Ascetics

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Harshananda

Asceticism is a very ancient institution. Munis (men of contemplation) and yatis (men of self-control) are mentioned even in the Rgveda. One of the four āśramas (stages of life) is Samnyāsa (monastic life).Dissatisfaction with the worldly life, hope of finding eternal peace and faith in the state of liberation called mokṣa, must have prompted some people to take to the ascetic way of life as a means to their cherished goal. There is reason to believe that such ascetics existed in good numbers.

Virtues of an Ascetic

Virtues extolled in the Vedic and Upaniṣadic literature are :

  1. Tapas - Austerity
  2. Vairāgya - Detachment
  3. Tyāga - Renunciation
  4. Brahmacarya - Celibacy

Disciplines followed by an Ascetic

Prescribed disciplines which they had to assiduously cultivate were :

  1. Tapas - Austerity including mortification of the flesh
  2. Brahmacarya - Celibacy
  3. Jñāna and Vidyā - Learning
  4. Yoga - Contemplation and meditation

Outlook & material assets of an Ascetic

Modes of dress varied from stark nakedness to wearing ochre-colored robes. Wearing just a kaupīnam (loincloth) or tattered garment picked up from the roadside was often commended. Other possessions permitted were :

  1. Kamaṇdalu - Waterpot
  2. Pavitra - Cloth used as strainer
  3. Daṇḍa - Staff
  4. Pātra - Vessel of gourd for food
  5. Śikya - Loop of rope to carry the food-pot
  6. A pair of tongs for tending fire


There were ascetics who lived alone and others who lived in groups, sometimes building monasteries for their stay and activities. Several orders of ascetics have been known to exist, such as sariinyāsins (including the daśanāmis), bairāgis, kabīr- panthis and so on. Each of these orders had its own methods of initiation for the novices desiring to enter it. Though ascetic life was permissible only for the dvijas (‘twice-born’) in the earlier days, later history of asceticism shows that people from all castes have taken to it. Women also could become ascetics though for obvious reasons, their number and orders were very much less.


References

  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore