Home > The Book > 14. The Widespread Need for Renunciation

Chapter Fourteen
The Widespread 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.” (4:7,8)

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 values.

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, sung well.

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.

Brahmacharis, brahmacharinis, 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 inspired.

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

Autobiography of a Yogi

A Renunciate Order for the New Age

Nayaswami Kriyananda

Order the book (when available)