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 social structures in order to provide food for world-renouncers. So those who renounce the world by physically or socially removing themselves from it are not independent and self-sufficient; they still rely upon society to support them. This is not the focus of their energy, however; their renunciation of desire or karma makes them spiritually independent of the world. Spiritual/emotional renunciation of worldliness, which is the sole focus of the Hindu traditions that emerge later, can also allow the world-renouncer to remain a part of the physical and social world. World-renunciation takes on different forms and serves slightly different purposes in the different traditions, but is key to achieving liberation in all traditions.
For Buddhists, renouncing the world brings about spiritual liberation from suffering, the extrication of the individual from concern with worldly affairs and from the cycle of birth, death, rebirth, and redeath. By extricating himself from his inherited station and responsibilities as a prince and pursuing the life of an ascetic, the Buddha rejected the social order and created himself as an individual. Aside from this physical removal, the main focus of Buddhism is philosophical, guiding...