Need for Renunciation
This is certainly not an
age (if any such ever existed) when one’s spiritual aspiration ought
to be hidden from others. The influence of worldly delusion is widespread
and powerful. Our day seems, indeed, an example of those times described
by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: “O Bharata (Arjuna)! whenever
virtue (dharma) declines, and vice (adharma) is in the ascendant, I
incarnate Myself on earth (as an avatar). Appearing from age to age
in visible form, I come to destroy evil and to re-establish virtue.”
One’s devotion to God is
a very private feeling, and ought never to be displayed publicly lest
it become hypocrisy. If, however, one conceals from others his dedication to truth, he may (as I suggested at the end of the last chapter) deprive
himself of a useful protection. He may also merit the accusation of
being, spiritually, a coward.
This is an age when people
need to “stand up and be counted.” It isn’t enough for them to
remain merely a statistic: “Such and such a percentage of people believe
in God,” and so on. It is a time for active participation in the outer
struggle: light against darkness.
What is needed today is a
spiritual army of souls demonstrating — not militantly or aggressively,
but with sincerity declared — their commitment to higher values, to
God, and (in this age of hyper-advertising) to a firm rejection of worldly
Just consider a modern street
in the pulsing heart of any city, with crowds milling about, and rushing
here and there bent on the business of profit, acquisition, and involvement
with desires. In any such crowd there may be a few people whose thoughts
are focused on higher goals, but who, on beholding that crowd, would
gain any inkling of the fact?
Go to any exhibition of modern
art. Most of what you see there will be atrocious. How — one wonders — did
the craze ever begin for such distortions of good taste? I imagine a
few people standing before a painting, utterly baffled, but looking
cautiously right and left to see if anyone in the group can make anything of what they are beholding. Most people are not sure of
their own taste, and are therefore unwilling to commit themselves to
either a positive or a negative judgment. No one wants to be thought
naive, or completely lacking in artistic sense. So then, finally, someone
may dare to say, “I do like it!” Others around him, hearing his
remark, may dare then to repeat, “So do I!” though only with a confidence
born of imitation. The doubters in the crowd may decide, finally, that
safety lies in numbers. Hesitantly, but with increasing courage, they
join the chorus. “We all love it!” And such, finally, becomes
the verdict. Vox populi, vox Dei!
I saw a movie years ago in
which a young, aspiring singer made it to the stage at last, before
a large audience. She sang beautifully — after all, that’s why she
was chosen for the part! — but the director felt it wasn’t enough
to leave it to the movie audience to be convinced by this simple demonstration.
Repeated shots of individuals in the play-audience were necessary, showing,
by stages, first an individual here and there, then groups of people,
and finally the whole crowd smiling, nodding to one another, and in
the end standing and clapping wild approval. Thus, those who saw the
movie concluded without a single doubt that the performer had, indeed,
Such is human nature. Those
who are blessed with the discrimination to be able to judge a truth
on its own merits are very few.
Thus, if you have reached
the point in your spiritual evolution where you realize that the true
goal of life is to find God, you may also decide, dispassionately, that
this realization will come eventually to everyone, each in his own time.
You may, therefore, decide to seek liberation only for yourself. Such
becomes, indeed, the final decision arrived at by most souls. After
countless incarnations of suffering the limitations, deprivations, and
disappointments of maya, they feel it is enough, now, to merge
back into Infinite Bliss, and to view the whole scene of manifested
existence as a “blessed riddance.”
If God, however, takes the
trouble from time to time to send an avatar-savior into the world to
“destroy evil and to re-establish virtue,” one cannot but feel He
will be pleased if at least a few of those who are still seeking liberation
help Him in this mighty undertaking.
I read a book years ago about
someone who regressed people in time to a point before their present
incarnation on earth. He asked each of them, “Why did you choose to
reincarnate at this particular time?” All of them said they knew it
would be a time of great stress and hardship. None of them, however,
spoke of the sufferings they would endure. All spoke, instead, of the
great opportunity this life would give them for soul advancement.
Today is not, in other words,
a time for “dropping out.”
A new order of renunciation
would lose much of its spiritual merit were it kept a secret from all
but the chosen few. It is desperately important today for people who
long for a higher way of life to be reassured that they are not alone.
If there is safety in numbers, there is also the need for reassurance
from a sufficiency of numbers.
I myself, when I finally
(at the age of twenty-one) realized that the only possible way of life
for me was to seek God, began to wonder if possibly I was losing my
mind. I had never read about saints who had sought Him, to say nothing
of anyone who had actually found Him. Might I, I asked myself seriously,
be going crazy? I sought every alternative I could imagine to this search.
Among other things, I tried to live a simple life in the country, among
simple country folk. The experiment proved a disaster. The “simple
country people” I met did nothing at all for me in terms of helping
me even to find peace of mind. It wasn’t until I came upon Autobiography
of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda, that I found the support I needed
in my almost-desperate yearning for God.
And then I found that there
were many others, in fact, in America who shared my ideals. I had found
the path quite on my own. What a help it would have been, had I even
known there was a path to be found!
The age we live in has seen
much violence, fear, suffering, destruction, and spiritual turmoil;
it is destined to see a great deal more. We are entering a time of widespread
economic depression. A prophecy I read in India described this as being
a time “when there will be weeping in every home.” People are confused,
uncertain, and unhappy. They look to one another for guidance, but,
everywhere they look, they find only ignorance. Like the proverbial
ostrich, they try to hide from uncertainty by burying their heads in
the sand of unending distractions.
It is time, certainly, for
those few to band together who know from within that there is
a higher way of life. At least they can demonstrate clearly, in some
outward manner, that they — so few in all that crowd! — have a more
valid goal than mere absorption in materialism and ego-consciousness.
A renunciate order in which
people demonstrate their commitment not by shouting their beliefs, waving
flags and banners, or in other ways campaigning outwardly, but simply
by the garb they wear — this, surely, would be a minimal way to “stand
up and be counted.”
I would like now, therefore,
to plead with my readers: If your heart resonates with what I have written
so far, then look for some way to commit yourself to it formally, and
to make your commitment known to others.
I don’t say, Join Ananda.
Rather I say, Wherever you are, and whatever your path or stage of life,
join this order; embrace its ideals; commit yourself to them in action.
Don’t shrug helplessly and say, “What beautiful concepts. I hope
enough people do something about them.” Become, yourself, one
of those people! If you are married, discuss this way of life with your
spouse. I haven’t asked you to roam the highways like the sannyasis
of old. I’ve asked you simply to change your own attitude toward life.
Married couples would admittedly find it difficult — in the streets,
or even about the home — to wear the garb of tyaga, but on special spiritual
occasions, surely, they can do so without fearing lest the finger of
outrage be pointed at them.
and swamis (whether married or unmarried) should be less reticent. To
show the courage of their convictions seems to me right, and even necessary.
Should they dress that way
in the privacy of their homes? That, I think, should be left to personal
choice. But the face they show to the world should normally include
not only their eyes, mouths, and noses, but also their life commitment.
There are times, granted, when one wants to remain incognito. To have
to suffer challenges and questions, moreover, every time one walks abroad
or gets onto a plane does seem a quite unnecessary penance. As I said
in the last chapter, such a social change must be introduced gradually.
Paramhansa Yogananda wanted
our daily garb to be normal. He himself, when in America, dressed in
a normal business suit. He demonstrated the differentness of his calling,
however, by wearing a scarf — not orange, in fact, but white — covering
his chest. In India, he wore the traditional orange garb of an Indian
swami. His style of dress was not particularly important to him. As
he put it, it is the heart, not the body, that should wear the
luster of devotion.
Yet he did say that he wanted
us someday to wear monastic garbs. Has that day arrived yet? Perhaps
not in the West. In India? More probably. He himself wore his swami
robe everywhere during his first days in America. Just when it was that
he changed this practice I don’t know, but I imagine it was when he
found that people were more distracted by it, in everyday life, than
What he did have us do was
wear monastic garb at special public functions, and as ministers in
the churches. He also told his present successor (Daya Mata) that monastic
garbs would someday be more generally appropriate for us. From these
guidelines, I draw the following conclusions:
First, that he does want
us, now, to wear them in suitable settings, but to be sensitive also
to what is suitable, and what is not.
Second, that although suitable
settings would certainly include formal spiritual events, they need
not include the settings of everyday life.
Third, that gradually, as
we ourselves feel comfortable wearing them in our own setting, it would
become suitable for us to wear them always.
Fourth, that when we are
in public, it would be only right to wear them, once public acceptance
of them has become widespread.
Fifth, that when we are traveling
(for instance, by train or by plane), it would be better for the present not to wear them.
Sixth, that in India it might
be suitable to wear them much sooner than in the West — maybe even now.
Married couples would find
it very awkward to wear a special garb except at public functions. They
can, however — indeed, all monastics can — wear something suggestive
of their spiritual vocation: golden yellow for brahmacharis; turquoise
for tyagis; blue for Nayaswamis. They could wear shirts or blouses of
the appropriate color. When men wear suits, they could wear an appropriately
colored handkerchief folded visibly in the breast pocket; women could
do the same with scarves, sashes, or something else that is suitable.
Perhaps shirts or blouses could be designed not to have buttons in the
front, and to be slipped on over the head.
Short sleeves in hot weather?
Well, why not?
An appropriate pin, worn
somewhere on the chest, or perhaps on a pendant, would also be a means
of declaring one’s renunciate identity.
The point in any case is
not to stand up and be counted by others, but as a signal to
those who share your ideals: “You are not alone.” At first, this
might not protect the monastic from worldly intrusions, but gradually
the signal would become more and more widely known and accepted. The
time when it becomes widely respected will be, I suggest, when a monastic
might feel free to go anywhere, fully dressed in the suitable garb.
Chapter 15: A Need for Proper Education