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 They are withdrawn from the world, sitting under trees.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.


Shooting holes into the movie screen: Why it’s often so hard to trade in the life you planned for the life that is waiting for you


‘Ramakrishna had resigned himself to the will of God with a completeness which is beyond our imagination. He was therefore incapable of making any decision except from one moment to another. Planning seemed positively horrible to him. On one occasion, it is related, he saw Hriday with a calf and asked him what he was going to do with it. ‘I’m taking it home,’ Hriday answered; ‘in a few years it’ll be full-grown and ready for the plough.’ Ramakrishna was so shocked that he fell into a swoon. When he came back to his senses, he exclaimed, ‘Look how worldly people hoard for the future! It’s only a calf now, but it will grow and work in the fields! Always planning so far ahead! Won’t they ever rely on God! Ah – that’s Maya! ‘  – from ‘Ramakrishna and his disciples’, Christopher Isherwood

The above passage about the famous 19th Century Indian mystic Ramakrishna illuminates something I have been wondering about for a while: the human need for future plans and long-term goals. I’ve often read accounts of Saints and mystics who are completely surrendered to Divine Will. They live from moment to moment, being completely receptive to what comes – and doesn’t come- their way, and are content with that. Sometimes, these mystics become so infused with ecstasy that they tear off their clothes and dance naked in the streets with tears running down their faces because they have realized who they truly are, and that beyond this, nothing actually matters.

In Glastonbury, UK, a place I visit frequently, I once made the acquaintance of a lady called Edwina. Edwina is a flamboyant character who loves wearing felt hats and travels through the world in her timeworn car. One thing that impressed me the most about her was her unwillingness to make any plans whatsoever. ‘Remember – no plans!’ she used to reprimand those who dared to ask her where she was going next, and when. She’d wake up in the mornings, listen to her guidance for the day, and live accordingly. If she felt that day to drive to a different country, then this is what she would do. If she didn’t receive adequate guidance, she stayed where she was. Another lady I came across in the same town decided to trust the Universe so completely that she gave all of her possessions, including her house and all money away, to live from moment to moment.

Yet, most of us don’t and perhaps cannot or don’t even want to live in this way. Our lives are often full of commitments and responsibilities, both imagined and real. Yet, I have a feeling that at a deeper level, much of our need for plans is really rooted in an inner insecurity. I’m not talking about a basic need for food and shelter here, though the mystics are generally so surrendered that not even this is an issue any longer. But for those of us who are not quite mystics yet, we often resist going with the flow even in small ways, such as taking a day off work to enjoy an unexpected warm, sunny day.

Few of us do follow the flow of life, and that’s actually not really surprising. Our whole system is based on living in the future, not in the now. When we’re teenagers in school, we’re already supposed to make up our minds about what career to follow and how we want to live for the rest of our lives. When we meet somebody, we already think about marriage or at least want to know if the relationship is going to last. We are told to plan for our retirements as well as for emergencies of all kinds. I’m not saying that any of this is wrong. But quite often, it also stifles our growth and sense for exploration and adventure from an early age. Because of constant planning and fear of ‘what could go wrong’, our eyes remain closed to what is around us and the endless possibilities that do exist. From experience, I can really say that the Universe generally knows best on how to bring us what is right for us. When we get in the way, we often choose the hard, arduous route based on our limited reasoning as opposed to the easy and joyful way.

But then, it all depends on what we believe the purpose of life is. If we really sit down and ask ourselves this, then what is – genuinely – the answer? Realized Masters have said for a long time that the only purpose of life is to realize who we truly are: Satchitananda – eternal bliss consciousness. But how many people in the modern world believe this? Do you believe this? Looking around, it seems more likely that we believe that the purpose of life is making sure we’re safe, both materially and emotionally, because life is so dangerous and unkind.

Rarely does a person live freely, without the trappings of ego desires and attachment. If we truly knew and trusted with every fibre of our being that we are an aspect of the Divine and that our purpose is to realize the Self, life would be very simple. We would, as Ramakrishna said, ‘rely on God’ and spend our lives in contemplation and celebration of the Divine. We’d know that our needs would be taken care of. But karma and Maya get in the way – we incarnate into this world with karmas that have to play themselves out, and on the way we get attached to illusions of security, desires and our fears of not having enough. And this is because we are steeped in ignorance as to how things truly are.

The fun of life, I feel, is uncovering that everything is an illusion. My friend Elahn Keshava, who runs Shekinashram in Glastonbury, recently put it this way: Life is like a movie screen. We believe that what we see is real, just like somebody who is engrossed in a really good movie. But then somebody shoots a hole into the movie screen, and light begins to flow through it. We become aware that actually, what we believe to be reality is not really real at all. There is a bigger reality behind it. And gradually, more and more holes start to appear in the screen until finally, it falls apart and everything is submerged in light.

You might like to read the following books – they are great accounts of spiritual personalities who have surrendered their lives completely to Divine will and had mind-blowing adventures on the way:

* ‘The Journey Home – Autobiography of an American Swami’ by Radhanath Swami

* ‘Tears of Bliss – A Guru-Disciple Mystery’ by Narvada Puri

* ‘Mere Aradhya – My Beloved Guru’ by Swami Dharmashakti Saraswati


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