Asceticism (//; from the Greek: ἄσκησις áskēsis, "exercise" or "training") describes a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals. Many religious traditions (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism, the Christian Desert Fathers) include practices that involve restraint with respect to actions of body, speech, and mind like that of the Pythagoreans. The founders and earliest practitioners of these religions lived extremely austere lifestyles, refraining from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of material wealth. They practised asceticism not as a rejection of the enjoyment of life, or because the practices themselves are virtuous, but as an aid in the pursuit of physical and metaphysical health.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Sociological and psychological views
- 3 Religious motivation
- 3.1 Hinduism
- 3.2 Jainism
- 3.3 Buddhism
- 3.4 Judaism
- 3.5 Christianity
- 3.6 Islam
- 3.7 Zoroastrianism
- 4 Secular motivation
- 5 Religious versus secular motivation
- 6 Philosophical view
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
The adjective "ascetic" derives from the ancient Greek term askēsis, which means training or exercise. The original usage did not refer to self-denial, but to the physical training required for athletic events. Its usage later extended to practices that are used in all major religious traditions, in varying degrees.
Sociological and psychological views
Early 20th-century German sociologist Max Weber made a distinction between innerweltliche and ausserweltliche asceticism, which means (roughly) "inside the world" and "outside the world", respectively. Talcott Parsons translated these as "worldly" and "otherworldly"—however, some translators use "inner-worldly", and this is more in line with inner world explorations of mysticism, a common purpose of asceticism. "Inner or Other- worldly" asceticism is practised by people who withdraw from the world to live an ascetic life (this includes monks who live communally in monasteries, as well as hermits who live alone). "Worldly" asceticism refers to people who live ascetic lives but do not withdraw from the world.
Wealth is thus bad ethically only in so far as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life, and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care.
— Max Weber
The 20th-century American psychological theorist David McClelland suggested worldly asceticism is specifically targeted against worldly pleasures that "distract" people from their calling and may accept worldly pleasures that are not distracting. As an example, he pointed out Quakers have historically objected to bright-coloured clothing, but wealthy Quakers often made their drab clothing out of expensive materials. The color was considered distracting, but the materials were not. Amish groups use similar criteria to make decisions about which modern technologies to use and which to avoid.
Self-discipline and abstinence in some form and degree are parts of religious practice within many religious and spiritual traditions. A more dedicated ascetical lifestyle is associated particularly with monks, yogis or priests, but any individual may choose to lead an ascetic life. Jesus Christ, Sage Kapila, Shakyamuni Gautama (who left a more severe ascetism to seek a reasoned "middle way" of balanced life), Mahavir Swami, Anthony the Great (St. Anthony of the Desert), and Francis of Assisi can all be considered ascetics. Many of these men left their families, possessions, and homes to live a mendicant life, and in the eyes of their followers demonstrated great spiritual attainment or enlightenment.
There are several terms for ascetics in Hindu scriptures, amongst one is Sadhu. Sadhus are known for the extreme forms of self-denial they occasionally practice. These include extreme acts of devotion to a deity or principle, such as vowing never to use one leg or the other or to hold an arm in the air for a period of months or years. The particular types of asceticism involved vary from sect to sect and from holy man to holy man.
The Rig Veda describes the Keśin ("long-haired" ascetics) and Munis ("silent ones"). The Keśin are described as friends of Vayu, Rudra, the Gandharvas and the Apsaras. There is also another story in the Rig Veda that Dhruva the son of Uttanapada (the son of Manu) performs penance, making him "one with Brahma".
Demigods too are associated with asceticism and may have achieved their position as demigods by practice of penances. In Rig Veda (X. 167. 1) Indra is said to have gained Heaven by tapas. (Buddhism reaffirms this fact about Indra.) Further, in the Rig Veda, the Maruts (offspring of Rudra) are mentioned as "young seers who have knowledge of the truth" (V.58.8) and they are said to be "like the wild silent sages" (V.II.56.8).
Sanyasa is one of the four stages of life in Hinduism.
- "The giving up of activities that are based on material desire is what great learned men call the renounced order of life [sanyasa]. And giving up the results of all activities is what the wise call renunciation [tyaga]." (18.2)
Keeping silence, even in times of verbal abuse, was practiced by Hindu ascetics.
Different types of ascetics are Sanyasis (renunciants who wander forest usually with other renunciants), vairagis, jangamas (who have matted hair and put chains on their feet), sarevras (who shave their heads), and yogis (who practice yoga).
Asceticism in one of its most intense forms can be found in one of the oldest religions, known as Jainism. Jainism encourages fasting, yoga practices, meditation in difficult postures, and other austerities. According to Jains, one's highest goal should be moksha (i.e., liberation from samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth). For this, a soul has to be without attachment or self-indulgence. This can be achieved only by the monks and nuns who take five great vows: Ahimsa (Non-violence), Satya (Truth), Asteya (Non-stealing), Brahmacharya (Chastity) and Aparigraha (Non-attachment). Most of the austerities and ascetic practices can be traced back to Vardhaman Mahavira, the twenty-fourth "fordmaker" or Tirthankara.
The Acaranga Sutra, or Book of Good Conduct, is a sacred book in Jainism that discusses the ascetic code of conduct. Other texts that provide insight into conduct of ascetics include Yogashastra by Acharya Hemachandra and Niyamasara by Acharya Kundakunda. Other illustrious Jain works on ascetic conduct are Oghanijjutti, Pindanijjutti, Cheda Sutta, and Nisiha Suttafee.
The Jain text of Kalpasutra describes Mahavira's asceticism in detail, from whom most of the ascetic practices are derived:
The Venerable Ascetic Mahavira for a year and a month wore clothes; after that time he walked about naked, and accepted the alms in the hollow of his hand. For more than twelve years the Venerable Ascetic Mahivira neglected his body and abandoned the care of it; he with equanimity bore, underwent, and suffered all pleasant or unpleasant occurrences arising from divine powers, men, or animals.—Kalpa Sutra 117
Henceforth the Venerable Ascetic Mahavira was houseless, circumspect in his walking, circumspect in his speaking, circumspect in his begging, circumspect in his accepting (anything), in the carrying of his outfit and drinking vessel; circumspect in evacuating excrements, urine, saliva, mucus, and uncleanliness of the body; circumspect in his thoughts, circumspect in his words, circumspect in his acts; guarding his thoughts, guarding his words, guarding his acts, guarding his senses, guarding his chastity; without wrath, without pride, without deceit, without greed; calm, tranquil, composed, liberated, free from temptations, without egoism, without property; he had cut off all earthly ties, and was not stained by any worldliness: as water does not adhere to a copper vessel, or collyrium to mother of pearl (so sins found no place in him); his course was unobstructed like that of Life; like the firmament he wanted no support; like the wind he knew no obstacles; his heart was pure like the water (of rivers or tanks) in autumn; nothing could soil him like the leaf of a lotus; his senses were well protected like those of a tortoise; he was single and alone like the horn of a rhinoceros; he was free like a bird; he was always waking like the fabulous bird Bharundal, valorous like an elephant, strong like a bull, difficult to attack like a lion, steady and firm like Mount Mandara, deep like the ocean, mild like the moon, refulgent like the sun, pure like excellent gold'; like the earth he patiently bore everything; like a well-kindled fire he shone in his splendour.—Kalpa Sutra 118
As per the Jain vows, the monks and nuns renounce all relations and possessions. Jain ascetics practice complete nonviolence. Ahimsa is the first and foremost vow of a Jain ascetic. They do not hurt any living being, be it an insect or a human. They carry a special broom to sweep any insects that may cross their path. Some Jain monks wear a cloth over the mouth to prevent accidental harm to airborne germs and insects. They also do not use electricity as it involves violence. Furthermore, they do not use any devices or machines.
As they are possession-less and without any attachment, they travel from city to city, often crossing forests and deserts and always barefoot. Jain ascetics do not stay in a single place for more than two months to prevent attachment to any place. However, during four months of monsoon (rainy season) known as chaturmaas, they continue to stay at a single place to avoid killing life forms that thrive during the rains. Jain monks and nuns practice complete celibacy. They do not touch or share a sitting platform with a person of the opposite sex.
Jain ascetics follow a strict vegetarian diet without root vegetables. Shvetambara monks do not cook food but solicit alms from householders. Digambara monks have only a single meal a day. Neither group will beg for food, but a Jain ascetic may accept a meal from a householder, provided that the latter is pure of mind and body and offers the food of his own volition and in the prescribed manner. During such an encounter, the monk remains standing and eats only a measured amount. Fasting (i.e., abstinence from food and sometimes water) is a routine feature of Jain asceticism. Fasts last for a day or longer, up to a month. Some monks avoid (or limit) medicine and/or hospitalization out of disregard for the physical body. 
Austerities and other daily practices
Other austerities include meditation in seated or standing posture near river banks in the cold wind or meditation atop hills and mountains, especially at noon when the sun is at its fiercest. Such austerities are undertaken according to the physical and mental limits of the individual ascetic. Jain ascetics are (almost) completely without possessions. Some Jains (Shvetambara monks and nuns) own only unstitched white robes (an upper and lower garment) and a bowl used for eating and collecting alms. Male Digambara monks do not wear any clothes and carry nothing with them except a soft broom made of shed peacock feathers (pinchi) and eat from their hands. They sleep on the floor without blankets and sit on special wooden platforms.
Every day is spent either in study of scriptures or meditation or teaching to lay people. They stand aloof from worldly matters. When death is imminent or when a monk feels that he is unable to adhere to his vows due to advanced age or terminal disease, many Jain ascetics take a final vow of Santhara or Sallekhana, a peaceful and detached death where medicines, food and water are abandoned.
A monk or a nun wandering from village to village should look forward for four cubits and seeing animals they should move on by walking on his toes or heels or the sides of his feet. If there be some bypath, they should choose it and not go straight on; then they may circumspectly wander from village to village. ~Third Lecture(6)
'I shall become a Sramana who owns no house, no property, no sons, no cattle, who eats what others give him; I shall commit no sinful action; Master, I renounce to accept anything that has not been given.' Having taken such vows, (a mendicant) should not, on entering a village or scot-free town, etc., take himself or induce others to take or allow others to take, what has not been given. ~Seventh Lecture (1)
The historical Siddhartha Gautama adopted an extreme ascetic life after leaving his father's palace, where he once lived in extreme luxury. But later the Shakyamuni rejected extreme asceticism because it is an impediment to ultimate freedom (nirvana) from suffering (samsara), choosing instead a path that met the needs of the body without crossing over into luxury and indulgence. After abandoning extreme asceticism he was able to achieve enlightenment. This position became known as the Madhyamaka or Middle Way and became one of the central organizing principles of Theravadin philosophy.
"The middle way which enlightens the eyes, enlightens the mind, which leads to rest, to knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nirvana"
The degree of moderation suggested by this middle path varies depending on the interpretation of Theravadism at hand. Some traditions emphasize ascetic life more than others.
The basic lifestyle of an ordained Theravadin practitioner (bhikkhu, monk; or bhikkhuni, nun) as described in the Vinaya Pitaka was intended to be neither excessively austere nor hedonistic. Monks and nuns were intended to have enough of life's basic requisites (particularly food, water, clothing and shelter) to live safely and healthily, without being troubled by illness or weakness. While the life described in the Vinaya may appear difficult, it would be perhaps better described as Spartan rather than truly ascetic. Deprivation for its own sake is not valued. Indeed, it may be seen as a sign of attachment to one's own renunciation. The aim of the monastic lifestyle was to prevent concern for the material circumstances of life from intruding on the monk or nun's ability to engage in religious practice. To this end, having inadequate possessions was regarded as being no more desirable than having too many. Initially, the Tathagata rejected a number of more specific ascetic practices that some monks requested to follow. These practices — such as sleeping in the open, dwelling in a cemetery or cremation ground, wearing only cast-off rags, etc. — were initially seen as too extreme, being liable to either upset the social values of the surrounding community or as likely to create schisms among the Sangha by encouraging monks to compete in austerity. Despite their early prohibition, recorded in the Pali Canon, these practices (known as the Dhutanga practices or in Thai as thudong) eventually became acceptable to the monastic community. They were recorded by Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga and later became significant in the practices of the Thai Forest Tradition.
The Mahayana traditions of Buddhism received a slightly different code of discipline than that used by the various Theravada sects. This fact, combined with significant regional and cultural variations, has resulted in differing attitudes towards asceticism in different areas of the Mahayana world. Particularly notable is the role that vegetarianism plays in East Asian Buddhism, particularly in China and Japan. While Theravada monks are compelled to eat whatever is provided for them by their lay supporters, including meat, Mahayana monks in East of Asia are most often vegetarian. This is attributable to a number of factors, including Mahayana-specific teachings regarding vegetarianism, East Asian cultural tendencies that predate the introduction of Buddhism (some of which may have their roots in Confucianism) and the different manner in which monks support themselves in East Asia. While Southeast Asian and Sri Lankan monks generally continue to make daily begging rounds to receive their daily meal, monks in East Asia more commonly receive bulk foodstuffs from lay supporters (or the funds to purchase them) and are fed from a kitchen located on the site of the temple or monastery and staffed either by working monks or by lay supporters.
Similarly, divergent scriptural and cultural trends have brought a stronger emphasis on asceticism to some Mahayana practices. The Lotus Sutra, for instance, contains a story of a bodhisattva who burns himself as an offering to the assembly of all Buddhas in the world. This has become a patterning story for self-sacrifice in the Mahayana world, probably providing the inspiration for the self-immolation of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc during the 1960s, as well as several other incidents.
The history of Jewish asceticism goes back thousands of years to the references of the Nazirite (Numbers 6) and the Wilderness Tradition that evolved out of the forty years in the desert. The prophets and their disciples were ascetic to the extreme including many examples of fasting and hermitic living conditions. After the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile and the Mosaic institution was done away with a different form of asceticism arose when Antiochus IV Epiphanes threatened the Jewish religion in 167 BC. With the rise of the Hasmoneans and finally Jonathan's claim to the High Priesthood in 152 BC, the Essene sect separated under the Teacher of Righteousness and they took the banner of asceticism for the next two hundred years culminating in the Dead Sea Sect.
Asceticism is rejected by modern day Judaism; it is considered contrary to God's wishes for the world. God intended the world to be enjoyed, and people be in good spirits when praying.
However, Judaism does not encourage people to seek pleasure for its own sake but rather to do so in a spiritual way. An example would be thanking God for creating something enjoyable, like a wonderful view or tasty food. As another example, while remembering that a person may be fulfilling the commandments of marriage and pru-urvu (procreation), sex should also be enjoyed. It's a commandment of Halakha for a man to have sex with his wife even if she cannot conceive (possibly after menopause or due to infertility) to bring her pleasure and promulgate their intimacy. Also, food can be enjoyed by remembering that it is necessary to eat, but by thanking God for making it an enjoyable process and by not overeating or eating wastefully.
Modern normative Judaism is in opposition to the lifestyle of asceticism and sometimes cast the Nazirite vow in a critical light. There did exist some ascetic Jewish sects in ancient times, most notably the Essenes and Ebionites. Further, some early Kabbalists may have led a lifestyle that could be regarded as ascetic. And the more extreme forms of self-mortification practiced by early mystical sects of Judaism were shunned by the Hassidic movement. Because these practices of self-mortification would lead to downheartedness, the Ba'al Shem Tov said this is not the right state for someone to be worshipping Hashem (God).
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Christian authors of late antiquity such as Origen, Jerome, St. Ignatius, John Chrysostom, and Augustine interpreted meanings of Biblical texts within a highly asceticized religious environment. Scriptural examples of asceticism could be found in the lives of John the Baptist, Jesus, the twelve apostles and the Apostle Paul. The Dead Sea Scrolls revealed ascetic practices of the ancient Jewish sect of Essenes who took vows of abstinence to prepare for a holy war. An emphasis on an ascetic religious life was evident in both early Christian writings (see the Philokalia) and practices (see hesychasm). Other Christian practitioners of asceticism include individuals such as Simeon Stylites, Saint David of Wales and Francis of Assisi.
Sexual abstinence was only one aspect of ascetic renunciation. The ancient monks and nuns had other, equally weighty concerns: pride, humility, compassion, discernment, patience, judging others, prayer, hospitality and almsgiving. For some early Christians, gluttony represented a more primordial problem than lust and as such the reduced intake of food is also a facet of asceticism. As an illustration, the systematic collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the desert fathers and mothers has more than twenty chapters divided by theme; only one chapter is devoted to porneia ("sexual lust"). Nowadays, the monastic state of Mount Athos, having a history of over a millennium, is a center of Christian spirituality and asceticism in Eastern Orthodox tradition.
The Islamic word for asceticism is zuhd (Zuhd in Islam).
SunniMohammed is quoted to have said,
"What have I to do with worldly things? My connection with the world is like that of a traveler resting for a while underneath the shade of a tree and then moving on."
He advised the general people to live simple lives and himself practiced great austerities. Even when he had become the virtual king of Arabia, he lived an austere life bordering on privation. His wife Ayesha said that there was hardly a day in his life when he had two square meals. The prophet advised against wearing rich silken cloths. He himself is said to have only worn some izaars together with a sheet that covered his upper body. A narration reports that he would sleep on the ground, on a mat made of coarse straw, and the markings of the straw would be impressed on his skin when he got up. When he was gifted a new izaar, he preferred to wear the old ones he had.
While out right Monasticism is forbidden in Islam, Muslims are encouraged to view this life as a transitory period bordering on a mirage. As such, a Muslim is advised to establish a balance between living this life to its fullest (i.e. seeking family, wealth, position and other such worldly pursuits) and remembering that whatever this life offers will be over when his/her life is over, hence the metaphor of a traveler resting in an oasis before moving on to their ultimate destination. The trick to achieving this balance then is to partake but not indulge in what this world/life has to offer. A Muslim is warned that this world is very insidious and charming and can easily overwhelm and beguile those of weaker character and force them to forget the real reason we (as human beings) are here; that is, to work hard and do the good acts and deeds of worship and charity that would eventually save us on Judgement Day. It is from this point of view of life that the concept of "zuhd" came to being. Reducing (but not shunning) one's interaction and needs of this world reduces the chances that a Muslim will fall prey to its charms and frees him/her to pursue a more pure state of life.
The main branch in Islam that practises ascetism is Sufism. It is a mystic denomination in Islam, and a Muslim ascetic is referred to as a Sufi.
Later generations of Muslims would build on this basic concept and spawn many philosophical and intellectual schools of thought regarding the true nature of man in this world, giving rise to many of the sufi movements of later centuries.
In Zoroastrianism, active participation in life through good thoughts, good words and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep the chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster's concept of free will and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of asceticism and monasticism.
Examples of secular asceticism:
- A starving artist is someone who minimizes their living expenses in order to spend more time and effort on their art.
- Many professional athletes abstain from sex, rich foods, and other pleasures before major competitions in order to mentally prepare themselves for the upcoming contest.
- Straight edge people abstain from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and casual sex as part of a sub-culture lifestyle choice.
- A secular person may practice an ascetic lifestyle for a day, month, or an extended period of time as a test of will.
- Some secular meditation practices require ascetic lifestyles.
- Living ascetically for a period of time may also be in honor of a tradition (e.g. remembering ancestors and their struggles) or a purpose, such as protesting over-indulgent living, etc.
- A secular person might practice asceticism when taking part in a hunger strike.
Religious versus secular motivation
The observation of an ascetic lifestyle can be found in both religious and secular settings. For example, practices based on a religious motivation might include fasting, abstention from sex, and other forms of self-denial intended to increase religious awareness or attain a closer relationship with a purported "divine". Non-religious (or not specifically religious) practices might be seen in such an example as Spartans undertaking regimens of severe physical discipline to prepare for battle.
In the third essay ("What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?") from his book On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche discusses what he terms the "ascetic ideal" and its role in the formulation of morality along with the history of the will. In the essay, Nietzsche describes how such a paradoxical action as asceticism might serve the interests of life: through asceticism one can overcome their desire to perish from pain and despair and attain mastery over oneself. In this way one can express both ressentiment and the will to power. Nietzsche describes the morality of the ascetic priest as characterized by Christianity as one where, finding oneself in pain or despair and desiring to perish from it, the will to live causes one to place oneself in a state of hibernation and denial of the material world in order to minimize that pain and thus preserve life, a technique which Nietzsche locates at the very origin of secular science as well as of religion. He associated the "ascetic ideal" with Christian decadence.
- Aesthetism (opposite)
- Arthur Schopenhauer
- Decadence (usually opposite)
- Desert Mothers
- Egotism (opposite)
- Gustave Flaubert
- Hedonism (opposite)
- Paradox of hedonism
- Sensory deprivation
- Simple living
- Temperance (virtue)
- Valantasis, Richard. The Making of the Self: Ancient and Modern Asceticism. James Clarke & Co (2008) ISBN 978-0-227-17281-0.
|Look up asceticism in , the free dictionary.|
- Asketikos- articles, research, and discourse on asceticism.
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