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.”
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 (vidvān… muniḥ) 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.
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.
 All citations of the Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads refer to Schrader, F. Otto. (ed.). 1912. The Minor Upaniṣads Vol. I: Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads (Madras: The Adyar Library).
 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).