On Action and Renunciation

Renunciation shouldn't be an excuse to shun responsibility but should be Action without the expectation of a reward.

On Action and Renunciation


During my college days in India, when things didn’t work out as expected, we used to console each other saying ‘sab moh maya hai’ (सब मोह माया है), literally meaning everything is moha and maya. It is strange that the ideas of detachment and renunciation find more resonance with us not when things work our way but rather when they don’t. Renunciation is easy when we have very little to give up, but it is difficult when we have to give up the most cherished of our possessions. In good times, very few people think about detachment and renunciation. When everything is going fine, we would just enjoy the pleasures of life.

The tug of war

It is when things don’t work our way that we find these philosophical ideas very appealing. When we fail in fulfilling our desires in life, we sometimes try to hide our failures and weaknesses in these high philosophical concepts of detachment and renunciation. But the truth nevertheless is that, we have desires but are not willing to strive enough in the direction of their fulfilment. We may seemingly renounce the material world and turn towards a spiritual life. But our materialistic desires did not leave us, we have just wrapped them in the garb of ‘spirituality’.

At this point, we may seem calm from outside and we may have convinced ourselves and the world around us that we are detached. We may also feel good about ourselves thinking that we have moved a great distance in the spiritual path by our renunciation. But in reality, the fire of desire still burns in our hearts. In such cases, our ideas of detachment and renunciation are not only unhelpful but also dangerous, as they become serious impediments to our growth and living.

Now we find that the underlying desires agitate us every so often. In response, we try to find ways to avoid them. To divert our attention, we may engage ourselves in other ‘spiritual’ tasks. But we don’t really enjoy these tasks since they are not to our heart’s liking. On the other hand, we have already given up the tasks we really wanted to do and have justified this act of giving up as ‘detachment’ and ‘renunciation’. These secondary-choice ‘spiritual’ tasks give us some degree of satisfaction, but our heart always longs for the things we really want.

This results in a tug-of-war within us which can ultimately lead to serious consequences. We may try to forcefully kill our desires, but such an undertaking would only lead to self-destruction. Alternately, we may become inhumanly workaholic in the secondary-choice ‘spiritual’ tasks, leading to a wide range of personal and social problems. Thus, in our pursuit of ‘renunciation’, in our pursuit to become holy, we may end up committing the unholiest of activities and make our lives and the lives of people around us very miserable.

But are detachment and renunciation not states that we should all aspire to achieve? The answer is yes, they are. The question is how and when. Seeking detachment with myriads of desires in our heart is a foolish and dangerous idea. It does not work this way. One can’t renounce just like that. It’s not a child’s play. One must be eligible for renunciation. Renunciation lies at the end of a long and arduous road of self-purification. So if we genuinely want to free ourselves from samsara, we first need to cleanse our heart and mind.

One of the ways by which we can cleanse ourselves is through performing actions in the right way. Since we have desires within and these desires will agitate our mind and forcibly drive us into all sorts of actions, it is incumbent upon us that we judiciously choose our actions and perform them consciously. To put it in other words, the desires will definitely drive us into different actions; but we can choose the right kind of actions and perform them appropriately. If we do so, our actions will purify our mind and heart and in due course of time and will prepare the stage for renunciation that ultimately leads to freedom.

Action as a means to find your path

Now the question is: what actions should we perform and how should we perform them? It is important that we first choose the right kind of activities because otherwise it would be quite difficult for us to perform them in the right way. The right activities are individual-specific. They depend on the inherent desires and the abilities of the individual and the world he or she lives in. For example, some people may have a strong urge to compete with others and say, they are supremely fit and are also willing to work upon their physical and mental abilities. Then sports would be the right activity for them since it would give them the opportunity of challenging others.

In sports, their desire of determing the result of a contest can lead to some fulfilment. But along the way, sports will also teach them that they cannot always dominate, that there are others who are better than they are. If taken in the right spirit, this will lead to an understanding of their desire and the accompanying practical limitations. Once one understands one’s desire and the practical limitations, one is able to conquer it, not before.

Strong desires are like high-pressure steam chambers, you can’t suppress it and you can’t ignore it; either action will lead to an explosion. But you can make a vent through which you carefully let a gentle stream of steam pass and over the course of time, the pressure inside the chamber falls down and it becomes manageable. The vent in this example is sports and the careful management of the vent is playing sports with the right spirit. Depending upon the desires of the individual, the vent may be arts, science, public service, etc. Now we look at what happens if we fail in careful management.

If not done in the right way, our actions can lead to more desires and more bondage. For example, we may choose sports and then end up having bitter personal rivalry with fellow sportspersons. Such rivalries can steer us away from th path and land us in considerable trouble. In fact even if we are successful in harming them, along the way we may have developed ten other new stronger desires like ensuring that we only have ‘Yes-men’ around us who never tell us the truth. All this starts a chain reaction and drives us deeper into the well of samsara. Even if we don’t go as far as harming others, we may hold deep-seated grudges against them in our mind and this too, in the long run, shall develop into another strong desire of harming others. Thus, instead of conquering a desire, we have created many new desires.       


So how do we perform actions in the right way? If we look closely, we find that actions lead to more bondage if we think that we exercise control over the results of the actions. Such thinking comes from a wrong motivation behind action itself. If we take up actions as a means to nourish our desires instead of as a means to cleanse our hearts and minds, we become more focussed on the fruits of the actions. And this is the root cause of all the ensuing troubles.

Therefore, we should perform our actions not with one eye on the goal, but with both eyes on the work itself. We should take up our actions with a spirit of learning. If it works our way, then well and fine. If it doesn’t work our way, then we learn something new. Either way, our experience is enriched and this is all that matters. If an action is performed with this attitude, then in due course, we attain insight into the very nature of the action itself. We also see through our desire that prompted us into this action. Now the action becomes like hastamalaka (as natural as gooseberry in your palm) and so the desire is conquered. At this point, detachment from this desire is all but natural. At this point, are we entitled to say ‘yeh moh maya hai’ (यह मोह माया है), meaning this is moha and maya.

In this way, one by one, we need to conquer all our desires. Once we have done that, we see through the very nature of samsara itself. At this point, sannyas is all but natural. Only at this point, are we entitled to say सब मोह माया है, not before.

About Author: Pritam Choudhury

Pritam Choudhury is from Agartala, Tripura. He studied electrical engineering at IIT Roorkee, after which, he graduated in Computer Science from the University of Cambridge. Currently, he is pursuing doctoral studies in programming languages at the University of Pennsylvania. He is deeply interested in Dharmic studies and exploring the wisdom of ancient India.

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