my mother, this is my father? Let it be. Even if they are, why are you clinging to them? This clinging arises on account of a peculiar subtle quality that pervades among the members, a quality that is already within you which has only extended its dimension. This quality, when it extends itself, cannot be identified with a group of bodies; therefore, the family is not a heap of individual units but a qualitative enhancement of an imperceptible cohesive force, which also explains what a nation is, what humanity is.

So when it is said that one individual can be abandoned in the light of a family, and a family can be abandoned for the sake of a nation and the world, etc., you have to understand what the meaning is. It does not mean that you can bid goodbye to the members of your family and say, “I go, and I shall not have anything to do with you in future.” You are not bidding goodbye to the family members when you renounce the family. This is a very subtle matter which, if it is missed, religious spirit is also missed at the same time, and your renunciation becomes a hoax.

This injunction is purely spiritual and not social. When you are told that an individual may have to be abandoned for the sake of the family, and the family for the sake of the nation, and the world for the sake of the Self, what are you to understand from this instruction? It is not a social isolation of your individuality or the family group from the larger group called the nation or the humanity or the world. It is nothing of the kind. Religion is not a social affair. It is spiritual in essence, so you cannot associate religious practice with any kind of social adjustment, and even your social dissociation from your family members need not be identified with any step you have taken in the direction of religion. That is a very important matter to remember.

When you have withdrawn yourself from the family for the sake of religion – withdrawn yourself from the whole humanity itself, rather – what you have done is, you have taken a further step in advance in a qualitative way, not in a social way. Socially, well, you have already told people, “I shall not have anything to do with you, and I shall not speak to you from tomorrow. I have become an ascetic. I am a monk.” This is not religion.

The religious meaning of this renunciation comes into relief only when you have qualitatively risen have above the total of humanity, not before that. Do you think that you are beyond the total of humanity in your spirit? Then you have gone beyond humanity, and you can renounce the whole world for the sake of the Self.

Which Self? Here comes a very important question which has to be answered with great caution. Myself? I wish to attain salvation? This misconstruing of the meaning behind this injunction that for the sake of the Self the world may have to be renounced has also engendered certain doubts in the minds of people: “What happens to my people when I attain salvation? It is a pity that I go to God leaving all my family members and brethren here in the dust of the Earth.” This doubt can enter into even a highly evolved person, not only ordinary people. A great genius in thinking also can entertain this doubt: What happens to the world when I reach God? Sometimes the doubt can take such an atrocious form that it can tell you, “You are a selfish man. You are trying to reach the feet of God while the world is suffering.” This misconstruing is common, and you cannot easily get over this difficulty because you cannot get over the difficulty of feeling that you are, after all, a human being. You are one Mr. among many others, and whatever be the renunciation you have taken to, you are just one boy, son of a father, a little daughter, a sister or a brother. After all, you are that only; you are nothing more than that. Whatever be your spirit of renunciation, you have not really taken one step in the direction of religion if this doubt can arise in your mind. You are hopelessly unfit for religious life if these doubts can arise in your mind, because these doubts arise on account of your involvement in the world as a finite entity among many other finite entities, and your feeling that renunciation of the family or humanity is just socially cutting oneself off from outward relationship with people. But that is not the meaning of the spirit of this teaching.

‘For the sake of the Self’ does not mean yourself or myself because in this sloka, in this verse, you would have observed there is a gradual ascent of the increase in the dimension of the point you have to reach in your renunciation of the lower categories. The family is a larger dimension than the individual, the nation is bigger than the community, etc., the world is bigger than the nation, and therefore, the Self should be bigger than the whole of humanity. But do you think your Self is larger than humanity? You feel very small: “Humanity is so large, and I am a very small individual. How can I be larger?” But in the logic of the ascent that is prescribed in this verse, the Self has to be larger than the world; otherwise, what is the point in renouncing the world? Do you renounce a larger thing for the sake of a smaller thing? How foolish should you be?

The logic of this ascent which takes you to larger and larger dimensions from individuality to family, family to nation, etc., takes you to a still larger thing called the Self – a Self which is larger than the whole universe itself. For the sake of that universal Self, you may renounce the whole humanity, but not until that realisation comes, not until that feeling arises, not until you understand the meaning. Otherwise, you will be a very, very foolish person to think that you have renounced family, humanity, nation and all that, and you have nothing to do with anybody.

Very careful you have to be when you think that you are a religious man. Don’t be foolish; don’t be hasty. The mind can trick you in one second and put you down on a lower pedestal. Though you may have thought you have renounced your family and have nothing to do with your parents, etc., what have you renounced? You have only cut off a social connection; but religion is not social. Again to repeat the very, very important aspect of religion: Religion is the rise of the spiritual character of your personality by degrees; it is not a social association or a dissociation. Until this spirit has been understood, religion has not been understood.

Now we come to renunciation, the point where we began. What is religious renunciation or asceticism – putting on a cloth, entering a church, a chapel, a temple, a cave? Nothing of the kind is religion. Renunciation is the rising into a higher category of quality, and thereby automatically the lower category is renounced. The larger includes the lower, and therefore, it is absorbed in the characteristics of the higher. Hence, the lower is spontaneously renounced. The world is smaller than the Self. The Self is not smaller than the universe. But when you look at yourself, you may look very small.

Religion cannot be seen with the eyes. You can see only people and the world. Religion is a spirit that you entertain in your consciousness, and not something which you see with the eyes or grasp with your hands. This spirit of religion will explain the spirit of renunciation. Hence, when the spirit is absent, when you stick to the letter and not to the spirit, the letter can kill and the spirit may be completely lost sight of.

There is a graduated ascent in everything – in everything in the world, in any matter, in any occupation and in any enterprise. Therefore, religion has to be practiced gradually by slow detachment. There is a famous verse in the Yoga Vasishtha which tells us that in the beginning you should not, and you cannot, give the whole of your time to God. Rather, you cannot give even the whole of your mind to God, why to speak of time? So Vasishtha, the great master of the Yoga Vasishtha, says in his own language that in the earlier stages, you may be able to give only one-sixteenth part of your mind to God, and at that time, when you are in that position, in that capacity, you cannot and you should not try to give the whole of your mind and time to God. Gradually the quantity should increase, and the quality also should increase. The quantity should increase only when the quantity increases, not before. You can give one-eighth, one-twelfth or one-fifteenth to God only when you know the relationship that obtains between you and God.

We regard God also as a social individual mostly. In the religious prayers that we offer, even in our religious outlook, for the matter of that, we cannot help regarding God as one person among many persons, maybe a large person, maybe larger than anybody else. The social instinct does not leave us even when we go to heaven. It pursues us wherever we go. So in our conception of God, the social impulse catches hold of us and transforms the concept of God into a social individual. He is a large Father in heaven, a Brahma or a Vishnu or a Siva, and whatever the reason may say about this omnipresence and inclusiveness, as I told you, the feeling says that there is something left unsaid in this matter.

Hence, the immense duration of time that you may take in leading a spiritual life. It is not a matter of one day or two days, and there is no harm in taking time. You will not be a loser here because a right step and a correct step, perfect step, even if it is only one step, is much better than a hundred steps wrongly taken which may have to be retraced afterwards because of a miscalculation done earlier.

Now, what I have told you today is a continuation, as it were, of the meaning that we could discover in the first two verses of the Isavasya Upanishad where God’s immanence was proclaimed and the necessity on the part of man to engage himself in unselfish activity also was enunciated. The human individual cannot escape action. Karma yoga in its seed form was declared in the verse of the Isavasya Upanishad perhaps many years before the Bhagavadgita was written.

Hence, renunciation is an essence, and an essential part of religious living, because detachment or non-attachment is considered as a vital part of the religious life. But we have taken time today to consider what this detachment is and ought to be. In what sense are we to become ascetics and renunciates? When we take to religion for the sake of God we are entering into larger inclusiveness, and therefore, the lower isolatedness gets automatically renounced.

You have not renounced anything actually when you take to the practice of the presence of God. You have gained more things, rather than lost anything. It is like losing a disease for the sake of health. When you become healthy you have lost a disease no doubt, but you do not say you have renounced disease. This will be a meaningless statement because disease is not a natural condition of the body. It is an unnatural state of affairs into which the body has entered, in which it has got involved. Ill health and health are not two different things. You cannot keep health here in one balance and ill health in another balance. They are both inside the body, conditions of the very constituents of the body. Likewise, renunciation and spiritual living are conditions of your personality. They are not things: here is renunciation, here is religion, here is meditation, here is God, here is the world. God and the world, renunciation and spirituality, are conditions rather than things; therefore, they cannot be isolated.

Hence, you cannot renounce the world physically or even socially for the sake of a God who is in your mind, just as you cannot throw off disease and keep it somewhere in a corner for the sake of a health that you have attained. When you have become healthy, you cannot see the disease at all. It is not somewhere sitting in a corner, gazing at you with a spirit of vengeance.

In the same way as ill health is not to be seen and even conceived when you regain health, when you reach a larger dimension of the spirit, the lower one will vanish like the illness which has infested your personality in the various degrees through which it has to pass. The world will look like a disease in the end, and here you must know what the world is. Again to repeat, it is a condition of your experience, and not a substance that you are touching with your hands and feet.

These are hard things for the brain to grasp, and much time is needed to contemplate all these details. Busybodies that we are, we will find little time to think in these lines. Religion is not an easy matter. God is not a cheap stuff that you can purchase for three paise. Great sacrifice is necessary – great sacrifice not of a thing or a substance, but of a prejudice. We have obsessions and prejudices in our mind. They are hard to renounce. You may renounce your father and mother, but you cannot renounce your prejudice. You cannot easily give up yourr inborn traits, though you may give up things in the name of renunciation.

Religion and spirituality are hard things for a mind which is obsessed with social thinking, and physical and economic and material evaluations; therefore, a great training is necessary under a competent master so that the true meaning of religious living may be imbibed by us in our holy adventure.