17 minute read


Hindu and Buddhist AsceticismAsceticism In Hinduism

Asceticism in the form of yoga and meditation possibly goes back to the earliest period of Indian history. Seals depicting a figure sitting in what looks like a yogic pose have been found at sites of the Indus Valley Civilization dating to the second millennium B.C.E. In the texts of the early Vedas (c. 1500–c. 1000 B.C.E.), ascetic practices appear in a variety of contexts. References are made to long-haired silent sages (muni s), clad in soiled yellow garments or naked, who are depicted as having supernatural powers, acquired perhaps as a result of their ascetic practices. The early texts also tell of the shadowy wandering ascetics (vratya s), who seem to have also practiced physical austerities.

The Vedas in some places say that the deities gained their status, or even created the entire universe, through the power of their inner, ascetic heat (tapas), acquired through the rigorous practice of physical and spiritual self-discipline and mortification of the body. The term tapas derives from a Sanskrit root meaning to heat up or burn, and refers to any one of a variety of ascetic methods for achieving religious power. In the Rig Veda, Indra is said to have achieved his divine place through the practice of asceticism and the generation of this powerful "heat," while elsewhere in that ancient work are encountered cosmogonic hymns that attribute the origins of the universe to the Primal One who creates by "heating up ascetic heat." The metaphysical qualities of both truth and order are said to have derived from ascetic heat, and the ancient Indian seers (rishi s) also were supposed to have achieved their powers through ascetic heat.

This notion of ascetic heat as a creative, or even coercive, religious force was to persist in Indian religious thinking through subsequent centuries to the present. One may gain ascetic heat through a variety of ascetic techniques, including fasting, chastity, and various yogic techniques such as breath control (pranayama), and through it the adept can procure tremendous supernatural powers and even the status of a god. In the Upanishads, epics, and other Sanskrit texts one often learns of various ascetics who force their way into heaven and become gods through the power of their ascetic heat. Deities such as Shiva were especially associated with this power of ascetic heat, derived from proficiency in yoga, meditation, and extreme austerities.

Various classes of ascetics (tapasvin s, "specialists in the practice of tapas ") eventually arose in Hindu India and are sometimes enumerated. They are mainly differentiated by the form of austerities they engage in. Some ascetics, for example, stay totally stationary for years at a time or remain standing or in water for weeks on end. Some ascetics subsist solely on fruits, wild plants, and roots, or they live only on grain left in the fields. Among the most famous are ascetics who practice the "five fires" ritual (building four fires around themselves, with the sun as the fifth) and "spike-lying" ascetics who sleep on beds of nails.

A second strand of asceticism within the Hindu tradition might better be termed "renunciation." Such renunciation can be either tyaga (relinquishing a desire for actions to produce effects) or samnyasa (abandoning family, social, economic life, and the ritual activity associated with the householder's way of life), in order to pursue single-mindedly the ultimate goals of religion. World renouncers seem to have been a feature of Indian religious life since very early times. Already mentioned above are the silent sages and wandering ascetics discussed in the Vedas. Later texts depict a wide variety of renouncers, hermits, and ascetic "orders" living in the jungles and forests. Among such ascetics were those who, with or without their wives, live on wild fruits and plants and maintain a ritual sacrificial fire; those who are "god-possessed" but perform the Vedic rituals; those with matted hair who wear bark clothing; those who sleep on the ground, eat only what drops from trees and plants, and regulate their meals according to the waxing and waning of the moon; those who wander from one monastery to another, eating only eight mouthfuls of food per day; those who remain naked, live under trees or in graveyards, and remain indifferent to what they eat or receive from others; renouncers who wear red and beg only at the homes of high-caste Brahmins; and radical ascetics who do not remain more than a day in any one place and live on cow urine and feces.

Renunciation (and the values and practices associated with it, especially nonviolence [ ahimsa ], vegetarianism, lack of possessions, and begging for a living) came to play an enormously influential role in Hinduism from the time of the Upanishads onwards. Not only were there dedicated ascetics and renunciates who committed their lives to this kind of religious practice; even those who chose to remain householders were influenced by renunciatory values. From a very early date, then, Hinduism was shaped by asceticism and renunciation.

Yet the Hindu tradition also had dissenting voices. The religion was somewhat divided about the value and necessity of asceticism and the renunciatory lifestyle. Some ancient texts condemn renunciation in general. (In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, one of the heroes of the epic goes so far as to say that renunciation is only for those who have failed in worldly affairs.) More often, texts condemn renunciation by householders—those with families to support and occupations to fulfill.

Indeed, Hindu texts written in the wake of the wanderer movement often extolled the householder's life of marriage, reproducing, and raising children. In the Dharma Sutras the householder stage is sometimes said to be the only legitimate or best stage of life—better even than the stage of pursuing the ultimate religious goal of final liberation from rebirth. Those in all other stages of life (the student, forest dweller, and world renouncer) depend on the householder, in part because it is the householder who feeds or donates to them when they beg from him:

A householder alone offers sacrifices. A householder afflicts himself with austerities. Of the four stages of life, therefore, the householder is the best. As all rivers and rivulets ultimately end up in the ocean, so people of all stages of life ultimately end up with the householder. As all creatures depend on their mothers for their survival, so all mendicants depend on householders for their survival. (Vasishtha Dharma Sutra, 10.14–16, quoted in Olivelle, p. 93)

As another text puts it, when "carried out with zeal," the householder stage of life procures both happiness in this life and heaven in the next:

Just as all living creatures depend on air in order to live, so do members of the other stages of life subsist by depending on householders. Since people in the other three stages of life are supported every day by the knowledge and food of the householder, therefore the householder stage of life is the best. It must be carried out with zeal by the man who wants to win an incorruptible heaven [after death] and endless happiness here on earth. (Manu, 3.77–79)

Nevertheless, one also finds ascetic and renunciatory values—especially nonviolence (ahimsa), but also nonpossession and ascetic heat—included in ethical lists that seem generally applicable to all, no matter what stage of life they are in. Indeed, even the householder's life came to include certain kinds of austerities, especially as a way of penance and cleansing one's conscience: "If his mind-and-heart is heavy because of some act that he has committed, he should generate the inner heat [ tapas ] [prescribed] for it until he is satisfied.… Those who have committed major crimes and all the rest who have done what should not be done are freed from that guilt by well-generated inner heat" (Manu, 11.234, 240).

From an early age in the history of Hinduism there was also a recognition that one could live two basic kinds of religious lives within the boundaries of the religion: a life of engagement and a life of disengagement. Both were usually regarded as legitimate (although some texts do weight one or the other more heavily), and both were accorded Vedic authority and pedigree. Both were also generally regarded as efficacious—according to the following text, engagement leading to a state of equality with the gods, and disengagement to a transcendent condition beyond the world of samsara:

There are two kinds of Vedic activity: the one that brings about engagement [in worldly action] and the rise of happiness, and the one that brings about disengagement [from worldly action] and the supreme good. The activity of engagement is said to be driven by desire in this world and the world beyond; but the activity of disengagement is said to be free of desire and motivated by knowledge. The man who is thoroughly dedicated to the activity of engagement becomes equal to the gods; but the man who is dedicated to disengagement passes beyond the five elements. (Manu, 12.88–90)

Reconciling these two apparently different modes of religious life was not always easy, however. On the face of it, the life of engagement and the life of disengagement appear to be incompatible—the one involved in the world of activity and karma, and the other attempting to renounce such activity and free oneself of karma.

One of the principal methods for synthesizing the two was the system of the four stages of life (ashrama s)—perpetual student, householder, forest dweller, and world renouncer—developed especially in the Dharma Sutras. In some texts the four states of life seem to have been regarded as four different types of life that a student could pursue after study with a teacher. In other cases, however, the early authorities insisted that there is only one legitimate stage of life, that of the householder. Finally, however, the tradition settled into conceptualizing the system of stages of life as progressive and more or less incumbent upon all upper-caste Hindus. This framework of stages of life could then be used to affirm life in the world (by emphasizing that all must pass through the householder stage of life before renunciation) while still incorporating the values and practices of asceticism into the ideal life of the Hindu practitioner. Three of the four classical stages of life emphasized ascetic practices, as will be seen, while the system also validated, and indeed insisted upon, the legitimacy of and need for the nonrenunciatory householder stage.

In the ideal structure laid out in Hindu texts, the first stage of life is that of a student. A young boy is given over to a teacher (guru), whom he lives with and serves for many years while studying the sacred Vedas under the teacher's guidance. The lifestyle assigned to this stage of life is one of austerity, asceticism, and discipline. Not only should the student remain chaste for the duration of this period; he should also observe a variety of other restraints and avoidances:

The chaste student of the Veda who lives with his guru should obey these restraints, completely restraining the cluster of his sensory powers to increase his own inner heat.… He should avoid honey, meat perfume, garlands, spices, women, anything that has gone sour, and violence to creatures that have the breath of life; anointing [his body with oil], putting make-up on his eyes, wearing shoes, and carrying an umbrella; desire, anger, and greed; dancing, singing, and playing musical instruments; gambling, group arguments, gossip, telling lies, looking at women or touching them, and striking another person. He should always sleep alone and never shed his semen, for by shedding his semen out of lust he breaks his vow. (Manu, 2.175–80)

Another text gives a slightly different list of observances, vows, and practices, but similarly emphasizes the importance of an austere life dedicated to self-restraint, the cultivation of virtue, and obedience to the teacher:

Now the rules for the studentship. He shall obey his teacher, except when ordered to commit crimes which cause loss of caste. He shall do what is serviceable to his teacher, he shall not contradict him. He shall always occupy a couch or seat lower than that of his teacher. He shall not eat food offered at a sacrifice to the gods or the ancestors, nor pungent condiments, salt, honey, or meat. He shall not sleep in the daytime. He shall not use perfumes. He shall preserve chastity. He shall not embellish himself by using ointments and the like. He shall not wash his body with hot water for pleasure. But, if it is soiled by unclean things, he shall clean it with earth or water, in a place where he is not seen by a guru. Let him not sport in the water whilst bathing; let him swim motionless like a stick.… Let him not look at dancing. Let him not go to assemblies for gambling, etc., nor to crowds assembled at festivals. Let him not be addicted to gossiping. Let him be discreet. Let him not do anything for his own pleasure in places which his teacher frequents. Let him talk with women so much only as his purpose requires. Let him be forgiving. Let him restrain his organs from seeking illicit objects. Let him be untired in fulfilling his duties; modest; possessed of self-command; energetic; free from anger; and free from envy. (Apastamba Dharma Sutra, quoted in Embree, pp. 84–86)

Also among the duties laid out for those in the student stage of life is begging for a living—more precisely, begging and then turning over the proceeds to the teacher. Begging, for the religious student and other renunciates who legitimately live by such means, was said to be like fasting:

He should fetch a pot of water, flowers, cow dung, clay, and sacrificial grass, as much as are needed, and go begging every day. A chaste student of the Veda, purified, should beg every day from the houses of people who do not fail to perform Vedic sacrifices and who are approved of for carrying out their own innate activities. He should not beg from his guru's family nor from the relatives of his mother or father, but if he cannot get to the houses of others he should avoid each of these more than the one that precedes it. And if there are none of the people mentioned above, he should beg from the whole village, purified and restrained in his speech, but he should avoid those who have been indicted.… When he is under the vow [of a chaste student] he should make his living by begging, nor should he eat the food of just one person; when begging is the livelihood of a person under a vow it is traditionally regarded as equal to fasting. (Manu, 2.182–85, 188)

When the student reaches marriageable age, he should take a wife and start a family, eschewing, by and large, renunciatory and ascetic practices in favor of the pursuit of private gain (artha) —understood as material prosperity, self-interest, political advantage, and in general getting ahead in the world. Hinduism thus recognizes making a good living (in an acceptable occupation) and taking care of one's family as important and indeed religiously enjoined goals of life. Private gain is listed as one of the three "ends of life" in Hindu texts, the other two being the pursuit of religious duty (dharma) and the pursuit of pleasure (kama). And while following the dictates of religious duty is obviously of great importance for one's spiritual well-being and can involve certain ascetic practices, especially for purification and penance, the pursuit of pleasure and creature comforts is to be fully embraced in the householder stage of life. In some texts, private gain is in fact the most important of these ends of life: "Of the three ends of human life, material gain is truly the most important.… For the realization of religious duty and pleasure depend on material gain" (Artha Sastra, 1.7).

But, according to the scheme of the ideal stages of life, when the householder has completed this stage of life (upon the birth of grandchildren), he should begin to withdraw from the world and once more cultivate a more ascetic lifestyle. After finishing the life of a student and after marrying and raising a family as a householder, a man may enter the third stage of life, that of the forest dweller. This stage of life, like that of the student, is characterized by ascetic practices and detachment from the world, including the renunciation of cultivated food (in favor of wild food that grows in the jungle) and of all possessions:

After he has lived in the householder's stage of life in accordance with the rules in this way, a twice-born Vedic graduate should live in the forest, properly restrained and with his sensory powers conquered. But when a householder sees that he is wrinkled and gray, and [when he sees] the children of his children, then he should take himself to the wilderness. Renouncing all food cultivated in the village and all possessions, he should hand his wife over to his sons and go to the forest—or take her along.… He should eat vegetables that grow on land or in water, flowers, roots, and fruits, the products of pure trees, and the oils from fruits.… He should not eat anything grown from land tilled with a plough, even if someone has thrown it out, nor roots and fruits grown in a village, even if he is in distress [from hunger]. (Manu, 6.1–3, 13, 16)

Subsistence on gathered food that grows naturally and spontaneously in the wild can be supplemented with food obtained by begging. The begged food, however, should be only enough for "bare subsistence" and should be obtained from the right donors:

He should get food for bare subsistence by begging from priests who are ascetics themselves, from householders, and from other twice-born forest-dwellers. Or a man who lives in the forest may get [food] from a village, receiving it in the hollow of a leaf or in his hand or in a broken clay dish, and eat [only] eight mouthfuls of it. To perfect himself, a priest who lives in the forest must follow these and other preparations for consecration, as well as the various revealed canonical texts of the Upanishads, and those that sages and priestly householders have followed, to increase learning and inner heat and to clean the body. (Manu, 6.27–30)

The final stage of life is that of the world renouncer, who continues and furthers the ascetic practices of the forest dweller: "And when he has spent the third part of his lifespan in the forests in this way, he may abandon all attachments and wander as an ascetic for the fourth part of his lifespan" (Manu, 6.33). In this stage, the renouncer sends his wife away to live with his sons and performs a ceremony equivalent to his own funeral, stating that from this time on "no one belongs to me, and I belong to no one." Dying to his social persona, the wandering hermit from this time forth may no longer return to his previous home and should live entirely detached from the things of this world, owning nothing, alone and without companions, perfectly content and indifferent. He should beg but once a day, and he should not be "addicted to food" or hope for lots of alms or be disappointed should he receive nothing.

He should always go all alone, with no companion, to achieve success; realizing that success is for the man who is alone, he neither deserts nor is deserted. The hermit should have no fire and no home, but should go to a village to get food, silent, indifferent, unwavering and deep in concentration. A skull-bowl, the roots of trees, poor clothing, no companionship, and equanimity to everything—this is the distinguishing mark of one who is Freed. He should not welcome dying, nor should he welcome living, but wait for the right time as a servant waits for orders.… He should live here on earth seated in ecstatic contemplation of the soul, indifferent, without any carnal desires, with the soul as his only companion and happiness as his goal.… He should go begging once a day and not be eager to get a great quantity, for an ascetic who is addicted to food becomes attached to sensory objects, too.… He should not be sad when he does not get anything nor delighted when he gets something, but take only what will daily sustain his vital breath, transcending any attachment to material things. (Manu, 6.42–45, 49, 55, 57)

The system of stages of life was the principal way in which Hinduism reconciled the apparently contradictory pulls of its life-affirming and world-renouncing strains. But there was also another way of reconciling the householder and renunciatory ways of life in the classical texts of Hinduism. This is the yoga of action (karma yoga) in the Bhagavad Gita. As opposed to the renunciation of action characteristic of ascetics and world renouncers, the Bhagavad Gita advocates a renunciation in action: one performs one's duties in society but dedicates the fruits of all action to God.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Anticolonialism in Southeast Asia - Categories And Features Of Anticolonialism to Ascorbic acidAsceticism - Hindu and Buddhist Asceticism - Asceticism In Hinduism, Asceticism In Buddhism, Asceticism In Jainism, Conclusion, Bibliography