Monday, 16 July, 2012

What is it about renunciation that I find so fascinating? It's possible of course that the current economic climate we're living in is contributing to gloomy thoughts. Certainly the desire to be free of ever-increasing material needs is fanned by the climate. What increasingly tickles me is the ambivalent feelings the notion of renunciation arouses: attractive and repellant in equal measure.

I cannot imagine giving up every single thing I own - as the artist Michael Landy did at the turn of the century in a C&A store in Oxford Street. Though he went further than just giving up, shredding every single thing he owned. I can only gawp, stupefied. The sheer scale of the act provokes me into thinking what ownership means. Is it necessary? Do I need all the things I have? Could I do without? Is life only things?

Indians down the centuries have perfected the idea of renunciation, to the point where it is an acceptable goal of life. For most of us it is probably no more than the equivalent of a Saga holiday - wander, with few possessions, in retirement. But for many of the wandering sadhus that remain such a feature of the Indian street scene, it's much more than that. Renunciation is total - no possessions, of course, but also no food unless offered, and no clothes. It's these 'naked sadhus' (or more accurately, "sanyasins"), of either sex, that for me epitomise the ambivalence inherent in the idea of renunciation: their sight is both a come-on and an affront. They are like the Occupy movement, though without the tents, sleeping bags and organic food. Or the Anarchists of 19th century Europe and Russia: dangerous provocateurs, reminding us always that 'there is another way'.

Is renunciation then simply an impulse to opt-out? Opt-out from the conventions that dictate so much of our lives?
No, I'm not thinking of giving up! Nor of retiring...

It seems to me renunciation is, paradoxically perhaps, a more active principle. Seeing a guy trashing his work is less powerful than to see him meticulously catalogue his every possession and then reduce it to particles. That is a seriously considered, purposeful act. Requiring a courage and a goal I have yet to find.

Harpagon in Moliere's The Miser is seeking renunciation from spending, though his goal is to hoard money. But in his single-minded pursuit of money for its own sake, he seems to me approaching the flip-side of renunciation: withdrawal from any morality. Perhaps it is this - the state of non-morality, a state where the word itself becomes meaningless - that is the nub of why the renouncing sadhu or artist is so provocative - dangerous - attractive...

Jatinder Verma

July 2012


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