Religion 499: Renunciation, and the Three Stages of Hindu Life…


Hindu Temple in Sri Lanka

…which are actually four, but who’s counting (?), and I think it’s time to do a little historical trim, which coincides very well with my own three religious stages of life—Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist—corresponding to youth, prime, and maturity; i.e. dignity–and discipline, love–and family, wisdom–and renunciation; at something like 20-25 years each. The Hindu ‘ashrama’ stages of life are student (brahmacharya), householder (grihastha), retirement (vanaprastha) and renunciation (sannyasa).

Now obviously those stages can’t occupy the full prescribed twenty-four years each (who retires at forty-eight, anyway?), so I’d propose combining the retirement and renunciation phases. I’m not sure I much know the difference anyway, though most cultures wouldn’t acknowledge ‘renunciation’ as a goal, in any case.

But the Hindu trick is that the final sannyasa renunciation phase can occur anytime, relieving Indians of the burden of living to be 96-100 years just to fit the paradigm.  So a student brahmacharya can go straight into the sannyasa phase at the ripe old age of twenty-four-ish, completely foregoing the career and head-of-family phase, opting instead for a life of moksha (no, that’s not a Jewish circumciser), i.e. spiritual liberation.

Interestingly I toyed with that concept myself, early on, and as a non-Hindu, building my little cabin in the woods at right about that early age, though certainly not committed to renunciation, just hippiness and happiness. Other than that renunciation the phases would be similar for most cultures, if not formally acknowledged, then at least traditionally practiced. Nowadays more and more, though, people get seduced into the power and possession of the householder and career phase, and never move beyond it, working and f*cking ourselves to death.

In the Hindu system, it’s important to note that any renunciation should occur AFTER the brahmacharya student phase. That is something that always has bothered me about the similar Buddhist system, in which many poor children are educated in the local temples and can be seen meditating for long periods at a very early age. Now there’s nothing wrong with that per se, not at all, as long as they don’t see this as an early easy-out career move, never really leaving the temple. Renunciation doesn’t really mean much if you’re not renouncing anything, now, does it?

Of course I’m not a Hindu, so this is mostly an intellectual exercise, really, the proposed reformation of the religion.  I’m not here to reform entire religions (wait a minute, yes I am), but more important is my own pending renunciation from all the seductions and disgusts of the material world. Despite all the delicacies and the delirium of the carnival down here, the pain and suffering is an equal if not overbearing counterweight… and all of it is secondary to the pure white light of spirit and electricity, forgiveness and thought.

But renunciation is not easy, of course, and probably best taken in stages, central to my own theory of the three stages (and religions) of life. I mean: obviously it’s easier to give up sex at age sixty-two than sixteen, and more appropriate, too. Ditto alcohol and other estupefacientes. As Alan Watts once said: “Once you get the message, hang up the phone.” I agree.  I gave up most all that nonsense long ago, sorta kinda almost maybe, except on special occasions, you know…

Actually maybe what I’m proposing is a variation of the Hindu ‘renunciation anytime after youth’ clause, maybe more like ‘little renunciations’ all through life, some kind of little renunciation booster shots to re-infuse the body with enough spiritual go-get-em to keep up the good work and provide some inspiration.  But isn’t that what meditation is?

Bottom line: true renunciation is not easy, but not so hard if age-appropriate. As previously stated, it doesn’t mean much, if you don’t actually give up anything. For me the hardest thing to give up will be the music, which is about as close as a human being can come to the spiritual world…without really trying. But the last thing I’ll give up will be writing, and at that point I’ll C U on the other side. Good luck out there…