Desirelessness and Renunciation in Advaita Vedanta – part 2 of 2

Renunciation / samnyAsa – enjoined on the aspirant and inevitable for the jnani

The inevitable conclusion of the foregoing considerations, is that renunciation is a prerequisite for jnana.  In a sense, it is preparatory modelling of how a jnani-jivanmukta is: for how one thinks, affects how one acts; and how one acts, affects how one thinks.

With regard to the seekers of Liberation, renunciation of all actions has been prescribed as an accessory of Knowledge by all the Upanishads, History, Puranas and Yoga scriptures.

– Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, 3 introduction

He who wants emancipation should forever give up all works together with their instruments, because it is known only by the man of renunciation. The state of the supreme Reality that is the same as the indwelling Self is attained by the man of renunciation.

– Kena Up Bhasya, 4.7

Therefore the ancient Brahmanas, “knowers of [or better translated as ‘devoted to’] Brahman” . . .  embrace the life of a monk (of the highest class) known as the Paramahamsa, and lead a mendicant life, live upon begging . . .

Objection: Since this Upanisad seeks to inculcate Self-knowledge, the passage relating to the renunciation of desires is just a eulogy on that, and not an injunction.

Reply: No, for it is to be performed by the same individual on whom Self-knowledge is enjoined. The Vedas can never connect with the same individual something that is enjoined and something that is not enjoined . . . This renunciation is a part of Self- Knowledge. because it is the renunciation of desires, which contradict Self-knowledge and are within the province of ignorance.

– Brhadaranyaka Up Bhasya, 3.5.1

Therefore, should a person desire that world of the Self, for him the chief and direct means of that would be the withdrawal from all activities . . . so for one who has known about Brahman and desires to realise the world of the Self, the  life of a monk consisting in the cessation of all desires is undoubtedly enjoined . . . Therefore, desiring the world of the Self monks renounce their homes, i.e. should renounce. Thus it is an injunction.

– Brhadaranyaka Up Bhasya, 4.4.22

Hence the renunciate life is recommended for seekers after liberation . . . The absence of the impulsion of desire is another reason (why the seeker after liberation renounces the world). For all the scriptures tell us that the impulsion of desire is antagonistic to Knowledge. Therefore, for a seeker after liberation who is disgusted with the world, the statement, ‘He should renounce the world from the student life itself,’ etc., is quite reasonable, even if he is without knowledge.

– Brhadaranyaka Up Bhasya, 4.5.15

Even for one who has embraced the house-holder’s life, renunciation is desirable as a disciplinary means for the realisation of the Self . . . From the fact that a fresh injunction of renunciation, despite its emergence as a matter of course (in the case of a man of illumination), is met with, it becomes evident that it is obligatory for the man of illumination. And renunciation is obligatory even for the unillumined soul that hankers after emancipation.

– Aitreya Up Bhasya, 1.1

For absolute renunciation being a spontaneous result, there can be no persistence in any other order. We pointed out that involvement in any other stage of life is a result of desire, and that renunciation consists merely in the absence of this.

– Aitreya Up Bhasya, 1.1

He, who is thus engaged in the thought of the Self as God, has competence only for renouncing the three kinds of desire for son etc., and not for karma . . . Moreover, the Vedic conclusion is this: “One should not hanker after life or death, and should repair to the forest.” Renunciation has been ordained by saying, “He shall not return from there”

– Isa Up, 1

Even Gaudapada (Sankara’s teacher’s teacher) was of the same opinion:

The man of self-restraint should be above all praise . . . He should have this body and Atman as his support and depend upon chances, ie he should be satisfied with those things for his physical wants, that chance brings him

– Mandukya Karika 2.37 (Nikhilananda)


Renunciation of activity is not intended to be purely mental

The main scholastic challenge to renunciation is based upon the Bhagavad Gita’s verse “seeing action in inaction and inaction in action”, i.e. that renunciation of action need only be mental – as the Knower knows that he is not the do-er or enjoyer.

A couple of preliminary observations on this.  Firstly that such a basis for challenge cannot be found in the Upanishads.  Secondly, we should remember that Lord Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, was speaking to Arjuna who, like the majority of us, does not yet have the maturity and preparation for samnyAsa.  As such Krishn’a primary teaching is karma yoga – urging Arjuna to do action without consideration for the personal fruits thereof.

Sankara addresses this challenge of mental renunciation directly and unambiguously:

The Lord will also speak of renunication of all actions in, ‘having given up all actions mentally,’ etc.

Objection: May it not be argued that from the expression, ‘mentally’, (it follows that) oral and bodily actions are not to be renounced?

Vedantin: No, because of the categoric expression, ‘all actions’.

Objection: May it not be argued that ‘all actions’ relates only to those of the mind?

Vedantin: No, because all oral and bodily actions are preceded by those of the mind, for those actions are impossible in the absence of mental activity.

– Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, 2.21

In addition, he notes that a jnani only acts for the bare maintenance of the body, and any other actions, if renunciation is impossible, are for the sake of others:

He is a monk, who acts merely for the purpose of maintaining the body. Being so, he does not engage in actions although he might have done so before the dawn of discrimination. He again who, having been engaged in actions under the influence of past tendencies, later on becomes endowed with the fullest Self-knowledge, he surely renounces (all) actions along with their accessories as he does not find any purpose in activity. For some reason, if it becomes impossible to renounce actions and he, for the sake of preventing people from going astray, even remains engaged as before in actions – without attachment to those actions and their results because of the absence of any selfish purpose – still he surely does nothing at all!

– Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, 4.19

The other objection is that renunciation is in itself an act.  This is flawed because Sankara is essentially arguing that any action is incompatible with Knowledge, as explained earlier, and non-action (especially when it is spontaneous, natural) is not of the same order.  True non-action is a reflection of the absence of desires, which is what is aimed at, as a support to gain Knowledge.  With regard to the question how would a jnani eat if he is not pursuing any action, we have the answer in Mandukyakarika Bhasya: Sankara alludes to a jnani resting on both the body and Atma, with the former being operative (ie with some remnant of ego), for the bare maintenance of the body only.


Renunciation even for a householder who has become enlightened

Sankara is unequivocal that even if as a householder one becomes enlightened, s/he cannot continue as a householder, because of the lack of desire and attachment.

Objection: Then it comes to this that renunciation follows as a matter of course and is not fit to be enjoined. Therefore, if the supreme knowledge of Brahman dawns in domestic life, the passive man may continue in that state, and there need be no moving away from it

Answer: No, since domestic life is a product of desire . . . And so the inactive man of realisation cannot continue in the domestic life itself . . .

Against this argument, some householders, shy of begging alms and afraid of ridicule, advance the following rejoinder, thereby making a show of their intellectual acumen: Inasmuch as a mendicant, desirous merely of maintaining his body, is seen to subject himself to regulations about begging, there may be continuance in the domestic life even for a householder who has become freed from both kinds of desires with regard to ends and means, but who has to depend on mere food and raiment for the maintenance of the body.

Answer: Not so; for this has already been refuted by saying that the constant habit of resorting to any particular house of one’s own is prompted by desire. When there is no clinging to any particular house of one’s own, there follows begging alone, as a matter of course, in the case of one who has no special inclination for turning to his own and who seeks for food and raiment under the impulsion of maintaining the body.

– Aitareya Up Bhasya 1.1


Renunciation with Knowledge leads to moksha

The whole premise of the Bhagavad Gita’s karma yoga is eloquently summed up by Sankara:

 It has been said that those who, renouncing all actions, remain steady in right knowledge obtain instant liberation.

It has often been and will be declared by the Lord that karma-yoga, which is performed in complete devotion to the Lord and dedicated to Him, leads to moksha step by step: first the purification of the mind, then knowledge, then renunciation of all actions, and lastly moksha.

– Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, 5.26 (A M Sastry)

This combination of Knowledge and Renunciation (of all action) is also clearly articulated in the Upanishads:

Therefore the knower of the Self should embrace that vow of the highest order of mendicants which is characterised by the renunciation of desires and the abandonment of all work together with its means . . . therefore to this day the knower of Brahman, having known all about scholarship or this knowledge of the Self from the teacher and the Srutis – having fully mastered it – should renounce desires. This is the culmination of that scholarship, for it comes with the elimination of desires, and is contradictory to them . . . Therefore the knower of Brahman, after renouncing desires, should try to live upon that strength which comes of knowledge.

– Brhadaranyaka Up Bhasya, 3.5.1


Suresvara on Knowledge and Renunciation

Suresvara, considered the leading, authentic (ie true to) disciple of Sankara wrote a commentary (Vartika) on Brhadaranyaka Up.  Suresvara’s Vartika on the sublime Yajnavalkya-Maitreyi dialogue in chapter 2.4 (referencing Hino’s translation) further emphasises this:

21: An ascetic, who has not given up desire, may not attain liberation even if he is a knower of Brahman.  Therefore a combination of Knowledge with renunciation is mentioned here.

23: Indeed renunciation is, for all, the best means to liberation, for it is only by one who has renounced that the highest state of the individual consciousness can be attained.

29: For those who have a desire for the world of men, begetting a son, etc is the means; but in the case of those who are desirous of Knowledge, and whose mind has risen above the objects of desire, renunciation is the means.

32: Yoga is characterised by activity, and Knowledge by renunciation. Therefore having preferred Knowledge, the intelligent one should renounce the world.

38: Therefore seeking to prescribe renunciation for the emergence of Knowledge of the true nature of Atman, the sruti begins with “O Maitreyi”

In his Vartika on BU chapter 4.5, he continues:

25: Since not only is this knowledge non-expectant of action and means, but there is the expectation of abandonment of all action also; therefore the sage [Yajnavalkya], though he had accomplished the objects (of desire) on account of having well understood the nature of That, hurriedly himself gave up all action which has speech, manas and body as means.



In summary, if Advaita is about negating (neti, neti) the superimposition / confusion, in order to abide in – to be – what is left, then desirelessness and (non-volitional, spontaneous) renunciation must be inevitable consequences, and to some extent pre-requisites.

The number and lack of ambiguity in Sankara’s references to desirelessness and renunciation, evidence their criticality for gaining and assimilating Knowledge.  They also serve as an indication how a jnani-jivanmukta would inevitably live – an interesting test for the various self-proclaimed enlightened beings out there.

The last, most cogent words must go to Sankara:

 Therefore the knowledge of this Self by the process of ‘Not this, not this’ and the renunciation of everything are the only means of attaining immortality . . . The discussion of the knowledge of Brahman, culminating in renunciation, is finished. This much is the instruction, this is the teaching of the Vedas, this is the ultimate goal, this is the end of what a man should do to achieve his highest good.

– Brhadaranyaka Up Bhasya, 4.5.15