Do you need to renounce the world to advance spiritually, and is it selfish to do so?

Paramahansa Yogananda

Paramahansa Yogananda

‘Solitude is necessary to become established in the Self, but Masters then return to the world to serve it. Even Saints who engage in no outward work bestow, through their thoughts and holy vibrations, more precious benefits on the world than can be given by the most strenuous humanitarian activities of unenlightened men.’ – Paramahansa Yogananda

‘I was directed by my Master to visit various Swamis. At first I thought, ‘I am wasting my time; these are useless people. They are withdrawn from the world, sitting under trees. Why do they do that?’ – Swami Rama

Himalayan cave dwellers get a bad rap sometimes, I feel. People who withdraw from society to dedicate their lives to realizing the ultimate Truth are often seen as escapists and accused of being idle and antisocial. In a way, this is understandable, because when you go to India, you soon realize that not everybody who wears geru robes is a noble sadhu or Saint-in-training. Quite often, according to a sadhu friend, Indian men become renunciates because there is some problem in their families, because they don’t want to work any longer, or because they simply want to be free of rigid societal demands. Life as a sadhu can be quite easy in certain places: in Gangotri, for example, a sadhu eats three very nice meals a day provided by the local bandharas. In India, it’s also seen as auspicious to feed and donate to a sadhu and hence the whole cultural set-up supports those who leave the world in search of loftier ideals.

Sadhu in the Himalayas

Sadhu in the Himalayas

But, fake sadhus aside, what about the people who genuinely renounce worldly life to find union with the cosmic Beloved? People who may have fulfilled their obligations, have had families that are now grown up, or who simply don’t feel the need for marriage and family life? Is it really selfish to renounce society and spend your days in prayer and meditation, as some would have us believe?

Let’s look at this more closely. I’ve often heard spiritual leaders say, ‘You don’t need to withdraw from society and live in a cave to lead a spiritual life. Be in the world, but not of it.’ Ironically, some of these Gurus say this after they themselves have spent many years in solitude and spiritual practice. This is a bit like telling a poor person that he doesn’t need money after you have earned lots of it and then realized that it doesn’t bring you happiness. Sometimes I get the feeling that spiritual leaders only say this so that society doesn’t fall apart.

Mind you, the Gurus are probably right; you don’t need to live in a cave to become enlightened as we have seen in the example of many Saints such as Ammaji, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Lahiri Mahasaya, or my dear Guruji Sri Prem Baba. In history, we’ve seen many householders who became realized and turned into great Gurus. I believe though that this depends on previous karma and auspicious samskaras from past lives. And, at the same time, we also have many examples of sadhus and yogis who lived in caves or in extreme renunciation and attained the same goal of liberation: Swami Rama of the Himalayas, Swami Satyananda Saraswati or Mahavatar Babaji, to name a few. Cave-dwelling or not, those who become liberated seem to have one thing in common: a one-pointed focus on their goal, discipline, inner renunciation, and/or complete surrender to their Guru and/or God.

Ramakrishna Paramahansa

Ramakrishna Paramahansa

We may not need to go to the mountains to attain realization, but from my own experience I can say that sustained periods of solitude and silence are very good for strengthening one’s sadhana and focus. The world, with all of its charms and beauties, has the enchanting ability to distract us from our sadhana, often simply due to time constraints. Yes, we can use our families and our work as sadhana, but in a way, I feel that’s a different sadhana altogether. Ideally, you should be able to do your sadhana in the market place, but how many of us can really do this without having practiced in solitude first?

For systematically progressing in meditation or pranayama, a lot of time is needed, which is hard when you have to take care of a million other things in your life, such as small children, work, cooking, cleaning or simply surviving. As the musicians or writers among you will know, to master anything, you have to invest many hours in it. Psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson talked about a ’10.000-hour rule’ in his research that suggests that it requires at least 10.000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain. Add to this that some places are also more conducive to sadhana than others. Sages haven’t flocked to the Himalayas for the mastery of spiritual practices for nothing over the ages – the mountains are rich with spiritual vibrations and a peaceful atmosphere that can propel your sadhana to different heights.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s really important to share what we accumulate. Especially the spiritual blessings and insights we gain. It’s vital in this age. But who is to say that the Himalayan cave dwellers don’t do that? They help many people from afar by increasing the spiritual vibrations of the world and raising the collective consciousness. Sages send out prayers and blessings with every breath they take, though they may do so anonymously and the world at large may never know about it. And after many years of solitude, once they have actually attained their spiritual goals, many sages decide to come back into the world to help others to become liberated, too.

And just look at what we received from all those cave-dwelling rishis of India: if they had not sat in meditation channelling universal wisdom in their mountain caves for years, would they have been able to bring us the wisdom of the Vedas? I doubt it very much.

The sacred Himalayas, abode of sages

The sacred Himalayas, abode of sages

I don’t think that this question is so clear-cut that you can divide it into ‘selfish’ and ‘selfless’. First of all, before we are realized, our actions are always going to be of a selfish, ego-centred nature. This is simply because the ego motivates us in all we do, even though we’d like to believe otherwise. We may be engaging in wonderful humanitarian work, but it will always come from a place of ego: because it makes us feel good or important, because we want to right old wrongs, and so on. A humanitarian can be selfish, and a sadhu can be selfless, and vice versa. Some may need to live in the mountains, others may need to live in the world.

But I don’t think that it’s fair to label those who choose a reclusive lifestyle to further their sadhana as selfish. Samadhi, the highest state of wisdom, actually shows us the union between all that is, thus stripping us of selfish desires and the feeling of separation. It is when liberation is attained that the practitioner actually realizes that all is One, which then automatically leads to authentic selfless service. At this point of Oneness, it’s not even ‘service’ any longer, as there is no difference between you and anything else any longer. Everything is you, and you are everything. So why would it be selfish to aspire to attain this goal, if the goal brings us the ultimate union?

Beloved Master Swami Rama sums it up beautifully in this video, shot in the solitude of Gangotri’s forests. One of the most accomplished yogis ever, he came to the West to fulfil his Master’s mandate of helping humanity through spreading the wisdom of yoga. But before he did so, he spent around forty-five years in the Himalayan cave monasteries 🙂

Hari Om Tat Sat.

If you enjoy  my writing, my book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books and BPI India.

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