Renunciation and Devotion

As long as we are attached to material enjoyment we will not be able to concentrate on devotional service. Srila Prabhupada in his purports to Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam encourages us to practice both renunciation and devotion and to see them as interdependent. Renunciation and devotional service run along parallel lines, and understanding one facilitates understanding the other. As the scriptures assure us again and again, progress in Krishna consciousness is characterized by progressive renunciation of material enjoyment.

We can see the close interrelationship of devotional service and renunciation perfectly displayed in the life of Caitanya Mahaprabhu. It was Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, a great disciple of Lord Caitanya, who said that Caitanya Mahaprabhu descended to teach detachment from whatever does not foster devotional service to Krishna.

What exactly is renunciation? In the Bhagavad-gita (6.1-2) Krishna gives His definition: “One who is unattached to the fruits of his work and who works as he is obligated is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic, not he who lights no fire and performs no duty. What is called renunciation you should know to be the same as yoga, or linking oneself with the Supreme, O son of Pandu, for one can never become a yogi unless he renounces the desire for sense gratification.” According to this definition, a renunciant is not simply someone who gives up external duties. A renunciant is one who gives up all personal, selfish interests, while at the same time working for Krishna’s interest.

Although these verses from the Bhagavad-gita appear to address renunciation by the yogi, they also apply to the bhakta (devotee). The yogi and the bhakta both practice renunciation, but in different ways.Both renounce sense gratification, and both restrain the senses. The yogi, however, does this by sitting down in a solitary place, controlling his breath, and refraining from all activity. The devotee, Srila Prabhupada explains, has a different method: “A person in Krishna consciousness has no opportunity to engage his senses in anything which is not for the purpose of Krishna.” In other words, a devotee is always renounced because he always engages in devotional activity.

We often use the word “austerity” (tapasya) when speaking of renunciation. “Austerity” means voluntarily accepting trouble for spiritual advancement. In former ages, devotees sometimes performed severe austerities to please Krishna. Dhruva Maharaja, for example, was only a five-year-old boy when he left home to seek the Supreme Lord. When Dhruva met the great sage Narada Muni, Narada instructed him in mystic yoga and devotion. Then, under Narada’s direction, Dhruva went to the forest and practiced austerity.

During the first month, Dhruva ate only a little fruit every third day. During the second month, he ate fruit every six days. Then he ate grass and leaves, then fasted on water. Throughout this time, he also practiced breath control, becoming so accomplished he could hold his breath for days at a time. Eventually, he attained several yogic perfections, one of which was the power to increase his weight to equal the weight of the entire universe. Completely controlling his mind and senses, he concentrated on Lord Vishnu within his heart. In six months, Dhruva was able to see Lord Vishnu face to face.

Srila Prabhupada relates Dhruva’s extraordinary austerities to our own situation in ISKCON:

We should always remember that to become a bona fide devotee of the Lord is not an easy task, but in this age, by the mercy of Lord Caitanya, it has been made very easy. But if we do not follow even the liberal instructions of Lord Caitanya, how can we expect to discharge our regular duties in devotional service? It is not possible in this age to follow Dhruva Maharaja in his austerity, but the principles must be followed. We should not disregard the regulative principles given by our spiritual master, for they make it easier for the conditioned soul. As far as our ISKCON movement is concerned, we simply ask that one observe the four prohibitive rules, chant sixteen rounds, and instead of indulging in luxurious eating for the tongue, to simply accept prasada offered to the Lord.—Srimad- Bhagavatam 4.8.72, purport

If we are serious about going back to Godhead in this lifetime, then we must seriously apply the principles of renunciation and devotion. We have a certain amount of “business” to accomplish in the human form of life, and heading the list is the business of becoming detached from material desires. If we don’t become detached in this life, we will have to return in another life to continue. Prabhupada writes, “We should be determined to finish our duties in executing devotional service in this life. We should not wait for another life to finish our job.”

Devotional renunciation is easy and pleasant. All we have to do is refrain from sinful activity and, rather than avoiding activity, engage ourselves in acts of devotion. Our lives will become so filled with Krishna consciousness that we will have little time to worry about becoming attracted to the material world. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The more the activities of the material world are performed in Krishna consciousness, or for Vishnu only, the more the atmosphere becomes spiritualized by complete absorption.… Matter dovetailed for the cause of the Absolute Truth regains its spiritual quality. Krishna consciousness is the process of converting the illusory consciousness into Brahman, or the Supreme.” (Bhagavad-gita 4.24, purport)

Rupa Gosvami taught yukta-vairagya,the principle of using even material things in Krishna’s service. He explains in Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu that yukta- vairagya is superior to its opposite, phalgu- vairagya, or artificial renunciation.

This Sanskrit word, phalgu, is also used to describe an underground river. What appears to be only a dry riverbed sometimes disguises that under the earth a river continues to flow. This is called phalgu. Rupa Gosvami compares renunciation that neglects to use everything in Krishna’s service to such a river. Although the artificial renunciant appears to be detached from material activities and worldly things, internally a strong desire for these things still flows. That is why this form of renunciation is considered incomplete.

Sometimes meditators, especially those of the Buddhist and Taoist schools, speak of reaching the stage of desirelessness. To become desireless is impossible, however, because desire is a natural function of the living entity. There are many renunciants in various disciplines and traditions, but the renunciation they practice is often based on a doctrine of the corrupt body and the pure spirit. Eventually, the practitioner tends to rebel against such concepts, retreating headlong into hedonism. This is referred to as bhoga-tyaga, the flip-flopping from enjoyment to renunciation and back again.

Yukta-vairagya solves this dilemma. By practicing yukta-vairagya, we accept the body as material but not as the ultimate source of corruption. We concentrate on the soul, but we also take care of the body. After all, the body is a useful vehicle for carrying us from one Krishna conscious activity to another. Yukta-vairagya, or renunciation in Krishna consciousness, entails satisfying the needs of the senses simply and offering everything to Krishna. In this lies real happiness.

To attain devotion we must practice renunciation, but we should not be frightened by this. Although renunciation may at first seem painful, it provides us with relief by freeing us from the much greater pain and entanglement that follows any attempt to enjoy matter. If we want to stay free of material life, we have to give ourselves something better to do. Everything becomes complete in Krishna consciousness. As Srila Prabhupada explains: “When one is in Krishna consciousness, he automatically loses his taste for pale things.”