Renounce and Enjoy

What could be more fun than materialism? Renunciation, said Gandhi. But can we believe him?


| March-April 2000



I am, perhaps like most Americans, guruphobic. Bhagwans, swamis, saffron-robed saints of every sort leave me cold. I can find out the truth for myself, dammit—isn’t that the point of having a library card? And so it was a novel experience for me to sit in an ashram in a fog-swept corner of Marin County, California, talking with a man named Eknath Easwaran, whose followers sat by the dozens watching our interview, nodding at each of his statements, beaming at him. I felt a long way from the little Methodist church that serves as home page for my ill-defined faith.

And yet it was a thrill. Partly because I’d read most of Easwaran’s calm and wise books over the years, and even tried to follow his commonsense advice on how to meditate. But even more because, as a young man, Easwaran had visited Gandhi at his ashram in central India, had walked with him in the late-afternoon heat, and in certain ways had his life changed. I would come no closer to Gandhi than this.

“I have gone for walks with him, and none of us could keep his pace,” Easwaran told me. “He walks like the sandpiper on the beach. The wave can never catch him.” That lightness marks every picture of Gandhi. He is skin and bones, wearing almost nothing, usually smiling with amusement. He looks, literally, as if he might blow away. Certainly he was the frailest-looking leader of recent times, and certainly he was among the toughest. “The first time I went to see Gandhiji, I joined a small group waiting outside his cottage, where a meeting had been taking place the whole day,” said Easwaran. “I expected someone very irascible, and then the door opened and there came out a teenager in his 60s, looking as though he had been spending the whole time playing bingo. That really struck a deep chord in me.”

That lightness, of course, did not come from playing; it came from the hard work of renunciation. Gandhi gave up the passion for sex, for money and possessions, for distraction, for comfort. He renounced, at root, the right to put himself first, choosing instead to live for others.

An American journalist once asked him, “Can you tell me the secret of your life in three words?”

“Yes,” chuckled Gandhi. “Renounce and enjoy.”