Vairaagya and Sri Rama

The Valmiki Ramayana, for the most part, describes the Lord’s avatara as a human being who is a stickler for Dharma and a paragon of Vairaagya (renunciation).

The Valmiki Ramayana, for the most part, describes the Lord’s avatara as a human being who is a stickler for Dharma and a paragon of Vairaagya (renunciation). Rama’s inborn renunciation is well known and even declared by him openly to Mother Kaikeyi soon after Dasharatha asks him to leave to the forest, in order to clear her doubts about him going to the forest –


नाहमर्थपरो देवि लोकमावस्तुमुत्सहे।
विद्धि मां ऋषिभिस्तुल्यं केवलं धर्ममास्थितम्॥
nāhamarthaparo devi lokamāvastumutsahe|
viddhi māṁ ṛṣibhistulyaṁ kevalaṁ dharmamāsthitam ||
[Oh Devi, I seek not to live in the midst of material enjoyments, for as the Rishis I too seek refuge under and remain devoted to Dharma alone.]

On another occasion, Rama says to Lakshmana who is angry at Rama’s being sent to the forest,
राज्यं वा वनवासो वा वनवासो महोदयः।
rājyaṁ vā vanavāso vā vanavāso mahodayaḥ |
[Whether kingdom or forest-dwelling, both are the same to me. Among these too, forest-life is a great boon (for it is conducive to my mind which seeks tapas)].

What makes Rama say so? What is going on behind the scenes in Rama’s mind that gives him the strength to hold such positions? We come across an occasion in the Ramayana (Ayodhya Kaanda – Chapter 105) where Rama reveals his understanding leading to such a dispassionate and Dharmic mindset.

The occasion and the teaching in brief:

Lord Rama, following the dharma of pitru-vaakya-paripaalana (living in line with the ideas of a dhaarmic parent), has made his way into the forest and settled in Chitrakuta. Bharata, who was not present when Rama left Ayodhya, comes to meet Rama at the forest with much grief, to convey the demise of their father Dasharatha, and to convince Rama to return to Ayodhya and take up the responsibility of the kingdom.

Seeing Bharata’s predicament and with the view of removing his grief of having lost their father, Rama speaks to Bharata. Rama explains the uncontrollable aspects of human life and also of the fickleness of wealth, relationships, power, and even life. Because of the fact that all these pass away, they are not worthy of being attached to. One does not really possess them at any time, so it would be unwise to mourn their loss. Dharma alone is worth being lived for, and one should always exercise viveka (discrimination) and vairaagya (dispassion) when it comes to all attachments, including people, objects, positions, and circumstances. This means a deep reconciliation with the fact that none of them are permanent, and therefore none of them are worthy of prioritising over Dharma. For the sake of Dharma, all worldly things are ought to be given up. Only such a mind is most favourable for entering into Vedanta, which begins with placing Ishwara and Dharma above desire for family and possessions.

Rama’s teaching:

1. Anityatva (Temporalness) is the norm of the world:

The actual verses spoken by Rama begin thus –

नात्मनः कामकारोऽस्ति पुरुषोऽयमनीश्वरः।
इतश्चेतरतश्चैनं कृतान्तः परिकर्षति॥
nātmanaḥ kāmakāro’sti puruṣo’yamanīśvaraḥ |
itaścetarataścainaṁ kṛtāntaḥ parikarṣati ||
[No creature is endowed with the power of exercising any control over the course of events, man has no independent status in nature. The destroyer draws him both here and hereafter].

One of the unique features of Vedanta is the view of time (Kaalah) as the Lord Himself. Time, which is synonymous with Manifestation (Srishti), Sustenance (Sthiti) and Dissolution (Laya), is identified as one of the Lord’s glories (vibhutis). For example, in the Gita, Lord Krishna says,

कालोऽस्मि लोकक्षयकृत्प्रवृद्धः
kālo’smi lokakṣayakṛtpravṛddhaḥ – Gita 11.32.
[Time is I, the great dissolver of the manifested universe].

Rama points out that no individual is in complete control of his life, there are always hidden factors which are out of one’s control. Different people call this by different names, luck, chance, fate, etc. Here Rama calls it “Ishwarah” and “Krtaantah”. This is Kaalah, the Lord appearing as time.

Ishwara appearing as Kaalah always accompanies the individual. This Kaalah manifests in life as constant change, whether it be in material wealth, relationships, positions and indeed the body itself. Rama said –

सर्वे क्षयान्ता निचयाः पतनान्ताः समुच्छ्रयाः।
संयोगा विप्रयोगान्ता मरणान्तं च जीवितम्॥
sarve kṣayāntā nicayāḥ patanāntāḥ samucchrayāḥ |
saṁyogā viprayogāntā maraṇāntaṁ ca jīvitam ||
[Those that increase, are destined to deteriorate; those that go upward ultimately fall, those that come together separate in the end, and life at length meets with death].

अहोरात्राणि गच्छन्ति सर्वेशां प्राणिनामिह।
आयूंषि क्षपयन्त्याशु ग्रीष्मे जलमिवांशवः॥
ahorātrāṇi gacchanti sarveṣāṁ prāṇinām iha |
āyūṁṣi kṣapayantyāśu grīṣme jalamivāṁśavaḥ ||
[In this world, days and nights pass away with creatures, and speedily impair their lives even as in the summer the rays (of the sun) (dry up) the waters].

आत्मानमनुशोच त्वं किमन्यमनुशोचसि।
आयुस्ते हीयते यस्य स्थितस्य च गतस्य च॥
ātmānamanuśoca tvaṁ kimanyamanuśocasi |
āyuste hīyate yasya sthitasya ca gatasya ca ||
[Do thou therefore deplore thyself. Why dost thou lament anything else? Everyone’s life is decreasing, whether he sits or moves].

Rama points out the fact that all things in the life go through ups and downs. This is an obvious fact, but it is missed by most in general. The test of the recognition of this fact at all times is the lack of sorrow when things which we value go away, either suddenly or gradually. Here, Bharata feels grief at the loss of father Dasharatha and at Rama’s banishment to the forest, which according to Bharata is a conspiracy in which his mother Kaikeyi played a major role. According to Rama, however, both events were merely the play of time. No individual is responsible for what happened, Kaalah merely rolls out the scenarios in one’s life according to one’s own Karma. In this way, Rama has reconciled with the events that have transpired, and finds no reason to grieve.

Bhagavan Rama points out that neither power, nor status, by themselves are sources of security or stability in certain terms. Ishwara in the form of Kaala can change things upside down in no time. Death and destruction is certain to all things which are formed, and so it is natural to expect their occurrence at any moment.

2. Life is short and fickle [therefore one should be enthusiastic about Dharma]:

Rama continues –

नन्दन्त्युदित आदित्ये नन्दन्त्यस्तमिते रवौ।
आत्मनो नावबुध्यन्ते मनुष्या जीवितक्षयम्॥
nandantyudita āditye nandantyastamite ravau |
ātmano nāvabudhyante manuṣyā jīvitakṣayam ||
[People rejoice on the rising of the sun, they feel delighted at the approach of the night – but they do not understand that their lives have meanwhile been shortened].

हृष्यन्त्यृतुमुखं दृष्ट्वा नवं नवमिहागतम्।
ऋतूनां परिवर्तेन प्राणिनां प्राणसङ्क्षयः॥
hṛṣyantyṛtumukhaṁ dṛṣṭvā navaṁ navamihāgatam |
ṛtūnāṁ parivartena prāṇināṁ prāṇasaṅkṣayaḥ ||
[People are exhilarated at the commencement of a new season in novel fashion ; creatures get their lives shortened at the changing of seasons].

With the view of convincing Bharata of not being overcome with grief, Lord Rama now points to the unconscious hypocrisy that people have. On the one hand, people are excited with new and more exciting experiences everyday, but on the other hand, they fail to notice that they are getting closer and closer to their finish line. Rama dwells on the subject of death and old-age repeatedly so as to generate vairaagya in our minds towards all worldly possessions and relationships. This theme is repeated over and over in the scriptures, to the extent that it generates the feeling that Hinduism encourages suppression of emotions and feelings.

However, this is not the case. Emotions are natural to human beings, they are not to be suppressed. However, one’s buddhi, the intellect which informs the individual about what is Dharma and what is not, should never be clouded by the emotions. As it is often said – ‘we can have emotions, but emotions should not have us’. It is this clouding of the buddhi shakti or viveka shakti that is to be avoided, for this impels man to act in ways which are not ethical or moral, i.e., adharmic. As the Lord says in the Gita,

काम एष क्रोध एष रजोगुणसमुद्भवः।
महाशनो महापाप्मा विद्ध्येनमिह वैरिणम्॥
kāma eṣa krodha eṣa rajoguṇasamudbhavaḥ |
mahāśano mahāpāpmā viddhyenamiha vairiṇam ||
[Know attachment-filled desire and anger, born out of rajoguNa, to be your great enemies and cause for great misery.]

It is therefore not for suppression but for mastery over emotions that the scriptures repeatedly point out the defects in being attached to the world. Emotions by themselves are not dangerous, the world by itself is not dangerous. But they threaten the individual’s development only when the individual has not enough viveka shakti (discrimination between dharma/adharma, and between the permanent Lord and the impermanent world) , not enough vairaagya (ability to prioritise dharma over adharma, and the Lord over the world). To get this viveka and vairaagya, it becomes essential to repeatedly engage the mind in thoughts which run counter to the usual monopoly of the chasing the fulfilment of desires and the overcrowding of the mind by emotional attachment to the world. This technique of engaging in counter-thoughts for extricating the buddhi from emotions is known as pratipaksha bhaavana. Pratipaksha bhaavana is not necessarily used only for self-control (holding back). It can also be used for self-engagement. For example, if there is a saadhaka (spiritual aspirant) who has an aversion to someone, to that saadhaka the Shaashtra tries to point out all the good things about the other person, and tries to prod him to engage with that person in a way so as to neutralise the aversion. Thus, the goal is to a have a mind that is sufficiently calm that it is not carried away by emotions. For such a mind, Dharma is essential, and for sticking to Dharma, one must have sufficient viveka and vairaagya shakti. This is the message that Rama seeks to convey to us.

3. Kaalah alone is responsible for all experiences in accordance with Karma:

Rama continues –

यथा काष्ठं च काष्ठं च समेयातां महार्णवे।
समेत्य च व्यपेयातां कालमासाद्य कं चन॥
yathā kāṣṭhaṁ ca kāṣṭhaṁ ca sameyātāṁ mahārṇave |
sametya ca vyapeyātāṁ kālamāsādya kaṁ cana ||
[As the mighty ocean, one piece of wood comes in contact with another; so, a person, having been in association another, is separated from him in time].

एवं भार्याश्च पुत्राश्च ज्ञातयश्च वसूनि च।
समेत्य व्यवधावन्ति ध्रुवो ह्येषां विनाभवः॥
evaṁ bhāryāśca putrāśca jñātayaśca vasūni ca |
sametya vyavadhāvanti dhruvo hyeṣāṁ vinābhavaḥ ||
[In this way, wives, sons, kindred and wealth, having been in association, go away; their separation is certain].

The physical body is nothing more than an inert matter floating in the ocean of Samsaara. It is the individual’s prior karma that is responsible for the variety of experiences in life, and so this karma alone is also responsible for the ushering in and out of relationships in the world. When a child is born, the parent may think, “By me, for my sake, my child is born”. However, the child is born with its own baggage, its own karma. The individual karmas of both the parents and the child bring together this relationship, and all those experiences that entail it. Once the karma that brings together the members of a relationship runs out, the relationship will come to an end. Like wood pieces floating in an large ocean, being moved by the waves of karma, individuals come together in relationships and eventually separate also. With Kaala comes the effects of one’s past karmas, and with Kaala they go away. Thus it is purely one’s own responsibility, one’s own karma, which is responsible for what one faces in life. Similarly, it is one’s own present karma which shall play a role in deciding the future.

The individual is quite helplessly thrown around by the effects of his karma. By recognising this fact, by exercising one’s viveka shakti, one can come to terms with any situation and perform one’s Dharma as the situation calls for. This is what Rama tries to convey.

As with all teachings, this teaching of karma in Hinduism is also applicable to oneself, for claiming responsibility for one’s life. It would be immoral to say to another suffering individual, “You suffer because you deserve to”, nowhere in the scriptures do we find such a suggestion. For those so cold-hearted to speak so in any circumstance, it is needless to say that they shall find themselves to be the receivers of such a remark by someone else. This too follows from the law of karma.

4. Vairaagya is essential for enjoying life:

Rama continued –

नात्र कश्चिद्यथा भावं प्राणी समभिवर्तते।
तेन तस्मिन्न सामर्थ्यं प्रेतस्यास्त्यनुशोचतः॥
nātra kaścidyathā bhāvaṁ prāṇī samabhivartate |
tena tasminna sāmarthyaṁ pretasyāstyanuśocataḥ ||
[There exists not one in this world that can change one’s nature as received. A person lamenting a dead individual, has no power to prevent his own death].

Lord Rama here points out that no matter how many deaths are seen by a person, the reality of one’s own death does not hit him. The knowledge that “I will too one day pass away” may very well be there, but it does not translate into wisdom, which is only characterised by the person attempting to use his lifetime to perform Dharma and attain Moksha (liberation from sorrow) and not prioritising sense-enjoyments over Dharma or the pursuit of Moksha.

But why so? After all, after knowing that life is impermanent, is it not wise to shoot for enjoyments when we are here and alive? What is the necessity of getting this Vairaagya, dispassion, towards the objects of pleasure in life? To this query, we find answers in Bhartrhari’s Vairaagya Shatakam –

भोगे रोगभयं कुले च्युतिभयं वित्ते नृपालाद्भयम्
माने दैन्यभयं बले रिपुभयं रूपे जरायाभयम्।
शास्त्रे वादिभयं गुणेखलभयं कायेक्रान्ताद्भयम्
सर्वं वस्तु भयान्वितं भुवि नृणां वैराग्यमेवाभयम्॥
bhoge rogabhayaṁ kule cyutibhayaṁ vitte nṛpālādbhayam
māne dainyabhayaṁ bale ripubhayaṁ rūpe jarāyābhayam |
śāstre vādibhayaṁ guṇekhalabhayaṁ kāyekrāntādbhayam
sarvaṁ vastu bhayānvitaṁ bhuvi nṛṇāṁ vairāgyamevābhayam || – Vairaagya shatakam
[In sense-enjoyments, there is fear of disease; in social position, the fear of falling of; in wealth, the fear of hostile kings; in honour, the fear of humiliation; in power, the fear of foes; in beauty, the fear of old-age; in scriptural erudition, the fear of opponents; in virtue, the fear of traducers; in attachment to the body, the fear of death; thus, in all worldly things that people desire are pervaded by fear; renunciation alone stands for fearlessness].

The enjoyment of sense-objects are always laced with a number of doshas or afflictions, which prevent any real lasting happiness from them. The very fact that there is the knowledge that they are shortlived is one such dosha. Besides, there is also the fact that there is a perpetual gradation in such enjoyments. No amount of such enjoyments are sufficient to completely satisfy anyone. Much like substance-addiction, they are also required in increasing amounts to satisfy the enjoyer. Then of course there is the idea of comparison in one’s mind, which makes one desire for more and more and also creates lack of joy in whatever one has.

Thus, the contentment with what one has, is alone the cause for real joy, not perpetual desire or enjoyment. And such contentment is gained through this repeated `seeing of faults’, dosha darshanam, in the objects of enjoyment. .

Therefore it is a must to cultivate such contentment and vairaagya. Even to enjoy the objects of the world vairaagya becomes essential, for without it all sense-enjoyments, being laced with the doshas, lead only to more sorrow . The fact that “all things shall pass at any time”, has to be kept in the back of one’s mind, irrespective of whether life is pleasurable or sorrowful, and it is by repeatedly remembering this thought that one maintains an even-keel and is able to stick to Dharma and the pursuit of Moksha.

5. Rama’s conclusion : 

Rama concludes his teaching to Bharata –

एते बहुविधाः शोका विलाप रुदिते तथा।
वर्जनीया हि धीरेण सर्वावस्थासु धीमता॥
ete bahuvidhāḥ śokā vilāpa rudite tathā |
varjanīyā hi dhīreṇa sarvāvasthāsu dhīmatā ||
[Such manifold grief and mourning and lamentation should be renounced by intelligent and firm persons in all conditions of life].

A man of wisdom does not grieve, for all the above-mentioned reasons, Rama says. Furthermore, Dasharatha was a Dharmic king, and will have found his place in Svarga. Dasharatha’s passing is not worth grieving over or prioritising over Dharma, either by consideration of the nature of life or by considering that Dasharatha’s Dharmic actions, he would have found a comfortable place in heaven.

स स्वस्थो भव मा शोचो यात्वा चावस तां पुरीम्।
तथा पित्रा नियुक्तोऽसि वशिना वदताम्व्वर॥
sa svastho bhava mā śoco yātvā cāvasa tāṁ purīm |
tathā pitrā niyukto’si vaśinā vadatāmvvara ||
[Do thou cast this grief, let not sorrow overpower thee. Going thither, stay in that city. And, O best of speakers ,this was also enjoined by our sire of controlled senses].

यत्राहमपि तेनैव नियुक्तः पुण्यकर्मणा।
तत्रैवाहं करिष्यामि पितुरार्यस्य शासनम्॥
yatrāhamapi tenaiva niyuktaḥ puṇyakarmaṇā |
tatraivāhaṁ kariṣyāmi piturāryasya śāsanam ||
[I also must do my noble father’s will as to whatever that one of pious acts has laid upon me].

Having thus accepted that whatever has happened is the work of the Lord as Kaalah, and moreover there being no reason to consider what Dasharatha has said as adharma in any way, Bhagavaan Rama concludes that it is indeed Dharma for him to stay in the forest, while Bharata himself should take the responsibility of the kingdom in accordance with their father’s wishes. The Ayodhya Kaanda itself carries on very interestingly with this debate of whether Rama’s stay in the forest is Dharmic or not, but we stop here in keeping with the theme of this post.

Author’s note: I have written this post inspired from Swami Paramasukhanandaji’s (one of my teachers) lectures on Ramayana. Ramayana references are from Srimad Valmiki Ramayana with Govindaraja’s commentary, which can be found online. English translations of all verses are either from online sources and/or modified according to my understanding.

The article has been republished from the author’s blog with permission.

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