The True Spirit of Renunciation

Spirituality in India is closely associated with a highly misunderstood word called ‘renunciation’. There is the oft-quoted story of a man seeking spiritual upliftment who went in search of a true master. In his search, he came across an acclaimed guru (teacher).

The man told the guru of his problems in life, his indulgent habits and spoke of his desire to turn spiritual. So the master said he would have to ‘renounce’ the world to turn truly spiritual and the man, although wary of this request, considered it. He asked the guru what he would have to renounce. Promptly, the guru churned out a long list of things he would have to ‘renounce’! Smoking, drinking, non-vegetarianism… the list seemed endless for a man taking his first steps on the path to spirituality. Intelligent as he was, the man took a close look at the list and then looked up at the guru. And he did renounce. He renounced the guru!


The negative assumption that most of us have towards ‘renunciation’ is because most people have not understood its true meaning. Renunciation is not merely giving up things. It is the taking up of things that are more important in life. It is a process of growth. Just as a caterpillar must shed its limitations of the caterpillar body to grow into a butterfly, we need to shed our negative and petty thoughts that prevent our growth to our full potential.


To turn spiritual, we need to move beyond self-imposed boundaries that we have placed before ourselves. Too often, we get bogged down by our own insignificant preoccupations in life. In our rush to chase the world, we forget the things that are most important to us. Meaningful relationships, engaging our minds in something constructive and committing ourselves to self-improvement. The highest achievers in life have said that it is their unflinching focus on what they set out to accomplish that enabled them to do what they did. And this focus is a result of taking up a higher goal and vision and letting go of the obstacles in their path.


The key to renunciation is fixing a goal that encompasses not just our own selfish interests but the interests of others as well. It needs to be something that goes beyond ourselves, something that we are passionate about and something we are committed to achieving. Having done this, we need to focus all our energies towards the realization of the goal.


Another aspect of renunciation that is often spoken of is the renunciation of the fruit of action. In the first verse of Chapter 6 of the Bhagavad-Gita , Lord Krishna says ‘One who does what one ought to do independent of the fruit of action is a sannyasi (relinquished) and a yogi (ascetic)’. Lord Krishna urges us to give up desires but not the objects of desire. What comes between us and the Divinity that lies within each one of us is the enormous number of desires that we have accumulated over the course of our lives. These desires cannot be wished away. Spiritual growth can occur only when one attaches oneself to a higher desire and as a result, renounces the lower desires.


In fact renunciation is essential even to succeed in the world. Attachment to the fruit of the action is counter-productive towards the attainment of the fruit. When we are attached to the fruit of action, our minds tend to ramble to past failures and worries over the future thus rendering our present actions inefficient. As they say, we must do our best and leave the rest. When we are able love what we do, the fruit becomes insignificant. We break free of the tension, stress and expectation that we burden ourselves with to move beyond mediocrity and step into the world of excellence. As the great Oliver Goldsmith said, ‘I felt a secret pleasure in doing my duty without reward’. Our work becomes our reward. And the strange thing is, the action is performed so well that the fruit cannot but come to us.


Thus renunciation in its true sense does not take away from our lives but in fact enriches our lives. It helps us live as we should. Stress-free, tension-free and carefree!