This is an email that I wrote to Swami Yogatmananda about a spiritual problem that was concerning me. Swamiji was able to clarify the issue with his reply, which is printed below.
I think you once mentioned that while eastern religions accentuate renunciation, western religions accentuate justice. I think that is a major cultural difference between east and west. Even though I grew up with no religious ideal, I had the ideal of justice in the background. Because justice cannot exist without injustice, that ideal seems absurd. Some people realize this and don't bother to advocate for justice at all, and go on to do antisocial things. Examples would be the Yippies, the Gestaltists, the Subgenius, and others. Their goal in life seems to be to play, with the goal being power, but not caring whether they get it or not, since it is all play. I had a mentor in college who took this point of view, so I ended up thinking that this was an unjust world or later, an unjust cosmos.
Then I joined the Vedanta movement, where I learned the ideas of yama and niyama. But it still felt absurd because doing good seemed self-defeating. Doing good seemed to be hopeless. There seemed to be no point to it. Before I joined the Vedanta Society, my main preoccupation was trying to find a rationale to make sense of doing good. I thought those who were playing at being antisocial were really trying to do good, deep down. But I didn't know how to explain the reasons for doing good.
A major problem here is that all of these groups, who you could call existentialists, even though they were playing, were playing at seeking power. Tonight you described what can be called renunciation as a goal. That is the opposite of seeking power. I think it may make sense for me to emphasize renunciation in my life rather than justice. I will have to see if this works. It is easy to fall back into thinking that I should strive for a just world. . . .
It may be hard for me to adjust, but I now think I need to look towards renunciation, rather than justice, as the means and explanation of doing good.
The ideas of ‘doing good’, ‘working for justice’ ‘renunciation’ are indeed closely linked and, far from contradicting one another, explain and amplify each other- this is how I see them. The mistake that we tend to make is, what I see as justice, I consider as objectively justice and so must be seen as justice by all. But this is wrong; I may feel my eating a potato is just; but will that be the feeling of the potato? I guess, not. So also about ‘doing good’, about ‘renouncing’ etc; while everyone must strive to do good, strive to renounce, which acts constitute doing good or constitute ‘renouncing’ will differ from person to person. So, while it is very important to work for what I think is good and just, I must categorically renounce the idea that I know what is good for the whole Universe and what is objectively ‘just’. I MUST strive to do good and strive to bring justice – absolutely! And must also understand that these are relative concepts.
Lovingly – SY