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“Vairagya (Dispassion) and the Story of Kabir” by Michael Smith

“Vairagya (Dispassion) and the Story of Kabir” by Michael Smith

Vairāgya, Para-vairāgya and Śhmaśhāna-Vairāgya

Vairāgya (n.) = disgust, indifference to worldly objects and to life, change or loss of color, aversion, growing pale, asceticism, dislike, freedom from all worldly desires, disinclination, distaste, loathing, apathy, dispassion, non-attachment.

“Dispassion and control over desires for worldly or other-worldly pleasures; the state of being devoid of, free from, attraction (raga), to objects reflecting into and coloring the mind; renunciation; disinterest in the world (one of the ten ‘immutables’ of the Lord). Vairāgya (dispassion) and abhyāsa (practice) are the sine qua non of achievement on the yogic path.” (Yoga-sutras of Patañjali with the Exposition of Vyāsa: A Translation and Commentary, Volume ISamādhi-pāda by Swami Veda Bharati, p. 486).

Para-vairāgya (n.) = The higher or transcendental dispassion; final freedom from attachments. This higher dispassion relates to the guṇas, to knowledge (jñāna), and to the means thereof. (p. 467).

Para (adj.) = greatest, far, best, ardent, distant, last, highest, further, later, ancient, supreme, remote, final, beyond, succeeding, exceeding, extreme, on the other side, superior, more than, chief.

Śhmaśhāna (n.) = cemetery, cremation ground, burial place, dead bodies, bones of cremated corpses.

When someone near and dear passes away, often there is a transformation in our thinking and feeling about life:

Vairāgya (non-attachment) is an important means to attain control of the mind; it should be understood and practiced.

The human being’s stay in the mundane world is very brief. On the path to eternity this world is just one of the camps.  Therefore, do not become attached to it. Always remember that this is not your permanent abode. Everyone is brought to that awareness many times in life, but again the strong desire for enjoying sensory pleasure distracts the mind.

When someone very dear to us dies and we take that person’s body to the cemetery, everyone there feels the presence of vairagya whispering a profound lesson. . . . Death is an alarm that makes every human being realize that attachment to sense pleasures, to things of the world, and to relationships is painful. . . .

At the cemetery the knowledge of vairagya dawns for a short time. Everyone at the cemetery suddenly becomes a sage and begins realizing and talking about the impermanent nature of the temporal world. During that time everyone is attuned to one and the same reality, but after the body is buried and mourners turn toward their homes, they forget the lesson that they received at the cemetery. Once more they become busy doing the same things as before.” (PPBG by Swami Rama, pp. 254-255).


When the people of India know that life will not continue, they often go away on a long pilgrimage. They have voluntarily left behind all their connections. They have already willingly given up that which would otherwise be taken away by force. When you give something up voluntarily, then you do not suffer its loss. Then it is taken from you by force; then you suffer. They have learned this art of giving up, of renouncing, of walking away and turning their backs on everything. Between the ages of 50 or 60, a person should give up the worldly affairs to their children. It does not always happen that way. People everywhere grab onto a great deal of attachments, and consequently suffer.

If in life one has been unable to fulfill the wish for a pilgrimage, then even after death the body is taken to a place of pilgrimage to fulfill that desire. . . . The corpse is taken and put on a huge pile of logs. The body is covered with more logs and a lot of special types of incense powder and ghee (clarified butter) are poured with the chanting of special mantras and prayers. Each organ, each component of the body is named, followed by the word Svaha: this is a sacred offering, carried upwards by the fire – taken to its origins.

May your eyes mingle with the sun.

May your breath be merged with the cosmic winds.

May the waters of your being mingle with the oceans.

May the ashes become one with the earth.

May you go to the heavens or to the earth,

whatever your direction may be.  – Yajur Veda, Ch. 39

Then people watch the fire as it burns. When the corpse is burned and the fire goes down, the people turn their backs, take a little piece of straw, break it behind their backs, and walk away. Or they smash a clay jar on the ground. This type of act is expressive of the thought that something is gone, broken, with nothing more to do. This is it!

Everybody’s thought at that time turns to God. This is the end of life. Only one question arises:  What am I going to do with my own life that remains? Everything that is preached at that time indicates an awareness that ultimately this is where we are all going. All our possessions, power, ego, all our pride of beauty and handsomeness, success and everything else – this is it! This is the end! Remember this as you stand there, cremating another corpse. Remember that this is the path you will be taking. This is where you are going. Turn your mind to God.

There is a story of the great 16th century saint-poet, Kabir. Someone wanted to meet him, and had walked a long way to see him. The villagers said, “He is not here. He has gone to a funeral.”

The visitor was in a rush to see Kabir, so he said, “I will go where the funeral is taking place.” He questioned, “How will I know Kabir when I see him there.”

They replied, “Kabir wears a feather in his cap.”

When the man went to the funeral, he saw that everybody had a feather in his cap. He was amazed. As the funeral procession dispersed, one person’s feather disappeared. As another of the party went two steps, his feather disappeared. Another went four steps when his feather disappeared. So one-by-one each person’s feather vanished at varying distances. The only one whose feather remained was the saint, Kabir.

The feather is the thoughts that we all develop at the time about the unreality, the transience of our very important affairs and pursuits, . . .  (From Meditation and the Art of Dying, pp. 35-38)


The thoughts about preserving the body are not part of the yoga tradition. This transient entity which is composed of many elements must decompose. Seeing a death is to reach the state of vairagya, dispassion. Even if it is of the momentary “dispassion at the cremation ground” (śhmaśhāna-vairāgya), of the kind experienced by Kabir’s companions, it still leaves us with a reminder to search for the immortal spiritual Self.   (From Meditation and the Art of Dying, p. 43)


There is a story of a great sixteenth century sage named Kabir in India.  Someone came to meet Kabir and so he came to his home and the people at home said he isn’t here.  He’s gone to a funeral procession.

Now in India we cremate.  The Hindu’s cremate.  The Muslims and Christians of course bury and these cremation grounds are ideal places for meditation.  In my teens I used to go to the cremation grounds and meditate, watch the corpse burning and your whole attachment to the body goes. You no longer think of yourself as handsome beautiful youth, this that, all of that it’s nothing.  So you don’t see the corpse burning.  You know they put a huge big pile of logs and they put the corpse on that and put another set of logs.  So you just see the logs burning, but you know what’s happening anyway.

So the people at home said, “Kabir has gone to a funeral procession.”  He says, “Well there will be a lot of people at the funeral; how would I know who he is?”  “He carries a feather on his hat.”  The story is just sort of a parable not necessarily historical.  So he went to the funeral procession because he had really urgent business with Kabir. So when he goes there, he is amazed to see that everybody has a feather on his hat.  So he was confused. He didn’t know who among them was Kabir, the saint. But as the people started walking away from the funeral procession, he stood and he saw that as a person turned away, after a few steps his feather disappeared.  He thought that was miraculous.  He sees another person who walks about ten steps and his feather disappears. So he is now walking behind a crowd of people who had come to the funeral procession and see somebody’s feather disappears after ten yards, somebody’s feather disappears after twenty yards.  Some great good saintly souls kept the feather going maybe for half a mile, and ultimately the person whose feather remained intact was found to be Kabir.  So a person who carries this feather in his hat, this great quality of dispassion, disinterest in things of the world, what is going on – in a quarrel it is none of his business except out of compassion to remove that quarrel – when things of the world no longer interest him, then he has the permanent vairagya, freedom from the colors of the world that have been coloring his mind.  (From “Six Prerequisites for Liberation” by Swami Veda)