Essay World Renunciation in Indian Religious Traditions

Essay World Renunciation in Indian Religious Traditions

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World Renunciation in Indian Religious Traditions


World renunciation is a major theme in Indian civilization, seen by the fact that all major Indic Religions deal with it in one way or another. The ancient Vedic texts laid out a cosmic and social hierarchy – a conception of ‘the world’ – and taught people how to act in accordance with their varna in a way that kept the world in harmony and kept the gods appeased. In the 6th century BCE, world renunciation emerged as a component of religious teachings that would become the heterodox traditions, the two most long-lasting of which are Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism, which coalesced about a millennium later, included concepts of world-renunciation in the Varnashrama Dharma and other texts, but its best known treatise on world-renunciation is the Bhagavad-Gita. Within the umbrella of Hinduism, the Saiva and Vaisnava sectarian traditions provide distinct ideas of world renunciation, through modeling Siva’s asceticism or through acting in devotion to Krsna and Rama.

Reacting against the authoritarian injunctions of the existing Brahmanic order, heterodox teachers first introduced the idea of renouncing the world through the removal of oneself from societal responsibilities. This form of world renunciation is problematic because in order to survive, one needs shelter and food, and these can be attained most efficiently through social institutions such as family and varna, that support the maintenance of a home, production of food, and commerce that distributes vital and leisure goods. In order for some people to remove themselves from the world – by which we mean social obligation – other people are obliged to remain engaged in life-sustaining labor and entangled in these so...


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... associated with physical or ritual removal of oneself from society, or with a personal spiritual journey that allows one to participate in the world while renouncing phal and devoting ones actions to a deity through bhakti yoga, varies between Indic religious traditions. The traditions also differ on whether world-renunciation is open only to a very few full-time devotees, to only high-born males and only at a certain time of life, or to all people at any time. Hindu devotional traditions that emphasize this last option can do so because they focus on spiritual world-renunciation rather than physical and social world-renunciation, as the heterodox traditions emphasize to different extents. The richness of variations on the concept of world-renunciation reveal the complexities it has accrued over several millennia as a central theme of Indian religious thought.


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