Monday Morning Greetings 2021 #49 – An Intriguing Question

December 6th, 2021

Last week I received a very interesting inquiry from Satyaraja dasa concerning my post “Are the Gopīs the Greatest Renunciates?” Below is his inquiry and my attempt to answer it:


“One question in regard to your latest essay. Might it not be dangerous to cite the example of the gopīs as the “exemplars of renunciation”? I mean, should one just leave everything to go be with Krishna? What about dharma? Might this not send the wrong message? For example, might not a simple married person, with children, read this and then enthusiastically join ISKCON, giving up his responsibilities in the material world? Is that what we want? Shouldn’t we in fact NOT follow the gopīs’ example if we have prior commitments in the material world, and instead engage in bhakti while honoring our prior commitments? Otherwise, society falls into chaos.”


For the sake of focusing the discussion, I will paraphrase his inquiry: What exactly is the gopīs’ example of renunciation, and can it be dangerous to cite them as an example?


First, it’s important to point out something about comparisons: “One should not disregard a comparison simply because it is partially applicable.” (Bhagavat-sandarbha, Anuccheda 40) In other words, when we use a comparison, it is usually meant to compare only particular aspects of two things, not everything. For example, if one compares another person’s face to the moon, it may just be referring to the brightness of their face, not its shape, depending on the context in which it is used.


In terms of the comparison between the renunciation of the gopīs and the ideal for sannyāsa, the example of the gopīs highlighted complete disinterest in the object of the senses or any internal attachment, like respect and honor, to the extent of being prepared to make any sacrifice for the service of Krishna, including renouncing all attachments in this world. It seems to be a perfect example for the renounced order of life and for the aspects of the comparison I was trying to highlight, which is why in the beginning of my post I wrote:


“Why do the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava ācāryas connect gopī-bhāva, meditating on the gopīs, to the inspiration for renunciation when a member of their sect takes the varṇāśrama social position of sannyāsa?”


The difficulty that Satyaraja observes is that the gopīs are householders, and as I cite them as the ideal example of renunciation, people can easily misunderstand my comparison as being completely applicable, and therefore make bad decisions such as the ones Satyaraja pointed out where people not only renounce things that are required for their spiritual life, but also cause a social disturbance in doing so. I trust that his concern is at least partially based on the history of ISKCON in its early development where an immature understanding of renunciation too often led to demeaning household life and women.


In further defense of Satyaraja’s concern, it is of note that one of the main themes of the Bhagavad-gītā is that spiritual life is dedication or devotion and not external renunciation, and thus Arjuna could be on highest platform of spiritual life even as a warrior in battle. In other words, Satyaraja’s concern is an existential and historical concern—that people suffering in this world tend to misunderstand spiritual life only as leaving what they are doing rather than changing how they are thinking and feeling, even on the path of devotion.


I should note that doesn’t dismiss that within the path of bhakti, as one advances in devotion, one should increasingly become detached from material life and also gradually become even more externally renounced. [1] Only in that sense the gopīs’ renunciation may serve as an inspiration for all, although Śrīla Prabhupāda makes it very clear in his description of the rasa dance that the gopīs’ abject renunciation of the world for the sake of Krishna, to the extent of surpassing and transcending all Vedic injunctions “was possible for the gopīs because they saw Krishna face to face,” and “not possible for any women in the conditioned state.” [2]


I hope it is clear now what my comparison between the gopīs and sannyāsa was meant to highlight and that Satyaraja’s input and my clarification helps to inoculate my presentation from the type of misunderstanding that historically has caused too much confusion and harm.



[1] Śrīla Prabhupāda comments on the gopīs’ renunciation: “This is the test of advancement in Krishna consciousness: a person advancing in Krishna-consciousness must lose interest in material activities and personal sense gratification.” (Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Ch. 29)

[2] Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Ch. 29

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