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Hindu and Buddhist AsceticismAsceticism In Hinduism, Asceticism In Buddhism, Asceticism In Jainism, Conclusion, Bibliography

The English term asceticism derives from the Greek askesis, originally meaning "to train" or "to exercise," specifically in the sense of the training and self-denial that an athlete undergoes to attain physical skill and mastery over the body. The Stoics adapted the word to refer to the moral discipline of the sage who learns, through self-mastery, how to act freely—how to choose or refuse a desired object or an act of physical pleasure at will and how to control the emotions with reason. Plato and the neo-Platonic philosophers also used the term in the sense of the denial of "lower" sensual desires in order to cultivate "higher" spiritual traits.

The word was then passed on from the Greeks to early Christians in this sense of self-control over physical and psychological desires in favor of spiritual ideals or goals. Asceticism has come to function cross-culturally to refer to a whole host of activities in the religions of the world. Most religions have at least some practices that can be deemed ascetic: fasting, celibacy, seclusion, voluntary infliction of pain, bodily mutilation, temperance or complete abstinence from intoxicants, renunciation of worldly goods and possessions, and, in some cases, religious suicide. Asceticism can also include the cultivation of moral qualities requiring self-restraint and discipline, such as patience and forbearance. One sometimes reads of an "inner asceticism," which involves various practices where one learns to be "in the world, but not of it."

Ascetic practices are engaged in for a variety of ends. Many traditions encourage or demand asceticism at periodic or designated times of the religious calendar, usually for purification or preparation for a significant ritual event. Fasting and celibacy are particularly common practices used to this end. Most rites of passage or life-cycle rites also require some form of self-denial and self-discipline on the part of the person undergoing the ritual. Ascetic practices as forms of penance are also very frequently prescribed for expiation of sin or impurity. In some cases, ascetic practices are employed as a sort of sacrifice to the deity or powers one is trying to influence to obtain fulfillment of a request, while in other instances asceticism is seen as meritorious in general, leading to or ensuring a good result in this world or the next.

Many religions have within them an elite group of specialists, renouncers or monastics, who maintain an ascetic lifestyle more or less continuously. These "permanent" ascetics may be marked by their special appearance (distinctive clothes or robes, or no clothes at all; long, uncut hair or heads completely shorn of hair; the possession of certain characteristic implements or items, such as a begging bowl or staff; or in some extreme cases, signs in the form of physical mutilation, such as castration). They may be associated with particular locales (monasteries or other isolated and secluded areas, such as forests, deserts, jungles, or caves; or a mandate to wander homeless) to further indicate that they have separated themselves from ordinary society. Ascetic techniques in many traditions are said to bring magical or supernatural powers.

While asceticism is a feature of virtually every religion, it plays an especially prominent role in the three principal Indian religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. All three of these traditions originated at more or less the same time and out of the same religious and philosophical milieu. In the middle centuries of the first millennium B.C.E., many individuals and groups known collectively as "wanderers" (shramana s) arose in India to oppose certain features of the older Vedic religion and to advocate new ideas, methods, and goals. Most wanderer groups—especially those responsible for the formation of the new religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism—shared the belief that this world has suffering and potentially endless rebirth. This negative evaluation of the world came to be called samsara. All three religions also posited the new religious goal of an escape or release from this cycle, variously called moksha ("liberation"), nirvana ("extinguishing" of suffering and rebirth), or kevala ("isolation" or "perfection").

Samsara is believed to be perpetuated by desire, karma, and worldly life in general. The quest for liberation from samsara thus entailed asceticism and renunciation, and such practices became central to all three of these Indian religions. Meditation techniques, yoga, austerities of various sorts all were developed to further the end of disengaging from the world of sensual desires, and this in turn led to the final goal of release.

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