Śrī Babaji answers a question in the book Pearls of Wisdom:
Question: We read in the Bhāgavata about the austerities of King Pṛthu:
“In the summer, he placed fires around himself in the four directions, with the sun burning overhead. During the monsoon season he tolerated the torrents of rain. During the dewy season he stood up to his neck in cold water and slept on the earth.” (SB 4.23.6)
We also hear about the Gosvāmīs:
“I offer my respectful obeisance unto Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī, Śrī Sanātana Gosvāmī, Śrī Raghunātha Bhatta Gosvāmī, Śrī Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī, and Śrī Gopala Bhatta Gosvāmī. Having completely renounced all opulence, considering it to be insignificant, and becoming very humble, they accept the dress of mendicants and remain merged in the waves of the ocean of nectar of gopī-prema.” (Śrī Śrī Ṣaḍ-gosvāmy-aṣṭakam)
Lord Caitanya further advised Raghunātha dāsa, grāmya-kathā nā śunibe, grāmya-vārtā nā kahibe bhāla nā khāibe āra bhāla nā paribe.
In current times, we hear more about yukta vairāgya, the need to dovetail ones’ attachments in the service of Kṛṣṇa, which sounds more like karma-yoga than bhakti. The above verse seems to advocate pure devotion, wherein Kṛṣṇa is the center of attachment and one uses whatever he possesses to please the object of his attachment. If real renunciation means to give up the concept of being the enjoyer, then how does practical renunciation assist in that endeavor? Can one make advancement without a display of renunciation?
Answer: To understand the answer to your question, there are a few basic points that need to be first made clear. First of all, bhakti is an independent path in itself. It is not dependent on anything else, unlike karma, jñāna, yoga, etc. Without understanding this concept clearly, we will remain confused. At present, what you see people practicing is mostly a mixture of paths, whether it is the path of bhakti, yoga, or jñāna, and thus it becomes a cause of confusion as to who is doing what.
The second important point to understand is that although bhakti is very simple and straightforward, it is most difficult to comprehend. The reason for that is twofold: The first and foremost reason is that we have absolutely no experience of bhakti. All our experiences are not related with bhakti. The second is that our experiences are not very helpful in understanding bhakti. Rather, they work against it. For these two reasons, śāstra endeavors to present a clear concept of bhakti. Śāstra is full of stories of various types of spiritualists, and for a common person, it is therefore not easy to determine what pure bhakti is. Different stories may be trying to elucidate different paths.
Another point to understand is that although renunciation is not part of bhakti, it is still helpful for making an entry into the path of bhakti. People in the material word have natural attachments which blur their vision. With a blurred vision, we cannot see reality. Therefore, renunciation helps us to have clarity of the reality and to make an entry into the practice of bhakti. For this reason, stories about renunciation are found in śāstra. These stories may give the impression that renunciation is a necessity for the practice of bhakti. The fact is, however, that renunciation is a natural outcome of bhakti: janayaty āśu vairāgyaṁ jñānaṁ ca yad ahaitukam (SB 1.2.7), and not vice versa.
The renunciation of the Gosvāmīs is a natural outcome of their intense devotion to Kṛṣṇa and not something that they practiced consciously and independently. In the case of Pṛthu, his life is depicted as that of a devotee who followed the principle of varṇāśrama by performing severe austerities during his vānaprastha āśrama. It may be noted that for common people, a life of renunciation elicits respect and honor. Sometimes, great devotees may practice a life of renunciation so that people in general pay attention to their teachings. As you know, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu took sannyāsa for this very reason, although there was no need for Him to do so. Because He wanted to establish the school of pure devotion, He directed His followers, like Rūpa, Sanātana, and Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī, to be highly renounced. Otherwise, common people would not have taken them seriously and would have dismissed them as mere sentimentalists. This was exactly Prakāśānanda Sarasvatī’s attitude toward Śrī Caitanya.
A common person does not understand bhakti, but he or she can observe the renunciation of a sādhu and be impressed. This is also why the gopīs were not considered to be great devotees before the appearance of Mahāprabhu, because they did not practice sādhana nor did they perform austerities. Also, their bhakti was not observable, like chanting mantras, attending maṅgala-ārati, dancing in kīrtana, doing parikramā,eating only one time a day, drinking only milk, doing pravacanas, reciting ślokas, maintaining mauna vrata, or wearing a specific dress, matted hair, etc. Still, the gopīs were the greatest devotees, as it is very clearly stated in the Bhāgavata, especially by Uddhava (SB 10.47.58–63).
At present, because of technology, people in general are not habituated to lead lives of renunciation. Therefore, they may oppose it. And they would not be wrong if they clearly understood the principles of bhakti. However, it is seen that some people mistake renunciation for bhakti and feel proud about making a show of renunciation. Then there are others who criticize a genuine devotee who may not appear to be highly renounced, as was the case of Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi.
To summarize, we must understand the basic definition of bhakti as given by Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī (BRS 1.1.11); otherwise, these types of doubts will continue to haunt us. Understanding this definition is the first step; therefore, Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī gives it in the very beginning of the book. Otherwise, we are like a person who attempts to erect an edifice without laying the foundation.