Jai: Previously, you mentioned two paths. Which path is better for most people, Grandma, the path of spiritual knowledge or the path of selfless service?
Grandma: A person who has the true knowledge of God believes that all work is done by the energy of Mother Nature and he or she is not the real doer of an action. Such a person is called a Samnyasi or renunciant and has Self-knowledge.
A KarmaYogi works without a selfish motive for the fruits of work. KarmaYoga prepares one to receive Self-knowledge. (Gita 4.38, 5.06) Self-knowledge leads to renunciation. Thus selfless service or KarmaYoga forms the basis of renunciation (Samnyasa). Both paths finally lead to God. Lord Krishna considers KarmaYoga the better of the two paths because it is faster and easier for most people to follow. (Gita 5.02)
Jai: Doesn’t the word renunciation usually mean leaving worldly possessions and living in an Ashram (monastery) or in a lonely place?
Grandma: The word Samnyasa in the strict sense means renouncing (or giving up) all personal motives, worldly possessions and objects. But it also means living in society and serving society by doing one’s duty without any personal motive. Such a person is called Karma-Samnyasi.
Some spiritual leaders, such as Adi Sankaracharya, consider the path of renouncing all worldly possessions as the highest path and the goal of life. He himself became a Samnyasi when he was a young boy.
Lord Krishna says: “An enlightened person or a Samnyasi (or hermit, one who has given up all personal motive) sees the Lord in all. Such a person looks at a learned person, an illiterate person, the rich, the poor, an outcast, even a cow, an elephant, or a dog with an equal eye.” (Gita 5.18)
I am going to tell you the story of a great spiritual leader, hero, guru, Samnyasi and thinker. His name is Adi Sankaracharya. A student of the Gita owes him great respect and honor.
5. Adi Sankaracharya
Adi Sankaracharya (or Sankara) is the author and promoter of non-dualistic philosophy of Vedanta. It states that entire universe is nothing but God. He was born in the state of Kerala in the year 788 A.D. By the age of eight, he had learned all four Vedas, and by the age of twelve, was well versed in all Hindu scriptures. He is believed to be Lord Shiva in human form.
Sankara established four main monasteries in different corners of India: at Shringeri, Badrinath, Dvarka, and Puri. He stopped the spread of Buddhism over Hindu ideals, and restored Hinduism to its past glory. According to his non-dual philosophy, the individual soul (Jiva) is Brahma (God), and the world is the play of Maya, the illusory kinetic energy of Brahma.
He certainly was a Self-realized man. But at first, he had the feeling of duality, of high and low caste. His faith in the absolute God (Brahma) was not very firmly established in his heart.
One day, he was going to the Shiva temple in the holy city of Banaras after bathing in the holy Ganga river. He saw an untouchable, a butcher, carrying a load of meat. The butcher came on his way and tried to touch Sankara's feet in respect.
Sankara shouted angrily: “Get out of the way! How dare you touch me? Now I have to take a bath again.”
“Holy sir,” said the butcher, “I have not touched you, nor have you touched me. The pure Self cannot be the body or the five elements out of which the body is created.” (There are more details in Chapter 13.)
Then Sankara saw the vision of Lord Shiva in the butcher. Lord Shiva had Himself come to Sankara to firmly implant the non-dualistic philosophy in him. Sankara was a much better person from that day by the grace of Lord Shiva.
This story illustrates that equality with all beings is difficult to practice all the time. To have such a feeling is the mark of a truly God-realized person or a perfect Samnyasi.