For some inexplicable reason, throughout the ages in both East and West the idea has prevailed that spiritual people do not engage in practical matters, that to really be spiritual is to be incapable of skill or efficiency in any kind of material activity, or even in the maintenance of material objects. Some years ago we had a phonograph record of religious music whose cover was a hazy photograph of a monk holding a rosary and looking at it blankly (contemplatively?). One of our members pointed to it and said: “Before I came to the monastery I thought that was what monastic life was like.” Both members and visitors have expressed to me how surprised they were that in the monastery we actually work instead of sitting around talking profound philosophy. But Sri Ramakrishna, speaking of this kind of misunderstanding, used to say: “If you can weigh salt, you can weigh sugar,” meaning that a person competent in spiritual life will be competent in material life–and often the other way round, though not always.
The idea that spiritual people are fluff-headed drones sitting around wondering where their next mystical experience is coming from is absurd. Whether this silly image comes from lazy monastics and fake mystics or from those who hope spiritual people will be too stupid or impractical to see through them and their material ways, I have no idea, but it has been around much too long and accepted by people much too intelligent to believe such mythology. That nonsense was around in Krishna’s time, so he addresses it in this sixth chapter of the Gita.
Yogi and monk (renouncer)
The Holy Lord said: He who performs that action which is his duty, not caring for the action’s fruit, is a renouncer and a yogi, not he without sacrificial fire and sacred rites (6:1).
First, a bit of Sanskrit. Sannyasa means renunciation, and in modern times is applied to monastic life. It literally means “total casting aside.” A sannyasi(n) is a renunciate, a monk, who has totally cast aside all that which would bind him. It is not the negative rejection or giving up that characterizes monastic life or renunciation in the West. Rather it is a freeing of oneself from the ties that bind. The Hindu monk does not consider that he has sacrificed or denied himself anything. Rather, he considers that he has freed himself from that which would hinder his Self-realization. It is a joyful, liberating thing.
In his autobiography, Paramhansa Yogananda tells of a great saint, Nagendranath Bhaduri, and gives the following telling incident:
“‘Master, you are wonderful!’ A student, taking his leave, gazed ardently at the patriarchal sage. ‘You have renounced riches and comforts to seek God and teach us wisdom!’ It was well-known that Bhaduri Mahasaya had forsaken great family wealth in his early childhood, when single-mindedly he entered the yogic path.
“‘You are reversing the case!’ The saint’s face held a mild rebuke. ‘I have left a few paltry rupees, a few petty pleasures, for a cosmic empire of endless bliss. How then have I denied myself anything? I know the joy of sharing the treasure. Is that a sacrifice? The shortsighted worldly folk are verily the real renunciates! They relinquish an unparalleled divine possession for a poor handful of earthly toys!’
“I chuckled over this paradoxical view of renunciation–one which puts the cap of Croesus on any saintly beggar, whilst transforming all proud millionaires into unconscious martyrs.”
Krishna is using sannyasa and sannyasi in the pure sense of a renouncer, whether monastic or non-monastic, pointing us to the interior disposition that is absolutely essential, whatever our external situation. Being a yogi, a sannyasi, is a matter of that disposition, of the right intention, in all moments of our life. Simply doing nothing is neither yoga nor sannyasa. This does not mean that the solitary or enclosed life is invalid, for the true hermit or world-renouncer is intensely active inwardly and necessarily active outwardly at least minimally for the simple subsistence of his life.
That which they call renunciation, know that to be yoga. Without renouncing selfish purpose no one whatever becomes a yogi (6:2).
There we have it. The yogi must be a sannyasi and the sannyasi must be a yogi.
The yogi’s path
For the sage desirous of attaining yoga, action is said to be the means. For him who has already attained yoga, tranquility is said to be the means (6:3).
Karma yoga is necessary for the aspiring yogi, for the same positive kind of detachment and inner calm essential for karma yoga is also needed for proficiency in meditation. The fact is, karma yoga trains us for meditation and meditation trains us for karma yoga. In essence they are the same thing, for both are psychological in character.
When he is truly attached neither to sense objects nor to actions, and has renounced all purpose (sarva sankalpa), then he is said to have attained yoga (6:4).
Sarva sankalpa sannyasi–“having cast aside all sankalpa.” Sankalpa is a strong exercising, or resolution, of the will based on some desire. So here, too, we see that desire is the serpent beneath the rose, the root of the whole trouble, whatever form it takes.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Getting There