Does simply donning the robes of a renunciate qualify one to be called a sadhu? What does it mean to opt for a life of renunciation? Is it even relevant in the times we live in? To clarify, sanyas or renunciation is not just checking out of the world, a casual foray into an alternative lifestyle, an escape from responsibilities. There’s nothing escapist about sanyas and it’s not for the faint-hearted. Rather, it requires tremendous inner work, determination, courage and a clear focus on one’s motivation prior to making the decision.
Sanyas is not renunciation of the world, as is commonly understood, but of the ego. At a physical level, it can mean something as basic as keeping the faith that one will be fed and clothed. And when one isn’t, that’s alright too. To not cling, to let go, is inherent to the creed of a sadhu. So the renunciation is not of the world or family or relationships, but of clinging, expectations, delusions, fears and the rest of the ego’s paraphernalia.
The two twinned aspects of tyag or detachment, and vairagya or renunciation make up the spiritual path. A sadhu opts for vairagya at all levels — physical, mental and emotional. It forms the essence of a sadhu’s practice, sadhana, for that is what the term sadhu means — one who is engaged in sadhana. The constant and uncompromising practice of vairagya leads to the state of being of the jivanmukt, one who is “liberated in life”, open as the sky, non-grasping and non-wanting.
That this attitude of renunciation, of inner surrender, of not hungering after anything, even the most basic necessities of food and shelter, survives in this present century of materialistic greed and consumerist frenzy and is not just a myth from a golden past, can be seen as a measure of its doability.
It is possible to live with less, to calm one’s senses and reactions, to not crave, to not consume mindlessly, to be gentle and fully alive to the utility of each thing, the rasa in each experience, and to allow oneself to feel sated and say, “I have enough”.
This attitude, which one might call “tempered renunciation”, takes on an urgent meaning in our times of ecological crisis when the earth’s resources are rapidly being expended to fuel our collective human hunger for more. Perhaps we could adopt a fraction of the philosophy of renunciation in our daily lives as a way of caring for the earth, for our environment and ecosystem and for ourselves.
What it could also mean is a binding together of activism and spiritual seeking, where the activist steps within and resolves her afflictive emotions before she steps out to change the world, and the seeker steps out into the world once the work of inner transformation is well underway. The ideal of the sadhu’s great, complete, roaring Ganga of a renunciation, could certainly water our smaller, inspired tributaries.