Vairagya is dispassion, desirelessness or non-attachment. It is indifference to sensual objects herein and hereafter. It is born of and sustained by right discrimination or sad-viveka. Vairagya is the opposite of raga or attachment. Raga binds one to samsara; vairagya liberates from bondage. Vairagya thins out the fatty sensual mind. It turns the mind inward. Vairagya is the most important qualification for a spiritual aspirant. Without it, no spiritual life is possible.

Vairagya does not mean abandoning social duties and the responsibilities of life. It does not mean detachment from the world. It does not mean a life in the solitary caves of the Himalayas or in the crematorium. It does not mean living on neem-leaves, cow’s urine and dung. It does not mean wearing matted hair and a kamandalu made of gourd or coconut-shell in the hand. It does not mean shaving of head and throwing off clothes. Vairagya is mental detachment from all connections of the world.

A man may remain in the world, and discharge all the duties of his order and stage of life with detachment. He may be a householder. He may live with family and children. But at the same time, he may have perfect mental detachment from everything. He can do his spiritual sadhana. One who has perfect mental detachment while remaining in the world is indeed a hero. He is much better than the sadhu living in the cave of the Himalayas, because the former has to face innumerable temptations at every moment of his life.

Study ‘Vairagya-Prakarana’ in the Yoga Vasishtha. You will have a comprehensive understanding of the real essence of vairagya. A clear description of the actual dispassionate mental state of Sri Rama is given there. Palatable dishes, refreshing beverages, an affectionate father and mother, brothers, dear friends, diamonds, pearls, flowers, sandal, ornaments, soft beds or gardens had no attraction for him. On the contrary, their very sight gave him intense pain. In vairagya, brahmacharya is antargata, hidden. Vairagya includes celibacy in thought, word and deed. Vairagya is purely a mental state.

Two kinds of vairagya

Vairagya is of two kinds: (i) karana vairagya or vairagya on account of some miseries, and (ii) viveka purvaka vairagya or vairagya on account of discrimination between the real and unreal. The mind of one who has the former type of vairagya is simply waiting for a chance to get back the things that were given up. As soon as the first opportunity offers itself, he gets a downfall and goes back to his former state. Objects play havoc in him with a vengeance and redoubled force from reaction. But the other person who has given up the objects on account of viveka, on account of the illusory nature of objects, will have spiritual advancement. He will not have a downfall.

Supreme dispassion or para vairagya comes after one attains self-realization. The whole world then looks like a straw and vairagya becomes perfectly habitual. That is intense spiritual strength. That is para vairagya.

Temporary, fleeting dispassion is not vairagya. It will not help the aspirant in the attainment of self-realization. It is common to have dispassion for some particular objects, by some cause or the other. But the vairagya that is born of viveka is enduring and everlasting. It will not fail the aspirant at any time like the vairagya that comes temporarily when a lady gives birth to a child or when a man attends a funeral.

Real vairagya should come from enquiry, vichara: ‘All these objects do not give us lasting happiness. They lead us into pain and sorrow.’ Such deep enquiry, again and again persisted in for a very long time, produces lasting vairagya. It is the real wealth for an aspirant. It helps him to do real sadhana. It makes the mind introverted. This vairagya puts a break to the extroverted tendency of the mind. Even if the mind runs towards objects, at once it will point out that there is pain there, that sensual enjoyment is the cause for rebirth and intense suffering. So the mind is terribly afraid, and gradually, through intense practice, it is established in real, lasting, sustained, intense vairagya.

The mind should gradually be weaned off its old habits and cravings. If you cut off its pleasure centres all at once, it will get puzzled. You should slowly train the mind in meditation and make it taste the inner bliss. Gradually, it will leave its old habits and cravings, and you will get established in true vairagya.

Vairagya and sadhana

When vairagya appears in the mind, it opens the gate to divine wisdom. From dissatisfaction with the sense objects and worldly sense enjoyments comes aspiration. From aspiration comes abstraction. From abstraction comes concentration of the mind. From concentration of the mind comes meditation or contemplation. From contemplation comes samadhi or self-realization. Without dissatisfaction or vairagya, nothing is possible.

Just as cultivation in a stony or arid land becomes absolutely fruitless, so also yogic practices and atma-vichara, enquiry of the soul, done without vairagya becomes fruitless. Just as water, when it leaks into the rat-holes instead of running into the proper channels in agricultural fields, becomes wasted and does not help the growth of plants, so also the efforts of an aspirant go to waste if he does not possess the virtue of vairagya. He gets no spiritual advancement.

There must be intense vairagya in the minds of aspirants throughout the period of their sadhana. Mere mental adhesion will not do for success in yoga. There must be intense longing for liberation, a high degree of vairagya as well as the capacity for sadhana, spiritual practice. Then only they will get nirvikalpa samadhi and moksha. Raja Janaka and Prahlada had tivra vairagya, intense dispassion. This kind of vairagya is necessary for quick realization. It is very difficult to cross the ocean of samsara with a dull type of vairagya. The crocodile of trishna, hankering for sense-enjoyments and sense-objects, will catch the aspirants by the throat and violently drown them half-way.

Enemies of vairagya

Affection: Delusion proceeds from affection. It is a common observation that a person is distressed if the cat eats his domestic fowl, but if the cat eats a sparrow or mouse he expresses no sorrow. You must, therefore, root out affection, which is the cause of vain attachment. At the back of affection and love, there is grief and sorrow. At the back of pleasure, there is pain. Pain is mixed with pleasure. Man sows the poisonous seed of sorrow under the name of love, from which quickly spring up shoots of affection which contain a fire dangerous as lightning, and from these shoots grow trees of sorrow with innumerable branches which, burning like a heap of covered straw, slowly consume the body.

The knot of affection is strengthened by long indulgence. The principal means to get rid of affection is to consider that this is a fleeting existence. In this wide world, how many millions of parents, wives, children, uncles and grandfathers have passed away. You should consider the society of friends as a momentary flash of lightning and, revolving this often in your mind, enjoy felicity.

Hope and anticipation: Hope and anticipation are the opposite of vairagya and tyaga. They fatten the mind. To be perfectly hopeless is a very high state for a philosopher though it is a very bad state for worldlings. They always say with contempt, “He is a hopeless man.” Worldlings and philosophers move towards diametrically opposite poles.

The dawn of vairagya

Note how vairagya arises in the mind. The transitory and perishable nature of all things creates a sort of disgust in all minds and, in proportion to the depth and subtlety of the person, this reaction from the world works in the mind of every individual. An irresistible feeling arises in the mind, that the finite can never satisfy the Infinite within us, that the changing and perishable cannot satisfy the changeless and deathless nature of ours.

When you are not impressed with the idea of rich living, rich style of living cannot attract you. When you are impressed with the idea that meat and wine are not at all pleasurable, they cannot tempt you. In that case, if you do not get meat and wine or rich living, you will not be agonized at all in your mind. Why are you attracted towards a young, beautiful lady? Because, owing to your ignorance, you vainly think you will get pleasure through her. If you have viveka, it will at once tell you that you will get immense pain through her. Then the mind will recede or withdraw from her.

Vairagya comes through looking into the defects of sensual life. When a bee finds that its feet are stuck in the honey, it slowly licks its feet several times and then flies away with joy. Even so, extricate yourself from the mind’s sticking and clinging to this body and fly away from this cage of flesh and bone to the Source, Brahman or Absolute.

Sit in a solitary room. Think of the miseries of this earthly life, its cares, worries, anxieties, hunger, thirst, sins, temptations, passion, fighting, fears, vanity, disease, death, old age, sorrow, grief, tribulation, loss, failures, disappointments, hostility, scorpion stings and mosquito bites. This will serve as an efficient method to wean the mind from samsara. You must think in the above-manner daily. Remember constantly the pains of various kinds pertaining to this mundane existence. Moha will vanish if you repeat the following line of Bhagavad Gita (13:9) several times daily:

Indriyaartheshu vairaagyamanahankaara eva cha;
Janmamrityujaraavyaadhi duhkhadoshaanu darshanam.

Indifference to the objects of the senses, also absence of egoism, reflection on the evil in birth, death, old age, sickness and pain (this is declared to be knowledge).

Always make the mind understand clearly that there is only pain in this world. Reflect often on the instability of this world. This is the first sadhana for aspirants. They can thus develop vairagya.