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Main Themes in Bhagavad Gita

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Renunciation and Asceticism in the Bhagavad Gītā

The Indian mystic and controversial teacher Chandra Mohan Jain, also known as Osho, in reference to renunciation once said, “Dropping the idea of ownership is renunciation. Renunciation is not dropping the possessions but possessiveness.” While the “Rolls-Royce Guru” may have been regarded by many as a fraud or cult leader, his insight into the nature of renunciation reflects those of the Bhagavad Gītā with astonishing accuracy. The themes of renunciation presented in the Gītā are then closely tied to its presentation of asceticism which the Gītā portrays as perhaps the antithesis to Osho’s notions of renunciation. The goal of this essay then will be to summarize the Gītā’s themes of renunciation and asceticism in the context of individual duty or sva-dharmaḥ

In the opening verses of the Gītā, the predicament of Arjuna can clearly be seen as a conflict of duties; his individual duty (sva-dharmah) and his universal, human duty (sanatana dharmah). While it eventually becomes evident that sva-dharmah supersedes sanatana dharmah, there is much more the Gītā has to say on the subject. One of the primary aspects of dharmah that is discussed and is useful to the topic of renunciation is the attitude or posture with which we are called to perform our dharmah. The Gītā makes it clear that it is not sufficient to simply perform our dharmah but that we must also perform it with detachment to the results or “fruits” of our actions; we must relinquish all attachment to the outcomes of our actions to Krishna. This can clearly be seen in 18.6,”But even these actions should be done by relinquishing to me attachment and the fruit of action – this is my decisive idea,” and 2.51,”Wise men disciplined by understanding relinquish the fruit born of action.”

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Furthermore, we see that attachment to the fruits of our action leads only to a chaotic state of happiness and sadness. As long as we take ownership of the fruits of our actions, we are directly tied to their “goodness” or “badness”. We are told in 2.48 to “be impartial to failure and success.” However, the only way to detach ourselves from the fruits of our actions is, as we have already seen, to relinquish them to Krishna. What does it mean exactly however to relinquish the fruits to Krishna? This question is answered in 3.30 and 3.31 when we are told, “Surrender all actions to me,” and “men who always follow my thought, trusting it without finding fault, are freed even by their actions.” Thus, the only way for us to escape the roller coaster of disappointment and false satisfaction is to perform our duties to please Krishna; not for our own fulfillment but rather for our relationship with Krishna.

This idea that we are to perform our dharmah with detachment to its outcomes and with the intent of deepening our relationship with Krishna is directly related to the Gītā’s presentation of renunciation. As the proper fulfillment of dharmah has been established as the performance of actions solely for Krishna, it would be a logical step to conclude that proper fulfillment of dharmah requires that we renounce all claims to the fruits of our actions. Indeed, because according to the Gītā all things emerged out of Krishna, are sustained by Krishna, and will be destroyed (or transformed) by Krishna, we cannot claim any ownership to the fruits of our actions. Therefore, it is not that we must actively renounce the fruits of our actions to Krishna, but rather that we must realize that we never actually could claim ownership over the results. The issue of renunciation can then better be perhaps understood as realization as to our actual situation; it is an issue of renouncing our attempts to control. In the analogy of life as a theatrical play where we are the actors, trying to claim control over our actions and their results is like the actor trying to re-write the script when they should be listening to the director. Thus, if our actions are performed as the result of duty and we renounce claim to the results, our actions can be seen as neither good nor bad because we are not the ones who chose the outcome. Indeed, if we renounce control to Krishna, our actions are neither good nor bad, but rather beyond.

With this idea of renunciation primarily defined as the renunciation of perceived ownership and control, the ideas of asceticism and material renunciation can now be analyzed. Many ascetics find support for their worldview in the Vivarta-vāda Vedānta, or Illusionist School which argues that this world is merely an illusion and that consequently, all desire must be eliminated. This renunciation of desire is taken up in a pursuit of inaction and of knowledge. As knowledge of the atman and Brahman is achieved, the unity of the two becomes realized and the ascetic achieves liberation or moksha. This process of material renunciation, acquiring knowledge, meditating, and realization is a long and arduous process taking place over a long portion of one’s life. In response to this path of moksha, the Gītā has the following to say in 12.12, “Knowledge is better than practice, meditation better than knowledge, rejecting the fruits of action is better still – it brings peace.” Thus, two paths to peace can be seen. The first, the path of the ascetic, is long, arduous, and not guaranteed success; the second, the path of the renouncer, leads directly to peace. This is iterated in 5.5, “Men of discipline reach the same place that philosophers attain; he really sees who sees philosophy and discipline to be one.”

Having seen the comparison between the paths of asceticism (the path of the philosopher) and the path of renunciation (discipline), several very important things can be said regarding world renouncers, sādhu’s, sannyasin’s and the like. It must first be addressed that the Gītā fully rejects the idea that one can fully renounce action. This can be seen in the first half of 5.4, “A man cannot escape the force of action by abstaining from actions,” So we see that inaction is impossible; for even inaction is a conscious choice and thus inaction entails the action of choosing inaction. Thus, the goal of many yogis and other aesthetics to cease action is ultimately futile. To achieve ultimate peace then, it is not enough to renounce action and material possessions. If the action of material renunciation is to succeed, it must be coupled with the renunciation of claims to the fruit of our actions and the devotion of all our actions unto Krishna.

This concept of two modes of renunciation, simply futile material renunciation and successful material renunciation and possessive renunciation, raises an important distinction which is at the heart of many conflicts within all religions. That is the distinction between piety and religiousness. While the exact definitions of these words may be quite similar, they will be used presently to represent concepts rather than definitions. Piety can be understood as the practice of determining the underlying reasons for religious rules and applying them to all areas of life whereas religiousness can be seen as following the specific, laid out doctrine of a specific interpretation. Thus, with these two styles of religion, four possible combinations are possible. A person can be pious and religious, pious and non-religious, non-pious and religious, or non-pious and non-religious.

The Gītā then seems to be supporting two of these combinations, while condemning one and pitying the other. It can clearly be seen again in 12.12 that the pious path of renouncing control and devoting oneself to Krishna is the best path. However, 12.12 also says that while the path of the philosopher-ascetic is less preferred, it is just as valid. This path of the philosopher-ascetic can be seen as the pious and religious person. The condemned path, that of the non-pious, non-religious person, corresponds to individuals who do not renounce control unto Krishna and who do not follow religious rules. The Gītā identifies these people as caught up in the roller-coaster of the self-ego. The last possibility then, of a non-pious, religious person, is the path that the Gītā expresses pity toward. This is because whereas the non-pious, non-religious person does not know they are on the wrong path, the non-pious, religious individual thinks that they are on the right path; when in reality, their actions are completely futile and misdirected.

While the Bhagavad Gītā has far more to say on the topics of duty and renunciation, the above discussion is informative in regards to renunciation and its relation to asceticism. Out of this discussion of the relation of the two in the context of dharmah, sever important conclusions can be drawn. First, successful performance of dharmah is conditional upon the renunciation of the fruits of action. And second, that attainment of ultimate peace is dependent on piety (or in terms more familiar to the Gītā, devotion) but can also include religiousness. This leads to two acceptable paths, one admittedly better than the other. These two ideas lead us to a final conclusion; that the goal of material ascetics to eliminate desire is not wrong, but rather misguided. That desire in and of itself is not wrong, but desire directed toward ourselves, for our own fulfillment, for the satisfaction of the false self-ego, is wrong; that we are not to eliminate desire, but desire for our own sake. Instead, the Gītā tells us that we are to renounce self-seeking desire for desire to satisfy Krishna. For indeed, the Bhagavad Gītā tells us that renunciation of ourselves unto Krishna is the only way to be delivered from all sinful actions, not simply withdrawal from the world.


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