Question: Swamiji, which is better for gaining spiritual growth, the life of a householder (grihasta) or the life of a monk (sannyasi)?
Answer: This same question was asked by Arjuna at the beginning of chapter three in the Bhagavad Gita. There, Sri Krishna says that both lifestyles are equally meant for spiritual growth. Sannyasis are free to be totally committed to a life of sadhana (spiritual practice) because they have no other responsibilities. Householders, on the other hand, have many responsibilities. Therefore, they must resort to the practice of karma yoga.
Karma yoga is the practice of maintaining a prayerful attitude while engaged in worldly activities to make those activities contribute to your spiritual growth. Going to the office, washing dishes, and driving your car could all contribute to your spiritual growth if they are done with a prayerful attitude. In this way, the practice of karma yoga can convert all mundane activities into sadhana so that the householder, like the sannyasi, can live a life of full-time spiritual pursuit.
The real issue here is about one’s attitude, not one’s lifestyle. A householder can practice karma yoga throughout each day, living a life totally committed to spiritual growth. On the other hand, a sannyasi who has somehow lost his focus on spiritual growth, may become lazy and fail to make much effort in his sadhana. Regardless of lifestyle, it is one’s attitude that is most important.
If we must ask the question, “Which lifestyle is better?” we must also ask, “Better for whom?” If I were to ask you, “Which is better, tea or coffee?” the answer depends on you. Similarly, when we ask, “Which is the better, the life of a householder or the life of a monk?”, we must also ask, “Better for whom?”
There are a few people who have little interest in worldly goals like profession, marriage, family and home. They may have contemplative, studious personalities that incline them towards the life of sannyasa. But for most people, the best choice is a lifestyle fully engaged in worldly activities, always maintaining a prayerful attitude through the practice of karma yoga, so that each day’s activities lead one onwards along the path of spiritual growth.