Isn’t renunciation a sign of frustration?
By Chaitanya Charan das
Question: Doesn’t renunciation indicate an absence of the will to keep fighting amidst frustration?
Short Answer: Not necessarily. Renunciation can also be a sign of realization; it can indicate the presence of the insight that there is more to life than fighting futilely for perishable material pleasures.
Firstly, we need to recognize that the material eye and the spiritual eye don’t see alike, as the Bhagavad-gita (2.69) confirms.
For materialists, the journey of life has only one track: the track to material enjoyment. Life has no purpose higher than the enjoyment of material pleasures. So, for them, renunciation or the abandonment of the pursuit of material enjoyment implies a cessation of progress on the journey of life, a stagnation that reduces life to a purposeless emptiness.
For spiritualists, however, the journey of life has two distinct tracks: the track to material enjoyment and the track to spiritual fulfillment. Every moment brings with it the challenge of choosing among these two tracks. The track to material enjoyment is a dead-end because everything material that one has achieved is lost at death. The track to spiritual fulfillment leads to destination eternity, where everything spiritual that one has achieved is conserved beyond death and cumulated to help one attain an eternal life of love with Krishna. Perceiving the long-term destination of both tracks makes clear the folly of the material track and the glory of the spiritual track. However, this long-term perception is often lost amidst the normal perceptions that dominate daily life. In normal perception, the material track appears alluring due to the promise of material enjoyment and the spiritual track appears forbidding due to the need to give up material enjoyment. This normal perception often pushes even spiritualists towards the material track of life, thereby making their progress on the spiritual track sporadic and erratic.
When a promise of material enjoyment is frustrated, spiritualists see in that frustration a precious opportunity: the opportunity to use that specific experience to realize the generic scriptural declaration that all material enjoyment ends in misery (Bhagavad-gita 5.22). They cash in on the frustration (“I didn’t get the pleasure”) and enrich themselves with the resulting renunciation (“I don’t want that pleasure; I have better things to do in life”). Thus, the frustration of life’s material track inspires them to focus on and accelerate their progress on life’s spiritual track.
When we live as materialists, cut off from life’s spiritual track, we just can’t comprehend the mentality of those who are no longer interested in progressing on life’s material track. Consequently, the unidimensionality of our vision prompts us to conveniently label them as “escapists” or “weaklings.” Sadly, however, our unidimensional vision can’t rescue us when we are ourselves battered by the frustrations inevitable on life’s material track. We may even become victims of depression (“I am good-for-nothing” or “people are evil” or “the world is rotten”) and seek solace in self-defeating indulgences like intoxication.
If we fortunately open ourselves to Gita wisdom, we will realize that this depression is unnecessary and avoidable. We too can use life’s reversals as learning experiences to redirect ourselves to life’s spiritual track. If we can muster the willpower and the courage to thus change our life’s compass, we will be surprised to discover that many of our fears about the spiritual track were unfounded. For example, we may have been held hostage by the stereotypical notion that life on the spiritual track requires one to give up all material pleasures. But we will be relieved, even delighted, to discover that many of life’s pleasures can be relished better on the spiritual track of bhakti-yoga than on the material track: food, music, books, friends and relationships, for example
Of course, bhakti-yoga does ask us to avoid the immoral material indulgences of meat-eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex because these imprison us in life’s material track and blind us to life’s spiritual track. However, when we get even the first installments of spiritual wisdom and experience, we start realizing that these indulgences are sources of not satisfaction, but agitation. With the practice of bhakti-yoga, we soon experience that we are much happier giving up those indulgences then we were while giving in to them. Once this renunciation awakens in our heart, then marching on life’s spiritual track becomes easier and swifter.
Then, we understand by our own experience that renunciation, far from being a deplorable lack of the will to fight for life’s material pleasures, is a commendable presence of the wisdom to perceive and pursue life’s noblest and highest joys.