A man displays a new 2000 Indian rupee banknote after withdrawing from a bank in Jammu. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta
A man displays a new 2000 Indian rupee banknote after withdrawing from a bank in Jammu. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

Two recent headlines caught my attention: the International Monetary Fund declaring India having a US$2.6 trillion gross domestic product – the world’s sixth-largest economy – and in Mumbai, a chartered accountant, Mokshesh Sheth, deciding to renounce a fortune of 1 billion rupees (about $14.8 million), walk away from a life of luxury and become a monk at age 24.

Both news items are variations of human destiny: of seeking wealth, and seeking even greater supra-mundane “wealth,” beyond the world of our daily routine.

Cultural differences cloud understanding of benefits beyond the world of matter and the physical body. And so interesting too were comments below the news articles of young Mokshesh Sheth renouncing his material riches to become a monk. Indian or Asian readers offered their respects and good wishes, while comments under Western names called him an idiot.

Cultures strongly hinged around material wealth make for difficulty in understanding why young Mokshesh could not at least use his millions for social welfare – like providing drinking water in remote villages or donate for lifesaving medical costs.

It’s a question of misconceptions and misunderstandings, one that plagues those stepping back from the world to serve the world: serve to solve perpetual problems of the world, or serve in a more beneficial way, to a greater happiness and freedom beyond?

Be a bird in a gilded cage, or fly out of comfort zones to seek and share a happy freedom no money can buy?

If needs of the body and pleasures of the senses were all we had to worry about, great emperors and kings would never have renounced their thrones as so many have in history; the crown prince Siddhartha Gautama could have inherited his father’s kingdom in what is now Nepal, and served his people as a most benevolent ruler.

And about five centuries later, the carpenter’s son born in Bethlehem could have continued his father’s good work and maybe opened a chain of furniture shops, instead of showing the world the way to live a wholesome life and getting crucified for his troubles.

A marine scientist in the Antarctic or astronauts living outside Earth in the International Space Station do not face accusations of “running away” from the world. Yet those renouncing the world of the mundane, or seeking the solitude of the Himalayas to work with subtler realities of mind and matter, to purify the mind and share the merits thereby gained with all beings, sometimes have to face sneers of being escapist.

No escapism in doing one’s duty beyond mundane duties. No running away from the world. In fact, the beneficial renunciation brings the monk or ascetic closer to the world. The true ascetic works hard to eradicate impurities in the mind, and the false ego that creates barriers between people.

Those truly renouncing everything that is “I,” “mine,” break this ego barrier separating them from fellow beings. It’s not physical proximity or distance that divides or brings closer people, but the positive or negative thoughts arising in the mind.

What is impermanent cannot be a source of enduring happiness; and everything in the mundane world is impermanent, changing, has an end sooner or later. Whatever we hold dear, to which we are attached, has an end. This is no empty philosophy, but a practical reality.

These painful realities have to be faced with objectivity. How to end this endless cycle of the arising and passing away? How to go beyond mere painkillers, get to the root cause of all pain, and eradicate that root cause of suffering? How to break free, and serve others on the path of freedom?

With the reawakening of an ancient civilization come the answers, the reawakening of great wisdom and strengths that are shared with the world. And India to me is undergoing a process of reawakening through the timeless practice of Vipassana. I can experience an undercurrent of change – deep, powerful and silent as the currents of ocean depths.

Correct practice of Vipassana opens the faculty of insight to see the inner reality. We gain the practical wisdom to go beyond apparent realities of the impermanent, continuously changing world of the mundane, and experience actual reality. Experiencing these subtler truths shows the way to more enduring, real happiness.

These subtler realities become more evident with the wiser among the wealthy, those realizing money cannot buy everything. Mumbai, the financial capital of India and one of the world’s wealthiest cities, has the highest number of Vipassana practitioners in the world.

Young Mokshesh Sheth symbolizes the spirit of Mumbai – of both chasing wealth and going beyond it – and he reflects humanity’s timeless tradition of renunciation: of giving up the mundane to gain limitless benefits of a life in the supra mundane.

This choice of renunciation – when the time gradually comes for it – comes as actually no choice: It’s like choosing between the prison of suffering, and freedom of real happiness. And life is about making the right choices.

Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.