By Pranav Khullar
The recent Patanjali-ayurveda debate reminded one of another time and era, when the name of Patanjali evoked an austere sense of vairagya, dispassion only. In the Yoga Sutras, Maharishi Patanjali speaks of pratyahar – the withdrawal of the mind from its scattered externality to interiorising it and focussing upon the very origin of thought. And even as Patanjali details several practical steps to initiate this withdrawal, like yama, niyam, swadhyaya, and satsang, he emphasises the need for vairagya as the crucial prerequisite temperament to be developed for pratyahar.
One of the fallouts of the pandemic crisis has been to trigger this churning inside each one of us of what were the essential values we all began our life journey with, and how far we have moved away from them. Patanjali repeatedly emphasises the need to realise the distinction between real and momentary, as in Vedanta.
It is said that even Brahmn-Vichara, the inquiry into the Self, and all yogic practices are rendered redundant if the mind has not yet fully turned away from the externals, and real vairagya is absent.
The ancients state that most people go through a sort of momentary phase of dispassion, arising out of some personal disillusionment with a situation, but are unable to sustain this attitude for long in front of the external charms of wealth, beauty, position and fame.
Then there are those who believe that this ‘accidental’ vairagya is a real state of renunciation, and renunciation itself becomes a means to seek the same external vanities.
Real vairagya, the sages say, can only arise when there is genuine inner discrimination developed through vichara, to be able to distinguish between the outer ‘glamorous drama’ that is transient at best, and the Witness-Self which is beckoning to a dimension beyond the transitory.
It is this real vairagya that Bhartihari alludes to in his classic work Vairagya-Shatakam – the Hundred Verses on Renunciation, pointing out how, despite the transitory nature of the world staring us in the face, whether death or disease, whether old age or deceit, man continues to desire and want endlessly, trapping himself in a vicious cycle of pleasure and pain. Nothing seems to, Bhartihari says, stop us from desiring more – and this arises from our wrong notions of what is real and permanent.
In perceiving the outer empirical reality as the only reality, we keep desiring the external ‘enjoyments’. This triggers a self-consuming ‘mind-reality’ desperate to possess just that bit more – this play of the mind keeps defining an identity for ourselves, which inevitably makes us dissatisfied and restless. The true yog practitioner tries to reverse this notion through pratyahara and vairagya.
What vairagya also does not entail is to go the other extreme, of the abnegation of social responsibilities by running away on a whim – if the mind is not disciplined enough, the same desires will follow the mind even in the most secluded spots. Patanjali states that what is required is a discriminating mind, able to distinguish between the essential and the perishable, even as one goes about one’s duties in life.
The path of a Buddha or Shankara must be taken only when the seeker has developed intense vairagya, a state of total disregard for all material things, not merely momentary disenchantment.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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