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The Vows of Renunciation

Any pledge one takes — what to speak of any vow? — should have the force behind it of personal conviction.

A mere pledge states, “I am not yet certain, for I don’t fully know myself in these matters. But this is the direction I would like to take.”

A vow should have more force behind it than a pledge. The vow of brahmacharya or tyaga must be backed by sufficient conviction to be able to say, “I am sure, now, that this is the direction I want to go, and I will build my life around it.” This vow, in other words, implies more than the mere statement, “I will try.” One has walked the length of the counter, and has made his decision.

We must always accept the truth, however, that the growth to perfection is directional: it is not a sudden leap from the valley to the mountaintop. Only those can make such a leap who are highly advanced already, and who don’t really need any vows at all, for they have attained the very purpose of those vows.

There is always the temptation, on the upward climb, to turn back in discouragement and declare, “Oh, but I find that it really is, after all, too high for me!” There is a possibility of discouragement, of intense fatigue, and even of such thoughts as, “I wonder if I locked the back door of my house; maybe I’d better go back and make sure everything is still safe” — a reawakened desire, in other words, to return to the lowlands of maya.

A vow is important. Verbalizing a commitment gives it extra force. The spoken word directs power, and reinforces one’s determination to be true.

When one starts up a mountain side, however, no matter how strong his initial will to climb it, he can’t know everything that awaits him farther on; he can only deal with the present, and with his expectations of the journey. As the way grows steeper, he may have to check his heart, his breathing, his muscular endurance, to see whether he is in fact up to the whole climb. The more obstacles he overcomes, of course, the greater the confidence he gains.

First, however, he must pledge himself to make a valiant attempt. It is useless to make firm promises until one has reached a level of such inner certainty that, for him, the only alternative to the climb is death itself.

It doesn’t matter to him, then, that he isn’t fully aware of what lies ahead. What if he finds he must scale a steep cliff? What if he falls, and goes crashing onto the rocks below? His courage must be such that he will press forward no matter what the difficulties. The true renunciate is one who is willing to face any obstacle in his struggle to reach the goal, for he knows that there is no acceptable alternative. Even if he slips, his intention never falters. And even if he is killed, he knows that he belongs utterly and completely to God alone. He is fully determined to reach God, no matter how many lifetimes it takes, and never to accept a lesser ideal. He vows never to stop until he reaches the top.

The vow of brahmacharya, and also that of tyaga, are vows truly, and not mere resolutions. One who takes these vows must abide by them “come hell or high water!” as the saying goes. These vows, then, are not for weaklings. And penalties exist for breaking them.

What penalties? They are primarily inward, in one’s own consciousness. There is the possibility, also — though it is a trivial one — that one who breaks his vows may find himself ostracized by people who share the same high principles, but who would never, themselves, dare to embrace them fully. Disappointment in oneself is what can be really devastating. One’s will may become paralyzed for a long time — preventing him, perhaps, from ever again accepting another challenge with confidence.

When a person becomes disappointed in himself, that letdown may take the form of only a temporary weakness, followed in time by renewed determination. If, however, it amounts to a deep acceptance of failure or defeat, it may last his whole life. These consequences are up to him.

I knew someone who turned back for a time to the world, and then, with great will power, resumed her spiritual search. Her monastic associates challenged her, “How can you dare to show your face here again?”

She shot back the reply: “Do you expect me to worship my mistakes?!”

It must be understood, however, that none of us lives alone in space, with no one and nothing to influence him. When you turn toward God, the Lord Himself, and His angels, come to your assistance. Everything worthwhile that you accomplish from then on will, to a great extent, be due to that grace, and not to your efforts alone. If you turn away from that grace, however, you may find yourself abandoned by it. Grace will only reach out to save you if you have already proved yourself deeply sincere in your commitment. If you have yet to earn that extraordinary grace, and if the divine forces are not convinced that you really want God alone, they may decide to let you learn life’s lessons more thoroughly as you wander again, for a time, on your own. As Yogananda put it, “God says, I will wait.”

By abandoning your vow, you may actually open yourself to contrary, satanic influences. The greater your rejection of the good, the more powerful those negative influences will be in your life.

Yogananda also said reassuringly, however, “God is no tyrant.” If you really do want Him above all else, He will take you back into His all-loving, all-embracing arms. It will depend above all on when you, yourself, are ready. He, as I said, is always there, waiting for you. It depends, you see, on the strength of your own will.

There is no need, certainly, for the imposition of social strictures on any failed renunciate. Unless his failure is accompanied by self-justifying condemnation of “God and all that crazy crowd,” he deserves people’s compassion. The inner penalties he draws will be what he deserves. Who is man, that he should presume to say what the dictates of karmic law shall be?

I submit now the vows for pilgrims, brahmacharis, tyagis, and Nayaswamis respectively. Each set of vows will be given its own separate page.