The purport is that It is not gained through knowledge unassociated with monasticism (samnyAsa).
– Mundaka Up Bhasya, 3.2.4
The purpose of this article is to explore the evidence – and rationale – for renunciation in Advaita, as exemplified in Sankara’s own words. I have focused on sharing a plethora of extracts, that make the argument for themselves. The quotes are primarily drawn from Swami Gambhirananda’s translations of Sankara’s commentaries on various scriptures – unless otherwise stated. With thanks to Ramesam for reading and correcting an earlier draft; and to Dennis for prompting me to research this topic and synthesise my findings.
The goal of advaita is jnana, knowledge, of ‘That thou art’
The goal of Advaita is to remove our fundamental ignorance: that what ‘I’ am is a body-mind that is finite and separate from the rest of the world, and which consequently desires, struggles and suffers in order to make its way in the world, in order to ‘self-actualise’ in Maslow’s hierarchy.
Advaitins, following Sankara, have consistently said that only Knowledge, not action, can remove ignorance. Sankara wrote that the only means to this Knowledge is through the scriptures taught by a jnani-jivanmukta. But the nature of the teaching requires pursuing a degree of introspection, discrimination between Self and not-Self (‘viveka’ to untangle the confusion), detachment from not-Self (‘vairagya’), and steady abidance in the remembrance of the Self, so as to be aware of when the confusion inadvertently arises again.
And before an aspirant is eligible to hear the teachings, s/he is supposed to have pursued sadhana catustaya comprising this viveka and vairagya, and six-fold behavioural traits, five of which are about turning the mind away from the world and its distractions. This sadhana therefore, is essentially about cultivating a degree of detachment and desirelessness.
A man should carry out the best forms of physical and mental austerity if he wishes to purify his mind, the highest goal. The mind and senses should be kept focused and under control. The body should be exposed to the rigours of the climate.
– Upadesa Sahasri, 17.23 (Alton)
In addition, such a seeker should strive to be a karma yogin – to pursue his prescribed action in life, without concern for the fruits of those actions – and ultimately to act without personal desire.
Neti, neti is hence the ultimate inquiry tool – and its corollary is utter detachment / desirelessness. Naturally then, the inevitable physical manifestation of this would be renunciation (samnyAsa). This is why across all the scriptures, Sankara continually emphasises samnyAsa, both as a pre-requisite for the sincere seeker and as an inevitable way of life for the jnani. To dismiss sannyasa as a cultural phenomenon of those times is to miss the logic behind Sankara’s repeated exhortation.
‘The knower of Brahman becomes Brahman’
It is interesting to note that today, most traditional and neo-advaita teachers hardly mention the importance of desirelessness (let alone renunciation). They have judged, probably correctly, that the market of seekers is happier to gain some ‘spiritual’ knowledge to counter the miseries and meaninglessness of our lives, but really wish to continue as is, rather than anticipate any fundamental change in how life is lived. However, the moksha of Advaita implies, necessitates even, a transformation: a loss of the ‘particular consciousness’ of the individual.
Since ignorance is absolutely destroyed by the realisation of Brahman, how can the knower of Brahman, who is established in his nature as Pure Intelligence, possibly have any such particular consciousness
– Brhadaranyka Up Bhasya 2.4.12
O Gautama, as pure water poured on pure water becomes verily the same, so also does become the Self of the man of Knowledge who is given to deliberation (on the Self)
– Katha Up 2.1.15
When the five senses of knowledge come to rest together with the mind, and the intellect, too, does not function, that state they call the highest.
– Katha Up 2.3.10
Therefore it is understood that the absolute cessation of the worldly existence follows from this Knowledge which has for its content Brahman that is the Self of all.
– Taittiriya Up Bhasya 2.1 introduction
Utter desirelessness is the key
It is hard to argue with the proposition that non-duality, or ‘becoming Brahman’ means that there can be no second thing to desire. Consequently, the preparation of sadhana catustaya and karma yoga are there to attenuate desires, which in turn facilitates understanding of the advaitic message, which in turn reinforces desirelessness.
The self is identified with desire alone. Its identification with other things, although it may be present, does not produce any results; hence the text emphatically says, ‘Identified with desire alone.’ Being identified with desire, what it desires, it resolves. That desire manifests itself as the slightest longing for a particular object, and, if unchecked, takes a more definite shape and becomes resolve. Resolve is determination, which is followed by action. What it resolves as a result of the desire, it works out by doing the kind of work that is calculated to procure the objects resolved upon. And what it works out, it attains, i.e. its results. Therefore desire is the only cause of its identification with everything.
– Brhadaranyka Up Bhasya 4.4.5
Having one’s eye, i.e. the group of organs beginning with the ear, turned away from all sense-objects. Such a one, who is purified thus, sees the indwelling Self. For it is not possible for the same person to be engaged in the thought of sense-objects and to have the vision of the Self as well.
– Katha Up Bhasya 2.1.1
When all desires clinging to one’s heart fall off, then a mortal becomes immortal, (and) one attains Brahman here. This much alone is the instruction (of all the Upanisads).
– Katha Up 2.3.14-15
Pretya, desisting; asmat lokat, from this world of empirical dealings involving ideas of “I and mine” with regard to sons, friends, wives, and relatives; i.e. having renounced all desires; (they) bhavanti, become; amrtha, immortal, immune from death. This is in accordance with the Vedic texts: “Not by work, not by progeny, not by wealth, but by renunciation some (rare ones) attained immortality” (Kaivalya Upanisad 1.2) . . . renunciation of desires being implied in the expression atimucya (giving up) itself, pretya means separating from this body, dying.
– Kena Up Bhasya 1.5
The attainment of Liberation is only for the sannyasin, the man of enlightenment, who has renounced all desires and is a man of steady wisdom; but not for him who has not renounced and is desirous of the objects (of the senses).
– Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, 2.69
(That person) having discarded egotism, force, pride, desire, anger, aversion and superfluous possessions (there arises the possibility of acceptance of gifts either for the maintenance of the body or for righteous duties; discarding them as well) becomes a mendicant of the paramhamsa parivrajaka class, devoid of the idea of ‘me’ and ‘mine’; and for the very same reason, serene, withdrawn. The monk who is effortless and steadfast in Knowledge becomes fit for becoming Brahman (brahma-bhuyaya).
– Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, 18.53
Action incompatible with Knowledge
When Sankara wrote that realisation can come through Knowledge alone and not through any action, many overlook the fact that he also said that any action in the world was incompatible with Knowledge. For what purpose would a jnani act, given his Knowledge of ‘not two’ and his consequential desirelessness? After all, action sprouts from desire and desire has its source only in ignorance (avidyA).
For a man does not engage in action for the sake of obtaining that to which he has become indifferent. Having become indifferent to the three worlds, for the sake of what could the one desirous of liberation strive?
– Upadesa Sahasri, 18.231 (Alton)
Action is inconceivable in one who has the knowledge of Brahman as his Self as comprised in the realisation, “I am the supreme Brahman in which all desires are fulfilled and which is above all the worldly shortcomings”, and who has no idea of results because he feels no need for anything to be got for himself from actions done or to be done (by him).
– Aitreya Up Bhasya, 1.1
Now is commenced the knowledge of Brahman with a view to eschewing the causes that lead to the performance of karma. Desire must be the source of karma, since it stimulates action; for no impulsion to activity is possible in the case of those whose desires have been fulfilled, they being then established in their own Self as a result of the absence of desire.
– Taittiriya Up Bhasya, Introduction
For a man who, in the absence of the perception of the non-Self, sees the unity of the Self, there arises no desire, since objects (of desire) do not exist. Besides, since desire cannot rise with regard to oneself, owing to non-difference, there ensues liberation consisting in existence in one’s own Self. From this also follows, that Knowledge and karma are contradictory.
– Taittiriya Up Bhasya, 1.11.4
This [Mundaka] Upanisad shows that though people in all stages of life have a right to Knowledge as such, still the Knowledge of Brahman, founded on samnyAsa only and not as associated with karma, is the means for emancipation. And this follows from the opposition between knowledge and karma . . . As for the indirect indications (suggesting that knowledge and karma can co-exist), to wit, the fact that among the householders are found some with whom started the traditional lines of the knowers of Brahman that cannot override the established rule. For when the co-existence of light and darkness cannot be brought about even by a hundred injunctions, much less can it be done so by mere indications.
– Mundaka Up Bhasya, 1.1 Introduction
Only renunciates can properly understand the teaching
This follows from the previous consideration that any action, being initiated by desire, must be incompatible with Knowledge. In order to properly understand neti neti, this speaks of the necessary attenuation of the mind; and the sadhaka’s disgust with, and turning away from, the things of the world.
In order to perform the discrimination necessary to find the meaning of the word ‘thou’, there must be renunciation of all action. This is the right means, for the Veda teaches ‘peaceful, self-controlled’.
– Upadesa Sahasri, 18.222 (Alton)
[This philosophical system] can be understood only by those highly worshipped persons who have renounced all longings for external things, who seek no other refuge – who are ParamaHamsa, wandering mendicants, who have reached the final life-stage and are totally devoted to the Philosophy of the Vedanta. And even to this day, it is only these persons – and none others – who carry on this teaching.
– Chandogya Up Bhasya, 8.12.2 (Ganganath Jha)
When what has been said in this book has been rightly comprehended, nothing further remains to be known. But only renunciates from all action will rightly understand it. Desireless, peaceful ascetics who have renounced all activities and whose minds are focused within will understand the teachings in the spirit in which they are meant.
– Suresvara’s Naiskamya Siddhi, 4.72-73 (Alton)
[To be continued]