Value in Focus: Vairāgyam | Dispassion

I wrote this for a monthly Vedanta newsletter. Reproducing the same article here.

There are two main reasons why we need to understand and practice Vairāgyam. First,vairāgyam is one of the six great virtues used to define bhagaḥ, found in equal, absolute and limitless measures only in Bhagavān. They are viz. aiśvaryam – overlordship, vīryam – the capacity to create, sustain and resolve, yaśas – absolute fame, śrīḥ – all wealth and resources, jñānam – all knowledge and vairāgyam – total dispassion. This makes it one of the most important virtues that need to be understood and assimilated by anyone who aspires to understand Bhagavān. And second, vairāgyam is one of the sādhana-catuṣṭayam, the group of four qualifications needed for ātmajñānam or mokṣaḥ.

Vairāgyam is defined as a state of dispassion, detachment, and objectivity. The word Vairāgyam has its root in the word virāgaḥ which translates to ‘free from rāgaḥ’. Let us understand what is Rāgaḥ first. Rāgaḥ means passion or attachment; likes and dislikes. It is founded on the premise that we are all by nature born as wanting, incomplete, lacking, inadequate and insecure people and that we need to ‘do’ things and ‘own’ things to overcome this; that we need to take to the pursuit of pleasure and possession of things and people to become complete again.But does our need to cultivate the virtue of vairāgyam means that we do not enjoy life’s gifts? Does dispassion mean suppression of desire? Not at all. It only means that we enjoy without becoming overly dependent on the source, we do not become addicted to enjoyment.

To become free of Rāgaḥ is to develop a state of mind which is calm, composed, serene and clear. Is this really possible? Yes, it is although it is not easy. It can be achieved by practising and developing three steps: self-awareness, inquiry and analysis.

It comes by clearly seeing things as they are rather than as you like or dislike them to be. It comes by practising objectivity and the first step towards that is to be able to take a step back and observe yourself & your environment objectively; by being self-aware. Self-awareness is our ability to recognize and understand our own emotions as well as being aware of the effect of our actions, moods, and emotions on other people. When one is under the sway of a strong emotion like desire or anger, it is important that before we get swept away by them and ‘lose’ our mind, we pause and recognize and acknowledge that emotion. We should be able to ‘see’ the emotion clearly – in us and how it reflects in others around us. In 3.36 of Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krsna, ‘Impelled by what does a person commit sin, as though pushed by some force even though not desiring to?’. To this Krsna clearly points out desire and the anger born out of it as the cause. Like Krsna did with Arjuna in BG 3.37, it is important to first recognise desire and anger while it is active and see it as what it is.

Then comes the second step: inquiry; asking yourself the right questions in that context. A simple example would be when one is tempted to make a big purchase, let us say, a new car. Assuming you are a middle-class salaried person, you are tempted to buy a newly launched car by taking a long term loan. The wise course of action would be to first ask yourself, ‘Why do I want to buy it?’, ‘Do I really need it?’, ‘How much will I have to work to earn this?’, ‘Can I afford to buy it without compromising on other expenses which are more important to me & my family?’, ‘Can using an Uber service not be easier on meeting my needs as well as my pockets?’, ‘Can I borrow/rent it when I need it?’, ‘Can I get by without it?’, ‘Would I rather put the money elsewhere?’. These questions help us take the sting out of desire. This applies to all compelling and binding desires and cravings which force us to act against our best interest. When we have asked the right questions and have some basic answers, we are ready to take step three, analysis.

Analysis means seeing, again and again, the limitations of desire-aversion,possession-loss in making us a complete person. It is to practice seeing that everything that controls us, is subject to time and so cannot give permanent happiness. The timeless reality of our Self, its knowledge alone gives timeless happiness. By analysis we understand that that all action is inherently flawed because all achievements involve some degree of suffering. All pleasure, for instance, involves pain in its attainment, pain in its loss and even some pain in its enjoyment. Being limited, an action’s result can never give limitless satisfaction, and that action binds as it produces a result that has to be met sometime, somewhere. As it is not possible to live without performing actions, the wise thing to do is to align actions with Dharma.

Dispassion is a necessary skill for a student of Vedanta. Only someone of dispassion is capable of the focused attention needed to hear the teaching clearly and undistractedly and of having the subtlety of mind required to understand it. Such hearing alone liberates. This is why Vairāgyam is one of the sādhana-catuṣṭayam, the group of four qualifications needed for ātmajñānam or mokṣaḥ. The four qualifications are: vivekaḥ, vairāgyam, ṣaṭka-sampattiḥ, mumukṣutvam. Vedāntaḥ is a pramāṇam for self-knowledge only when the student is sufficiently qualified. Sufficient qualification is a mind that is clear enough to hear the teaching fully, without distortion or addition. The distortions and additions take the form of mental pollutants such as agitation, arrogance, complacency, attachments, aversions, dullness – and lack of objectivity towards one’s mind. One can achieve this state of mind only with the deliberate practice of vairāgyam.

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