RENUNCIATION means the giving up of the style of living dominated by worldly ambition and discarding the love of possessions for the sake of achieving the ultimate goal of religious life. The theistic traditions hold that when one is united with God, all else loses its significance. In this sense, God-realization can be viewed as the culmination of renunciation. A devotee of God is supposed to withdraw from the world to practise piety in loneliness, and to resort to self-denial, so that he can see and know and be one with God. In Bhakti, religious practice demands complete and wholehearted love for God on the one hand and on the other a complete surrender before God and self-abnegation. Renunciation is thus another name for complete self surrender and self-abnegation. In the non-theistic religious traditions, like Sāṅkhya, Jainism and Buddhism, renunciation is practised with a view to eradicating ignorance and suffering and achieving ultimate release from the process of repeated becoming. In Buddhism, renunciation is essential to realization.
The Gurūs in Sikhism were householders. They led married lives and participated in society and its concerns. The classical philosophical conception of renunciation was, however, tacitly accepted by them. Gurū Nānak for many years undertook extensive travels and lived a virtually ascetic life. Nevertheless, he finally settled as a householder and took to farming, an occupation which the ascetics and monks are not allowed to pursue. This shows that Gurū Nānak did not believe in renouncing household and was definitely opposed to mendicancy. The poetry of Gurū Tegh Bahādur also bears a strong note of renunciation of evil and worldliness but not of the world.
The Gurūs in Sikhism stress the inner aspect of renunciation. According to Gurū Nānak "he is a renouncer who is without desire — as nirāsī tau sanniāsi" (GG,356). Gurū Arjan sang thus : "First of all, I renounced self-love; then I renounced the ways of the people; and finally I renounced the triple strand (triguṇa) and treated the wicked and friends alike (GG, 370). The dominant note of the Gurū's teaching is loving devotion to God and all aspects of renunciation and ascetic spirituality are understood and appreciated only insofar as they are saturated with bhakti. The love of God is considered an aspect of renunciation; a devotee is a renouncer even while living in his house. "He is a saint (sādhū) and a renouncer (bairāgī) who cherishes God's name in his heart — so sādhū bairāgī soī hirdai nāmu vasāe" (GG,29). Mere external forms and symbols of ascetic renunciation are discountenanced, and genuine renunciation of worldliness is eulogized by all the Gurūs. He alone is a sannyāsī who serves the Gurū and eradicates egoity; he does not ask for food and clothing, but accepts whatever he obtains without asking. He does not indulge in vain chatter and talk; he accumulates the wealth of forgiveness and burns his passion (tamas) through (God's) name. Such a householder, a renouncer, or, an ascetic is indeed praiseworthy whose heart rests at the feet of God. A renouncer is without desire in the midst of desires, being in harmony with the One alone (GG,1013). The Gurūs in their hymns refer to several fake instances of renunciation. They had come across many who had neither shed their passions nor egoity.
To give up all passions, to annihilate one's self love, and to conquer completely one' mind, constitute the heart of renunciation. The gist of Sikh philosophy of renunciation is contained, in a hymn, by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh in the Dasam Granth. It begins with the line, "re man aiso kari sanniāsā." Herein one is advised to regard one's home itself as a forest and to keep one's mind free from desires. Other elements of the ascetic culture mentioned in this poetic piece are continence (jata), meditation (joga), restraint (nema), abstemiousness in food and sleep, mercy, forgiveness, love, moral conduct (śila), contentment, freedom from lust, anger, egoity, avarice, and attachment (moh). The gurmukh (the God-fearing devotee) is the ideal of Sikh devotionalism. In the Siddha Gosṭi, Gurū Nānak, discoursing with the yogīs practising extreme renunciation, compares the ideal of renunciation with the life of the lotus flower which though in the water yet remains above it and apart from it, and like duck on the stream which despite its watery sojourn keeps its feathers unwet. The concept of renunciation adumbrated in the hymns of the Gurūs and in the history of the Sikhs is life-affirming and has been the source of mighty developments in the history of India.
L. M. Joshi