On true and false renunciation

19 04 2021

After hearing the prayer of Dabira Khāsa and Sākara Mallika, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu said, “My dear Dabira Khāsa, you two brothers are My old servants. “My dear Sākara Mallika, from this day your names will be changed to Śrīla Rūpa and Śrīla Sanātana. Now please abandon your humility, for My heart is breaking to see you so humble. “You have written several letters showing your humility. I can understand your behavior from those letters. “By your letters, I could understand your heart. Therefore, in order to teach you, I sent you one verse, which reads as follows. “ ‘If a woman is attached to a man other than her husband, she will appear very busy in carrying out her household affairs, but within her heart she is always relishing feelings of association with her paramour.’ (CC Madhya 1: 207-211)

“You should not make yourself a showbottle devotee and become a false renunciant. For the time being, enjoy the material world in a befitting way and do not become attached to it.” Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu continued, “Within your heart you should keep yourself very faithful, but externally you may behave like an ordinary man. Thus Kṛṣṇa will soon be very pleased and deliver you from the clutches of māyā. (CC Madhya 16: 238-239)

The word markaṭa-vairāgya, indicating false renunciation, is very important in this verse. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, in commenting on this word, points out that monkeys make an external show of renunciation by not accepting clothing and by living naked in the forest. In this way they consider themselves renunciants, but actually they are very busy enjoying sense gratification with dozens of female monkeys. Such renunciation is called markaṭa vairāgya — the renunciation of a monkey. One cannot be really renounced until one actually becomes disgusted with material activity and sees it as a stumbling block to spiritual advancement. Renunciation should not be phalgu, temporary, but should exist throughout one’s life. Temporary renunciation, or monkey renunciation, is like the renunciation one feels at a cremation ground. When a man takes a dead body to the crematorium, he sometimes thinks, “This is the final end of the body. Why am I working so hard day and night?” Such sentiments naturally arise in the mind of any man who goes to a crematorial ghāṭa. However, as soon as he returns from the cremation grounds, he again engages in material activity for sense enjoyment. This is called śmaśāna-vairāgya, or markaṭa-vairāgya. (CC Madhya 16: 238 purport)

As a young man, I renounced the world twice. The first time was quite grave and seemed definitive, the second was a continuation of the first, a quick “do-over”. When I went off to renounce the world to do religious stuff, I really didn’t think I would come back. There was precedent: I had grown up poor and I had wanted to be a priest when I was a young man. I thought I was following my desire the whole time of my renunciation. It’s taken me years to figure out that this was not the case.

It wasn’t until I was coming back from visiting another monastery, driving across the vast California desert, that it hit me that I had to “go back into the world” after years living as a consecrated celibate. It was the ultimate “egg on your face” moment. I was in my mid-twenties with an unfinished degree and little work experience other than very menial jobs. All things considered, I clawed my way back with mixed success. Now, well in middle age, I can’t say that I have shaken off thoughts of “I shouldn’t be here,” or “my life should have been otherwise.” For all my distaste for the counterfactual, it is an inevitable temptation for a person whose life turned out completely the opposite of what he expected. Though, honestly, I have come to terms with the ordinary and the all-too-normal obligations of my life now. Krishna has helped here, and He has been quite merciful. He has given me at least a dim sliver of a beam of light of what true love and service could be. I am thankful for that, and it’s enough to keep me on the straight and narrow for now.

Admittedly, my own renunciation isn’t that interesting. Or rather, it is only interesting as a microcosm of greater societal trends. Even though I was born almost a generation after the end of the Second Vatican Council, I feel that I relived it in miniature in my own life. As a young Catholic, I went to a traditionalist seminary and hung around others, both clergy and laity, who desired to live in a church where the changes didn’t happen. I lived day in and day out in a place that fought valiantly to turn back the clock. But part of me experienced why the changes were “necessary”, or at least desirable for many. I was thinking the other day about how my old religious congregation, the Society of St. Pius X, in spite of having gifted and holy priests, hasn’t really produced an original thought about Catholic theology or life in fifty years. Their vision of the Church, of God, and of history is encased in amber, just the way they like it. I have discussed elsewhere how I really couldn’t stay in their orbit for that reason. There is an “intellectual renunciation” there, a recourse to prejudice and jargon, that quite frankly doesn’t seem particularly Catholic (i.e. universal). I know there are exceptions, I know that there are priests and faithful who try to go deeper. But they are afraid to say anything, and the common tropes seem to be the only “safe” topics of conversation.

The same reasoning extends to the daily life of the traditionalist laity. Traditionalist families that I have know often went through great sacrifices to be faithful to the teachings of the Church, especially in the area of not using artificial birth control. They often also sacrificed to live in communities with similar beliefs or out in the country where they would be further away from “the world”. They thus can be materially very austere and even heroic compared to other families. I was around families like this twenty years ago, and often I wonder what their retention rate is in terms of the next generation. Did all the kids keep the faith? My own sense has always been that, if you want to keep up “Catholic tradition” in terms of the family, what’s to stop the same pattern of attrition in belief that was witnessed in the 1960’s? The Catholic Church was filled with large pious families in Europe that prayed the rosary every night in 1959. Now they can barely fill a church on any given Sunday. What went wrong, and what’s to keep that from happening again?

Regardless of confessional commitments, large institutions in modernity tend to follow the same patterns. The Hare Krishna movement in the West was only founded in the 1960’s, yet they are large enough to exhibit the same tendencies of growth and decadence. When Srila Prabhupada started the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), it was “all hands on deck” during its twelve turbulent years of explosive growth before he left this world. Men in particular weren’t really expected to get married, and if they did, there was no question of their living outside the temple. Men and women were more married to the movement than they were to each other. Devotees woke up early for temple services and spent their days doing “harinam”: at first, chanting in the streets and distributing books, later to be replaced with other activities to make money for the movement. As with many religious movements of the time, and especially after the departure of the founder, things went down hill rather precipitously. Outsiders accused ISKCON of being a cult, many left the movement, children were put into “gurukulas” and abused, women were exploited, and so on and so forth. Without Prabhupada there to micromanage things, a sort of “false renunciation” was revealed, or at least a very superficial turning away from the world that simply wasn’t sustainable.

The issue for me, both as a Hare Krishna and a crypto-Catholic, is how a consistent renunciation is really difficult for the individual and almost impossible for the collective. In the passages cited at the beginning of this reflection, we see the brothers Rupa and Sanatana being accepted as disciples by Lord Chaitanya with the analogy of the woman who pretends to be the perfect housewife to cover up how she’s really thinking about her lover. This is due to the brothers’ previous positions as important civil servants for the local Muslim ruler. Similar counsel is given to Raghunath dasa Goswami who wanted to renounce the world against the advice of his parents. Lord Chaitanya told him to act normal so that his parents would stop freaking out because their son was becoming a religious fanatic. And he did, for a time, but of course he ran off and became a great Vaishnava saint eventually. The purport to this passage in particular talks about the false renunciation of monkeys or of the crematorium. As with my own example, yes, you can get rid of a lot of externals, or even all externals of a previous life, but that doesn’t extract them from your heart. That’s the work of a lifetime, if not many lifetimes. It doesn’t happen on its own. In Hare Krishna jargon, it happens through the mercy of guru and Krishna. In Catholic jargon, it’s due entirely to docility to the teachings of the Church and the Holy Ghost.

You can’t pretend to not like the world. You either like it or you don’t. You either turn around and walk away, either physically or spiritually, or you continue to look askance at it. It’s like Lot’s wife who turned back in spite of the Lord’s command and became a pillar of salt. She left part of her heart in Sodom and couldn’t go on.

All the same, I am conflicted as to whether “fake it until you make it” is still the best policy. The easiest way to be detached from the world is simply not to have things, though this is often not really a solution. You have to have things, and use them in the Lord’s service. Related to this, I have softened my attitude towards Catholic traditionalists recently. They’re trying, which is more than I can say for a lot of other people. They legitimately think that their kids are going to Hell unless they radically turn them away from the world. While that attitude is toxic in its own way, it isn’t far from the truth in a manner of speaking. On the other hand, much of religious duty and parenting in particular is about executing one’s duties without any real expectations concerning the results. I hate to bring this up, but as a family man, I am well aware that almost all of Srila Prabupada’s family did not support him in his mission to bring Krishna consciousness to the world, and some even tried to sabotage it. Was he a “good father” in that regard, and is it borderline blasphemous for me to ask? Srila Prabhupada’s guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thankura, founded the Gaudiya Math in India which, up to the point of ISKCON’s founding, was riddled by stagnation and infighting among the disciples after the guru’s departure. Bhaktisiddhanta’s father, Bhaktivinoda, had many children, but only two took any interest in carrying out their father’s legacy… and this is not even to speak of Lord Chaitanya Himself, whose movement was often eclipsed through the centuries in spite of His being the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself.

Maybe I am making excuses. Or maybe it’s just better to be aware that “the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). When I first became a Hare Krishna, I was told that all devotional service counts towards one’s advancement, even if one ends up backsliding in this life. Apparently all my meager efforts at bhakti get stored in some bank somewhere, and when I have enough, poof, I go back to Godhead. Okay, that seems simplistic, but it’s very consoling. I am a screw-up in this life, I haven’t renounced anything, and I am not even close. Perhaps all my chanting is offensive, but it isn’t outright sinful. It’ll amount to something some day, but maybe not in this lifetime. I will speak more about this in the future.

For Catholics and especially Catholic parents, I really don’t know what to tell you. If I thought my kids were going to burn in Hell for all eternity if I didn’t raise them right, I guess I might try to lock them in a basement rather than just try to be the best devotee of the Lord I can be and pray for Krishna’s mercy for them. However, walling your kids up like they’re medieval anchorites isn’t really an option. The only option is to work on true renunciation within ourselves, which is attachment to devotional service, and not the renunciation of the monkey, the crematorium, or the Sunday pew warmer who going back to forgetting God on Monday morning.


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