Vairagya: Non-attachment

Whether one belongs to a Christian school of thought, or to a Buddhist, or a Sufi one, or to this school of Adhyatma Yoga, one finds that great emphasis is always laid on the necessity for cultivating non-attachment to success and failure, and the like, and renunciation of the pleasures of the senses.

In The Imitation of Christ you read: “It is a great honour and a great glory to serve Thee and to despise all things because of Thee”, and again: “Why dost thou gaze about here, since this is not the place of thy rest?” The Masnavi, the great Sufi classic of mysticism, has many passages of the same kind: “The lovers of the Whole are not those who love the part; he who longs for the part, fails to attain to the Whole. Know that the world of Unification lies beyond the senses; if you want unity, march in that direction”. And in the classics of Yoga the same teaching is given again and again. “The world is not real, O Nirbhaya. Do not dive into the mirage, be not a slave to any object. Think well, thy stay in the world is short and uncertain. Look not upon wealth and wisdom with longing”. Everywhere the teaching on non-attachment and renunciation is explicit, and (outwardly, at least) the same.

At first, one tends to take these pronouncements for granted and also at their face value, but one day, the critical faculty raises its head and asks a question: “How can renunciation, aversion for the objects of the senses and a belief in the sorrow-breeding nature of all phenomena, go hand in hand with the teaching that a Yogi must be beyond likes and dislikes, that he should look on wealth and poverty, matter and spirit, with an equal eye, that he must be at home anywhere, must reject nothing, in a word, that he is a universal being?”

Enquiry (vichara) is a sign of vitality and a most healthy sign, particularly at the beginning of training; so once this doubt has appeared in the mind, the subject of vairagya must come under scrutiny, and if the enquiry is properly carried out, that is to say, with the necessary open-mindedness and patience, some interesting things about this quality will reveal themselves.

The first point which emerges is that whereas vairagya may start by being a self-imposed discipline, undertaken under instruction or in obedience to an inner, emotional impulse, it ends by becoming an inevitable attitude of the mind; in other words, vairagya is progressive, its quality changes with the development of the student, in fact it is a measuring rod, at any rate for an onlooker, of a man’s stage of advancement in the understanding of truth.

We say that non-attachment is a discipline. What does this mean? Discipline is undertaken in order to obtain something desired. It is consciously undertaken, for one’s own good, not primarily to please the Lord, although it can be undertaken as a worship, if this makes the doing of it any easier, but psychologically speaking, discipline is a voluntary act, undertaken in order to obtain a desired result, and usually to effect some change in one’s own nature.

Thus, in the case of vairagya, it would be a pure weariness of the flesh to restrict your mind, your critical faculty, your tongue, ears and eyes, unless you had a very definite purpose in view when so doing. Nothing which is carried out for the sake of conformity, avails very much, or for very long. The spiritual paths are not moving staircases, they are clearings which have been made by the Great Ones of the past, and we do not advance one step along them without conscious effort and purpose.

Then what may be said to be the purpose of vairagya or renunciation? We have already said that the form of vairagya changes with the advancing understanding of the Yogi, that it is progressive. It will therefore have a changing purpose. At first it may be described as a preparation for a battle against odds, but it ends in being an attitude of mind and moreover, the attitude of mind of a strong man towards things weaker than himself. The decisions of a lion in regard to a mouse can hardly be called a plan of campaign, but the decisions of a mouse on the subject of a cat would certainly come under that heading.

Beginners who are promising and ardent, whether in a secular or spiritual school, generally manage, at first, to do the right things for the wrong reasons. So when you enter on a spiritual path and are told to restrict the play of the senses and to turn within, you try to do it, but within your heart you probably assume that this is necessary because the outer objects are all-powerful, and that, therefore, withdrawal is the only safe course to adopt. Many of the examples of preliminary or elementary vairagya go to show that they spring, not from a desire to fit the instrument for higher uses, but from a stimulated disgust for the world. Such vairagya is born of fear and a misunderstanding of the teachings, it is an induced state and, like all induced states, it is temporary. A good example of this kind of vairagya was given by the disciple who told the great modern Teacher, Shri Swami Mangalnathji, that he had risen above the pleasures of the flesh and had now conceived a violent aversion for the world, and that he was also adamant against taking life for food. Swami Mangalnath’s comment on this was:—“And when did you lose your teeth?” This species of vairagya is intense while it lasts but it passes. It is often the outward sign of some form of inward and unresolved conflict or tension, and it may at any moment break down and turn into its opposite, which is licence. It is built on a belief in the power of the things it denies, and, consequently, on a fear of them, and more than anything else, it is based on a misunderstanding of the significance of the teachings. Shri Vasishtha described it as “A touch of pain, breeding dislike of that which gives the touch, but lost in the next succeeding touch of pleasure!”

Reaction comes in its train, and often revulsion, and the story in the New Testament of the man who was cleansed of one devil, only to be delivered up to seven more may well be an illustration of this preliminary form of withdrawal and renunciation.

Still, if the aspirant is lucky enough to have a teacher to whom he is obedient, he will pass through this crude stage and begin to practise a more advanced form of vairagya. This is made possible through his increasing understanding of the significance of the Teachings, therefore it is based, not on the emotions, but on the intellect. It manifests, not as violent dislike—but as satiety—a subtle difference—but an important one, and is born of a growing surmise, that all that has hitherto been looked upon as variety, and therefore capable of evoking fear, love, desire or interest, is in fact a manifestation of one Substance, appearing under different guises and therefore not to be feared or desired, but accepted or at least tolerated.

There is a story, told in one of the Eastern classics, which describes these two kinds of vairagya.

A man and his wife, both devotees, were going on a pilgrimage to a shrine in the deep Himalayas. They knew that their minds must be kept controlled, and concentrated during the journey and they were determined to conform to this law.

The man walked in front, with the wife dutifully following in the rear. They spent the time singing the mantrams and hymns and talking of the divine attributes of the Lord and of the goal of their journey. Suddenly the man stopped dead and said to his wife: “Go forward, I will follow you”. The wife could not understand her husband’s sudden anxiety and asked: “What is the matter my husband? You seem distressed. What have you got under your foot that you are pressing so hard into the ground?” At first the man would not tell her, but at last, due to her insistence, he said: “O Wife, I suddenly saw a gold coin on the path, and knowing that your mind must not be disturbed by desire or aversion, I attempted to stand between you and this temptation”. The wife looked long at him and then said: “There was no need for these precautions. I have been taught there is no difference, from the point of view of desire, between that gold coin and this piece of rock. They are both as nothing to me. You are still fighting the lust for possessions. I will indeed lead from now on”. The man was still practising the elementary form of vairagya, based on emotion, fear and restraint; she, being more advanced, followed the vairagya based on a partial understanding of the truth. Enquiry leads to what is known, in this philosophy, as ‘indirect knowledge’, that is, knowledge of truth which has not yet been verified by direct experience but which has been theoretically and mentally accepted.

As we have said, the middle stage of vairagya produces satiety, and satiety is a condition which creates dryness and obscure discomfort. Satiety is not bliss, and the teaching is that bliss is the right and the ultimate goal of every man who comes into the world. Therefore a man cannot rest in a state of satiety, nor can he remain in it. Now is the time when the meditations, discipline and enquiry must be pursued with courage, for a good deal of the incentive for progress vanishes when the personal and emotional impulse for struggle has gone.

If the aspirant endures, however, and goes forward under the orders of his Teacher, he attains to the third category of vairagya, which is born of an awakening intuition and a direct knowledge of the Essence of himself and every object. Then there arises in him a complete and automatic indifference to the world and all phenomena—an indifference which is neither born of disgust nor satiety, but of a preoccupation with something great and all-pervading which claims his whole attention.

Shri Shankara says of this condition: “Here the jiva (that is the man) gives up his waywardness, his attention being wholly given to the Self. As a result there springs up, the youthful life, which, although encased in the body and the senses, is unaffected by boyhood, old age and other bodily attributes, and is extremely blissful”. In the Gita such a man is described as ‘He whose understanding is unattached everywhere, who has subdued his self, and from whom desire has fled. He comes, through renunciation, to the supreme state’.

One must now ask oneself a question. Is all this discipline and vairagya, desirable or necessary? Must one consciously develop a plan of campaign against the world and the lure of the senses? Isn’t it better to be natural and to trust to God’s grace? Sa’adi, the Persian mystic, says: “You cannot ride in two boats that are sailing in opposite directions, at the same time. If you try to do so, you will never enjoy the bliss of true knowledge”. The answer then is that vairagya is not only necessary, but it is inevitable, being the natural outcome of spiritual growth. So long as it is not confused with an abandonment of the world, and is understood to mean detachment from the world, it is not only necessary, but also desirable; abandonment of the world is an emotional reaction; detachment from it is a much more difficult proposition. In Yoga Vasishtha, the Sage says to his pupil, whose vairagya is increasing, but who is manifesting a desire to have done with the world and its burdens: “O Rama, first reason with me, and then, if necessary, leave the world. I ask you, is the world separate from God? If so, you are at liberty to leave it”.

So the answer to our question is that vairagya is a necessary part of the spiritual training.

Now there is one more question which will arise in most minds. Does vairagya last, when it has been once achieved?

We have already tried to show that the first two degrees of vairagya, being based on an insufficient knowledge of the truth, are passing, but what about the vairagya of the awakening man?

There is a set of ten old Buddhist pictures, called The Ox-tending Pictures. They are said to have been drawn by a Chinese monk who lived about 1100 AD. under the Sung dynasty. They tell the story of the gradual training and mastery of the mind by a Zen pupil. In these pictures the pupil is drawn as a little fat man, and the mind is symbolised as an ox.

You first see the little man alone, evidently searching for something. In the next picture he has discovered the tracks of the ox, and is trailing him.

The third picture shows a great stride; the man has seen the ox, standing on a hill, looking very wild and shaggy. At last he gets up to it, and throws a cord round it, but cannot mount it as it is too wild. Gradually, however, the ox is broken in, and in picture five, he is seen following the man who leads him by a nose-cord. The words under this picture are: “Things oppress us, not because of an objective world, but because of the self deceiving mind. Never let yourself be separated from the whip and tether”.
In the sixth picture the struggle is over. The man is leisurely proceeding home, riding on the ox, playing tunes on his flute. At length there comes a picture, in which there is a circular frame enclosing nothing at all. The title is simply: “The ox and the man both gone out of sight”.

This, however, is not the last picture, although one might expect it to be so. The tenth and last picture, is called “Entering the city with bliss-bestowing hands”. It is of a rotund, smiling figure, walking towards you out of the picture. He is carrying bags which are full to bursting, we suppose, with food and surprises of all kinds. Under the picture is written: “No one knows his inner life, but he goes into the market place and consorts with wine-bibbers and butchers, and he and they all become Buddhas”.

This is the picture of the Vira, the Hero, the awakened man. He is in a state of universal acceptance and equal vision, seeing all things as alike and equally good. He is full of unqualified bliss, and his vairagya has disappeared, for its work is done, and this is the goal of Yoga.


This Chapter is from
Training the Mind through Yoga

Marjorie Waterhouse