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Volume VIIIa - Sufi Teachings


RENUNCIATION and asceticism are two different things. The Sufi's moral is renunciation but it is not always the moral of the ascetic. The ascetic does not marry, he does not eat good food, he does not wear fine clothes or do anything that is enjoyable; the Sufi thinks that everything in the world is for him, so that he need not leave the world with a wish unfulfilled. But he does not depend upon these things; he keeps himself free from them. He does not go to the mountains to be in solitude; he lives in the world. He goes to the mountains if he wishes to; still, the mountains cannot hold him there for ever. It is much easier to be religious, to be spiritual, in a cave of the mountains than in the world, but the Sufi has no need to run away from the world, for he has recognized and sees the face of his Beloved, the face of God, everywhere.

If a religious teacher were to say, 'No, you must not hear music, you must not go to see a play, you must not watch dancing, you must not dance yourself', perhaps one in a thousand of his pupils would obey his words and go away into the wilderness. No doubt that pupil would find much more there to help him in his search for spirituality, but he would not have experienced the world and so he would always remain exposed to temptation.

It is much more meritorious and much more difficult to live in the world and yet to be spiritual; to have the responsibilities of life, to give attention to friends and relations, to serve friends and enemies, and yet to remain spiritual. To be troubled by one's surroundings, to be loaded with responsibilities, and to be exposed to opposition, is much harder and greater than to be an ascetic in the jungle. Both courses have their dangers. If one leaves the world, the innate inclination to enjoy and to experience the world may at any moment draw one back; like the Yogi Mahachandra, who was a great saint and had many chelas, and yet was taken away by the Queen Mahila and made a king. He fell in a moment from the great height which he had reached by many years of hard perseverance. The Yogi says that it is better to leave the world; but the Sufi chooses a life in the world with renunciation. He prefers to experience the world in the service of all while at the same time practicing renunciation.

Sacrifice is less than renunciation, though a sacrifice is a renunciation just the same; sacrifice is a lesson that the prophets and teachers taught in order that man should learn renunciation. The virtue of the sacrifice lies in the willingness with which it is made. Renunciation, however, is something that does not arise as a principle but as a feeling.

Renunciation has an automatic action on the heart of man, an action which very few realize because very few arrive at that stage where they can renounce. By this action a spiritual spark is kindled in the soul; and when a person has arrived at that stage he has taken the first step on the path of spirituality. The spark produced by this action in the depths of the heart culminates in a flame, a torch in life; and this changes the whole outlook on life. The whole world seems changed, the same world in which one has lived and suffered and enjoyed and learned and unlearned – everything appears to change once renunciation is learned.

Renunciation is in fact denial of the self, and the denial of that which could be of use to one. As all things in this world can be used and abused, so the principle of renunciation can be used and abused; and among the many wrong meanings people attach to self-denial the one that is most common is that it means denying oneself the pleasures and the happiness that the world can offer. If practicing renunciation as a principle were a good thing, then there would seem to be no purpose behind the whole of creation. The creation might well never have been manifested if renunciation had been the principle. Therefore renunciation in itself is neither virtue nor sin; it becomes a virtue or a sin according to the use we make of it.

When one considers renunciation from the metaphysical point of view, one finds that this principle serves as a flight of stairs by which to rise above all things. It is the nature of life in the world that all the things we become attracted to in time become not only ties but burdens. Life is an eternal journey, and the more loaded with burdens one is, the harder the journey becomes. Think how the soul, whose constant desire is to go forward, is daily held back by ties and continually more burdened! As the soul goes on it finds its feet in chains. It wants to go forward, but at every step it is more distracted, so that it becomes more difficult to go on.

That is why all the thinkers and the wise who have come to the realization of life have used renunciation as a remedy. The picture that the sage gives of this is the fable of the dog and the loaf. A dog carrying a loaf in its mouth came to a pool; and when it saw its reflection in the water it thought that it was another dog; it howled and barked and lost its bread. The more we observe our errors in life, our petty desires, the more we find we are not far from the dog in the fable. Think of the national catastrophes of recent times, and how the material things of the world which are forever changing and are not everlasting have been tugged at and fought for! This shows that man is blinded by material life and disregards the secret, hidden things behind that life.

When we try to reason out what we should renounce and how we should practice renunciation, we should remember that no virtue is a virtue if it is forced upon someone who is incapable of it. A person upon whom a virtue is forced, who is forced to renounce, cannot make the right renunciation. No virtue which gives pain is a virtue. If it gives pain how can it be a virtue? A thing is called a virtue because it gives happiness; that which takes away happiness can never be a virtue. Renunciation is only rightly practiced by those who understand renunciation and are capable of practicing it. For instance, there may be a person with a loaf of bread who is traveling in a train and finds somebody who is hungry and in need of bread. He himself is hungry too, but he has only one piece of bread. If he thinks that it is his Dharma to give it away and be starving, but is unhappy about this, he would do better not to give it away, for then it would be no virtue. If he did this once, he would certainly not do it again another time as he suffered by it and the virtue brought him unhappiness. This virtue would never develop in his character. He alone is capable of renunciation who finds a greater satisfaction in seeing another eat his piece of bread than in eating it himself.

Only he whose heart is full of happiness after an act of renunciation should make a renunciation. This shows that renunciation is not something that can be learned or taught. It comes by itself as the soul develops, when the soul begins to see the true value of things. All that is valuable to others a seer begins to see differently. Thus the value of all the things that we consider precious or not precious, is according to the way we look at them. For one person the renunciation of a penny is too much; for another that of everything he possesses is nothing. It depends on how we look at things. One rises above all that one renounces in life. Man remains the slave of anything which he has not renounced; of that which he has renounced he becomes king. This whole world can become a kingdom to a person who has renounced it. Renunciation depends upon the evolution of the soul. One who has not evolved spiritually cannot really renounce. Toys so precious to children mean nothing to the grown-up; it is easy to renounce them; and so it is for those who develop spiritually; for them all things are easy to renounce.

How can one progress in this path of renunciation? By becoming able to discriminate between two things. A person with the character of the dog in the fable cannot renounce. He loves both alternatives but life is such that when there are two things before us we have to lose one of them. Man's discrimination must decide what to renounce and for what reason; whether to renounce heaven for the world or the world for heaven, wealth for honor or honor for wealth; whether to renounce things momentarily precious for everlasting things, or everlasting things for things momentarily precious. The nature of life is such that it always shows us two possibilities, and often it is very difficult to choose between them. Frequently one thing is at hand and the other further from our reach, and it is a puzzle which one to renounce or how to get the other. Also, we often lack the will power to renounce. It requires not only the power to discriminate between two things, but also the will power to do what we want to do. It is not an easy thing for a man to do in life what he wishes to do; life is difficult. Often we cannot renounce because our own self will not listen to us; and if we cannot even listen to ourselves, then how difficult it must be for others to listen to us!

Renunciation can be learned naturally. We must first train our sense of discrimination, in order to distinguish between what is more valuable and what is less so. We can learn this by testing, just as real gold is tested by imitation gold: that which lasts for a short time and then turns black is imitation; that which always keeps its color is real. This shows that the value of things can be recognized by their constancy. We might ask if we should not recognize the value of things by their beauty. Indeed, we should recognize them by their beauty; but we must also recognize beauty by its durability. Think of the difference in the price between a flower and a diamond! The flower, with all its fineness, beauty of color, and fragrance, falls short in comparison with the diamond. The sole reason is that the beauty of the flower will fade next day, while that of the diamond will last. This shows a natural tendency; we do not need to learn it; we are always seeking for beauty, as well as for that which is lasting. If a friendship does not last, however beautiful it may be, what value has it? What value have position and honor that do not last? Man, however, is like a child, running after all that attracts him and always changing: but at the same time his soul seeks constancy.

In learning the lesson of renunciation we can only study our own nature, what our innermost being is yearning for, and try to follow what it tells us. Wisdom comes by this process of renunciation. Wisdom and renunciation go together; by renunciation man becomes wiser, and by being wise he becomes capable of renunciation. The whole trouble in the lives of people in their homes, in the nation, and in the world at large is always man's incapacity for renunciation.

Civilization itself is really only a developed sense of renunciation which manifests itself in our consideration for each other. Every act of courtesy, of politeness, shows renunciation. When a person offers his seat, or anything that is good to another, it is renunciation. Civilization in its real sense is renunciation.

The highest and greatest goal that every soul has to reach is God. As everything needs renunciation, that highest goal needs the highest renunciation. But a forced renunciation, even for God, is not a proper nor a true renunciation. Proper renunciation one can only find in those who are capable of it. Think of the story in the Bible of Abraham sacrificing his son. Man today is apt to laugh at some of the ancient stories, reasoning according to his own point of view. But think how many fathers and mothers have given their children as a sacrifice in wartime for their nation, their people, or their honor! This shows that no sacrifice can be too great a sacrifice for one's ideal. There is only the difference of ideal: whether it is a material or a spiritual ideal, whether for earthly gain or for spiritual gain, whether for man or for God.

As long as renunciation is practiced for spiritual progress, so long it is the right way. But as soon as renunciation has become a principle, it is abused. Man, in fact, must be the master of life; he must use renunciation, not go under in renunciation. So it is with all virtues. When virtues control a man's life they become idols; and it is not idols that we should worship; it is the ideal behind the idol.