Question: We hear in the Bhagavatam about the austerities of King Prthu:
“In the summer he placed fires around himself in the four directions, with the sun burning overhead. During the monsoon season he tolerated the torrents of rain. During the dewy season he stood up to his neck in cold water and slept on the earth. “(4.23.6).
We hear about the Gosvamis:
tyaktva turnam asesha-mandala-pati-srenim sada tuccha-vat
bhutva dina-ganesakau karunaya kaupina-kanthasritau
vande rupa-sanatanau raghu-yugau sri-jiva-gopalakau
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto Sri Rupa Gosvami, Sri Sanatana Gosvami, Sri Raghunatha Bhatta Gosvami, Sri Raghunatha dasa Gosvami, Sri Jiva Gosvami, and Sri Gopala Bhatta Gosvami. Having completely renounced all opulence, considering it to be insignificant, and becoming very humble, they accept the dress of mendicants and remain merged in the waves of the ocean of nectar of gopi-prema.”
Lord Caitanya advised Raghunath Das:
grāmya-kathā nā śunibe, grāmya-vārtā nā kahibe bhāla nā khāibe āra bhāla nā paribe
Nowadays we hear often about yukta vairagya, the need to dovetail ones’ attachments in the service of Krsna which sounds more like karma yoga then bhakti. The verse itself seems to advocate pure devotion, wherein Krsna is the center of attachment and one uses whatever comes his way to please the object of his attachment.
I know that real renunciation means to give up the concept of being the enjoyer, does practical renunciation assist in that endeavor? Can one make a lot of advancement without such practical display of renunciation?
Given the standards of renunciation given by our predecessors are we deluding ourselves by thinking that our “bhakti-comfortable” lives will eventually bring us to the point of absolute purification and complete attachment to the Holy Names, forms, pastimes of the Lord and His devotees?
Or rather what is really happening is that we are not doing uttama bhakti and are simply going through the gradual ladder of progression as Krsna advises in the Gita.
Can you please share your insights? Thank you Babaji.
Answer: To understand the answer to your question, there are a few basic things to be made clear. First of all, bhakti is an independent path in itself. It is not dependent on anything else, like karma, jnana, yoga, etc. This must be understood very clearly. Without getting this concept clear, we will remain confused. At present what you see people practicing is mostly mixed up, whether it is the path of bhakti, yoga or jnana, and thus it becomes the cause of confusion as to who is doing what.
The second important point to understand is that although bhakti is very simple and straightforward, it is most difficult to comprehend. The reason for that is twofold: The first and foremost reason is that we have absolutely no experience of bhakti. The second is that all our experiences are not very helpful in understanding bhakti, rather they work against it. Because of these two reasons shastra makes a big effort in making us understand a clear concept of bhakti. Shastra is full of stories of various types of spiritualists, and for a common person it is therefore not easy to determine what is the ideal of pure bhakti.
Another point to be understood is that although renunciation is not part of bhakti, it is still helpful in making an entry into the path of bhakti. People in the material word have natural attachments. Attachments blur our vision. With a blurred vision we cannot see the reality. Therefore renunciation helps us to have clarity of the reality and to make an entry into the practice of bhakti. For this reason various stories about renunciation are found in shastra.
The fact is, however, renunciation is a natural outcome of bhakti:
janayaty āśu vairāgyaṁ jñānaṁ ca yad ahaitukam (SB 1.2.7).
So the renunciation that you see in the life of the Gosvamis is a natural outcome of their intense devotion to Krsna and not something which they practiced consciously and independently. In the case of Prthu, his life is depicted as a devotee who also followed the principle of varnasrama in which severe austerities are prescribed during vanaprastha asrama, which is described in the verse referred by you. It also may be noted that for common people a life of renunciation elicits respect and honor. So sometimes great devotees may also practice it so that people can pay attention to their teachings. As you know, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu took sannyas for this very reason, although there was no reason for Him to do so. Because He wanted to establish the school of pure devotion, He wanted His followers, like Raghunath das Gosvami, to be highly renounced. Otherwise common people would not take them seriously and think they are just sentimentalists, as was remarked by Prakasananda Sarasvati about Sri Caitanya. Again, the reason for this is that a common person does not understand what bhakti is, but he or she can see the renunciation of a sadhu and this very much impresses him or her. This is the reason that the gopis were not considered to be great devotees before the appearance of Mahaprabhu, because they did not practice not do any austerities and their bhakti was not visible, such as chanting mantra, attending mangala aratik, dancing in kirtan, doing parikrama, eating only one time a day, just drinking milk, doing pravacanas, reciting slokas, maintaining mauna vrata or wearing a specific dress, matted hair, etc. Still the gopis were the greatest devotees, as it is very clearly stated in Bhagavatam, especially in the words of Uddhava, SB 10.47.58-63.
At present because of nice technology, people in general are not very habituated to lead a life of renunciation. Therefore they may speak against it, and they are not wrong if they understand the principles of bhakti clearly. However, what is seen is that some people are mistaking renunciation for bhakti and feel proud about it and then there are others who criticize a genuine devotee who may not be highly renounced as in the case of Pundarika Vidyanidhi. So to summarize, we must understand the basic definition of bhakti as given by Sri Rupa Gosvami (BRS 1.1.11), otherwise these types of doubts will keep on haunting us. Understanding this definition is the first step, therefore he gives it in the very beginning of the book. Otherwise we are like a person who is building an edifice without a foundation.