“The Blessed LORD said, ‘The renunciation of work and work in devotion are both good for liberation. But, of the two, work in devotional service is better than renunciation of works.” (Bhagavad Gita As It Is, translated by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada)
Imagine in your mind a monk, a nun, or other type of “holy person.” Regardless of their faith tradition, these are people who have taken solemn vows related to the renunciation of worldly existence. In some monastic communities, monks undertake vows of silence. Nuns are regarded as “brides of Christ,” though not in a carnal sense. In some communities, asceticism can get extreme by worldly standards: the Aghoris, a Hindu sect devoted to Lord Shiva, spend their time in cremation grounds. Their rituals include adorning themselves with cremation ashes, smoking cannabis, and drinking from cups made from human skulls.
At the root of all these varied ascetic practices is an intense devotion to God while also living outside of the norms of this thing called civilization. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Lord speaks to his disciple Arjuna about the joys of renunciation. In the fifth chapter, Arjuna tells the Lord he is perplexed by what he sees as a contradiction: that he renounce work, yet to also work with devotion. Verse 2 is the short answer: both are good, but devotional service is better.
It isn’t difficult to see, from the right point of view, the temptation to disconnect from the material world. So much of our modern life is centered around sense gratification, from junk food (something that only exists because it tastes good) to the “treat yo’self” mentality to the perpetual circus of stimulation that is social media to smartphone apps that facilitate no-strings-attached sexual encounters. Any pursuit that only serves to pleasure the senses is only so much maya, or material bondage. Our dissatisfaction with the conditioning of material life leaves us yearning for more. As John Sinclair, one of the greatest radicals from the 60’s, once said, “Tripping out is a dead end and a drag. You always come down.”
He was speaking specifically of drug use, but the same logic could apply to the rush that follows a shopping spree, a marathon evening on Facebook, or a good Tinder date. It was that same feeling, at the height of the so-called “hippie dream” — that no matter how high you get, you always come down — that propelled Pete Townshend and George Harrison both down their respective spiritual paths. Whatever spiritual awakenings may come from a night smoking pot or enjoying some magic mushrooms, you always come down; it is that comedown (and the subsequent urge to revisit the high) that is maya.
Our engrossment in material pursuits generates karma, the cosmic debt that keeps us caught in samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. For those with what is called “right view” in the Buddhist tradition (I like to call it “the magic glasses,” to use a phrase from Baba Dick Gregory), it becomes easy to see the inherent pointlessness of worldly pursuits in the name of satisfying our senses. The bustle drives people mad! So much of our present global situation is the result of so many people driving themselves mad chasing pleasure, or at the very least mindless happiness.
Missing from it all is God-consciousness. The Srimad Bhagavatam (the Gospel of Krishna) plainly states, “Therefore, to act for sense gratification is not good.” (SB 5:5:5) All of the effort spent to achieve a temporary status of pleasure is a total waste if that same life is not spent looking beyond this material world. The need remains to develop a practice of devotion (bhakti) to our Creator. Without it, we are doomed to rebirth — and while our earthly possessions do not accompany us into the next life, our karmic debt sure does!
The reason the Lord says it is better to stay engaged within the material world, while acting from a place of God-consciousness, can be explained with the simplest of logic. Everything in this material world belongs to the Lord. Nothing truly belongs to us, not even ourselves. How, then, can we truly renounce our connection to the world? Those who know that everything is the Lord’s property are practicing true renunciation.
For the hermits, nuns, and sadhus who choose their path, they also remain subject to the system of karma. In short, you can run, but you can’t hide. It is a better expression of our God-consciousness to stay present and stay engaged, using our knowledge, assets, privilege, and access to resources to serve the Lord. What good is it to retire and hide away from the world if you know that most confidential knowledge without sharing it with those who need it the most?
My dad used to say, “If you see someone going through something, who knows, you might be the only Jesus they see all year.” There’s some deep truth to that. We are obligated to act and serve within this material world, but with God-consciousness as our perpetual starting point: that we are all God’s children, we are here to help one another, and that everything belongs to the Lord. By acting in this way, this keeps the Soul from creating a karmic debt to pay off in this life…or the next.
“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time,
For y’all have knocked her up.
I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the Universe,
and I was not offended,
For I knew that I had to rise above it all…
…or drown in my own shit.”
— Funkadelic, “Maggot Brain” (1971)