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Renunciation: The Higher Taste

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by His Holiness Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami

It’s difficult to understand how someone on the path of spiritual realization can reject the things most people find enjoyable. Renunciation of worldly pleasure is possible only if one experiences a higher satisfaction.

Almost everyone, at one time or another, has been attracted by hearing about the activities of renounced, saintly people. Millions have admired the lives of Jesus, Buddha or, in the modern age, Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu because they rejected the pleasures of this world as insignificant and lived for a higher reality. For most of us, however, renunciation of the world is something we may admire in a saint but never undertake ourselves. But why, then, do we admire genuinely saintly people? We admire them because we see that they have reached a fulfillment beyond our grasping attempts for happiness through money and sensual pleasure. For saintly life is based on a superior pleasure principle: if a man can renounce his deep-rooted attachment to material enjoyment, he becomes eligible to taste an even greater happiness. Renunciation, therefore, is intended for every human being.

But advocating personal renunciation is enough to provoke almost everyone’s displeasure. A politician who would seriously propose that we live austerely and spend most of our efforts finding spiritual happiness could never win a majority of voters. Often parents become extremely disturbed to learn that their children are becoming interested in spiritual life and giving up coffee, tea and cigarettes, meat eating and illicit sex; they even disown their children for such radical behavior Marriages split up if the husband or wife becomes dedicated to the Absolute Truth and uninterested in sexual enjoyment. And one who turns away from talking about and planning hopefully for good times in the material world is liable to be completely ostracized from all social groups!

Indeed, renunciation of material pleasure is probably among the most unpopular ideas we could think of. But that is only because people do not understand what it is. Certainly if renunciation is taken to mean “depriving oneself of happiness,” no one could expect a sane human being to accept it, nor would we find renounced saints attractive. If renunciation consists of stopping the senses so that one doesn’t hear, see or eat, one couldn’t make much of a case for it, any more than one could make a popular argument for suicide. But such uninformed notions of “repression,” “giving up life” and “doing without human necessities” fall short of describing true renunciation. For an advanced transcendentalist, renouncing material pleasure is natural, since he rejects inferior pleasure only for something superior. If a man is eating inferior food but someone brings him something very tasty to eat, will his renunciation of the food he was eating be considered sensory deprivation? Of course not. He is simply showing good intelligence. Similarly, renouncing the way of “eat, drink and be merry” is both natural and intelligent, for when one attains the pleasure of spiritual life, he automatically loses his taste for pale things.

High Pressure Propaganda.

The materialist, however, considers immediate sensual pleasure the all-in-all, and so for him there is no question of pleasure beyond satisfying his senses and mind. He is concerned not with how to give up the pleasure of the material world, but with how to get as much of it as possible. Because the major civilizations of the present world are materialistic, their mighty propaganda machinery urges us to enjoy our senses fully for as long as we live. Immense moneymaking industries stimulate us to work hard for more and more pleasure. Life has in fact become so complicated that people in all occupations demand higher wages to purchase things they don’t even need. Drive downtown in any city in America, and you’ll see billboards left and right, most advertising liquor and cigarettes and the rest generally advertising cars, airlines, ice cream or whatever else through implications of sexual pleasure. Thus one is constantly pressured to think, “If I buy this, it will increase my sexual enjoyment.” But amid the all-out drive for pleasure through sense gratification, are people really becoming more happy?

In the Sanskrit Vedic literature there is a verse spoken by a saintly king named Rsabha, saying that the entire “work hard for pleasure” syndrome is an illusion. Rsabha was giving advice to his sons at the time of his retirement. “My dear sons,” he said, “there is no reason to labor hard for sensual pleasure while in this human form of life, for such pleasure is available even to the stool-eating hogs. Rather, in this life you should undergo penances to purify your existence, and as a result you will be able to enjoy unlimited transcendental bliss.”

Sensual pleasures will come automatically to each of us, according to our species and our destiny. These pleasures, Rsabha says, are “available even to the stool-eating hogs.” Certainly the hog takes pleasure in eating, sleeping and sex. And the hog enjoys in its own way, without needing to build educational institutes, read advertisements, purchase goods or work hard in factories. Moreover, Rsabha says, even if one does work very hard for sensual happiness, he cannot increase the enjoyment for which he is destined. If one earns millions of dollars, that doesn’t mean that he can eat more than a poor man. Nor by becoming wealthy or influential can he have more sex than a monkey, who enjoys dozens of mates. We work hard in a technologically advanced culture so that we can sleep on big spring-cushioned mattresses. But a dog sleeps just as soundly in the alley, and the dog also mates without complication whenever it has the urge. Therefore, just as pleasure comes automatically to the animals and just as miseries like those of disease come to us without being sought, so pleasure for our senses will also come automatically, without our having to work day and night for it.

Miseries of Material Life.

Not only is the feverish pursuit of pleasure unnecessary, but there is no possibility that anyone can attain lasting happiness in this world, no matter how elaborately one arranges for his comfort. Material life inflicts so many miseries upon us that what we call happiness is really just temporary relief from the continual onslaught of natural miseries. Chiefly these are the miseries of death, disease, old age and rebirth. Also, our very bodies inflict pain upon us, other living entities inflict pain upon us, and so also do natural disasters such as droughts, earthquakes and floods. Whatever happiness we think we have attained is soon ripped away by one of these miseries. Even if one claims to be happy in spite of the miseries, he is still not allowed to stay and enjoy his happiness-mixed-with-misery, for death forces him to leave the scene.

A relevant story concerns the early life of Lord Buddha. Raised as a prince, he led a sheltered existence and never knew anything of the world outside the palace grounds. On the very first day he ventured outside the palace, however, he met a man suffering from a terrible disease. He asked the man what was wrong, and the man replied, “I am afflicted by disease.”

“Will I also be afflicted by disease?” asked the young Buddha.

“Yes,” the man replied. “Everyone eventually becomes diseased,”

Next he met a man debilitated by old age. The sheltered young prince had never seen such an aged person. “What is the matter with you?” he asked.

“I am simply old,” the man replied.

“Will I also grow old?”

“Yes, of course.”

Finally, Lord Buddha saw a dead body. He was told that this was death and that it would happen to him also. But rather than accept what he saw as “the hard knocks of life,” the Buddha entered meditation to understand how one could escape from such suffering.

The human being is unique among the living species because he can seriously inquire: “Why do I have to suffer? Who am I that am subject to so many miseries? How can I get free?” The solution is not to increase material pleasures in a temporary world always filled with misery. But what is the solution? His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada once asked some of his disciples, “If it were possible to live a life of eternal happiness with an endless variety of enjoyment—singing, dancing, loving and eating—wouldn’t everyone want that?”

One disciple answered, “But Srila Prabhupada, people don’t believe that such a life is possible.”

“Never mind that,” Srila Prabhupada said. “Whether it is possible we can discuss at another time. But if there could be such a life, would you not find it desirable?”

Unending happiness. That is what King Raabha referred to as brahma-saukhyam, unlimited bliss. Love, affection, enjoyment with friends eternally. Yes, it would be very desirable But does such happiness exist?

Before we can understand brahma-saukhyam, eternal happiness, we first have to clear away one almost universal misconception. That misconception is the idea that the individual self is the same as the material body. When Rsabha said, “Become purified and then experience brahma-saukhyam,” that “purified” involves realizing, “I am not this body. In my real identity, I am a spiritual soul.” If one thinks that he is the body and so thinks in terms of material designations—”I am an American,” “I am a black man,” “a Jew,” “a woman” and so on—he remains in ignorance. One should understand that the self is beyond the mind and body.

The Gift of Knowledge.

The real gift of saintly persons is that they disseminate knowledge. That knowledge cuts to pieces the network of illusion by which we identify with the material body and material world, which in fact are causing all our suffering. Such knowledge is found in books like Bhagavad-gita, the essence of the Vedic literature of India, which was spoken by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, thousands of years ago and is still being read and studied today by scholars all over the world. Lord Krishna’s statements are not dogmatic; they can be considered through reason and logic, and if we hear them carefully they will shed much light on how to become free from suffering.

In Bhagavad-gita, Krishna enlightens His disciple Arjuna, who is bewildered because he is thinking in the bodily concept of the self. Krishna tells him that the real person is eternal: “As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change…For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Bg. 2.13, 20)

According to the teachings of Bhagavad-gita, we are originally eternal, blissful and full of knowledge as servitors of God. But because we have misused our free will by trying to supersede God, who is the supreme enjoyer, by the supreme will we have been sent to this material world to try to enact our desires. How we have associated with the material nature since time immemorial, transmigrating from one body to another according to our work and desire, forms a very complicated history. But more important than tracing out our long history of sense gratification is the chance that now, in the human form of life, we can become free and return to our original blissful nature. To become free from the suffering of material life, one has to see himself as different from the body and disassociate himself from this material world. Therefore Lord Krishna said: “When a man gives up all varieties of sense desire that arise from mental concoction, and when his mind finds satisfaction in the self alone, then he is said to be in pure transcendental consciousness… The embodied soul may be restricted from sense enjoyment, though the taste for sense objects remains. But, ceasing such engagements by experiencing a higher taste, He is fixed in consciousness.” (Bg. 2.55, 59)

To realize one’s self as a spiritual soul and to find one’s relationship with the Supreme Spirit, God, formerly one had to practice difficult methods of yoga and meditation involving severe austerities, strict physical and mental discipline, and complete abstinence from sex life. Today these methods are hardly possible, for people are short-lived, little interested in spirituality, and always disturbed by the agitations of civilized life. Consequently for this age the scriptures have prescribed a special method of benediction so that even people accustomed to a materialistic life can discover their spiritually ecstatic loving relationship with God. That method, delivered in Bengal, India, five hundred years ago by Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, is the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. By chanting this mantra, which consists of names of the Supreme Lord, one can cleanse the mirror of his mind and lose all the misgivings that have arisen within him due to bodily life. The evidence that the chanting works is shown in the lives of the devotees of the Hare Krishna movement, whose activities are shown in this magazine. By virtue of the transcendental cleansing effect of chanting Hare Krishna, young, intelligent, educated men and women all over the world are experiencing spiritual happiness that comes from beyond the mind and senses. Of course, one has to taste it for himself before he can declare, “This is superior,” but the evidence from the lives of these devotees is very convincing. A few years ago, they had never heard of brahma-saukhyam or Hare Krishna, and they were addicted to all sorts of intoxication and sexual indulgence in their search for pleasure and happiness. But now they have easily renounced the most advertised material pleasures with the feeling of “good riddance to rubbish.” They have turned their senses toward a higher engagement-serving the senses of the Supreme Lord

A Higher Taste

Of course, one may like the way of the Krishna conscious devotees without wanting to follow it himself. “Chanting is nice,” one may say. “Living simply is nice. But how can I think of shaving my head, giving up my wife, my family and my job, or giving up my responsibilities in the world?” If one thinks in this way, he is still mistaking renunciation for something negative, like going off to the mountains to live as a frustrated hermit. But renunciation doesn’t mean no wife, no children, no food, no enjoyment. It means giving up doing things selfishly in ignorance, thinking that the self is the body, and instead doing everything for Krishna. As Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita: “All that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities that you may perform, should be done as an offering to Me. In this way you will be freed from all reactions to good and evil deeds, and by this principle of renunciation you will be liberated and come to Me.” (Bg. 9.27-28)

As long as we are in the material world, to live we have to satisfy our senses, but we should regulate them by offering all our activities to the Supreme. Because our misconceptions and materialistic habits run deep, we need to hear patiently about renunciation from a genuine spiritual master. If one thus understands that he is a tiny living entity who possesses nothing and who therefore has nothing to renounce, he won’t be afraid of losing out by giving everything to the Supreme. Thus he will be eligible to transcend the frenetic race for sense gratification and taste nectar even in this life. And if he develops full love of God, at the end of this lifetime he will transcend the material world and join with Krishna in the kingdom of God.

We have admired the renunciation attained by great saints throughout history. That same spirit of renunciation is to be found in those who are devoted to chanting Hare Krishna. Certainly the present civilizations of the world are anti-renunciation and all for enjoying. But their promises of happiness through increased material indulgence are nothing more than a hoax. Where disease, old age, death and rebirth are repeatedly enforced upon one, how can one be happy? And after having acted whimsically for sense gratification, where will one go in his next life? The materialist closes his eyes to this like a scared rabbit faced with danger and says, “There is no next life. I can do whatever I want. At death it will all be over.” But a human being is meant to consider life more fully and not just seek to enjoy like a hog. If there is a way to transcend even death and to live forever in happiness, our duty is to inquire about it fully. Therefore the compassionate message of Bhagavad-gita is intended for our study, under the guidance of a realized spiritual master. The only real goal, the only challenge, for a spirited human being is how he and his fellow man can transcend the miseries of material life and find eternal happiness. If one simply steps onto this auspicious path of inquiring into the self and the way back to Godhead, he at once feels such purified pleasure that he shakes off the misbegotten hankerings and lamentations that beset all conditioned souls. By thus throwing away all that is inauspicious in favor of tangible happiness on the way to the Supreme, one arrives at true renunciation.

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