ASCETICISM AND MONASTICISM
Material comforts which cater to the desires of the body have al-
ways been recognized as obstacles to finer sensitivity to matters of the
spirit. Asceticism, austerities, and severe discipline of the body are
therefore recommended in order to reduce the claims of the body on the
concerns of the soul. Fasting, chastity, simple food, and control of
sleep are salutary practices for enriching the spiritual life. One who
wishes to devote himself purely to a religious goal might wish to sever
the competing claims of worldly affairs by adopting the secluded and some-
times solitary life of a monk or nun. The paths of asceticism and monast-
icism are the topics of this section.
The first group of passages deal with the ascetic life as defined
in the religions of South Asia. Hindu tradition--in the passage from the
Laws of Manu quoted here--advocates that every brahmin spend the last
quarter of his life, after his children are grown, as a solitary ascetic
in the forest, devoting himself to meditation and the goal of liberation
(moksha) as he formerly had devoted himself to success at worldly affairs.
He would receive his sustenance by begging in the neighboring villages,
and villagers earn religious merit by offering of their food to the wand-
This ideal of renunciation in retirement is difficult enough; few
Hindus actually practice it. But there have always been heroic souls who
dedicate their entire lives to the solitary path. Rather than a stage of
life, monkhood may be a religious vocation for anyone serious about reach-
ing the goal of liberation and Nirvana. Lifelong renunciation is the
practice of Buddhist and Jain monks, who follow the examples of their
founders; Buddha and Mahavira began as leaders of monastic orders.
The next several passages enjoin fasting; it is salutary for all
people, not only monastics. In Islam, fasting is a duty for every Muslim
during the month of Ramadan. A text from Native American religion encour-
ages fasting as a way to gain spiritual support and help in life's trials.
The Christian teaching on chastity was originally meant for anyone
who could receive it; many of the early disciples sought to practice this
ideal by having chaste marriages. Based on this scriptural foundation,
Christian monasticism grew and took institutional form in order to provide
a supportive setting for those who wished to take vows of poverty and
chastity, who valued the love of Christ which surpasses the love of women.
As a later development, Christian monasticism is not explicitly regulated
by scripture. It has taken a wide variety of forms, from solitary hermits
and begging mendicants to orders dedicated to nursing, teaching, scholar-
ship, and other forms of service to the world.
The last group of passages is critical of asceticism and monastic-
ism; such critiques of asceticism are found in nearly every tradition
where it is practiced. They are of two kinds: first that the ascetic
practice is fraught with striving for spiritual achievement that is itself
egotistical and vain. The true spiritual path is self-emptying, but
accomplishing severe austerities can cause one to be puffed up with pride.
Without denying the value of asceticism, there are various correctives to
its abuse: pure faith, devotion, charity, and the inner path of medita-
tion. The second criticism is that monkhood is incompatible with the gen-
erative and productive life of the world which is ordained by God. Thus
Hinduism counterposes to the efficacy of asceticism for spiritual success
the requirement to have progeny and care for them as the measure of world-
ly responsibility; there is a proper dharma for each in its own time and
place. Islam and Sikhism both condemn monasticism, or at least those
varieties of monasticism which take people out of the economic and social
life where they should be contributing and leavening the society by their
The blue-necked peacock which flies through the air never approaches the
speed of the swan. Similarly, the householder can never resemble the monk
who is endowed with the qualities of the sage, who meditates, aloof, in
Buddhism. Sutta Nipata 221
They who practice austerity and faith in the forest,
The peaceful knowers who live on alms,
Depart passionless through the door of the sun,
To where is that immortal Person, even the imperishable Spirit.
Hinduism. Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.11
"Revile not, harm not, live by rule restrained;
Of food take little; sleep and sit alone;
Keep thy mind bent upon the higher thought."
Such is the message of awakened ones.
Buddhism. Udana 43, Meghiya
Go on the begging tour, stay in a forest, eat but a little, speak only
measured words, put up with misery, conquer sleep, practice friendship
with all and non-attachment in an excellent manner.
Jainism. Vattakera, Mulacara 981
In the first place the sage should relinquish attachments to objects,
whether animate or inanimate; he should then subdue his mind and senses;
and finally he should resort to mortification of the flesh in progress-
ively increasing intensity.... Only on complete obliteration of sensual-
ity can one forsake violence. This is the truth: realize it.
Jainism. Acarangasutra 4.40, 45
To fill life to the brim is to invite [evil] omens.
If the heart makes calls upon the life-breath, rigidity follows.
Whatever has a time of vigor also has a time of decay.
Such things are against the Tao,
And whatever is against the Tao is soon destroyed.
Taoism. Tao Te Ching 55
Mulacara 981: On the Rule for Jain ascetics, see Acarangasutra 2.15, p.
169. Acarangasutra 4.40, 45: Cf. the description of Mahavira's ascetic
life in Acarangasutra 9, pp. 657f.
The gods themselves for a sight of Thee have done penance, fasted, and
Yogis and celibates have practiced austerities, and adopted ochre robes.
For Thee, Lord, are all seekers dyed in devotion.
Innumerable Thy names, countless Thy forms, inexpressible Thy attributes.
The devotees questing after Thee have renounced home,
Mansions luxurious, elephants and chargers,
And sojourned into strange lands.
Saints and prophets, seekers and devotees--
Such have renounced the world and met with Thy acceptance.
They renounced pleasures, comfort, joys of the palate;
Gave up clothing and wrapped themselves in hides.
Ever restless, making agonized search for Thy Portal,
They dyed themselves in Thy name, and trod the hermit's path.
Sikhism. Adi Granth, Asa, M.1, p. 358
But having passed the third part of life in the forest, a man may
live as an ascetic during the fourth part of his existence, after abandon-
ing all attachment to worldly objects....
Worlds, radiant in brilliancy, become the portion of him who re-
cites [the texts regarding] Brahman and departs from his house as an asce-
tic, after giving a promise of safety to all created beings.
For that twice-born man, by whom not the smallest danger even is
caused to created beings, there will be no danger from any quarter, after
he is freed from his body.
Departing from his house fully provided with the means of purifica-
tion let him wander about absolutely silent, and caring nothing for enjoy-
ments that may be offered to him.
Let him always wander alone, without any companion, in order to
attain [final liberation], fully understanding that the solitary man, who
neither forsakes nor is forsaken, gains his end.
He shall neither possess a fire, nor a dwelling; he may go to a
village for his food, indifferent to everything, firm in purpose, meditat-
ing and concentrating his mind on God.
A potsherd [for an alms-bowl], the roots of trees [for a dwelling],
coarse worn-out garments, life in solitude, and indifference towards
everything are the marks of one who has attained liberation.
Let him not desire to die, let him not desire to live; let him wait
for [his appointed] time, as a servant for the payment of his wages.
Let him put down his foot purified by his sight [i.e., watching not
to step on any creature], let him drink water purified by straining with a
cloth [so as not to swallow any creature], let him utter speech purified
by truth, let him keep his heart pure.
Let him patiently bear hard words, let him not insult anybody, and
let him not become anybody's enemy for the sake of his body.
Against an angry man let him not in return show anger, let him
bless when he is cursed, and let him not utter speech, devoid of truth,
scattered at the seven gates.
Delighted in what refers to the Soul, sitting [in yoga postures],
independent, entirely abstaining from sensual enjoyments, with himself for
his only companion, he shall live in this world, desiring the bliss [of
Let him go to beg once a day, let him not be eager to obtain a
large quantity of alms; for an ascetic who eagerly seeks alms attaches
himself also to sensual enjoyments.
When no smoke ascends from the kitchen, when the pestle lies
motionless, when the embers have been extinguished, when the people have
finished their meal, when the remnants in the dishes have been removed,
let the ascetic always go to beg.
Let him not be sorry when he obtains nothing, nor rejoice when he
obtains, let him accept only so much as will sustain life, let him not
care about the utensils.
Let him disdain all obtained in consequence of humble salutations,
for even an ascetic who has attained final liberation is fettered by
accepting food given in consequence of humble salutations.
By eating little, and by standing and sitting in solitude, let him
restrain his sense, if they are attracted to sensual objects.
By the restraint of his senses, by the destruction of love and
hatred, and by the abstention from injuring the creatures, he becomes fit
Hinduism. Laws of Manu 6.33-60
O believers, prescribed for you is the Fast, even as it was pre-
scribed for those that were before you--haply you will be god-fearing--
for days numbered; and if any of you be sick, or if he be on a
journey, then a number of other days; and for those who are able to fast,
a redemption by feeding a poor man. Yet better it is for him who volun-
teers good, and that you should fast is better for you, if you know;
the month of Ramadan, wherein the Qur'an was sent down to be a
guidance to the people, and as clear signs of the Guidance and the Sal-
vation. So let those of you, who are present at the month, fast it; and
if any of you be sick, or if he be on a journey, then a number of other
days; God desires ease for you, and desires not hardship for you; and that
you fulfill the number, and magnify God that He has guided you, and haply
you will be thankful.
Islam. Qur'an 2.183-85
Asa, M.1: In Sikhism, devotion to God is the root of all true asceticism.
Austerities are valueless as exercises in themselves; they have value
only when done in devotion. Laws of Manu 6.33-60: This is the fundamental
rule of Hindu asceticism, adopted with only minor variations by Jains and
Buddhists as well. Cf. Uttaradhyayana Sutra 2.12-13, p. 775; Matthew
10.1-20, p. 821.
My son, you ought to be of some help to your fellow men, and for that rea-
son I counsel you to fast. Our grandfather who stands in our midst sends
forth all kinds of blessings. Try then and obtain one of these. Try to
have one of our grandfathers, one of the War Chiefs, pity you. Then some
day as you travel along the road [of life], you will know what to do and
encounter no obstacles. Without any trouble you will then be able to seek
the prize you desire. Then the honor will be yours to glory in, for with-
out any exertion have you obtained it. All the war power that exists has
been donated to our grandfathers who are in control of warfare, and, if,
reverently, you thirst yourself to death, then they will bestow blessings
upon you. Now if you do not wear out your feet, if you do not blacken
your face with charcoal, it will be for naught that you inflict suffering
upon yourself. These blessings are not obtainable without effort. Try to
have one of all the spirits created by Earthmaker take pity upon you.
Whatever he says will come about. If you do not possess a spirit to
strengthen you, you will be of no consequence and the people will show you
Native American Religions. A Winnebago Father's
[Jesus] said to them, "Not all men can receive this saying, but only those
to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth,
and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are
eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of
Heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it."
Christianity. Matthew 19.12
It is well for a man not to touch a woman, but because of the temp-
tation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her
own husband.... I say this by way of concession, not of command. I wish
that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God,
one of onekind and one of another....
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious
about the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious
about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are div-
ided. And the unmarried woman or virgin is anxious about the affairs of
the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is
anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for
your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good
order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
Christianity. 1 Corinthians 7.1-2,6-7,32-35
Winnebago Father's Precepts: The grandfathers are spirits created by
Earthmaker who are in control of the powers for victory on the journey of
life, which is metaphorically represented by the warpath. The 'grand-
father who stands in our midst' is the spirit of the fire around which
this teaching was given. The expression 'wear out your feet' refers to
frequent journeys to the fasting lodge, which is of some distance from the
village. On the value of fasting, cf. Chuang Tzu 19, p. 737. 1 Corin-
thians 7.1-35: Paul himself lived a celibate life, wholly devoted to the
Lord. He recognized that his ability to function as a celibate apostle
was a 'special gift' which he valued highly, and he wished that all could
live as he did. Celibacy is valuable, because the unmarried person is
free to devote him or herself totally to God, while the person caught up
in the affairs of home and family has divided attentions. Paul advises
those who are able to follow his example, but he also recognizes that it
is a difficult course that is not for everyone.
Some invent harsh penances. Motivated by hypocrisy and egoism, they
torture their innocent bodies and Me who dwells within. Blinded by their
strength and passion, they act and think like demons.
Hinduism. Bhagavad Gita 17.5-6
Engaged in most difficult fasting, over six years his body became steadily
emaciated.... But tormenting his body through such austerities availed
him nothing. "This is not the way to achieve passionlessness, enlighten-
ment, liberation. How can it be reached by a man who is not calm and at
ease, who is so exhausted by hunger and thirst that his mind is unba-
Buddhism. Ashvaghosha, Buddhacarita 12.95-101
O brother, wither away your sensuality, passions, and egotism. There is
no benefit in emaciating this gross body [through penances]. We will
never praise you merely because of your withered body.
Jainism. Nisitha-bhasya 3758
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do
you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to
regulations, "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (referring to
things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and
doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor
of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of
no value, serving only to indulge the flesh. If then you have been raised
with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at
the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on
things that are on earth.
Christianity. Colossians 2.20-3.2
Formerly in the Pine Forest there were brahmins doing austerities, vying
with each other in various ways, but they did not achieve success. Then
they thought, "The sages did not speak the truth when they said that
success in everything is obtained by asceticism." Overcome by impatience,
they put aside their asceticism and became atheists. But at this time a
voice said to them, "Do not despise the scriptures, do not blame ascet-
icism or dharma, but blame yourselves. You strive against each other,
desiring success, and because of that your asceticism is fruitless,
destroyed by desire, egoism, anger, and greed. A man achieves perfection
in asceticism only when he looks upon another man's wife as if she were
his mother. Propitiate the linga of Shiva and you will obtain success."
Hinduism. Skanda Purana 5.2.11
Bhagavad Gita 17.5-6: This and the following passages condemn ascetic
striving which is motivated by egoism or infected by pride. Any auster-
ities done for the purpose of attaining something are futile. Skanda
Purana 5.2.11: The context of this passage is the story of the sages'
mistrust of their wives, whom they believed to have been seduced by Shiva.
Devotion to Shiva permits the brahmins to transcend the egoistic motiva-
tion for their asceticism.
If a man should go naked... feed on potherbs, wild rice, or Nivara
seeds...wear coarse hempen cloth, or carry out any other [ascetic] prac-
tices... yet the state of blissful attainment in conduct, in heart, in
intellect, have not been practiced by him, realized by him, then he is far
from shramanaship, far from brahminship. But from the time, O Kassapa,
when a monk has cultivated the heart of love that knows no anger, that
knows no ill will--from the time when, by the destruction of the deadly
intoxications, he dwells in that emancipation of heart, that emancipation
of mind, that is free from those intoxications, and that he, while yet in
this visible world, has come to realize and know--from that time, O
Kassapa, is it that the monk is called a shramana, is called a brahmin!
Buddhism. Digha Nikaya i.167, Kassapasihanada Sutta
Should one perform a million ritual acts and of these be proud,
they leave him only fatigued, and are of little avail.
One who performs innumerable austerities and for these bears pride,
shall remain caught in transmigration, moving between heaven and hell.
With all a man's effort, should his self not turn compassionate,
How may he have access to the Divine Portal?
Sikhism. Adi Granth, Gauri Sukhmani 12, M.5, p. 278
There was a great seer of strict vows, foremost of those wise in the law,
the learned ascetic Mandapala. He followed the path of the seers who held
up their seed [in chastity], austere and master of his senses. After he
had abandoned his body, he attained to the world of the ancestors. Yet he
failed to find the fruit of his acts there. Finding his worlds without
reward, although he had won them with his asceticism, he questioned the
celestials: "Why are these worlds that I won with my austerities closed to
me? Where did I fail that this should be the results of my acts?" They
said, "Men are born indebted to rites, to the study of the Veda, and to
offspring, doubt it not. You are an ascetic and a sacrificer, but you
have no offspring; these worlds are closed to you because of this matter
of offspring. A son saves his father from the hell called Put, Hermit.
Therefore, O brahmin, strive for the continuity of children!"
Digha Nikaya i.167: Asceticism does not help one who has not overcome his
doubts, according to Sutta Nipata 249, p. 860. Devadatta taught an excessive
rigorism in order to cause a schism in the order: see Vinaya Pitaka ii.184-98,
pp. 448f. The 'deadly intoxications' are: lusts of the flesh, craving after
being (immortality), and the defilements of delusion and ignorance. Gauri
Sukhmani 12: Cf. Suhi, M.1, p. 964; Var Sarang, M.1, p. 1013; Itivuttaka 19, p.
969; Precious Garland 406-12, pp. 413f. Mahabharata 1.220: The juxtaposition
of asceticism and procreation as incompatible yet necessary goods is typical of
Hindu thought. On the kinds of indebtedness, see Satapatha Brahmana 184.108.40.206-5,
p. 780. Cf. Laws of Manu 11.10, p. 814.
We sent Jesus son of Mary, and gave him the Gospel, and placed compassion
and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him. But monasticism they
invented--We ordained it not for them--only seeking God's pleasure, and
they observed it not with right observance. So We give those who believe
their reward, but many of them are evil-livers.
Islam. Qur'an 57.27
Qur'an 57.27: Muslim commentators note that the Qur'an approves of the
asceticism and humility enjoined by the gospels: see Qur'an 5.82-83,
p. 64. But monasticism is rejected, inasmuch as in its cloistered forms
it takes believers out of the world while they should be mingling with
others and upholding the Truth through service and example. Sikhism has
a similar critique of otherworldly asceticism; see Suhi, M.1, p. 964.
Mahayana Buddhism also downplays the value of otherworldliness, as seen in
the Teaching of Vimalakirti 2, p. 965.