Renunciation is central to the spiritual life. One cannot live the spiritual life without renouncing — but what indeed is renunciation?
Renunciation, or tyaga, carries an aura of the impossible for the common man, something reserved for the most privileged, a prerogative of the Rishis, monks and God-men. Revered are those who could renounce, for renunciation itself is the miracle. Most are fascinated by the idea of renunciation, the idea of walking away from it all to some secluded place and live in the harshest conditions. But all this is not the renunciation of Sanatan Dharma. Renunciation is imperative for all spiritual living, but what is it that is renounced? The general Indian understanding of renunciation as living the life of a recluse and of spirituality as being necessarily world-shunning seems flawed and needs to be revisited in a more integral light.
The Bhagavad Gita, the standard go-to text for practical, comprehensive spirituality dismisses the idea of a world-shunning renunciation and Sri Aurobindo, India’s great seer and prophet, the modern-day exponent of the Gita, takes the idea of the Gita further, makes it all-comprehensive in his master statement — ‘All life is Yoga’. There is no question here of renouncing life in the world. In his words, 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.
Spirituality being regarded either as an after-retirement activity while awaiting death or just mastering certain texts is a major misconception — the true spirituality of the Vedas is about living the life in the world in the higher consciousness and bringing the higher consciousness into our day to day lives and activities. This statement from Sri Aurobindo makes this even clearer: 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.
In explaining renunciation, Sri Aurobindo asks what is life if man were to escape the conditions he was born into, the meaninglessness of his daily existence. If a dream, he says, let us wake out of it, if a lie lets find the truth.
All life becomes yoga if made a conscious existence where every movement, thought, action, and feeling is referred to the soul or the psychic present deep inside all of us, the principle of Truth guiding all life from within. Everything that obstructs this endeavor is to be identified and discarded, uprooted. This discarding and uprooting of all that contradicts and obstructs the Truth in us is the true renunciation. Therefore, it is an inner renunciation.
Says Sri Aurobindo, if discipline of all the members of our being by purification and concentration may be described as the right arm of the body of the yoga, renunciation is its left arm. Yoga, therefore, is about harmonizing and integrating the different parts of our being by renouncing all that contradicts, disrupts, divides.
Renunciation must be an instrument for removal of everything that stands in the way of our divine fulfillment, all that is contrary to the truth within. Renunciation has little to do with what we give up externally; what we give up internally is much more significant — all that is false and limiting in us.
Sri Aurobindo beautifully explains these self-limiting falsehoods describing them as the three knots which have to be cut to liberate the spirit: The knots of attachment and craving of desires in the senses, self-will in the thought or action and the egoistic impulse. We weave these knots around us like a spider weaving a web around itself and getting all caught up in illusory, troubled living.
Much of our Yoga is finding a way to dissolve these knots in our minds and hearts.