Renouncing Renunciation

Shri Rama's lotus feet“Seeing Shri Rama’s enchanting form, in mind the king felt ecstatic love and affection. Bound up in love, the King of Videha renounced his renunciation.” (Janaki Mangala, 41)

dekhi manohara mūrati mana anurāgeu |

bandheu saneha bideha birāga birāgeu ||

The good poet uses license every now and then to get their point across. Perhaps they throw in an extra word or two for emphasis or they insert superlatives and adjectives to emphasize a specific trait or feature. In the above referenced verse from the Janaki Mangala, Goswami Tulsidas carefully uses just the right words to bring home the point that renunciation is only meant for fulfilling a higher purpose. It is not the end by itself. You give up sweets to improve your health. You give up fatty foods to lower your cholesterol, and you give up drinking to stay sober. Once that healthy condition is reached, however, your activity doesn’t stop. King Janaka, who was known as Videha, renounced his world famous renunciation when the jewel of the Raghu dynasty appeared in front of him.

Why was Janaka known as Videha? “Deha” refers to the body, and the prefix “vi” says that King Janaka was without a body. What was he then, a ghost? If he’s a ghost how is he going to do anything? Ghosts can haunt us and maybe serve as enchanting figures to star in motion pictures, but in reality they are not capable of much. Did a ghost rule over the kingdom of Janakpur many thousands of years ago?

A body is defined by what it can do, and also what it can inhibit. For instance, a glass container prevents the liquid inside from pouring onto the surface that the glass is resting on. In this way the container inhibits the motion of the entity within. At the same time, it provides the function of allowing liquids to be consumed easily. It has both a restrictive element and a functional purpose.

$(KGrHqN,!hsE3,H)57rtBN9j) )nRw~~0_3With the form of body granted the living entity residing in the material world, the inhibiting aspects may not be so easily discernible. The fact that we have to sleep every night is a notable example of an inhibition. Why can’t we just stay awake perpetually? We know that everyone sleeps, but why? Also, why do we sometimes get indigestion from eating foods that we like? Shouldn’t we all be allowed to eat whatever we want, whenever we want? Children can eat fatty foods and sugar-rich delights such as laddus and not feel the aftereffects. Why do the harmful consequences have to accompany maturation of the body?

The inhibitions are automatically imposed from the time of birth, but the functional purpose of the body is not easily known. For instance, with the body we can make the choice to place our hand into a fire. Picture a raging fire that has large flames that don’t seem to lessen in intensity. As an adult, you wouldn’t dare think of placing your hand into that intense heat, for you know what the consequences will be. But what if you are intoxicated and not thinking straight? What if you’re an ignorant child and just don’t know any better?

The individual residing within, the spirit soul, has a choice in how they use their body. In an arena sporting a full range of possible actions and corresponding outcomes, there is the option to choose activities which are harmful. Hence someone could easily decide to place their hand into the fire. The result will be pain. The burn can be so severe that it takes a long time to heal. The wise person will not repeat the same activity, but the ignorant, who don’t know any better, might require more evidence before reaching an assertive conclusion. “Will my hand burn every time I place it into the fire? Will I get hurt from this again? I know I was in severe pain the last time, but maybe that was a fluke. Perhaps all fires don’t have the same properties.”

Hence the repeated action can take place, and the wise can guess what the reaction will be. Over and over again, you follow behavior that you know is not good for you, but you somehow think you’ll see a different outcome. The hand in the fire is just one example out of countless others where a negative reaction comes as the result of ignorance. At the same time, the activities themselves show the range of motion of the body, how it can be a very powerful instrument. That the same body which places the hand into the fire can do complex mathematics equations and run marathons is quite amazing.

If all we see are the negative aspects of having a body, we might be tempted to renounce activity. In one sense this is not a bad option, for if we avoid something harmful we will obviously prevent the negative outcome from occurring. In the spiritual tradition of the Vedas, renunciation is referred to as vairagya, and it is an important tool that is coupled with jnana, or knowledge. Use the knowledge of the spirit soul to your advantage. Follow action that will keep you in knowledge, not wasting your time in areas where there are pain and misery awaiting you.

Bhagavad-gitaBut where to get knowledge? Though we could figure out that the fire will burn us if we place our hand into it, it is better to learn to prevent that behavior by taking instruction from someone else. If the instructor is presenting perfect information to us, they are an authority source on that particular subject matter. We know that the teachers in school are authority figures based on the fact that we learn to read and write from their guidance. If we learn to become doctors by listening to our instructors in medical school, we know that their teachings are valid.

Similarly, the acharyas of the Vedic tradition prove their high standing and the validity of their knowledge by the effects resulting from the application of their recommended principles. Learn from the spiritual master that you are spirit soul, aham brahmasmi. You are Brahman and not maya. Brahman is spirit; it is truth. Maya is material nature; it is illusory. Only through the influence of maya can you possibly think that a fire will not burn your hand upon contact. Through maya’s influence you can mistake a rope for a snake and your body for your identity. You are Brahman; learn what this means and act off of that knowledge.

The jnana acquired by learning about Brahman and the workings of reincarnation can reinforce the dedication to vairagya. If I know that I am spirit, why am I going to follow a path that will make that realization harder to keep? For instance, if I know that drinking is bad for me and that I shouldn’t be intoxicated, am I going to want to hang around a bar all the time, where people are constantly consuming adult beverages? I will instead want to follow behavior that is conducive to experiencing the knowledge that I am taking in.

Renunciation helps to keep the Brahman realization, the awareness that you are spirit. Renunciation from attachment to maya is the key. If I identify only with my body, I will feel negative effects, either immediately or in the future. The person who remains attached to maya all the way up until the time of death is guaranteed of rebirth in the ocean of material suffering. On the other hand, knowledge of Brahman at the time of death indicates a desire to retain a spiritual existence in the next birth.

“And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.”  (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.5)

Lord Krishna's lotus feetIf renunciation is helpful, should I just cease all activity? To experience bliss, should I give up even moving my body? The key is to remain detached from the external energy, or maya. You are compelled to work in order to both set a good example and maintain the life force within the body. However, you should not work in such a way that you will become attached to the fruits of your labor or the body that performs the work.

King Janaka was exemplary in this area. He earned the title of Videha because of his realization of Brahman. Nothing could phase him because he was not under the influence of maya. Maya could not touch him. He was equal in both happiness and distress. He ruled over a kingdom, so it would be expected that the mode of passion would run through him. In the material world there are three modes governing activity. In goodness one acts in a way that they retain knowledge of Brahman, understanding the differences between spirit and matter. In ignorance one follows a path where they are only hurt in the end, not reaching a tangible goal or enjoying a cherished fruit.

In the mode of passion, hard work is applied to enjoy a fruit that is temporary in its manifestation. Thus the mode of passion leads to a neutral state, sort of like pushing a rock up the hill only to have it fall back down after you’re done. During Janaka’s time, the kings were expected to live in the mode of passion, for they had to provide protection to the innocent, using violence when the time and circumstance called for it. But Janaka was a pious king who followed the advice and consent of the priestly class, the brahmanas. Thus through proper instruction, he performed his work without attachment and thus remained Brahman realized.

Janaka had a body, but he was considered bodiless because it had no inhibiting influence. It did not lead him towards disaster or misery. Rather, the body was there as a formality, but the spirit inside was what guided all actions in the proper direction. Because he was famous for his renunciation, Janaka was known as Videha.

With his exalted position in renunciation established, the above referenced verse from the Janaki Mangala becomes all the more puzzling. It is said that when Janaka saw the form of Lord Rama, which was enchanting to the mind, loving attachment, or anuraga, immediately formed. The king became bound up in love, and because of that his vairagya ran away.

King Janaka watches Sita declare Rama the winnerFrom this verse so carefully crafted by Tulsidas we see that jnana and vairagya are not the end. Renunciation can be renounced when there are feelings of love directed at the Supreme Lord. Shri Rama was God Himself appearing on earth in the most enchanting form of a warrior prince. Janaka was above excitement and attachment, and this position was not broken when looking at Rama. Attachment to God has no relation to attachment to anything material. Matter is inhibiting and damaging to one’s future fortunes when taken to be one’s identity or source of pleasure. When that same matter is seen on the form of the Personality of Godhead, it becomes spiritual in nature.

How could Janaka love Rama instantly? The question should be how could someone who was Brahman realized and pious in every way not have spontaneous attraction to the beautiful form of the Supreme Lord? Jnana and vairagya are tools to help learn how to use the body properly. The individual soul within the body is very powerful. Through the vehicle of the temporary form the spirit soul can do amazing things which don’t have to be harmful. It was Janaka’s body which decided to hold the grand sacrifice in Janakpur, which would determine the husband for his daughter Sita.

In the spiritual world, Sita and Rama are always together. They are the combination of God and His pleasure potency. Janaka played a hand in reuniting them during their play in the phenomenal world. His formal renunciation went away as soon as it was no longer needed. Attachment to Shri Rama’s form and name never proves detrimental, and King Janaka is the authority figure in this regard. No one is more renounced than he is, and no one was quicker to abandon that renunciation when seeing the Supreme Lord. From that spontaneous affection he would soon gain Rama as a son-in-law and the world would be better off for it.

In Closing:

With knowledge wise decision you make,

No longer identity from body you’ll take.


From material attachment you’ll stay renounced,

Absorbing knowledge of Brahman, attain stature pronounced.


From this King Janaka attained worldwide fame,

Through detachment lived up to his Videha name.


But as soon as King Dasharatha’s son eyes to gaze upon,

His hard acquired level of renunciation was gone.


Be not puzzled, for this is how it’s supposed to be,

Feel unbreakable love when Supreme Lord’s vision you see.

Categories: janaki mangala

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