Viveka and Vairagya

From the teachings of Swami Sivananda Saraswati

What is viveka?

Once you are fully aware of the magnitude of human suffering in this relative world, you will naturally begin to discriminate between what is real and what is unreal. Brahman, the Absolute, is real and jagat, the world, is unreal. This is viveka, right understanding or discrimination. Sincerity and faith will develop, aspiration or keen longing to realize God will be felt and you will remember the truth constantly. You will have to assert constantly, ‘Aham Brahmasmi, I am Brahman.’ By incessant practice, name, form and desire will vanish and you will realize Brahman.

It is the vedantic sadhana or spiritual practice. Discrimination, aspiration, always remembering the truth, assertion and finally realization are the various stages or means for realization of Brahman.

Benefits of viveka

The mind wants repetition of a pleasure once enjoyed. Memory of pleasure arises in the mind and induces imagination and thinking. In this way, attachment arises. Through repetition, a habit is formed. Habit causes strong trishna, deep desire, and then the mind exercises its rule over weak-willed people. As soon as discrimination arises, the power of the mind becomes weakened and the mind tries to recede and retrace its steps to its original home, the heart. The mind cannot do anything improper in the presence of discrimination. It will be dethroned because the will becomes stronger and stronger when discrimination is awakened. Thanks to viveka one can leave this miserable samsara, cycle of birth and death.

What is vairagya?

If the mind is constantly thinking of tea and if there is pain when you do not obtain it, you have asakti, attachment, for tea. This asakti leads to bondage. The practice of vairagya demands that you renounce the asakti for tea. Merely giving up tea does not constitute the essence of vairagya.

Study the chapter ‘Vairagya Prakarana’ in Yoga Vasishtha and 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. Palatable dishes, refreshing beverages, affectionate father and mother, brother, dear friends, diamonds, pearls, flowers, ornaments, soft beds and gardens had no attraction for him. On the contrary, their very sight gave him intense pain.

Two kinds of vairagya

Vairagya is of two kinds, firstly karana vairagya, renunciation on account of some miseries in life, and secondly viveka-poorvaka vairagya, dispassion on account of discrimination between the real and unreal. The mind of a person who has karana vairagya is simply waiting for a chance to have again what had been given up. As soon as the first opportunity offers itself, the person falls to temptation and goes back to the former state and habit. Vishaya, the senses, play havoc with a vengeance and with a redoubled force of reaction. However, the other person who has given up the objects on account of viveka and on account of the illusory nature of objects will have spiritual advancement and will not have a downfall.

How vairagya dawns

Vairagya can arise spontaneously in the mind. The transitory and perishable nature of all things creates a sort of antipathy in the mind. In proportion to the depth and subtlety of one’s nature, the reaction to the world works, more or less powerfully, in the mind of every individual. An irresistible feeling arises in the mind that the finite can never satisfy the infinite within, that the changing and perishable cannot satisfy one’s changeless and deathless nature.

When you are not impressed with the idea of rich living, a 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, the mind will not be agonized at all. You are 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 tell you at once that you will suffer immense pain through her. And then the mind will recede or withdraw from the beautiful woman as an object.


When vairagya appears in the mind, it opens the gate to divine wisdom. From dissatisfaction with sense objects and 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 and vairagya, nothing is possible. Cultivation in a stony land or salty earth becomes absolutely fruitless, and in the same way yogic practices and atma vichara, enquiry into the soul, done without vairagya become fruitless. Just as water, when it leaks into rat holes in an agricultural field instead of running into the proper channels, becomes wasted and does not help the growth of the plants, so also the efforts of aspirants become wasted. If they have not the virtue of vairagya, there will be no spiritual advancement.

There must be intense vairagya in the minds of aspirants throughout the period of sadhana. Mere mental adhesion is not enough for success in yoga. There must be intense longing for liberation, a high degree of vairagya plus the capacity for sadhana. Only then will aspirants experience samadhi and moksha, liberation. King Janaka and Prahlada had intense vairagya which is necessary for quick realization. It is very difficult to cross the ocean of samsara with a dull type of vairagya.


It is a common observation that a person is distressed if a cat eats his domestic fowl. However, when the affections are not touched, if, for instance, the cat eats a sparrow or mouse, the person expresses no sorrow. Therefore, it can be said that delusion proceeds from affection.

One must root out affection, which is only the cause of vain attachment. Even attachment to one’s children must be rooted out. 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 and affection with sorrow. The seed of sorrow is sown under the name of love, from which quickly spring up shoots of affection which contain a dangerous fire; and from these shoots grow trees of attachment with innumerable branches, which slowly burn and consume the body. The knot of affection is strengthened by long indulgence as it entwines its threads around the hearts of all people. Such is the delusion of the world.

The principal means to free oneself of affection is to consider this existence to be fleeting. In this wide world, how many millions of parents, wives, children, uncles and grandfathers have passed away! One should consider the society of friends as a momentary flash of lightning and, keeping this often in mind, one will enjoy felicity.

Hope and anticipation are the opposite of vairagya. They fatten the mind. To be perfectly hopeless is a very high state for a philosopher. It is a very bad state for people who say with contempt, “He is a hopeless man.” Worldly people and philosophers move towards diametrically opposite poles.

A world of pain

Those who do not develop the painless vairagya inherent in themselves are living only by animal instincts. 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. The mind, through raga, attraction, and moha, attachment, is sticking and clinging to this body. However, through vairagya and meditation one can free oneself and fly away to the source of Brahman.

One will have to wean the mind away from sensual objects, sit alone for some time and think of the miseries of this life – its cares and temptations, vanities and disappointments, disease, old age and death. This will be sufficient to wean the mind away from samsara.

Aspirants should reflect often on the instability of the world. This is their first sadhana in order to develop vairagya. The mind will be weaned away from objects, and attraction for sense objects will gradually vanish.

Renunciation of desires brings about annihilation of the mind, and this in turn brings on the destruction of maya, because the mind is maya. Mastery of the mind leads to true renunciation which lies in the negation of the mind. It consists in renouncing desires and egoism and not the existence in the world. Through mental negation one will be able to free oneself from all pain.


Sannyasa is a mental state. It is the geru colouring of the heart and not of cloth alone. A real sannyasin is free from passions and egoism and possesses sattwic qualities, even though he lives with the family in the world. Chudala was a queen, yogini and sannyasini, though she was ruling a kingdom. The sannyasin who lives in the forest, but who is full of passions is worse than a householder.

True renunciation is the renunciation of all passions, desires and egoism. If one has a stainless mind, one is a sannyasin no matter whether one lives in a forest or in the bustle of a city, whether one wears white cloth or an orange-coloured robe, whether one shaves the head or keeps a long tuft of hair. It is important to shave the mind. Someone once asked Guru Nanak, “O saint, you are a sannyasin, why have you not shaved your head?” Guru Nanak replied, “My dear friend, I have shaved my mind.” In fact, shaving the mind consists of getting rid of all sorts of attachments, greed, anger and so on. This is the real shaving. External shaving of the head has no meaning as long as there is internal craving, or trishna.


Renunciation or tyaga of physical objects is no renunciation at all. Real tyaga consists of the renunciation of ahamkara, egoism. If one can renounce this ahamkara, one has renounced everything else in the world. If the subtle ahamkara is given up, dehadhyasa, identification with the body, automatically goes away. Vedanta does not want anyone to renounce the world. It wants one to change one’s mental attitude and give up the false, illusory ‘I’-ness, ahamta, and mineness, mamata.

The snake charmer removes only the two poisonous fangs of the cobra. The snake remains the same – it hisses, raises its hood and shows its teeth. It does everything as before. However, the snake charmer has changed his mental attitude towards the snake. He has feeling for the snake, because it has no poisonous fangs. In the same way, one must remove the two poisonous fangs of the mind: ahamta and mamata. Then one can allow the mind to go wherever it likes.