He was rather fat and very pleased with himself. He had been to prison several times and had been beaten by the police. Now, he was a well-known politician on his way to becoming a minister. He was at several of the meetings, sitting unobtrusively, one among the many. When he spoke, he had an authoritative voice. He was a big politician, known and looked up to; but the regard only went to a certain point, and no further.
He had come with a friend, and the friend began to explain who he was: the number of times he had been to prison, the beatings he had had, and the immense sacrifices he had made for the cause of freedom of his country. He had been a wealthy man, thoroughly Europeanised, with a large house and gardens, several cars, and so on. As the friend was narrating the big man’s exploits, his voice became more and more admiring and respectful; but there was an undercurrent, a thought that seemed to say, ‘He may not be all that he should be, but after all, look at the sacrifices he has made, at least that is something.’ The big man himself talked of improvement, of hydro-electrical development, of bringing prosperity to the people, of the current threat of communism, of vast schemes and goals.
Renunciation to gain an end is barter; in it there is no giving up, but only exchange. Self-sacrifice is an extension of the self. The sacrifice of the self is a refinement of the self, and however subtle the self may make itself, it is still enclosed, petty, limited. Renunciation for a cause, however great, however extensive and significant, is substitution of the cause for the self; the cause or the idea becomes the self, the ‘me’ and the ‘mine’.
Conscious sacrifice is the expansion of the self, giving up in order to again; conscious sacrifice is negative assertion of the self. To give up is another form of acquisition. You renounce this in order to gain that. This is put at a lower level, that at a higher level; and to gain the higher, you ‘give up’ the lower. In this process, there is no giving up, but only a gaining of greater satisfaction; and the search for greater satisfaction has no element of sacrifice. Why use a righteous-sounding word for a gratifying activity in which all indulge? You ‘gave up’ your social position in order to gain a different kind of position, and presumably you have it now; so your sacrifice has brought you the desired reward. Some want their reward in heaven, others here and now.
‘This reward has come in the course of events, but consciously I never sought reward when I first joined the movement.’ The very joining of a popular or an unpopular movement is its own reward, is it not? One may not consciously join for a reward, but the inward promptings that compel one to join are complex, and without understanding them, one can hardly say that one has not sought reward. Surely, what is important is to understand this urge to renounce, to sacrifice, is it not? Why do we want to give up? To answer that, must we not first find out why we are attached? It is only when we are attached that we talk about detachment; there would be no struggle to be detached if there were no attachment. There would be no renunciation if there were no possession. We possess, and then renounce in order to possess something else. This progressive renunciation is looked upon as being noble and edifying.
So, renunciation, self-sacrifice, is not a gesture of greatness, to be praised and copied. We possess because without possession we are not. One who possesses no worldly things may be attached to knowledge, to ideas; another may be attached to virtue, another to experience, another to name and fame, and so on. The fear of uncertainty, of not being, makes for attachment, for possession. When the possession is unsatisfactory or painful, we renounce it for a more pleasurable attachment. The ultimate gratifying possession is the word God, or its substitute, the State. As long as you are attempting to become something, as long as you are possessed by something, there will inevitably be conflict, confusion and increasing misery. You may think that you yourself, in your achievement and success, will not be caught in this mounting disintegration; but you cannot escape it, for you are of it. Your activities, your thoughts, the very structure of your existence is based on conflict and confusion, and therefore on the process of disintegration. As long as you are unwilling to be nothing, which in fact you are, you must inevitably breed sorrow and antagonism. The willingness to be nothing is not a matter of renunciation, of enforcement, inner or outer, but of seeing the truth of ‘what is’.
Excerpt from Commentaries on Living I