Renunciation and the Good Life

The following is an expanded version of the introduction to my paper, “Renunciation, Pleasure, and the Good Life in the Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads,” forthcoming in Philosophy East and West (July 2017).

The Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads characterize the life of the saṃnyāsin (renunciate) as devoid of earthly pleasure. At the same time, these and other texts record confusion and suspicion toward those who would pursue such a life, and disbelief that such severe austerity could be required. To many, the saṃnyāsin seems to forsake the good life in forsaking earthly pleasures. I call this the ‘Precluded Pleasures Objection’ to the saṃnyāsin ideal.

A number of replies to the Precluded Pleasures Objection might be drawn from the Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads themselves. The first points out that the saṃnyāsin ideal is typically reserved for members of the twice-born classes, and perhaps only brāhmaṇa men, who have reached relative old age. Whether the ideal is attractive to anyone outside of this small group, then, seems irrelevant.

The problem with this reply is that the ideal remains unattractive to most members of that small group for whom it is intended for the same reasons that it is unattractive to the broader community. The abandonment of all earthly pleasures is generally unattractive to the privileged and the underprivileged, the young and the old. This must be at least part of the explanation for the extraordinary rarity of the saṃnyāsin of the most austere – and ideal – sort. Paramahaṃsaparivrājaka Upaniṣad 287-288, for example, admits that “in this world, the paramahaṃsaparivrājaka (the highest type of renunciate) is very rare. If there is one [of them], he alone is always pure. He alone is a man of the Vedas.”[1]

The second reply explains the relative unpopularity of the saṃnyāsin ideal in terms of the shortcomings of those who fail to see its appeal. Most people, after all, are excessively attached to things that are unworthy of enjoyment. Maitreya Upaniṣad 110 says, “[tangible] objects (artha) such as [those relating to] sound, touch, and so on (śabdasparśādayo) are certainly worthless (anartha iva).” It is hardly a shortcoming in the saṃnyāsin ideal that it demands that people abandon what is of little value to begin with.

The Precluded Pleasures Objection is not so easily dismissed, however. Even if popular conceptions of the good life overvalue a wide range of earthly pleasures, there are still other earthly pleasures that seem genuinely valuable. If the saṃnyāsin takes no pleasure in the world, then he does not enjoy a visit from a friend or the beauty of a sunset. He takes no pleasure in the sound of a sparrow’s song or the sight of children playing. Pleasures such as these, however, seem genuinely valuable. It might even be that pleasures such as these are essential to the good life. If they are, then the saṃnyāsin forsakes the good life in forsaking earthly pleasures.

A third reply admits that the life of the saṃnyāsin is not especially good for him, but insists that this sacrifice is required in order to attain mokṣa (liberation). This strategy ought to be one of last resort, however. It would be better, all other things being equal, if the current life of the saṃnyāsin were sufficiently good for him than if it were not, in just the same way that it would be better, all other things being equal, if each year of a person’s life were sufficiently good for him than if it were not. A life is not for naught just because of one bad year, and a series of lifetimes might not be for naught just because of one bad lifetime, but one bad year is a significant cost, and one bad lifetime is more significant still.

Furthermore, once it is admitted that the current life of the saṃnyāsin is not intrinsically good for him, there is little reason to think that the current life will be the only one that is not intrinsically good for him. If one bad lifetime is a significant detriment, a series of bad lifetimes is much worse.

A final reason to resist admitting that the life of the saṃnyāsin is not especially good for him is that many of the Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads repeatedly describe the saṃnyāsin as taking immense and constant pleasure in the ātman (true self) and/or brahman (God) – not only in future lives, but in his current life as well. Kuṇḍika Upaniṣad 27, for example, says “the wise sage (vidvānmuniḥ) always rejoices in the self (ātmārāmaḥ sadā).” Bṛhad-Avadhūta Upaniṣad 309 describes the saṃnyāsin saying, “let [my] mind dissolve in the bliss of brahman (brahmānande).”

The claim that the saṃnyāsin takes immense and constant pleasure in the ātman and/or brahman points toward a fourth reply to the Precluded Pleasures Objection. While the saṃnyāsin forsakes earthly pleasures, he is more than compensated by the pleasure he takes in the ātman and/or brahman.

The problem with this reply is that pleasures are not obviously interchangeable in this way. The life of the saṃnyāsin might be deficient, despite his great pleasure in the ātman and/or brahman, because it is devoid of so many other important pleasures, just as the life of a person who only enjoys gazing at the greatest works of art might be deficient because it is devoid of so many other important pleasures.

A fifth reply states that earthly pleasures invariably produce earthly desires. Earthly desires, in turn, lead to suffering, in the form of rebirth, and so on, that outweighs the value of any earthly pleasure.[2]

It is false, however, that earthly pleasures invariably produce earthly desires. Suppose a person tastes an artichoke for the first time, and enjoys it, but only because she has never tasted anything quite like it. She knows that the taste of the artichoke will not be novel in the future, and hence, does not desire to taste another artichoke, despite having just enjoyed one. Similarly, a person might fully enjoy living in the dormitory in his first year in university, but have no desire at all to live in the dormitory after this, counting the experience unsuitable for all but freshmen.

In other cases, an agent enjoys something but does not come to desire it because she believes it is bad. A parent might take pleasure in hearing that the school bully was beaten up by an older child, and yet not want the child to be beaten up again. Someone might take pleasure in seeing a person trip and fall in a comical way, but wish no such thing upon anyone.

If earthly pleasures do not invariably produce desires, then they do not inevitably cause suffering. And if earthly pleasures do not inevitably cause suffering, then earthly pleasures might make a significant positive net contribution to the intrinsic value of a life. If the life of the saṃnyāsin is devoid of such pleasures, then his life might be deficient as a result.

The Precluded Pleasures Objection can be avoided, but only by revising the saṃnyāsin ideal so that it is consistent with the saṃnyāsin enjoying the world. If it is possible to enjoy earthly things without desiring them, as I’ve just suggested, then this account seems more plausible.

Indeed, the example of the saṃnyāsin fits well with many of the examples that I just mentioned. In each of these cases, the agent enjoys something but does not come to desire it on the basis of good reasons. The person who eats the artichoke does not desire to eat another artichoke because she knows that the novelty has worn off. The parent does not desire to see the bully beaten up again, because he knows that harm to children is bad.

Likewise, the saṃnyāsin who has just enjoyed a visit from a friend (for example) does not desire another visit from his friend, because he knows that the desire itself produces suffering. For this reason, he enjoys the visit from a friend, but does not desire another visit. He might enjoy other earthly things in the same way, and yet remain devoid of desires for earthly things more generally.

Indeed, these kinds of considerations might explain the otherwise inconsistent claim that the saṃnyāsin takes pleasure in everything that he encounters. Nāradaparivrājaka 154, for example, says that the sage “is satisfied with what he attains by chance (yadṛcchālābhasaṃtuṣṭa).” Bṛhad-Avadhūta Upaniṣad 305 explains that “the yogin enjoys objects (yogi viṣayān prabhuṅkte), but is not defiled by merit or demerit (na lipyate puṇapāpaiś). [He remains] pure.” If the yogin enjoys things, but does not accrue merit or demerit, then he must enjoy things without desiring them. This means that he takes pleasure in things without desiring them, and hence, without prolonging rebirth. If his life contains earthly pleasures, however, then his life is not deficient for the reasons cited in the Precluded Pleasures Objection.

[1] All citations of the Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads refer to Schrader, F. Otto. (ed.). 1912. The Minor Upaniṣads Vol. I: Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads (Madras: The Adyar Library).

[2] Stephen Harris considers a similar reply to a related (but not identical) objection to the bodhisattva ideal in the second chapter of his dissertation, Demandingness, Self-Interest and Benevolence in Śāntideva’s Introduction to the Practice of Awakening (Bodhicaryāvatāra) (University of New Mexico).


About Chris Framarin

Chris Framarin is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. He is the author of Hinduism and Environmental Ethics: Law, Literature, and Philosophy (Routledge 2014) and Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy (Routledge 2009).

11 Replies to “Renunciation and the Good Life”

  1. Great post, Chris! I’m looking forward to the article. Although just realizing it may be hard to get a brand-new article through the JSTOR moving wall…

    As you note in footnoting Stephen, this is obviously an issue for Buddhists (and Jains) too – among whom the renunciant life is considerably more common! It seems to me that the typical Buddhist objection is that “even sukha is dukkha”, that worldly pleasures are not so pleasurable when properly viewed. Impermanence is at the heart of this. The artichoke example may be telling in that respect in that this pleasure effectively requires novelty, and novelty as such gets harder and harder to find as one gets older. One thinks of stories of Roman emperors who required ever more exotic delights to fulfill their jaded tastes – or for that matter modern hipster aesthetes for whom Fernet Branca isn’t a good enough cocktail mixer, they need another variety of Fernet that has to be imported directly from Italy. Which is to say, I suppose, that the pleasure of the artichoke does create desire and therefore more suffering, in that the pleasure as you describe it comes not from the taste of the artichoke itself but from novelty, and so likewise the desire it creates is for novelty rather than for artichoketva. (Even more so with beating up a bully – surely taking pleasure in this action makes one more of a vengeful person.)

    • Hi Amod,

      Thanks for your comment. The claim that sukha is duḥkha is explained in a number of ways. I mean to say that the primary way that sukha leads to duḥkha is by prolonging rebirth, by producing desire. But you’re also right that “impermanence is at the heart of this.” I experience pleasure, but this turns to pain when the (impermanent) pleasure ceases. I experience pleasure, but I also experience pain in the form of anxiety about the (impermanent) pleasure ceasing, and so on.

      (Stephen Harris analyzes both vipariṇāma-duḥkatā (suffering of change) and saṃskāra- duḥkatā (suffering of being conditioned) in the Buddhist context as grounded in the unsatisfactoriness of impermanence (pp. 70-71, reference in original post).)

      It might be, however, that all of these other ways in which pleasure leads to pain are grounded in desire. I experience pain in the form of anxiety about the pleasure ceasing and/or when the pleasure ceases, because I want (desire) the pleasure to persist. If, instead, I enjoy something without desiring it to persist, these pains do not seem to arise. This suggests that if a person can experience pleasure without desire, she can experience sukha without duḥkha.

      You suggest that in the artichoke case – where the person enjoys the artichoke, but does not desire more artichoke, because the novelty has worn off – that she still comes to desire novelty. If so, this desire is still problematic. Put more generally: a person might enjoy some aspect of something, without desiring the thing as a whole. She might not desire the thing as a whole in the future, on the grounds that the thing on the whole is not especially desirable. She might nonetheless desire that particular aspect of the thing that she enjoyed. This will be problematic.

      I see how this artichoke experience might make a person desire novelty, but I don’t see that it has to, especially in a case in which the person knows that the desire for novelty – or anything else – produces immense pain. In the artichoke example, I’m talking about an ordinary person. I’m trying to say that even an ordinary person might enjoy something without desiring it. But even if this seems implausible in the case of an ordinary person, it seems plausible in the case of a person who knows that the cost of desire is immense pain in the form of rebirth. My suggestion is that such a person’s belief that desire causes immense pain precludes the desire for whatever aspect she enjoyed in the same way that the ordinary person’s belief that the novelty has worn off precludes her desire for the artichoke itself. This allows the sage to avoid desire for the particular aspect that she enjoyed in the same way that the ordinary person might avoid desire for the thing as a whole. The ordinary person does not desire the artichoke because she knows the novelty has worn off. The sage does not desire even the novelty, because she knows that it leads to rebirth. The ordinary person does not desire the artichoke on the whole. The sage does not desire the novelty on the whole – just because the desire itself invariably prolongs rebirth. Most of us are not sensitive to the cost of desire, but those who are presumably find it easier to avoid desiring things. The question is whether they need to avoid pleasure altogether in order to avoid desire. Hopefully not – and certain passages (mentioned in original post) suggest they do not.

      Another thing to consider here – one that I should have brought up in the paper but didn’t – is that sensory pleasures (that is, physical, bodily pleasures) are unavoidable. Even the saṃnyāsin cannot entirely avoid the pleasant feeling of waking up well rested or quenching an uncomfortable thirst. (Likewise, the sage continues to experience sensory pain, in the form of sore muscles, headaches, hunger pangs, and so on.) (In the Buddhist, context see Harris, p. 69). If desire is an inevitable consequence of every pleasure, then desire too is unavoidable, and hence, mokṣa is unattainable. So there must be some way to experience sensory pleasures without desiring those things that cause the sensory pleasures. If this is possible, then it seems more plausible that a person could take attitudinal pleasure in something (that is, enjoy it, like it, and so on), without desiring it.

      Thanks for keeping the gears turning on this. More to add to the larger project as a result!

    • I see this topic as falling under value theory broadly construed, but not necessarily ethics, just because it is not directly about moral obligations, and so on. It might have important moral implications though – so long as there is some close connection between what makes a person’s life good (for him/her) and how people morally ought to act toward one another.

  2. Thanks, Chris, for this interesting post! Like Amod, I wonder whether your optimistic view about pleasure (which, by the way, I share) is shared by Classical traditions of askesis (both in India and in the West). Most of their authors might have thought that pleasures create addiction and that ONLY once one has reached the highest spiritual goal can s/he enjoy things without becoming their slave. During the training, one just has to avoid them altogether.

    • Hi Elisa,

      Yes, this is the view I want to defend. At first I thought my suggestion that the sage could enjoy earthly things after all was a revision to classical accounts (among which I would include many of the Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads). I use the word ‘revise’ in the original post. Over time, though, I began to wonder if the texts didn’t implicitly acknowledge that at least the advanced sage enjoys earthly things. Some of the Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads state that the saṃnyāsin enjoys specific things, like studying the Upaniṣads, solitude, nudity, and so on. Others say that he enjoys everything, come what may, as I mentioned. This, on the surface, seems inconsistent with the more pronounced and common claim that he does not take pleasure in earthly things. But if there is some training period, during which the novice avoids pleasure altogether, this might make sense.

      By the way, this kind of solution was first suggested to me after a panel at the AAR with Stephen and Purushottama Bilimoria. There were two PhD students there from Harvard, one of whom suggested this in the Q and A period, but I later couldn’t remember their names. If anyone present remembers who they were, please let me know. I’d like to follow up!

  3. Thanks for the post Chris and the reference to my dissertation. (My Asian Philosophy article “Suffering and the Shape of Well-Being” is based on the dissertation chapter you reference).

    I’m really interested in the Brahmanical analogues to The Buddhist critique of pleasure, and look forward to reading more of your work on this.

    Briefly, from the Buddhist side of things, I think it’s helpful to keep in mind how closely ignorance and desire (trsna and synonyms) are linked. Ignorance = superimposition of permanence, unity and the possibility of satisfaction where there is only fragmentation and impermanence. Desire (trsna) arises as a result of that–based on this perennial cognitive error.

    But there are other pro-attitudes that are not based on desire/craving (trsna). Actually, this parallels the points you make about desire in your I think first chapter of your first book.

    So a fully enlightened Buddha eliminates ignorance and therefore eliminates desire (trsna etc). So now he can eat the artichoke, experience pleasure, and no craving or suffering arises because of it.

    A couple interesting questions arise here that I’m not sure have obvious answers. First, does the pleasure a Buddha feels when eating the artichoke make his life go better (have well-being value)? My sense which I won’t textually here is that Buddhas can take or leave sense pleasure–after all they’re not attached to it–but there’s no reason they can’t enjoy it. But the sense I get is that a life of a Buddha devoid of artichokes is not deprived of anything important–what’s stressed as important changes a bit based upon Buddhist traditions, but will always include skillful (kusala) mental states.

    But what about the rest of us? It seems to me like we have pieces of relatively undeluded pleasure all the time. After all the feeling/sensation (vedana) we get from the things we’re karmically wired to enjoy will be the same as a Buddha. Your artichoke example might be an example of this. But the perennial force of ignorance and craving probably contaminates all experience to some extent, and completely takes over many of them. So I taste the artichoke, feel pleasure (like a Buddha does), then right away superimpose the possibility of a deeper satisfaction than it can give and want more etc etc = suffering of various kinds. So I think that at least a large strand of the Buddhist critique of pleasure is that it is too deeply bound up with various kinds of suffering to be worth pursuit. Moreover, for those who are liberated, it’s no longer harmful–but seems to be neutral or somewhat (but not very?) positive.

    So really sense pleasure isn’t very integral to a good life.

    Of course, really there are many answers to these questions given in many different Buddhist texts, but the above is a sketch of what I take to be a deep strand of the Buddhist critique of pleasure. Citations etc. in the dissertation chapter referenced by Chris and my article.

    • Hi Stephen,

      Obviously there’s a lot we agree about here. I look forward to our study session when we can start to figure out the extent to which certain Hindu and Buddhist traditions agree or disagree on some of these issues.

      Let’s see if I can find something we might disagree on though. As for desire arising from ignorance, this is definitely a theme in the texts I’m looking at – well attested in the Gita, as everyone knows. The kind of ignorance at issue seems similar as well – the Yogaśāstra describes mistaking the permanent (nitya) for the impermanent (anitya) as one fundamental error that constitutes avidyā (ignorance) (YŚ 2.4).

      But I think it is difficult to ground all desire in this kind of mistake. I could be fully aware of the impermanence of things, and yet desire that some experience occur in the future that is relevantly similar to the one that I enjoyed in the past. I like the beautiful sunset. I desire to see another beautiful sunset. Even I, as ignorant as anyone, know I’ll never see the exact same sunset again, but I still desire to see one that is relevantly similar – beautiful, colorful, and so on. I know that that one too will be impermanent. Of course it will be! Who cares!

      As for your question about whether the pleasure of an artichoke makes the life of a Buddha go better for him – I don’t see why it wouldn’t, but I think you might be right that it is counted as especially important. “[T]he life of a Buddha devoid of artichokes is not deprived of anything important.” At least not anything especially important.

      But this, of course, is just one example of the pleasures the sage (Hindu or Buddhist) gives up. There are other pleasures, like pleasure in a visit from a friend, or even pleasure in family and friends more broadly, pleasure in nature, pleasure in art, that seem more important to a life. (And of course, it is never any particular pleasure that is essential, but some pleasures of this sort.)

      Probably not much disagreement yet, but we’ll find something…

  4. Thanks so much for this, Chris.

    Could one argue in response as follows: The Precluded Pleasures Objection has an internal assumption that may be called the Mediocre Aspirations Assumption (I am adopting your style!), which the renouncer rejects?

    In short, when we look to those who have exceptional achievement in various fields: theoretical, artistic, practical, political, humanitarian, etc., we find that they often give up a great deal of the pleasures that normal folks cherish. And yet, we understand that in doing so, their lives aren’t ruined or comparatively weaker; indeed, such people do lose out on some things, but their life of exceptional achievement is not undermined by such sacrifices.

    Only if we assume the primacy of quite mediocre aspirations could we tell an Olympic medalist that she needs to defend her giving up on a normal childhood and young adult life in her single-minded zeal to achieve genuine excellence in, say, speed skating.

    Why couldn’t the renunciant argue in the same way? The rarity of the renouncer’s life, as celebrated above, in the Gita, and elsewhere underscores this idea. It’s just one other field where devotion to a difficult, lofty ideal requires abandoning many the pleasures we take for granted.

    (My hunch is that the giving up of *many* vs. giving up of *all* pleasures is where you will try to draw a relevant distinction between this soteriological pursuit of excellence vs. the others.)

    In response to Stephen’s query about Brahmanical sources: there is a famous chain of dependencies laid out in the Nyāyasūtra that corresponds with Buddhist accounts of the connection between ignorance, desire, action, and pain (this was discussed in an article by Matilal long ago, though the title slips my mind). Vātsyāyana has what is to my mind a very unconvincing argument for why even a little unhappiness ruins the happiness we enjoy in life. Happy to get into it in more detail.

    • Hi Matthew,

      I think I use the example of an Olympic athlete in the full version of the paper. You weren’t one of the reviewers by chance, were you!?

      Anyway, I think there is a parallel. One big difference between the two is that the renouncer must abandon all earthly pleasure, as you say. The Olympic athlete still has earthly pleasures. Since the renunciate has pleasures too – in the ātman and/or brahman – these consolations might cancel one another out.

      Another difference is that he must abandon earthly pleasure for a much longer period of time – not just the rest of this life, typically, but many lifetimes. Even the ultimate payoff that occurs in a future life cannot increase the intrinsic value of the lives spent pursuing mokṣa without success. It can only increase the instrumental value of these lives. So they remain deficient. The whole deal might still be worth it, sacrificing a string of lifetimes for an eternity of bliss, but the fact remains that the sage gives up the good life during the lives before liberation. This seems like a result that is better avoided.

  5. Ha! No, I wasn’t a reviewer. I’ve got some qualms about the way that Indian renunciant traditions drain this world, or our “worldly” relationships, of intrinsic value, allowing them to have instrumental value at best, so I think we are on the same page here.

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