My intention in these pages
is to propose a new model of renunciation for this age of energy. Swami
Sri Yukteswar Giri, my paramguru (guru’s guru), described it
as such, giving it its ancient Sanskrit name, Dwapara. Having
explained this matter already in several of my other writings (notably
in Religion in the New Age), I’d rather proceed here at once
to my main subject: renunciation in this age of energy.
The monastic order of swamis
in India was founded, or rather reorganized, many centuries ago by the
first, or adi, Swami Shankara. The age in which he lived was
known as Kali, or dark (literally, “black”) Yuga (age).
It was far more materialistic than the age in which we live today. Shankara
wrote rules and ideals for his renunciate order that were appropriate
for those times, when society faced a different set of realities.
People weren’t nearly so
mobile then as they are today. Travel, by present-day standards, was
very slow. There were no motorized vehicles, no airplanes, no steamships.
People’s mental horizons, too, were narrowly circumscribed. To accomplish
anything, one’s self-definition, too, had to be narrow.
To find God, or to realize
the Divine Presence in one’s life, was almost impossible for those
whose lives were not specifically devoted to spiritual progress. Those
who lived in the world, who engaged in profit, and particularly who
were married and had families, simply could not expand their horizons
to include the divine search.
In the Christian world, renunciates
sometimes went so far as to have themselves walled up in cells, with
only little openings through which food was passed. To find God, renunciation
of all distractions had, in fact, to be complete, for every attachment
to the world needed to be shattered. In India, renunciates were told
not to find enjoyment in anything, even in a beautiful sunset. They
were expected to go by foot from place to place; never to stay in one
place more than three days; and be careful not to regard anyone or any
place as their own. “Neti, neti” — literally, “Not this;
not that” — was the common practice for the spiritual seeker. It was
a way of rejecting everything in the manifested universe as false.
In both East and West it
was common — indeed, the practice was honored — for monks to beg their
food from house to house; to accept only enough food for one meal; and
to carry no money in their purse.
Jesus Christ was a renunciate
in this sense. So also was St. Francis of Assisi. And so also have been
many Christian saints, who have dedicated themselves to “the imitation
of Christ.” St. Francis used to say that he was wedded to “Lady
Poverty.” Paramhansa Yogananda, who spoke of St. Francis as his “patron
saint,” said, “I prefer the term, ‘Lady Simplicity.’” Sri
Yogananda’s view of renunciation was much more moderate than what
was practiced in Kali Yuga. The old way had been right for those days,
when mankind’s awareness was much narrower. Kali Yuga was a time of
rigid dogmas amounting to dogmatism, rigid social codes, and a rigid
concept of matter itself, which was considered fixed, solid, and essentially
In modern times, matter has
been found to consist of subtle energy vibrations. People’s thinking
is more fluid, more intuitive, more centered in principle than in outer
The swami order (unlike Catholic
monasticism) did not include women. Indeed, it would not have been appropriate
for women in those days to roam the roads freely, as swamis were supposed
Nowadays, although lip service
is still given to the ancient practices, most swamis do in fact own
a little money and even property. They are not criticized for doing
so, provided they use their possessions for the benefit of others. Swamis
no longer live in stark poverty. In keeping with our times, their renunciation
is, outwardly speaking, more moderate. Inwardly, it is more focused
on right attitudes. In this age, mental discipline is understood to
be more important than outer, physical austerities.
At the same time, the need
of the hour is to deepen this attitude. Freedom from anger, hate, pride,
and desire is more important than renunciation of outer, material involvements.
Most of the ancient restrictions
are viewed today in the light rather of sacred tradition than of actual
reality. Many swamis, if they own property, emphasize the importance
of inward non-attachment to it. Few renunciates today wander the highways,
where they’d anyway face the risk of being run over by a motor vehicle,
or asphyxiated by motor fumes. Most modern-day renunciates dwell in
ashrams like their Western counterparts, who live in monasteries. When
they travel, they usually go by car, train, ship, or airplane. Were
they to beg their food from door to door, they’d very probably be
treated as mere panhandlers.
It must be understood that
the main purpose of those ancient rules was to help the renunciate to
develop non-attachment. Today, people also realize that desires, when
utterly denied, may easily become stronger and take deeper root in the
heart than if they are moderately satisfied. In fact, the Bhagavad Gita
counsels moderation in all things. And whereas non-attachment to things
is easier if the things themselves are entirely out of reach anyway — such
as, let us say, a ride in a UFO — the desire for things that are available may actually be fanned by total denial.
To put it more concretely,
I have noted that, despite the widespread notion (in India especially)
that poor people are more likely to become saints than those who are
well to do, in fact, those who go to the saints, and indeed the saints
themselves, seem almost always to come from middle-class or upper-middle-class
homes. The poor are forced by circumstances to devote all their time
and energy to basic survival, leaving almost no time or strength to
address their spiritual needs.
It must be understood, further,
that non-attachment itself is not the goal of renunciation, the supreme
purpose of which is to give one the freedom to devote himself primarily
to his spiritual search. The real delusion to be overcome is the bondage
of ego-identity. The true goal of renunciation is to help one to rid
himself of that self-limiting identity.
The word “swami” means,
literally, “he who is one with himself.” The title is usually, of
course, only an affirmation of that ideal. Few swamis have actually
attained the goal. Still, by firm dedication to God alone they should
be well on the way to divine attainment before they take their swami
In this regard especially,
I am bound to say that I have met many swamis in India who seemed to
me even, perhaps, unnaturally arrogant, as well as being by no means
free from anger and personal ambition. The fact that they have outwardly
renounced worldly associations seems to have placed them, in their own
eyes, on a higher plateau than mere samsaris, or worldly people.
I have often wondered: What use, to them, a renunciation that inflates
the very ego it is supposed to annihilate? Again, what use, to them,
their orange robes — if they can still get angry?
The renunciate should indeed
eschew worldly involvements, but he should not despise the countless
ignorant, struggling egos who are still involved in samsara. Maya (delusion) is very subtle. Often it ensnares people through
their very rationale for escaping it.
There is a story in Indian
tradition of a hermit who was disturbed during meditation one day by
the cawing of a crow. He glanced up at it in anger, and it fell immediately
to the ground, dead. “What power I’ve acquired!” thought the hermit
proudly. A devata (angel) just then appeared to him and said,
“You think yourself so highly advanced, but there is one who is more
advanced than you, living in the town near here. You could learn much
“A woman! Is that possible?”
“Go and see,” said the
angel, and instructed him where to find her. The hermit entered the
town and, after some time, arrived at a very ordinary home; he considered
it beneath him even to enter there. He therefore called out, and a woman
answered from within, “I will come to you shortly. I am busy just
now, serving my husband.”
“She’s married!” thought
the hermit indignantly. “How could a married person possibly be on
a higher spiritual plane than I?” Just then she called out, “Be
patient, Sir. I am not your crow!”
So she knew about that episode!
He decided to wait. When at last she emerged, she spoke from a level
of wisdom that did indeed prove enlightening for him.
Humbled, he returned to his
place of seclusion. The angel hadn’t yet finished with him, however.
Appearing to him a second time, he said, “You’ve learned something,
but not yet everything that you need to know. There is another person
in town from whom you still have much to learn.” The angel instructed
him where to go.
The hermit returned to town.
This time, he found himself entering the lowest section, where the butchers
and leather workers worked and lived.
“How could any saint possibly
live here?” he marveled. When he reached the house of the person he
was to see, he found it belonged to a young man who, again, hadn’t
time for him at the moment; he was busy serving his parents.
When finally the youth appeared,
the hermit learned from him that to do one’s God-allotted duty is
the highest calling, and should never be despised. The important thing
is not to become attached to one’s duty.
This was, for him, a vitally
important lesson. Many renunciates, in forsaking worldly involvement,
overlook their duty to serve their broader family of mankind. The renunciate
should offer back gratefully to this world the energy and blessings
he receives from God. His renunciation should be a means of expanding his sense of selfhood.
To achieve this end, he must
develop an attitude of selfless service, rendered to others according
to his own ability. If he can sit all day in effective meditation,
that may in fact be the highest service he can offer. His meditation,
however, should be practiced with an attitude of self-offering to God,
and a desire for the upliftment of all mankind, not with a desire only
for personal (even though spiritual) gain.
The supreme task all men
are given who would become worthy of the kingdom of God is to expand
their ego-consciousness from its pristine finitude to the vast Self
of which the ego is but a little part — a mere grain of sand on a vast
beach surrounding the ocean of cosmic consciousness. Man must seek infinite
In India, tradition has inculcated
in people the idea that service to those who are more highly spiritual
than oneself is a way of evolving personally. It is a good tradition.
Merely to have embraced formal renunciation, however, in no way guarantees
high attainment. Many swamis and other renunciates, on finding people
eager to serve them, develop an expectation of being served,
and in time come to assume that such service is their natural due. In
this attitude they strengthen, but don’t expand, their ego-identity.
Thus, in creating a new renunciate
order, I want to address above all the fundamental purpose behind the
monastic life itself: transcendence, and the attainment of oneness with
the greater Self of all: God. As Paramhansa Yogananda wrote in his great
poem, “Samadhi”: “Myself, in everything, enters the Great
When my Guru, in 1950, placed
me in charge of the other monks in his order, our renunciate way of
life had not yet been developed. He himself had given us only two rules:
no speaking at the table during mealtimes, and no intermingling of the
sexes. The time had come, I saw, to give the order more specific form.
To me fell the job of organizing our way of life.
As I did so, my Guru told
me, “Don’t make too many rules: It destroys the spirit.”
Monasticism in the West has
been based, by contrast, almost entirely on “the Rule.” In my new
position, I tried to avoid this negative emphasis. Traditionally, the
monastic is told, “Don’t do this; don’t do that; don’t go here;
don’t go there; sit properly; direct your gaze humbly to the ground.”
All these, and similarly restrictive injunctions cause the monastic
to lose that cheerful confidence in God which alone enables one’s
spirit to soar.
When I met my Guru, he gave
me his unconditional love, and asked me to give him mine in return.
I did so with all my heart. Next, he asked me to give him my unconditional
obedience. Desperate though I was to be accepted by him, I had to be
truthful. Therefore I asked him, “What if, occasionally, I think you
are wrong?” He replied, “I will never ask anything of you that God
Himself does not tell me to ask.” With that understanding, I gave
him my unconditional obedience also.
Obedience is traditionally
demanded of monks, especially in the West. However, though my Guru had
placed me in charge of the monks, I did not feel competent to make such
a request of them. After all, wasn’t I myself still struggling to
come out of the pit of delusion? I feared the development of attitudes
in myself of superiority and condescension. Rather, therefore, I chose
to be in a position where I could learn from anyone with something worthwhile
to teach me. Therefore I told my fellow monks, “I won’t ask your
obedience. All I ask is your intelligent cooperation. And I promise
in return to cooperate with you in anything you ask of me, provided
it doesn’t go against either my principles or our monastic calling.”
Ten years after our Guru’s
passing, I was dismissed from the order. My superiors had wanted me
to accept blindly, in a passive spirit of submissiveness, their every
wish for me. My difficulty was that our Guru had instructed me personally
as to what my mission would be. Those instructions conflicted in many
ways with what they asked of me. After some years of doing my best to
obey them, while at the same time trying to fulfill what he himself
had asked of me, I finally had no choice but to accept that he, not
they, was my Guru. I remembered him, moreover, having once written,
“Strict obedience to a person of God-realization leads to inner freedom,
but unquestioning obedience to someone who is not enlightened may lead
to further bondage.”
My road through life, based
not only on my Guru’s stated wishes for me, but also on what he perceived
to be my own nature, has been to apply his teachings creatively, as
I’ve understood them, to the needs of others. Without such creative
application, no one can progress very far on the path.
The form of renunciation
I propose here, then, encourages creativity of the right sort.
As the reader may know, I
have composed a fair amount of music in my life. Years ago, an Ananda
member decided to write music of his own. (In fact, his “compositions”
were derivative in style, and by no means inspired.) He said to me,
“You know what it’s like to express yourself creatively;
it’s something you just have to do.” I replied, “No, I
know no such thing. I’ve never written even a note of music to express
myself. To me, music composition has been a service to others. I’ve
never done anything out of personal compulsion. If I’d never composed
a melody, or written a single book, in my life, I’d feel just as inwardly
fulfilled as I do now.”
In fact, when I was young
I aspired to be a playwright. My purpose was to share the truth with
others. When I realized that I myself didn’t know the truth, I decided,
“Why flood the world with my ignorance?” I gave up writing altogether.
Years later, as a disciple of my Guru, I felt I had reached the point
where I was now ready — with a measure of fear and trembling — to begin
to carry out his instructions to me to write. Since then, though I’ve
had no access to the world of the theater, I have been able to write
two or three pieces for the stage.
My goal in everything I’ve
done has been to achieve inner freedom, and to inspire others in the
same direction. Never have I tried to “express myself.” This little
self of mine, this ego, is something I’ve tried my best to escape — not
in a spirit of self-negation, but of reaching out to embrace the divine
universe, in God, as my own.
The form of renunciation
I propose in these pages encourages creativity primarily with a view
to developing in people their own, innate sense of right and wrong,
and not as an encouragement to egoic self-expression. What I encourage
also is the submission of their will to what is right in everything,
without relying excessively on the opinions of others — that is to say,
to listen respectfully to their opinions, but to accept only those which
their own intuition endorses.
My superior, during the years
when I lived at Mt. Washington, tried once to get me to work in the
printshop. (I wonder if she didn’t try this ploy partly to get me
out of her hair, with all my suggestions for how to expand the work!)
Her plan was diametrically opposed, however, to what Master himself
had told me to do. She wanted to suppress me, whereas he kept encouraging
me in my creativity. Had I not received his personal counsel, I might
have allowed my creativity to be stifled, to the lasting detriment of
my spiritual progress. Indeed, in looking back I realize now that my
superior would never have allowed me the time even to write serious
books. And the editor-in-chief would never have published any book I
did write. The editor once said to me regarding her neglect toward
editing Master’s own books, “What more do people need? They have
all the books they need for their spiritual advancement anyway.” When
she threw me out, she tried to discourage me altogether from writing
anything, and insisted, “Everything you could possibly write has been
In Western monasteries, it
is usual to suppress creativity. I have read of novice nuns being told
to plant flowers in the ground upside down, solely to educate
them in mindless obedience. Adherence to such instructions, offensive
as it is to all reason, not only suppresses the ego, but suffocates
one’s spiritual aspiration. Blind obedience deprives one of common
sense, which, St. Teresa of Avila said, is even more important than
devotion. (Devotion, she said, can be developed, but common sense is
something one either has or doesn’t have.) A monastery that tries
to reduce everyone to a single expression of spirituality is an offense
against Nature itself, which never repeats anything exactly, not even
There is much in traditional
monasticism, both East and West, that actually serves to impede true
spiritual progress. In India, the worst aspect of monasticism is, in
my view, that it encourages pride. In the West, the worst aspect of
monasticism is that it tries to get people to overcome the ego by suppressing
it, instead of encouraging self-transcendence. As India’s best-loved
scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, puts it, “How is suppression (even)
It is true that one who would
find God must renounce everything — including, above all, his sense
of having a separate individuality. Such renunciation, however, can
be accomplished only by one’s own free will. Moreover, what renunciation
of the ego makes possible is the free expression of God’s unique manifestation,
as one’s own self.
In the Mahabharata,
the ego is represented by “Grandfather” Bhishma, who received the
boon of not dying until he relinquished his own body. Indeed, the ego
is the last delusion to disappear. It can only be transcended by self-offering
into the Infinite. With the final surrender of the last shreds of ego-consciousness
comes an oceanic bliss, spreading out to embrace the universe. The classical
Christian belief in negative submissiveness to God suggests someone
on his knees, bowed to the ground and casting dust repeatedly onto his
own head. I suggest that one accomplishes nothing by this attitude — except,
perhaps, a focus on dust (sin, in other words) and on one’s own head!
True humility is complete self-forgetfulness. Indeed, it reminds me
of something my Guru once said, “How can there be humility, when there
is no consciousness of self?”
The Buddhist concept of nirvana, which has been thought to mean “nothingness,” is another
attempt at explaining the ego’s essential non-reality. What most Buddhists
don’t understand is that in “no-thingness” the soul finds absolute
bliss. One wonders, in fact, whether anyone would willingly seek
complete self-annihilation, unless he believed also in a higher Self
into which his soul would be absorbed. The negative goal, as it is commonly
understood, sounds suspiciously like the “cop-out” of suicide.
The nirvana Buddha
experienced, as Paramhansa Yogananda explained, is that state of inner
freedom in which no attachment or desire remains rippling over the surface
of the sea of one’s consciousness. The ego has vanished altogether.
Into this initial emptiness there rushes, filling the void, the oceanic
bliss of Satchidananda: ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new
Bliss, which was Swami Shankara’s definition of God.
Many years ago, in Thailand,
I read an official Buddhist tract which compared what it considered
the Buddhist ideal of nirvana with the Hindu belief in absolute
bliss (Satchidananda). The essay stated (I paraphrase): “While
it is true that nirvana is preceded by a fleeting moment of bliss,
this experience is followed by another, of complete nothingness.”
This teaching was, of course, quite the opposite of Paramhansa Yogananda’s
experience, and of every other great master’s, anywhere! What the
tract described, however, was modern Buddhism. It was not the
teaching of Gautama, the Buddha. This was the counterpart of Western
Contemplating this supposed
difference, however, one wonders: Whence did the Buddha derive his universally
admired compassion? One can imagine compassion being rooted in absolute
bliss. One cannot imagine its being rooted in total unawareness! How,
indeed, would anyone, ever, sincerely devote his life to attaining
nothingness? Small wonder that modern Buddhists uphold so fervently
the ideal of Bodhisattva (which, to yogis, is the state
of jivan mukta)!
Modern Christianity, too,
circumscribes drastically the teachings of Jesus Christ. Churchianity,
as my Guru called it, describes the highest heaven as being a place
where the free soul continues to live through eternity in a separate
body, forever locked in its own individual ego. A certain theologian
once wrote words to the effect that, “To the Christian, an impersonal
state in which all forms ceased to exist would be abhorrent.” What
that man should have said, of course, was, “To the ego, such
a state is abhorrent.” Indeed, to the ego, anything that threatens
its existence is abhorrent.
Swami Sri Yukteswar compared
the ego to a caged bird: After years of confinement, the bird may imagine
it belongs in that cage; it can’t imagine itself soaring high
up in the sky.
The true saints in Christianity,
however, have realized Bliss as the only reality in existence. They
have said so in many ways, in person and in their writings. Love might
be described as the first manifestation of bliss. St. Jean Vianney,
a great saint in France, once stated, “If you knew how much God loves
you, you would die for joy!”
The goal of renunciation
is to help one to achieve complete absorption in that Bliss. Therefore
swamis in India have commonly assumed names that end in the word, “ananda”
(bliss). In India, the main criterion of renunciation has been non-attachment
to money, place, and possessions. Had Swami Shankara taught the need
to dissolve the ego, how many people would have even understood him?
Only in the present age, with science’s discovery that matter itself
has no permanent reality, is it possible to understand intellectually,
at least, that the individual ego, too, may not really exist. Swami
Shankara did describe all creation as being only a dream of God’s,
but still it was not possible in his time for even profound thinkers
to see the human ego itself as being real only as a dream of God’s.
Generally speaking, in India — judging
by my own observation — the goal of spiritual striving does not seem
to have been transcendence of the ego. Many renunciates, no doubt sincere
in their disclaimers of attachment to money, place, possession, and
position, still place great emphasis on their own authority, especially
in spiritual matters.
I see no reason to think
that modern swamis have compromised their ideals by owning possessions,
or by having fixed places to live. The times have simply changed. The
spiritual need of our age, and a goal to which everyone can now aspire,
is the further understanding that outward forms and distinctions have
no reality at all except as manifestations of something formless and
As for Western monasticism,
imagine anyone these days going from house to house with a begging bowl!
There simply has to be a suitable cultural setting for such practices.
And to try to create such a setting would require more energy,
and produce fewer gains, than would be worthwhile.
My fellow disciples in our
Guru’s organization have interpreted his mission as being above all
to establish a monastery, one conducted along the old lines. I see his
actual mission, instead, as having been to address the needs of an entire
society — indeed, a whole civilization. He was sent to effect fundamental
changes at every level of human life.
For spiritual seekers, monasteries
of the traditional sort — especially because of their emphasis on strict
obedience to rule and central authority — have become passé. In Italy,
which was at one time the seat of Christian monasticism, huge monasteries
today contain only a handful of monks, most of them — dare I say it,
at my own age of eighty-three? — doddering old men in their eighties.
Paramhansa Yogananda introduced countless innovations in this age. His
own organization, however, has clung to Kali Yuga forms and traditions.
It claims that he came for no grand, world-changing purpose — though
he himself often, with great fervor, stated, “You have no idea what
a great work this is! It is destined to change the whole world!”
Fortunately for the future of his mission, my senior fellow-disciples
dismissed me as a traitor! They were right: I was not loyal to their
antiquated interpretation of the scope of his vision. Since then I have
been able to pursue the path he himself indicated to me personally:
a path leading straight into Dwapara Yuga, and to incalculably
greater freedom at all levels.
My fellow disciples have
gone back with a vengeance to the concept of complete monastic obedience.
No one is allowed to question any directive from above, lest he be labeled
disloyal and a troublemaker. Virtually every decision gets made by the
Board of Directors.
Years ago, a door between
the guest kitchen and the dining room at the SRF retreat in Encinitas
got broken. Six months later, when my informant left there and came
to live at Ananda, the door had yet to be repaired because permission
to fix it had not yet come down from the Board of Directors in Los Angeles.
How can any spiritual work flourish in such a suffocating atmosphere?
Swami Sri Yukteswar listed
“pride of pedigree” among what he described as “meannesses of
the heart.” This aspect of pride has been anathema to organized religion
everywhere. The thought that one person is better than others simply
because he holds a higher position than they in the organization, or
because he has been years longer on the path, is simply one of the pitfalls
into which the ego can all too easily fall. Renunciates would do well
to remind themselves constantly that he is most worthy in God’s eyes
who considers himself least among men.
In truth, most of the Master’s
highly advanced disciples were either married or had at one time been
married. To treat the married state as something “beyond the pale”
for the sincere seeker is a sign of pride, not of wisdom.
What I propose to do here
is open the path of renunciation to all those, whether married or single,
who deeply yearn to know God.
What, then, are the marks
of those whom I’d consider worthy of being accepted as true renunciates?
They would be those who have achieved noteworthy progress toward the
attainment of the following virtues:
They have no, or very
few, attachments or desires.
They are without anger.
(Anger appears in the heart when one’s desires are thwarted.)
They accept without prejudice
whatever life gives them, and live by the principle, “What comes of
itself, let it come.”
They never seek to justify
or defend themselves, but accept all judgment by others dispassionately,
as experiences given them by God for their higher good.
They keep in their hearts
primarily the company of God.
They are indifferent to
others’ opinions of them.
They work without personal
motive, to please God alone.
They are impersonal in
the sense of wanting nothing for themselves, but never in the sense
of being indifferent to the needs of others.
They see all beings as
striving toward the attainment of Satchidananda: ever-existing,
ever-conscious, ever-new Bliss, no matter how presently misguided the
efforts of some people may be. Thus, they feel kinship with everyone,
and with all life.
They accept nothing as
their own, but only as being “on loan” to them, for the benefit
They view pleasure and
pain equally, as opposite (or dual) expressions of eternal, divine bliss.
They have meditated daily
Because they are always
happy in themselves, they are impervious to insults, outer suffering,
failure, defeat, or disaster. They strive to live the ideal that Paramhansa
Yogananda voiced when he said, “You should be able to stand unshaken
amidst the crash of breaking worlds!”
They strive to love God
unceasingly, and ever more deeply, in a spirit of utter openness to
be guided by His will.
Chapter 2: The Dilemma