THE STORY is about someone who ventures to the high Himalayas to visit a bearded holy man in a cave. The man asks, "How can I become a millionaire?" The sage replies, "If I knew the answer to that, you think I'd be living here?"
This parable's ostensible message is that renouncers are all misfits and ne'r-do-wells. They inhabit remote retreats because they can't make it in the 'real world'.
In short, they're losers. And buried within is yet, another theme: holy people should not possess anything of this world. Their wisdom thrives on isolation. The stereotypical rishi or saint has to remain aloof, even geographically, from all things physical.
Renunciation is scary, but on the other hand, it's alluring to some, because they think it entitles them to give up everything, including responsibilities, duties and obligations. It holds out freedom from care. And a carefree life is always desirable.
I have seen men in expensive silk suits but with newly shaven heads, find their way to Tirupati's inner sanctum to pray fervently to Lord Venkateshwara for success in business.
Maybe they think a shaved head attracts God's attention. And I have seen poor people in orange riding in cars, using computers and cell phones advertising high-tech, spiritual museums in Delhi.
So how does the Gita define renunciation? The sixth chapter, first verse contains the word sanyasi, which usually translates as one 'in the renounced order.' The text says that one who is "unattached to the fruits of his work and who works as he is obligated, is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic, not he who lights no fire and performs no duty."
An even more famous verse (2.47) says that one has the right to perform duty, but not to enjoy the fruits of action. These two apparent opposites, duty and renunciation, action and inaction, meet in the Gita, telling us exactly what renunciation is. According to this book; even a character as un-yogic as Arjuna - householder prince, and warrior, - still becomes an ideal renunciant, through things as spiritually unlikely as friendship, royalty and warfare.
This is the deeper meaning of sanyasa. It's not the occupation, colour of cloth or the length of facial hair that determines who's a sadhu. Sanyasa is no more than that consciousness which divests itself of undue attachment. A person on this level of consciousness indeed walks on holy ground.
(The writer is emeritus member of the ISKCON Governing Body Commission)