Why Material Things Are Shunned by Spiritual People?


by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay explains why material things are shunned or renounced by spiritual people who seek liberation or moksha.

Hinduism (so also Buddhism and Jainism) offers you an important perspective about the world and your relationship with it, how far you can become involved with it and why you must tread carefully while dealing with material things. In renunciant traditions, yoga and tantra, the practice is even more pronounced. The basic premise is that if you do not shun material objects and overcome your desire and attachment for them, you will not be free from the cycle of births and deaths.

In other words, you cannot be free from Death unless you free yourself from the material things or sense objects. Material things are known as vishaya. The word refers to all forms of matter and energy, and all the gross and subtle things that are made up of them. All the material objects, sense-objects, the food you eat, the pleasures, feelings and sensations you enjoy, and whatever you can perceive with your mind and senses fall under the category. The mind and body and all the tattvas in them also qualify as material objects only.

The Bhagavadgita clearly states that repeated interaction with sense objects lead to attachment and from attachment arise anger and delusion, whereby one perishes. Therefore, one should restrain the mind and senses and engage in nishkama karma (actions without desires) or karma-sannyasa yoga (the yoga of renouncing desire-ridden actions). Material things may give you temporary pleasure or fill you with pride and conceit, but in the long run they harm your chances of achieving liberation. This is the take away from Samkhya, Yoga and all other schools of Hinduism.

Although, Hinduism is lenient towards householders and considers wealth and pleasure (artha, kama) as two of the four chief aims of human life, the scriptues make it clear that they should not be considered an end in themselves. They are meant for householders to practice Dharma or one’s obligatory duties with Dharma as the foundation of their lives and Moksha as their ultimate goal. Therefore, seeking worldly things or sensual pleasures is not encouraged, and where they cannot be avoided one should practice self-restraint (atma-samyama).

Very early in its development, the Vedic tradition which forms the core of Hinduism, understood the harmful nature of material things. Vedic people considered them poisonous since according to the Vedas they were filled with poison, which lead to death and one’s own destruction, just as the poison from a snakebite.

Symbolically, they reflected their fear of snakes by equating snakebites with Death, and looked upon Rudra as the healer who took out the poison they caused with his mystic potions. The belief that material things are poisonous is well reflected in the Sanskrit language itself. In Sanskrit all material objects and sense objects which are made up of matter and energy are known as vishaya. They are so called because they contain visham (poison) and sting people to Death when they enjoy them, consume them or desire them.

Knowing their poisonous and destructive nature and the suffering and death they cause, spiritual traditions such as Yoga and Tantra advise people to practice detachment and renunciation and cultivate discernment (buddhi). For the beings, mortality is inevitable as long as they consume or enjoy material things such as sense objects, material comforts, food, water, air, etc.

The story of the churning of the oceans (sagaramanthan) from the Puranas illustrate this fact. It suggests how the jivas should deal with the poison of material things which arises when they churn the ocean of life (samsara) in which they are caught and seek a safe passage through liberation. According to the legend, when gods and demons were churning the ocean for the immortal nectar (amrit), their intense churning produced a dangerous poison known as halahal, which was about to engulf all the worlds and destroy them. Then, Shiva appeared as gods and demons prayed to him for help. He gathered all the poison in a cup and drank it in such a way that it remained suspended in his throat, without going into his head or heart or stomach where it might have caused a lot of damage.

The moral is that one should accept material things (the poison of life) and consume them just as Shiva did since one cannot shun all material things which include food, water, air, fire, light, etc. However, while doing so one must practice detachment renouncing desires and expectations, so that the poison in them will not enter the mind and body and lead to death and rebirth.

Thus, things through detachment and renunciation, holding their suffering in check without letting it destroy their peace and happiness and protecting themselves from the poison of materiality, human beings must churn the ocean of life and consciousness and realize their true nature as the eternal, indestructible supreme Self.

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