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Should renouncees enter politics?

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In Chapter 18 of the Gita, Lord Krishna explains that it is not possible for a person to give up all actions. For example, a sannyasi or renouncee has to beg for food or make a hut of grass to protect himself from rain. However, Krishna said that it was possible to give up the fruits of action. He exhorted Arjuna to fight “with great determination and enthusiasm and without wavering in success or failure.”Taught in this way, Arjuna continued to fight the Mahabharata War, on can say, as an internal renouncee. Gandhi, perhaps, was such an internal renouncee in the recent times. He was deeply engaged in worldly action, but at the same time, firmly anchored in his inner self. He lived a simple life of a renouncee without adopting any external symbols like the orange cloth. Great teachers like Kabir and Ramakrishna Paramhansa similarly renounced internally while marrying and discharging their worldly duties as householders. However, such internal renouncement is possible for only great persons like Arjuna, Kabir, Ramakrishna and Gandhi. Most of us develop attachment in the process of action. A person would spontaneously develop attachment to the plant that he or she has planted in the garden. A warrior would spontaneously want to see the arrow made by him reach its destination.

So, what is the way for people who do not have the capacity like these great persons? This difficulty was sought to be reduced by establishing the four ashrama system-the student, householder, ascetic and external renouncee. Idea was that a person would have fulfilled his desires in the stages of student and householder. A child develops detachment to the ball or the doll after playing with it for a time. Thereafter, seeing a ball or a doll in the showcase of a shop does not create any agitation in his or her mind. Similarly, a person would be helped to develop detachment with power, money and family in the stages of student and householder. Then he or she could gradually move towards deeper detachment in the stages of an ascetic and a renouncee. The adoption of the life of an ascetic or a renouncee is itself a proof that the person is not able to give up the fruits of action and engage in worldly actions “with great determination and enthusiasm”like Arjuna. The fact that a person had to renounce, therefore, indicates that attachment remains. Renunciation of the world implies a disdain for the world and is a form of negative attachment.

The goal was to engage in worldly actions while giving up the fruits of the actions. It is best to reach that goal directly as was done by Arjuna. He renounced the attachment & engaged in the war directly without going through the stages of the ascetic and renounce. An easier way of reaching that same stage was to take a step-by- step approach of the ashrama system, including external renouncement as a renouncee in the fourth stage.


A shortcut in this step-by-step approach was to skip the stages of householder and ascetic and jump directly from student to renouncee. Thus, we see many young persons renouncing the material world. Such renouncees, by definition, have attachment to the fruits of actions and have not made internal renouncement, otherwise there was no need for them to undertake external renouncement. If he had already made internal renouncement like Arjuna and Gandhi, then there was no need for him to make external renouncement.

It is possible, though, that a person may evolve after making external renouncement and attain a stage where he may be able to make internal renouncement. A young renouncee could become like Arjuna and Gandhi. But, we do not know what the internal state of an external renouncee. They may be internally attached or detached-we do not know. We have to examine the impact of renouncees getting into politics in this situation of uncertainty.

If a renouncee is internally detached then it is not only appropriate but his solemn duty to engage in the world like Arjuna, that is, to take up the challenge of the Chief Minister. However, his continued following of the external symbols of renouncement like wearing orange cloth could send a wrong message to the thousands of other renouncees who are moving slowly step-by- step in the four ashrama system. They already have left over attachments. These attachments would propel them to engage in more worldly activities and distract from their step-by- step evolution which, at their stage, requires deep external renunciation.

One way out of the dilemma would be for such a renouncee to renounce sannayasa and re-enter the world. In such a case, there would be no negative impact on the renouncees following the step-by-step approach. They may think such a person as a renegade for having renounced the renunciation, but they will get the correct message-do not ride on two boats.

The second possibility is that a renouncee is internally attached and still becomes a Chief Minister. I think such a situation would be doubly harmful. At a personal level he would be using his orange robe as a tool to amass more power rather than to renounce the same and, in the process, fall into a deeper pit. Externally, his continued following of the external symbols of renouncement like wearing orange cloth could send a wrong message to the thousands of other renouncees who are moving slowly step-by- step in the four ashrama system.

In conclusion, the objective is to move towards internal detachment and external works as embodied in the life of Arjuna. Those who are not able to reach this stage directly take the step-by-step approach of external renouncement as embodied in the four stages of life system. Such external renouncees have the solemn responsibility to re-enter the stage of worldly action. However, it is best they give up external sannayasa so that wrong message is not sent to the others treading slowly on the way. Those external renouncees, who have not developed detachment, should not enter politics because it is harmful for them as well as for the others.

Bharat Jhunjhunwala is a former professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru.