Vairagya- the first step towards liberation

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Vairagya is inadequately translated as detachment. However it means freedom from want, desire and need and all its consequences such as consuming, competition and hoarding. Vairagya is the foundation of any moksha (liberation) practice in Indian traditions.

In western interpretations of Buddhist philosophy, vairagya is largely understood as detachment, a cold place of removed existence from the tumult of daily life. However the life of Buddha illustrates something else—he lived in the midst of ordinary everyday life, he engaged with rejection as well as validation and did not remove himself from the vicissitudes that were the consequences of his teachings. Vairagya is the practice of systematically dissociating oneself, physically and emotionally, from seeking satisfaction or fulfilment from our experiences in this maya reality. This means that concepts of purpose, meaning, comfort, validation, approval—all these have to be abandoned.

Vairagya is not attained, it is a practice. It is not that some life experiences will bring us automatically to this state. For example, usually when we are faced with death or similar endings, we may contemplate for some time on the transience of life and how futile it is to attach oneself to transient things and experiences to find fulfillment. But this soon passes. This is called smashaana-vairagya, a temporary vairagya, like that which we feel at a smashaan or the crematorium and likely to pass as soon as we exit the crematorium either literally or metaphorically.

The surrender of the need to use all things to add to the sense of self validation is at the heart of vairagya. This is eminently possible through all embodied Indian traditions that espouse the moksha pathway, provided they are taught with an experiential insight into these traditions. Indian dance theatre tradition is one of these practices. Dance asks for surrender to the form and the feeling spaces activated by the form. It asks that we surrender the drive for mastery and diminish into the practice. The practice is not about self expression or self validation but about letting go of the need for these and other ways in which our aham or selfhood seeks self aggrandisement.

Perhaps you can begin to see why vairagya is a hard sell in our times. In the marketplace of well-being, we want to feel the chosen person, the one who is privy to extraordinary experiences. We are convinced that it is more of us that will make us feel stronger and wiser and ‘fulfilled’. Vairagya suggests something else, and something that is counter-intuitive to the current of our times. That is why this has been interpreted in market friendly ways so far!

My invitation is this—do we have the courage to practice vairagya letting go of all our comfort seeking impulses, including the promise of anything? We have on offer the proposal that moksha or liberation is built on vairagya, but we have to let go of all our expectations, including what that liberation will look like, because these expectations are based on our current comfort-seeking attachments.

Padma Menon