Detachment (Vairāgya)

We have seen that discernment (viveka) is the practice of looking deeply in order to see things as they truly are. This helps us distinguish the right from the wrong, the good from the bad, the healthy from the unhealthy. The analysis helps in decision-making—and the decision generally is to choose the right, the good or the healthy. We instinctively attach ourselves to whatever makes us happy and detach from whatever makes us unhappy. Thus detachment (vairāgya) is a natural follow-up to discernment. It is second among the Four Practices (sādhana-catuṣṭaya).

The roots of attachment lie deep in the awareness of “I” and “mine.” My primary attachment is to everything I identify as “I” (usually my body, often mind too). My secondary attachment is to everything I identify as “mine” (my family, friends, possessions, ideas, feelings, and so much more). Whatever I am identified with becomes a kind of extension of myself—it becomes either “me” or “mine.” Whatever happens to me or to mine affects me, since I react as if it were happening to my own self or to those I see as my own. I react positively if it makes me happy, and negatively if it makes me unhappy.

Bobbing up and down with life’s currents becomes the norm. The story of our lives is the story of doing a lot, undoing some of it later but re-doing most of the rest. While we are at it, we keep shuttling between happiness (sukha) and sorrow (duḥkha). Speaking in New York on December 18, 1895, Swami Vivekananda pointed out how nature plays with us the way a cat sometimes does with a mouse:


“This moment we are whipped, and when we begin to weep, nature gives us a dollar; again we are whipped, and when we weep, nature gives us a piece of gingerbread, and we begin to laugh again” (CW, 1. 411).


Isn’t there more to life than endlessly going back and forth between happiness and sorrow? That is what attachment does to us.

It is important to have a clear understanding of what attachment is, because attachment is often mistaken for love. Superficially, love and attachment do seem connected if not identical. If I love someone, wouldn’t I be attached to that person?—one might say. Through discernment we learn that not only are love and attachment different, they are in fact incompatible. They are mutually opposed to each other in two significant ways. First, the person in the grip of attachment is primarily attached to “I”, whereas one who is truly in love seldom thinks of the “I”—it’s all about “you,” the object one’s love. Secondly, the person who is attached to “I” wants to own people and things and make them “mine,” whereas the one in love respects freedom, so no one is tied with the noose of ownership.

The difference between attachment and love becomes even more clear when we look at the results they produce. Attachment can, and often does, lead to dependence, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and stress. In stark contrast, true love leads to deeper happiness and greater freedom. Most relationships produce both happiness and anxiety, a curious mixture of freedom and bondage, fulfillment and deprivation—which means most relationships are a mixture of love and attachment, each producing its results. Through discernment and experience we realize sooner or later that the more detached we are from our pesky “I,” the more we are able to love. Detachment and love go together, no matter how odd that sounds to our conventional way of thinking.

The best we can hope for through our various attachments are passing sensations of happiness and sorrow. These bring no lasting fulfillment. Most of us realize this but have no clue what to do about it. If we care to practice discernment, we soon find out that the world is transient and joyless (anitya, asukha, Gita, 9.33) and really an abode of sorrow (duḥkhālaya, Gita, 8.15). If we can see this “defect” in the world (duḥkha-doṣa-anudarśana, Gita, 13.8), detaching from it should be easy, especially when we learn that life beyond the duality of joy and sorrow is a life of total freedom, perfection and bliss. But our patterns of thinking and doing are difficult to overcome, since they are continually reinforced by mental impressions (saṁskāra) generated by our own thoughts and actions. It’s a vicious loop.

Considering how tough it is to subdue the desire for enjoyment of the earthly pleasures around us, we can only imagine how near-impossible it would be to say no to pleasures in heaven, which are believed to be thousands of time more alluring than what the mind can even imagine at present. But that is the level of detachment required in order to be spiritually illumined. As Śaṅkarācārya’s Aparokṣānubhūti (“Direct Experience”) says, the objects of enjoyment even in the highest of heavens should appear as “the excreta of a crow” (kāka-viṣṭhā) to the spiritual seeker. The Vivekacūḍāmaṇi, 21, defines detachment as aversion (jugupsā) to any sense contact with “the ephemeral objects of enjoyment ranging from one’s own body to the celestial world of Brahmā.”

“The less you are attached to the world, the more you love God,” as Sri Ramakrishna pointed out (Gospel, 277). If we can find ways to consciously increase our love for God—to become “attached” to the spiritual ideal, so to speak—the easier it gets to detach from everything else. There are also other things we can try to do. Since “I” is at the root of all our problems—including our stresses, worries and anxieties—the practice primarily involves finding ways to detach from the ego. When the ego is absent, as in deep sleep, we have no problems. Come morning, we wake up, the ego returns, and the problems return too. Is it possible to be awake, to have the sense of “I” and yet be free from all attachments and the accompanying problems?

There are at least two ways to practice detachment, which serve the two ways most religious people tend to think of God, or the Supreme Being, or the transcendent reality, or whichever other way we may think of the spiritual ideal. It is thought of either in a personal way (meaning, someone with qualities and form, or simply with qualities) or in an impersonal way (that is, without any form or qualities).

Those with an impersonal view have to rely on their own steadfastness and will-power to do what is right in every situation. For them, every moment and every action can be converted into an occasion to be reminded of the ideal (see CW, 1. 111). They have to strive to remember that doing what is right and what is good is the only way to spiritual freedom. They do what is right simply because it is the right thing to do (kāryaṁ it eva yat karma, Gita, 18.9). They do what is good because it is good to do good, and for no other reason. There must be no other motive, no expectation, no self-interest involved in their actions. This is tough but doable if there is intense desire and unswerving determination to hold on to everything that is good and true. The goal is to do this all the time and in every situation, not merely when it is convenient to do so.

Those with a personal view of God strive to be mindful of doing everything out of love for God (Gita, 9.27). Even if they have worked hard to acquire their knowledge, skills and talents, they recognize that all of those are really gifts from God. Without God’s grace, they wouldn’t have had the energy and wisdom to accomplish anything. Since they acknowledge that their very existence depends on God, they offer to God all their activities as well as the results. They choose to be instruments, not agents, of action. Detachment occurs naturally in their lives, since they see that nothing really belongs to them. God does everything, not they. Everything happens through God’s will, not theirs. The more they surrender to the divine will, the more detached they naturally become.

These, then, are two powerful and effective ways of practicing detachment: (1) doing work for work’s sake, and (2) doing work as an offering to God. Both these methods effectively eliminate the mischief played by the ego. They bring not only peace and joy but also transcendence, which leads to true freedom, perfection and total fearlessness.

Everything in the world is fraught with fear. Only detachment makes us fearless. This is described grippingly in Bhartṛhari’s 5th century text, Vairāgya Śatakam (“A Hundred Verses on Detachment”), 31:

भोगे रोगभयं कुले च्युतिभयं वित्ते नृपालाद्भयं

माने दैन्यभयं बले रिपुभयं रूपे जराया भयम् ।

शास्त्रे वादिभयं गुणे खलभयं काये कृतान्ताद्भयं

सर्वं वस्तु भयान्वितं भुवि नृणां वैराग्यमेवाभयम् ॥

Bhoge roga-bhayaṁ kule cyuti-bhayaṁ vitte nṛpālād bhayaṁ

māne dainya-bhayaṁ bale ripu-bhayaṁ rūpe jarāyā bhaya;

Śāstre vādi-bhayaṁ guṇe khala-bhayaṁ kāye kṛtāntād-bhayaṁ

sarvaṁ vastu bhayānvitaṁ bhuvi nṛṇāṁ vairāgyam-eva abhayam.


“In sensual enjoyment, there is the fear of disease; in social status, the fear of a downfall; in wealth, the fear of (hostile) kings; in honor, the fear of humiliation; in power, the fear of enemies; in beauty, the fear of aging, in scholarship, the fear of opponents; in virtue, the fear of slanderers; in body, the fear of death. Everything in this world of humans is smeared with fear. Detachment alone brings fearlessness.”


Discernment and detachment are connected. Each fulfills the other. Together, they are powerful. Separated, they are meaningless. Discernment without detachment is pointless, and detachment without discernment is rudderless. Spiritual life truly begins only when discernment and detachment join hands. They make it possible to attain the “six treasures” (ṣaṭ-sampatti).

The first of these “six treasures” is the practice of restraining the mind (śama). That will be the focus of reflection next time.

from Vedanta Blog - Vedanta Society

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