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Ascetics and Brahmins


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328 Pages


A collection of Patrick Olivelle’s papers on Indian ascetical institutions and ideologies.

This volume brings together a variety of Patrick Olivelle’s papers on Indian ascetical institutions and ideologies that have been published over the past thirty or so years. Asceticism represents a major strand in the religious and cultural history of India, providing some of the most creative elements within Indian religions and philosophies. Most of the major religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and the religious philosophies both within these new religions and in the Brahmanical tradition, were created by world-renouncing ascetics. Ascetical institutions and ideologies developed in a creative tension with other religious institutions that stressed the centrality of family, procreation and society, and it is this tension that has articulated many of the central features of Indian religion and culture. The papers collected in this volume seek to locate Indian ascetical traditions within their historical, political and ideological contexts.

Abbreviations; Preface; 1. Introduction to Renunciation in the Hindu Traditions; 2. The Ascetic and the Domestic in Brahmanical Religiosity; 3. Village vs. Wilderness: Ascetic Ideals and the Hindu World; 4. A Definition of World Renunciation; 5. From Feast to Fast: Food and the Indian Ascetic; 6. The Beast and the Ascetic: The Wild in the Indian Religious Imagination; 7. Deconstruction of the Body in Indian Asceticism; 8. Contributions to the Semantic History of ‘samnyasa’; 9. The Semantic History of ‘asrama’; 10. Renunciation in the ‘Samnyasa Upanisads’; 11. Odes of Renunciation; 12. Ritual Suicide and the Rite of Renunciation; 13. The Renouncer’s Staff: ‘trivistabdha’, ‘tridanda’, and ‘ekadanda’; 14. ‘Pancamasramavidhi’: Rite for Becoming a Naked Ascetic; 15. Anandatirtha’s ‘Samnyasapaddhati’: A Handbook for Madhvaite Ascetics; 16. Renouncer and Renunciation in the ‘Dharmasastras’; 17. King and Ascetic: State Control of Asceticism in the ‘Arthasastra’; Bibliography; Index



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Cultural, Historical and Textual Studies of Religions

The volumes featured in the AnthemCultural, Historical and
Textual Studies of Religionsseries are the expression of an
international community of scholars committed to the reshaping
of the field of textual and historical studies of religions. Titles in this
series examine practice, ritual, and other textual religious products,
crossing different area studies and time frames. Featuring a vast
range of interpretive perspectives, this innovative series aims
to enhance the way we look at religious traditions.

Series Editor

Federico Squarcini, University of Firenze, Italy

Editorial Board

Piero Capelli, University of Venezia, Italy
Vincent Eltschinger, ICIHA, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria
Christoph Emmrich, University of Toronto, Canada
James Fitzgerald, Brown University, USA
Jonardon Ganeri, University of Sussex, UK
Barbara A. Holdrege, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
Sheldon Pollock, Columbia University, USA
Karin Preisendanz, University of Vienna, Austria
Alessandro Saggioro, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy
Cristina Scherrer-Schaub, University of Lausanne and EPHE, France
Romila Thapar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India
Ananya Vajpeyi, University of Massachusetts Boston, USA
Marco Ventura, University of Siena, Italy
Vincenzo Vergiani, University of Cambridge, UK



Patrick Olivelle

Anthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company

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Copyright © Patrick Olivelle 2011

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ISBN-13: 978 0 85728 432 7 (Hbk)
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This title is also available as an eBook.













Introduction to Renunciation in the Hindu Traditions

The Ascetic and the Domestic in Brahmanical Religiosity

Village vs. Wilderness: Ascetic Ideals and the Hindu World

A Definition of World Renunciation

From Feast to Fast: Food and the Indian Ascetic

The Beast and the Ascetic: The Wild in the Indian
Religious Imagination

Deconstruction of the Body in Indian Asceticism

Contributions to the Semantic History of Sa∫nyåsa

The Semantic History of å†rama

10. Renunciation in the Sa∫nyåsaUpanißads

11. Odes of Renunciation

12. Ritual Suicide and the Rite of Renunciation

















13. The Renouncer’s Staff: triviß™abdha,tridañ∂a,
and ekadañ∂a

14.Pa∞camå†ramavidhi:Rite for Becoming a Naked Ascetic

15.Ånandatœrtha’s Sa∫nyåsapaddhati: A Handbook for
Madhvaite Ascetics

16. Renouncer and Renunciation in the Dharma†åstras

17. King and Ascetic: State Control of Asceticism
in the Artha†åstra












Aitareya Bråhmaña
Åpastamba Dharmasütra
ÅruñiUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
Baudhåyana Dharmasütra
Bhagavad Gœtå
BrahmaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
B®had-AvadhütaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
B®hat-Sa∫nyåsaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
Gautama Dharmasütra
Gopatha Bråhmaña
JåbålaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
Jaiminœya Bråhmaña
Jœvanmuktiviveka of Vidyårañya
Kå™hakaSa∫hitåof the Black Yajur Veda
Ka™ha†rutiUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)







Liõganirüpaña. The third chapter of Yådava Prakå†a’s
Yatidharmasamuccaya. Ed. and tr. in Olivelle 1986—87. See also Olivelle 1995a
Laghu-Sa∫nyåsaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
MaitreyaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
Månava Dharma†åstra
Maitråyañœ Sa∫hitåof the Black Yajur Veda
NåradaparivråjakaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
Ånandånubhava,Nyåyaratnadœpåvali.Ed. and tr. in Olivelle 1986—87
Pårå†ara-Mådhavœya.Mådhava’s commentary on the Parå†ara-sm®ti
Paramaha∫sa-parivråjakaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
Paramaha∫saUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
Pürva-mœmå∫så-sütra of Jaimini.
Sa∫nyåsaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
‡å™yåyanœyaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
‡atapatha Bråhmaña
Taittirœya Bråhmaña
TaittirœyaSa∫hitåof the Black Yajur Veda
TuryåtœtåvadhütaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)
Vasiß™ha Dharmasütra
Vißñu Dharmasütra
Vinaya Pi™aka
Vaikhånasa Dharmasütra
VåjanaseyiSa∫hitåof the White Yajur Veda
WienerZeitschrift f rdieKundeS dasiens
Yatiliõgabhedabhaõgavåda.The 64th chapter of Vedånta De†ika’s
‡atadüßañœ.Ed. and tr. in Olivelle 1986—87.
Yåj∞avalkya Dharma†åstra
Yatidharmasa∫graha of Vi†ve†vara Sarasvatœ
Yatiliõgasamarthana. The tenth chapter of Varadaråjasüri’s
Prameyamålå.Ed. and tr. in Olivelle 1986—87.
Yatidharmaprakå†a of Våsudevå†rama (Olivelle 1976—77)
Yåj∞avalkyaUpanißad(Schrader 1912, Olivelle 1992)


This is the second volume of my collected papers. The first was
published under the title Language, Texts,and Society: Explorations in
AncientIndian Culture and Religion,in the same series as this volume.
That volume included papers dealing with Indian culture and
religion in general and with ancient Sanskrit texts. The present volume
brings together papers dealing specifically with Indian asceticism.
This volume was also the brainchild of Federico Squarcini. I thank
him for his assiduous work on both volumes.
The papers included in this volume span thirty years. Many
represent my earliest work. It is quite natural that as one matures both in
years and, hopefully, in wisdom, one’s approaches and theoretical
models change. It would have been impractical and unwise to rewrite
all my earlier papers. Wherever necessary I have added notes to
indicate my evolving views;sometimes I have improved my prose;and
frequently, I have updated the bibliography and added the Sanskrit text
to translations. I have deleted portions that were redundant because
of other works I have published subsequently. Even though some of
these papers are now dated, I hope bringing them together in a
single volume will prove to be helpful to scholars and students.
Most of the individuals who have helped my intellectual
development over the years I have thanked in the preface to the first volume
of my collected papers. In my early years in the academe when many
of the papers collected here were written, the Department of
Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, provided a
nurturing atmosphere. I thank all my colleagues there for many
happy and productive years. Two of my students helped me with the
preparation of this volume. Spencer Johnson made electronic
versions of many of the papers written before the advent of the
computer. Mark McClish prepared the index.



My wife Suman has been a collaborator in all my research
endeavors, especially those involving the painstaking reading of
manuscripts. My daughter Meera, now a wonderful young —recently
married—woman, bore with patience and good humor the strange
activities of her parents.

Patrick Olivelle
Austin, March 2006



Introduction toRenunciation
in theHinduTraditions*

Shaven-headed and clad in yellow-orange robes—whether they
are Buddhist monks in Thailand, Sadhus in the Indian countryside,
or Hare Krishnas in American airports—that is the enduring image of
Indian religion that many westerners carry in their minds. The
cultural institution behind these modern manifestations, an institution
which we have chosen to call the“renouncer tradition”, is very old. It
goes back to about the middle of the first millennium BCEand took
shape along the mid-Gangetic plane in roughly what is today the
state of Bihar.
The image of Indian religion as essentially world-renouncing and
ascetic (Dumont 1960), however, is grossly inaccurate. Yet, behind
that image lies a kernel of truth: the renouncer tradition has been a
central and important ingredient in the socio-cultural mix that
contributed to the formation of the historical religions in India. As any
human institution, nevertheless, that kernel and the Indian religions
themselves changed over time and space.
The earliest historical information about the renouncer tradition
comes from the Upanißads and other Vedic writings, as well as from
Buddhist literary sources. Given the uncertainly of their dates,
however, it is impossible to give a precise or certain date to the origin of
that tradition: hence, my vague reference to“the middle of the first
millennium BCE.”The earliest datable source that attests to the
existence of the renouncer tradition is the A†okan inscriptions of the
middle of the third century BCE. Around this time, if I may be
permitted to generalize, two competing ascetic traditions appear to have
crystallized: anchorites living settled lives in forest hermitages cut off

*Originally published as“The Renouncer Tradition”in The Companion toHinduism,
ed. Gavin Flood, pp. 271—87. Oxford: Blackwell.



from social intercourse, and renouncers living itinerant lives in the
wilderness but in interaction with towns and villages from which they
begged their food.
An ancient Brahmanical law book describes the normative
lifestyle of anchorites:

An anchorite shall live in the forest, living on roots and fruits and given
to austerities. He kindles the sacred fire according to the procedure for
recluses and refrains from eating what is grown in a village. He may also
avail himself of the flesh of animals killed by predators. He should not
step on plowed land or enter a village. He shall wear matted hair and
clothes of bark or skin and never eat anything that has been stored for
more than a year. (GDh3.26—35)

The anchorite’s life is marked by his refusal to avail himself of any
product mediated by human culture. His clothing and food come
from the wild;he is not permitted to step on ploughed land, the
symbol of human culture and society. The anchorite has physically
withdrawn from society, even though he continues to participate in some
of the central religious activities of society, such as maintaining a
ritual fire and performing rituals. At least some of the anchorites may
have lived in family units;we hear often of wives and children living
in forest hermitages.
The renouncer, on the other hand, lives in proximity to civilized
society and in close interaction with it.

A mendicant shall live without any possessions, be chaste, and remain
in one place during the rainy season. Let him enter a village only to
obtain almsfood and go on his begging round late in the evening,
without visiting the same house twice and without pronouncing blessings.
He shall control his speech, sight, and actions;and wear a garment to
cover his private parts, using, according to some, a discarded piece of
cloth after washing it. Outside the rainy season, he should not spend
two nights in the same village. He shall be shaven-headed or wear a
topknot;refrain from injuring seeds;treat all creatures alike, whether
they cause him harm or treat him with kindness;and not undertake
ritual activities. (GDh3.11—25)

The renouncer’s withdrawal from society is not physical but
ideological. He does not participate in the most central of socio-religious
institutions: family and sex, ritual fire and ritual activities, a
permanent residence, and wealth and economic activities. He is a religious
beggar, depending on social charity for his most basic needs.
Of these two ascetic institutions, the one that became central to
the development of Indian religions and cultures was the
renouncer tradition. The hermit culture became obsolete at least by the
beginning of the common era and lived on only in poetic
imagination;some of the most beloved of Indian poetry and drama,
including the two great epics, Råmåyaña and Mahåbhårata,center around
hermit life in the forest. ‡akuntalå, the famous Indian heroine

Renunciation inHinduTraditions


immortalized by the Sanskrit playwright Kålidåsa, was a girl living in
a forest hermitage. But it had little historical influence on Indian


There is a long-standing and ongoing scholarly debate regarding
the origin of the renouncer tradition. To simplify a somewhat intricate
issue, some contend that the origins of Indian asceticism in general
and of the renouncer tradition in particular go back to the indigenous
non-Aryan population (Bronkhorst 1993, Pande 1978, Singh 1972).
Others, on the contrary, see it as an organic and logical development
of ideas found in the Vedic religious culture (Heesterman 1964).
It is time, I think, to move beyond this sterile debate and artificial
dichotomy. They are based, on the one hand, on the false premise
that the extant Vedic texts provide us with an adequate picture of the
religious and cultural life of that period spanning over half a
millennium. These texts, on the contrary, provide only a tiny window into
this period, and that too only throws light on what their priestly
authors thought it important to record. They are based, on the other
hand, on the untenable conviction that we can isolate Aryan and
non-Aryan strands in the Indian culture a millennium or more
removed from the original and putative Aryan migrations. It is
obvious that the ancient Indian society comprised numerous racial,
ethnic, and linguistic groups and that their beliefs and practices must
have influenced the development of Indian religions. It is quite a
different matter, however, to attempt to isolate these different strands
at any given point in Indian history (Olivelle 1993, 1995b).
It is a much more profitable exercise to study the social,
economic, political, and geographical factors along the Gangetic valley during
the middle of the first millennium BCEthat may have contributed to
the growth of ascetic institutions and ideologies (Olivelle 1993,
Gombrich 1988). This was a time of radical social and economic
change, a period that saw the second urbanization in India—after the
initial one over a millennium earlier in the Indus Valley—with large
kingdoms, state formation, a surplus economy, and long-distance
trade. Ambition, strategy, drive, and risk taking all played a role in
both a king’s quest for power and a merchant’s pursuit of wealth. A
similar spirit of individual enterprise is evident in a person’s decision
to leave home and family and to become a wandering mendicant. The
new social and economic realities of this period surely permitted and
even fostered the rise of rival religious ideologies and modes of life.

1.2.TheFormative PeriodofIndianReligions

The second half of the first millennium BCEwas the period that
created many of the ideological and institutional elements that



acterize later Indian religions. The renouncer tradition played a
central role during this formative period of Indian religious history.
Renouncers often formed groups around prominent and
charismatic ascetic leaders, groups that often developed into major
religious organizations. Some of them, such as Buddhism and Jainism,
survived as major religions;others, such as the Åjœvakas, existed for
many centuries before disappearing. Renunciation was at the heart
of these religions.
Even though the ideal of homeless wandering is often maintained
as a theological fiction, many of these renouncer groups, such as the
Buddhist and the Jain, organized themselves into monastic
communities with at least a semi-permanent residence. These communities
vied with each other to attract lay members, donors, and benefactors,
and for political patronage.
A significant feature of these celibate communities is that they
were voluntary organizations, the first such religious organizations
perhaps in the entire world, and their continued existence depended
on attracting new members. Another was the admission, at least in
some traditions such as the Buddhist and the Jain, of women and the
creation of female monastic communities. If voluntary celibate
communities that rejected marriage was remarkable even for men, it must
certainly have been revolutionary in the case of women.
The influence of renouncer practices and ideologies was not
limited to what we have come to regard as non-Hindu or “heterodox”
traditions;their influence can be seen within the Brahmanical
tradition itself. Indeed, during this early period of Indian history the very
division into“orthodox”and“heterodox”is anachronistic and
presents a distorted historical picture. Scholars in the past have argued
that some of the changes within the Brahmanical tradition, such as
the creation of the å†rama(orders of life) system, was instituted as a
defense mechanism against the onslaught of renunciation. Evidence
does not support such claims. The Brahmanical tradition was not a
monolithic entity. The debates, controversies, and struggles between
the new ideologies and lifestyles of renunciation and the older
ritualistic religion took place as much within the Brahmanical tradition as
between it and the new religions (Olivelle 1993). This struggle
created new institutions and ideas with that tradition, the å†ramasystem
being one of the more remarkable and enduring.
Some of the fundamental values and beliefs that we commonly
associate with Indian religions in general and Hinduism in
particular were at least in part the creation of the renouncer tradition.
These include the two pillars of Indian theologies: sa∫såra—the
belief that life in this world is one of suffering and subject to
repeated deaths and births (rebirth);mokßa/nirvåña—the goal of human

For a detailed study of this period see Olivelle 2006b.

Renunciation inHinduTraditions


existence and, therefore, of the religious quest is the search for
liberation from that life of suffering. All later Indian religious
traditions and sects are fundamentally ideologies that map the processes
of Sa∫såra and Mokßa and technologies that provide humans the
tools for escaping sa∫såric existence. Such technologies include
different forms of yoga and meditation. An offshoot of these ideologies
and technologies is the profound anti-ritualism evident in most later
traditions. In the areas of ethics and values, moreover, renunciation
was principally responsible for the ideals of non-injury (ahi∫så) and
Several of the renouncer movements that turned into major
religions were founded by people who had renounced the world,
Gautama Buddha and the Jina Mahåvœra in the case of Buddhism and
Jainism. Within these religions the monastic communities are at the
center of both theology and ecclesiastical structure.
Within the Brahmanical tradition, on the other hand, the
situation was more complex. In the old Vedic religion, the Brahmin was
the ritual specialist and religious leader, but these very functions
required that he get married and father children, activities
diametrically opposed to renunciation. We will examine diverse attempts to
integrate the ideals of these two poles of the tradition at both the
institutional and the theological level. The tension between the two
ideals of religious living, however, continued to exist throughout the
history of the Brahmanical and Hindu traditions.

1.3.Values in Conflict

The debate on the conflicting value systems of renunciation and
the society-oriental Vedic religion is recorded in many early texts and
revolved especially around the male obligation to marry, father
offspring, and carry out ritual duties. These obligations were given
theological expression is a novel doctrine, probably the result of that
very debate on values. The“doctrine of debts”posited that a man is
born with three debts—to gods, ancestors, and Vedic seers—debts from
which one can be freed only by offering sacrifices, begetting
offspring, and studying the Vedas. An ancient text waxes eloquent on
the importance of a son, who is viewed as the continuation of the
father and the guarantor of his immortality:

A debt he pays in him,
And immortality he gains,
The father who sees the face
Of his son born and alive.

Greater than the delights
That earth, fire, and water
Bring to living beings,
Is a father’s delight in his son. (AB7.13)



And in what appears to be a dig at ascetic claims, the same text

What is the use of dirt and deer skin?
What profit in beard and austerity?
Seek a son, O Brahmin,
He is the world free of blame.

The proponents of ascetic and renunciatory values, on the other
hand, dismiss these claims for sons and rituals. Their view of
immortality and liberation is centered not on outward activities but on
inward self-cultivation. Sons, sacrifices, and riches only guarantee the
return to a new life of suffering within the wheel of sa∫såra.An
Upanißad comments on the futility of sacrifices:

Surely, they are floating unanchored,
these eighteen forms of the sacrifice,
the rites within which are called inferior;
The fools who hail that as the best,
return once more to old age and death. (MuñU1.2.7)

The Upanißads also devalue the importance of marriage and

This immense, unborn self is none other than the one consisting of
perception here among the vital functions. It is when they desire him as
their world that wandering ascetics undertake the ascetic life of
wandering. It was when they knew this that men of old did not desire
offspring, reasoning“Ours is this self, and it is our world. What then is the
use of offspring for us?”(BU4.4.22)

This conflict in values and ideologies is often presented as a
contrast between village and wilderness, the normative geographical
spaces of society and renunciation. People inhabiting these spaces
are destined to vastly different paths after death, the villagers
returning back to the misery of earthly existence and ascetics proceeding
to immortality:

Now, the people who know this, and the people here in the wilderness
who venerate thus:“Austerity is faith”—they pass into the flame, from
the flame into the day, from the day into the fortnight of the waxing
moon, from the fortnight of the waxing moon into the six months when
the sun moves north, from these months into the year, from the year
into the sun, from the sun into the moon, and from the moon into
lightning. Then a person who is not human—he leads them to brahman. This
is the path leading to the gods.
The people here in villages, on the other hand, who venerate thus:
“Gift-giving is offerings to gods and to priests”—they pass into the
smoke, from the smoke into the night, from the night into the
fortnight of the waning moon, and from the fortnight of the waning moon
into the six months when the sun moves south. These do not reach the

Renunciation inHinduTraditions

year but from these months pass into the world of the fathers, and from
the world of the fathers into space, and from space into the moon. This
is King Soma, the food of the gods, and the gods eat it. They remain
there as long as there is a residue, and then they return by the same
path they went. (CU5.10.1—2)


The theological debates concerning the two value systems took
place as much within the Brahmanical circles as between the so-called
orthodox Brahmanism and the heterodox sects. The intense
discussion between K®ßña and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gœtåon the issue of
the relative value of renunciation and engagement in one’s socially
appointed duties is a classic example of such controversy and debate.


The system of four å†ramas (orders of life) was an early attempt to
institutionalize renunciation within Brahmanical social structures.
Created probably around the fourth century BCE, the system in its
original form proposed four alternate modes of religious living that
young adults could pursue after they had completed their period of
temporary studentship following Vedic initiation. These were:
continuing to be a student until death, getting married and setting up a
household, withdrawing to the forest as a hermit, or becoming a
renouncer (Olivelle 1993). This system, first recorded in the early
Dharmasütras composed between the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE,
envisaged a free choice among the å†ramas,which were viewed as
permanent and lifelong vocations. Here is one of the oldest descriptions
of the å†ramas:

There are four orders of life: the householder’s life, living at the
teacher’s house, the life of a sage, and that of a forest hermit. If a man
remains steadfast in any of these, he attains bliss. A common
prerequisite for all is to live at the teacher’s house following one’s initiation, and
all are required not to abandon Vedic learning. After he has learnt the
rites, he may undertake the order that he prefers.
Following the rules of a novice student, a student should serve his
teacher until death, leaving his body in his teacher’s house.
Next, the wandering ascetic. From that very state, remaining chaste, he
goes forth. With regard to him they admonish: “He should live as a
silent sage, without fire or house, without shelter or protection.”
Speaking only when he is engaged in private Vedic recitation and
obtaining food from a village to sustain himself, he should live without
any concern for this world or the next. Discarded clothes are prescribed
for him. Some say that he should go completely naked. Abandoning
truth and falsehood, pleasure and pain, the Vedas, this world and the
next, he should seek the Self. When he gains insight, he attains bliss.
Next, the forest hermit. From that very state, remaining chaste, he goes
forth. With regard to him they admonish:“He should live as a silent sage
with a single fire, but without house, shelter, or protection.”Let him
speak only when he is engaged in private Vedic recitation. Clothes made
of materials from the wild are prescribed for him. (ÅpDh 2.21.1—22.1)



The term å†rama is somewhat new in the Sanskrit vocabulary and
was probably coined to express a new reality. Contrary to the
common perception, the term did not refer to ascetic habitats or modes
of life, if by “ascetic”we understand values and institutions that
oppose Brahmanical values centered around the householder. On
the contrary, å†rama is a fundamentally Brahmanical concept and is
absent outside Brahmanical discourse. It referred originally to
habitats and life styles of exceptional Brahmins living apart from society
and devoted solely to austerities and rituals (see ch. 9).
The creators of the å†rama system took this term and concept
and extended it to all the legitimate modes of life, especially to
celibate asceticism. Evidence does not support the common assumption
that the system was created by conservative Brahmins with the
intention of resisting the new religious movements and of safeguarding
Brahmanical religion by incorporating the renunciatory lifestyle into
a scheme that would lessen its impact and reduce or eliminate the
conflict between it and the life of the householder. Elements of such
a motive may be detected in the later“classical”form of the system I
will discuss below. But the original system gives equal weight to all
å†ramasand, quite contrary to the normal Brahmanical attitude,
gives the candidates total freedom of choice among the competing
modes of life. Permitting choice, indeed, placed renunciation and
celibacy on an equal footing with household life. The authors of the
system in all likelihood came from the anti-ritualistic tradition
within Brahmanism, a tradition that finds expression in some of the
Upanißads. In light of the socio-economic conditions of northern
India during this time with possibly the beginning of the Maurya
empire, I am inclined to believe that the å†rama system was an urban
invention, or at least reflects the openness of an urban mentality.
This is reflected in the very nature of the original å†rama system. It
envisaged the å†ramasas voluntary institutions. People are free to
choose what they want to be as adults. The same principle was the
basis of other voluntary organizations of the time, such as Buddhist
and Jain monastic orders.
This novel proposal did not go unchallenged. Indeed, some of the
earliest sources that record the å†rama system present it as an
opponent’s view that is to be rejected. One important argument used
against the å†rama system was the theology of the three debts. The
obligation to father offspring is clearly stated in the authoritative
texts of the Veda. This injunction contradicts the central provision of
the å†rama system permitting a man to become a celibate renouncer
prior to marriage.
By the beginning of the common era, however, the å†rama
system underwent drastic changes that culminated in its classical
formulation. The å†ramas are now envisaged not as alternate modes of
life but as stages an individual goes through as he grows old. The first
å†rama in the new scheme is identified with the temporary period of

Renunciation inHinduTraditions


study following Vedic initiation. After completing this stage, a young
adult got married and raised a family;this is the second å†rama.
When the householder had settled his children, he withdrew into the
forest as a hermit. After a period of time in this stage, the man
became a renouncer during the final years of his life. Here å†ramas
are temporary modes of life corresponding to different age groups,
and choice is eliminated. This formulation reasserts the centrality of
the householder;the productive years of an adult’s life are spent as
an economically productive head of a household. The classical
formulation also avoided the problems posed by the theology of debts.
In the new system a man only took to renunciation and celibacy after
he had fulfilled his obligations to get married, beget offspring, and
offer sacrifices. In effect, the classical å†rama system transformed
renunciation from a life’s calling into an institution of old age, a
form of retirement.
Both these formulations of the system contained aspects of
artificiality. They answered to the requirements of theological and legal
minds demanding order;they did not reflect the usually chaotic
reality of social or religious institutions. In the original system the choice
of å†ramas was limited to a single moment of a young adult’s life;in
reality, as we know from numerous contemporary sources, married
people did leave their families and became renouncers. The classical
system limited renunciation to old age;in reality people of all ages
became renouncers. In time riders were attached to the classical
system permitting individuals with extraordinary zeal and detachment
to become renouncers early in life.
Attempts to blunt the opposition between domesticity and
celibate asceticism were at best only partially successful. Proponents of
asceticism objected especially to the fact that the grand compromise
of the å†rama system relegated asceticism to old age, equating it
thereby with retirement. The urgency of personal salvation could
not brook such postponement. An example comes from the Life of the
Buddha (Buddhacarita) written in the first centuryCEby A†vaghoßa,
a Brahmin who converted to Buddhism and became a Buddhist
monk. Although the setting is formally Buddhist, the dialogue
between the future Buddha and his father, Suddhodana, captures
the controversy both within and outside the Brahmanical
mainstream regarding the proper age for becoming an ascetic. When the
future Buddha informs his father of his intention to leave the world,
Suddhodana tells him:

Give up this plan, dear child;the time is not right for you to devote
yourself to religion (dharma). For in the first period of life, when the mind is
unsteady, the practice of religion, they say, can cause great harm.
His senses easily excited by sensual pleasures, a young man is incapable
of remaining steadfast when confronted with the hardships of ascetic
vows. So his mind recoils from the wilderness, especially because he is
unaccustomed to solitude.



The future Buddha replies:

I will not enter the penance grove, O king, if you will be the surety for
me in four things. My life shall not be subject to death. Sickness shall
not rob me of my health. Old age shall not strike down my youth. And
misfortune shall never plunder my wealth.

Given that separation is certain in this world, is it not better to
separate oneself voluntarily for the sake of religion?Or should I wait for
death to separate me forcibly even before I have reached my goal and
attained satisfaction. (A†vaghoßa, Buddhacarita, 5.30—38;selections;tr.

The rejection of the compromise proposed in the classical å†rama
system is presented vividly also in a conversation recorded in the
Mahåbhårata(12.169: selections) between a father, the guardian of
the old order, and his son, representing the troubled and anguished
spirit of the new religious world. This story, appearing as it does in
Jain (Uttarådhyayana,14) and Buddhist (Jåtaka,509), and later
Brahmanical (Markañ∂eya Puråña,ch. 10) texts as well, probably
belonged to the generic ascetic folklore before it was incorporated
into the Mahåbhårata.This text, just like the story of the Buddha,
points to the ascetic rejection of societal attempts to convert
asceticism into an institution of old age. To the son’s question regarding
how a person should lead a virtuous life, the father replies:

First, learn the Vedas, son, by living as a Vedic student. Then you should
desire sons to purify your forefathers, establish the sacred fires, and
offer sacrifices. Thereafter, you may enter the forest and seek to
become an ascetic.

The son retorts:

When the world is thus afflicted and surrounded on all sides, when
spears rain down, why do you pretend to speak like a wise man?

The world is afflicted by death. It is surrounded by old age. These days
and nights rain down. Why can’t you understand?

When I know that death never rests, how can I wait, when I am caught
in a net.

This very day do what’s good. Let not this moment pass you by, for
surely death may strike you even before your duties are done.

Tomorrow’s task today perform. Evening’s work finish before noon, for
death does not wait to ask whether your duties are done.

For who knows whom death’s legions may seize today. Practice good
from your youth, for uncertain is life’s erratic path.

Renunciation inHinduTraditions

The delight one finds in living in a village is truly the house of death,
while the wilderness is the dwelling place of the gods —so the Vedas

The delight one finds in living in a village is the rope that binds. The
virtuous cut it and depart, while evil-doers are unable to cut it.

In the self alone and by the self I am born, on the self I stand, and,
though childless, in the self alone I shall come into being;I will not be
saved by a child of mine.

The text concludes:

Of what use is wealth to you, O Brahmin, you who must soon die. Of
what use are even wife and relatives. Seek the self that has entered the
cave. Where have your father and grandfather gone?(Translation from
Winternitz 1923)



Renouncer groups both within and outside the Brahmanical
tradition developed their own literature, especially texts that dealt with
their modes of life and rules of conduct. The Buddhist and Jain
textual traditions are well known. Within Brahmanism itself we have
evidence of renouncer texts. The fourth-century BCEgrammarian Påñini
(4.3.110—111), for example, mentions the Bhikßusütras composed by
Pårå†arya and Karmandin. The Baudhåyana Dharmasütra(2.11.14;
3.3.16) mentions a treatise on forest hermits.
None of these early texts has survived. One of the reasons may
have been that discussions of ascetic life became incorporated in the
Dharma†åstras within the context of the å†rama system. Some of their
sections dealing with renouncers and forest hermits may, indeed, be
fragments from early handbooks for these ascetics. The epic
Mahåbhårata,likewise, contains similar fragments of ascetic literature
(Winternitz 1923). Sections of some of the early Upanißads may
reflect renouncer influence or literature.
Within the Brahmanical tradition, nevertheless, the only
surviving literature dealing with renunciation is embedded within the
Dharma†åstras. It was not until the early middle ages that
independent compositions dealing with the life of renouncers were composed.
These fall into the category called Nibandha, that is, scholarly texts
dealing with one or several elements of Dharma with copious
quotations from earlier Dharma†åstric treatises. One of the earliest
surviving texts of this class is the Yatidharmasamuccayaby Yådava Prakå†a
(12th century CE;Olivelle 1995a). Numerous other texts dealing with
the rite for becoming a renouncer, his daily life and activities, rules
governing his life, and his funeral were composed during medieval
times. Most of these have not been edited or printed and only exist in
manuscript (Olivelle 1976—77, 1986—87).



1.6.Sa∫nyåsa: AbandoningFire and Ritual

I have already alluded to an important aspect of renunciation
that cuts across sectarian divides: the refusal to use fire and the
rejection of ritual activities centered on the sacred fire. This led to
another central feature of renunciation: mendicancy. Renouncers
begged cooked food and not dry rations;without a fire they were not
able to cook. At least in some traditions, likewise, renouncers did
not follow the normal social custom of cremating their dead but
instead buried them. One of the reasons given for this practice is
again their refusal to use fire.
Although present also in Buddhist and Jain traditions, the
abandoning of the fire became a central feature especially in the
Brahmanical understanding of renunciation. The sacred fire and the
rituals connected with it are a central feature in the Vedic and
Brahmanical religion. The very first word of the very first hymn of the
very first text of the Veda, namely the¥gveda, is“Agni”, Fire—a
celebration of the fire god as the priest who conveys oblations to the gods,
who is the mouth of the gods in which all oblations are deposited.
Abandoning this paramount symbol of Vedic religion, therefore,
received special attention in this tradition.
Sometime toward the end of the first millennium BCEa new word
was coined to express this significant element of Brahmanical
renunciation. The word was sa∫nyåsa,which in later times became the most
common term in the Brahmanical/Hindu vocabulary for the
institution of renunciation (Olivelle 1981;below pp. 127—143). In the early
years, however, the term had a more restricted meaning, referring
primarily to the abandonment of the fire and ritual during the rite of
renunciation. This ritual is often referred to simply as sa∫nyåsa.
A medieval definition of renunciation captures the central
meaning of this term:“Sa∫nyåsa is the abandonment of daily, occasional,
and optional rites found in the Veda and in the texts of tradition, rites
known though injunctions, an abandonment carried out by reciting
the Praißa formula”(Olivelle 1975;below pp. 63—70).
The Praißa formula is the central act in the ritual by which a
person becomes a renouncer. It consists of saying three times the words
“I have renounced”(sa∫nyasta∫mayå), first softly, second in a
moderate voice, and the third time aloud. The ceremonies leading up to
this climax begin the day before with a series of offerings to
ancestors and the shaving of the head and beard of the candidate followed
by a bath. On the day of renunciation, the candidate offers a final
sacrifice in his sacred fire and extinguishes the fire. The
abandonment of the fire is interpreted within the tradition as an
internalization. The fire is deposited in the renouncer, who carries it within
himself in the form of his breaths. There are five types of sacred fires
in the Vedic ritual, and there are five types of breaths within the
human body. Thus, the two sets dovetailed nicely;after his

Renunciation inHinduTraditions


ation the five breaths are his five fires, and whenever a renouncer
eats he offers an internal sacrifice in the fires of his breaths.
The final act of the renunciatory ritual is the taking possession of
the emblems of his new state: ochre robe, water pot, begging bowl,
pot hanger, and staff. The new renouncer places himself under the
tutelage of an experience teacher.
The medieval theological tradition of Advaita Vedånta made
renunciation central in its understanding of the path to liberation.
Advaita was a monistic system of philosophy that looked upon the
world of multiplicity as in some way illusory. Taking this illusion that
constitutes one’s own individual existence and the external world as
reality is ignorance, the cause of our suffering and of our bondage to
repeated births and deaths. The first step in the direction of true
knowledge is to give up all activities (karma) that are the driving force
of the universe, and the most potent of such acts are the ritual acts,
which are also called karma.Thus, the giving up of the ritual and the
ritual paraphernalia, especially the ritual fire, was considered in
Advaita Vedånta as a prerequisite for spiritual progress.

1.7.Renunciation as Penance

The Dharma†åstra of Manu (first to third centuries CE) contains
a significant verse, which was probably a proverb current during that
period:“What needs cleansing is cleansed by using earth and water, a
river by its current, a woman defiled in thought by her menstrual
flow, and Brahmins by renunciation”(MDh5.108). Here we find
renunciation compared to other methods of
purification;renouncing is an act of purification from sin and defilement.
Now, the normal method for getting rid of sin in the Hindu
tradition is by performing an appropriate penance, which is called
pråya†citta.The most common form of penance is fasting. Sometimes
penitential acts are carried out as a vow, which is called vrata.
Beginning about the 5th centuryCEand with increasing frequency, the
literature on Dharma subsumes renunciation under these two
categories of religious acts. The early texts of Dharma generally discuss
renunciation and ascetic modes of life under the å†rama system. Later
texts, for example the Dharma†åstra of Yåj∞avalkya and medieval legal
digests (nibandha), on the other hand, place them within the section
dealing with penances (pråya†cittakåñ∂a). According to this
understanding, the difference between normal penitential acts and
renunciation is that the former are undertaken for a limited, often brief,
period of time, whereas the latter is undertaken for life.
This connection between penance and renunciation influenced
both the religious practices of ordinary people and the behavior of
renouncers, a process that I have referred to as the domestication of
renunciation (Olivelle 1995a and forthcoming-b;below pp. 27—41).
This process is most evident in the handbook on renunciation written



by Yådava Prakå†a. He integrates ascetic life into the normal ritual
life of Brahmanism. In dealing with the daily practices of a
renouncer, for example, he concludes that any practice not mentioned in
connection with ascetics should be gathered from corresponding
practices of householders and Vedic students. Penances for
renouncers, likewise, are the same as those for householders, except that they
are sometimes more intense. So, for example, the common lunar fast
(cåndråyaña), which consists in reducing and increasing by one
mouthful the intake of food according to the waning and the waxing
of the moon, has a more severe ascetic counterpart called
yaticåndråyañawhich not only ascetics but also ordinary people can
perform. Reading Yådava’s work closely, one gets the distinct impression
that the Brahmanical renouncer is a very exalted type of
householder rather than a figure who contradicts the value system represented
by domestic life.

1.8.Renunciation in LaterReligions

The leadership provided by renouncers in founding and
propagating sects, already evident in the case of Buddhism and Jainism,
continued well into the middle ages and modern times. The French
social-anthropologist, Louis Dumont, has drawn attention to the close
connection between sects and renunciation (Dumont 1960). Many of
the founders of both ‡aiva and Vaißñava sects were renouncers, and
the organization of sects often accorded renouncers a central position.
Most of the medieval Indian sects, however, had devotional
theologies and liturgies that asserted the centrality of love and devotion
to its particular god as the sole means of attaining liberation. These
theological and religious traditions are collectively referred to as
“bhakti”. Most bhaktisects accepted the institution of renunciation,
often redefining its meaning as withdrawal from worldly concerns so
as to focus solely on devotion to god. Nevertheless, the internal logic
of bhakticontradicted the elitism inherent in the institution of
renunciation. Renouncers were religious virtuosi;and in theologies
where mystical quests and ascetic discipline were central, the claim
could be made that only renouncers were able to achieve the highest
goal of religion, namely liberation. Love, on the other hand, is
egalitarian;anyone can love. Indeed, bhaktiliterature is filled with
examples of poor and ignorant men and women who gain divine favor by
the intensity of their love.
Bhakticontained the potential for radicalism both in religion and
in society, even though not all bhaktitradition espoused radical social
or religious change. Most were, in fact, rather conservative,
acknowledging caste and gender differences within religion. There were
some, however, that did draw radical conclusions from the premise
that all humans are alike in the eyes of god, and the only thing god
requires from humans is complete and unconditional love and

Renunciation inHinduTraditions


render. It was not necessary to go to Benares to see god;he is present
in one’s heart. For a person who loves god, his or her front yard is
Benares. There is no need to leave home and family and to become a
world renouncer in order to love god;a poor farmer can love god
more intensely while pursuing his lowly tasks than an arrogant
renouncer surrounded by a throng of disciples.
The seeds of this challenge was already sown in the Bhagavad
Gœtå. Standing in his chariot with K®ßña, the incarnation of Vißñu, in
the middle of the two armies ready for battle in the great Bhårata war,
Arjuna is struck with remorse at the imminent destruction of kith and
kin. There they stood, fathers and sons, uncles and nephews,
grandfathers and grandsons, teachers and pupils, ready to kill, each other
for the petty comforts of royal power. In disgust and dejection,
Arjuna throws down his bow and says, “I will not fight!”K®ßña, god
and upholder of social order, uses every argument possible to
convince Arjuna that it is his duty as a warrior to fight, to kill, and to be
killed. The author of the Gœtå,subtly but effectively transforms
Arjuna’s refusal to fight into the broader theological dispute over
engagement in and withdrawal from activity, living in society and
renouncing it. What is better?To act or not to act?
K®ßña’s response amounts to a redefinition of renunciation, which
is called sa∫nyåsain the Gœtå.Renunciation, K®ßña points out, is not
simply the running away from society, the refusal to act—for whether
we like it or not, our very nature forces us to act.“True”renunciation
is not the mere withdrawal from action, which is impossible in any
case, but the abandonment of any desire for the fruits, the results, of
one’s actions. This true renunciation is an internal attitude and habit;
not an external institution with specific rules and emblems. K®ßña calls
it“continuous or perpetual renunciation”;unlike institutional
renunciation which is carried out on the day that one performs the ritual of
renunciation, here one has to continuously fight inner longings and
give up desire for fruits every time one engages in any activity. Finally,
this inner and true renunciation is not a simple negativity, a giving up
of desire;the desire is given up so that one can offer to god one’s
actions as an offering, as a token of one’s love.
This new understanding of renunciation pervades later
bhaktidiscourse. Most often, it only supplements the more traditional
understanding of renunciation. Debates raged between competing
traditions in medieval India about renouncers and renunciation—
from lofty theological arguments about the nature and the function of
renunciation in the path to liberation to what appears to the outside
observer as petty squabbles about the dress, food, and emblems of a
renouncer, even whether they should carry a single bamboo staff or
three bamboos tied together (Olivelle 1986—87;below pp. 231—247).
In some of the more radical sects and traditions, however, we find
the explicit rejection of renunciation. The Sikh religion that emerged
in North India in the 16th century rejecting both Muslim and Hindu



identities—“There is neither Hindu nor Muslim”—does not have a
place for renouncers within its institutional structures. The
fifteenthcentury bhaktisaint Kabir is at his sarcastic best when he rails against
the holier-than-thou ascetics:

Go naked if you want,
Put on animal skins,
What does it matter till you see the inward Ram?

If the union yogis seek
Came from roaming about in the buff,
every deer in the forest would be saved.

If shaving your head
Spelled spiritual success,
heaven would be filled with sheep.

And brother, if holding back your seed
Earned you a place in paradise,
eunuchs would be the first to arrive.

(Hawley and Juergensmeyer 1988, 50)

Down the centuries the Hindu traditions have been caught in an
internal and unresolved conflict not just between two institutions —
married household life and celibate renunciation—but also between
the two value systems represented by these two institutions. We have
seen many and repeated attempts to bring these two poles of the
tradition together, always with limited success. This long debate, with
echoes in the ancient Upanißads, epics, Dharma†åstras, and medieval
theological tracts, continues in India today, as exemplified in this 1978
speech by the then Vice-President of India, whose view of
householder as“true renouncer”goes back to the Bhagavad Gœtå:

Who is better—the householder or the sanyasi?Of course, the
householder, according to Vice-President B. B. Jatti. While the householder
willingly renounces all that he earns to his wife and children for their
love and affection, the sanyasi depends on others for his milk and fruits.
Parasites, who are a mere burden on society, are sinners. If man has to
progress, everybody must work. (IndianExpress,May 8, 1978)




TheAscetic andthe Domestic in

The theme of this volume is “Criticizing Asceticism”within the
respective religious traditions that we are examining. The assumption
is that the groups and individuals within those traditions who engage
in the critique, as well as modern scholars who investigate such
critiques, have a clear idea of what they are criticizing;that is, that they
and we know what “asceticism”is. My own paper is entitled “The
Ascetic and the Domestic”with the implication that, on the one
hand, the two are mutually opposed and, on the other, we have a
clear idea of what “domesticity”means. These are presuppositions
that I will attempt to problematize here with material drawn from the
Indian traditions, with the expectation that some of the issues I raise
will be relevant cross-culturally in the study of religion in general and
of asceticism in particular.
Scholars frequently speak of “domestication of asceticism”or
“domestic asceticism”;some of my past works have also focused on
these topics (Olivelle 1995a). The implied corollary, although often
left unstated, is that asceticism is wild;at least that is the implication
in other uses of the qualifier“domestic”as in“domestic animals”that
are the opposite of ordinary animals, which are by definition wild.
Such a conclusion appears to be supported by ancient Indian texts on
ascetic life, texts that often oppose“wilderness”(arañya)—the locus of
the ascetic—to“village”(gråma)—the locus of domus,the home and the
domestic, and of ordinary people engaged in social, economic, and
ritual activities (Olivelle 1990;below pp. 44—62). When we speak of

Originally published in Critics of Asceticism: Historical Accounts andComparative
Perspectives. Ed. Oliver Freiberger. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.



“domestic asceticism”, or to use Weber’s phrase“inner-worldly
asceticism”, we assume that people in the world adopt and internalize
values, habits, and practices originally specific to“real”ascetic life styles.
Uncertainty on this point, however, has crept up on me over the
years. This creeping uncertainty has many sources. As I was working
many years ago on my book on the å†ramasystem (Olivelle 1993), it
became apparent to me that the conventional wisdom regarding the
interaction between asceticism and societal religion in India was at
least partially wrong. It was not the Brahmins, the leaders of societal
religion, who co-opted, internalized, and thus neutralized, ascetic
vocabulary, values, institutions, and symbols, but ascetics and
supporters of asceticism who sought acceptance, legitimacy, and
patronage by a variety of strategies, including the co-opting of major
symbols of Brahmanical religion. Gregory Schopen, in his many
focused studies, has demonstrated the same with regard to Buddhist
monks. In a recent study (Olivelle, forthcoming-a) I have suggested
that the central term dharma was co-opted by the Buddhists from the
royal vocabulary as part of the employment of royal symbols and
vocabulary by early ascetic leaders and institutions to lay claim to a
new and different type of royal authority. The founders of these
ascetic groups are called jina,“conqueror”;they are called cakravartin,
“roller of the wheels”or universal emperor. The Buddha’s doctrine is
compared to a wheel, a metonym for the war chariot and conquest;
and his first sermon is the dharmacakrapravartanasütra,“the Sütra
that set the wheel of Dharmarolling”. The Buddha’s teaching is
†åsana, the counterpart of a royal edit. These are all clearly royal
symbols used, deliberately I think, to define new ascetic groups and new
religious ideologies. The thesis that I want to propose here is that one
such item of the royal lexicon co-opted and redefined within ascetic
traditions, and then absorbed back into the royal and public
domains, was dharma, clearly the most central and pivotal term and
concept in the whole of Indian culture. If my thesis is correct, we can
interpret this co-optation of a royal term as one more indicator of the
use of royal symbols by ascetic institutions to garner power, prestige,
and influence by appealing to a new generation of elite created by
state and imperial formations in northern India around the middle of
the first millennium before the common era.
All this blurs the unambiguous textual distinction between the
ascetic and what Louis Dumont called“man-in-the-world”, a distinction
at the heart of Dumont’s (1960) seminal work on Indian asceticism.
Another source of my uncertainty was articulated by Geoffrey
Harpham (1987) in his book The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and
Criticism.Reading Harpham’s book —or at least as much of it as I
could understand—was an epiphany. Indeed, the “ascetic”that I
have been seeking in the wilderness was right here at home.
Although Harpham’s historical sense is deeply ethnocentric, as
when he says, “In the tight sense asceticism is a product of early

TheAscetic andthe Domestic


Christian ethics and spirituality”(Harpham 1987, xiii), his main
thesis that places the “ascetic”at the most basic level of “culture”is, I
think, correct and significant:

While the term can plausibly“cover”early Christianity, the concept of
asceticism exceeds the ideological limitations of that culture;it may
best be considered sub-ideological, common to all culture. In this large
sense, asceticism is the“cultural”element in culture;it makes cultures
comparable, and is therefore one way of describing the common
feature that permits communication or understanding between cultures.
As a new computer-literate, I find myself thinking of asceticism as a
kind of MS-DOS of culture, a fundamental operating ground on which
the particular culture, the word processing program itself, is overlaid.
Where there is culture there is asceticism: cultures structure asceticism,
each in its own way, but do not impose it. (Harpham 1987, xi)

The computer analogy is apt and brilliant. Harpham’s point is
simple and convincing, but not entirely new;Freud said it a long time
ago when he spoke of egoand idand the suppression of drives and
instincts. And so did Durkheim from a more sociological viewpoint.
A culture —and by that I mean what makes for social living—for its
very existence, has to impose restrictions on the individual and on his
or her individual desires and appetites, and these restrictions are
evident both in the sub-conscious mental framework that Freud was
interested in and in the most basic social and religious institutions
such as marriage, initiatory rites, and ethical and legal codes. So in
this sense, according to Harpham’s argument, there is an ascetic in all
of us, and asceticism is, at its root, very much domestic, very much
social. A similar view has been expressed by Bronkhorst (2001) based
on evolutionary biology. Bronkhorst thinks that there is a “shared
predisposition”among humans to ascetic behavior, what he calls
“ascetic instinct”, parallel to the“language instinct”postulated by
several linguists and biologists.
When I am in doubt—and being a non-native user of English I am
often in doubt—I turn to the dictionary. Webster’s defines“ascetic”as
“a person who leads a life of contemplation and rigorous self-denial
for religious purposes.”The Oxford English Dictionarydefines“ascetic”
as“of or pertaining to…the exercise of extremely rigorous
self-discipline.”And my SynonymFinder lists“self denial, self-abnegation,
selfmortification, self-punishment, self-torment, self-control,
selfrestraint”as synonyms of“asceticism”. If we subtract the
ethno-centric elements such as“contemplation”and leave aside“religious
purpose”for the moment, the two main features of asceticism that
emerge from the dictionary usage are: (1) control, discipline,
punishment, and even pain inflicted on oneself (mark the repeated use of
the reflexive), and (2) that such control is“extreme”and“rigorous”.
These two elements illustrates nicely what Harpham describes as the
“large”and the “narrow”or as the “loose”and the “tight”senses of



“asceticism”. As control and discipline inflicted on individual bodies
and appetites, asceticism (large and loose) is perhaps the most
essential ingredient of culture and social living—it is the Operating System
of the cultural computer. As extreme and rigorous (narrow and
tight), asceticism points to peculiar cultural manifestations, mostly,
though not exclusively, religious in character—the application
programs of a specific cultural computer.
Expanding the semantic compass of asceticism in this manner,
however, has both advantages and disadvantages. One obvious
disadvantage is that when a term means everything it means nothing, and
we run the risk of making“asceticism”as a category meaningless for
scholarly purposes. Commenting on a definition of the term offered
by Valantasis:“Asceticism may be defined as performances designed
to inaugurate an alternative culture, to enable different social
relations, and to create new identity”(Wimbush 1995, 548), David
Lorenzen (1996, 976), in his review of the ponderous volume
Asceticismedited by Wimbush and Valantasis (1995), recalls what
Alice said to Humpty Dumpty:“That’s a great deal to make one word
mean.”And, indeed, he is right. I think the instinct of the
dictionaries to add the qualifiers“extreme”,“rigorous,”or“severe”is justified;
that is how the term ascetic is used by most native speakers of English
and probably also of other European languages.
On the other hand, however, limiting the usage of the term to
such “extremes”has its own pitfalls, especially the tendency to see
asceticism as a fanatical fringe and a monstrous outgrowth.
Extending the meaning of the term, at least within the context of
scholarly discourse, has the benefit of highlighting the continuities
between social/cultural life and ascetic practice. And I would argue
that it is precisely these continuities—the fact that asceticism practices
what culture preaches, that asceticism is founded on the most basic
cultural premise and taps deep unconscious motivations—that makes
asceticism such a powerful force in culture and religion and its
critique ever so strident.


Before turning to the data from the Indian traditions, let me dwell
a bit longer on the very concept of asceticism. The works of Harpham
(1987) and Bronkhorst (2001), although they offer many significant
insights, do not offer an analysis of the concept of asceticism that is
sufficiently nuanced to be useful in the study of asceticism, religion, or
culture. Simply reducing asceticism to culture or human nature does
not take into account sufficiently the ordinary or the scholarly usages
of the term. We need a more nuanced analysis that retains the deeply
cultural roots of the ascetic impulse while at the same time making the
term useful for studing the diverse forms of religious asceticism that
Harpam characterises as its“strict”meaning.

TheAscetic andthe Domestic


Let me briefly present a classification of the category“asceticism”
that may help us think about and explore the concept of asceticism. I
present this classification, which is deeply indebted to the theoretical
insights of Gananath Obeyesekere (1990), with great misgiving and
deep trepidation and purely as a heuristic device. I have no intention
of putting the bewildering variety of ascetic impulse and practice into
neat little categories. But I hope this classificatory scheme will force
us to take asceticism out of its little closet and think about it as a
central element of human culture.

ROOTASCETISM(RA) Cultural Imperative;Harpham’s“loose sense”as
the Operating System of culture;Unconscious Manifestations.

CULTURALASCETISM(CA) Cultural manifestations of RA in
Ideology/Ethics, Institutions, Art/Literature;Harpham’s “strict
sense”as Application Programs;specific to individual cultures.

ELITEASCETISM(EA) Extraordinary ascetic forms adopted by
individuals and groups to achieve specific social, religious, and
personal goals.

ROOTASCETISM: This is not an observable phenomenon but, like a
linguistic root, it is a mere postulate as a cultural imperative,
the“cultural”in cultures;a postulate, because it operates in the background,
often at the level of the unconscious. The central element of RA, an
element present in one form or another at every level of ascetic
practice, is“self-control”, the control of individual appetites, drives, and
bodily functions.

CULTURALASCETISM: Every culture develops a set of culturally
specific tools by which individual members of the culture can internalize
and carry out the controls demanded of them. These tools range
from weaning and toilet training of infants and the socializing of
children to ethical ideologies and social institutions such as marriage.
Returning to the computer analogy, I think of CA as overlaid on RA,
as taking RA in new and specific directions.
An element of cultural asceticism that I want to highlight is the
control of pain that has both an age and a gender component. The hurt
that makes a child cry is viewed as abnormal in an adult. And the
anguish or alarm that makes a woman cry is viewed as unseemly and
unmanly in a man. The warrior ethic of many cultures, including the
Indian, requires heroic control of both fear and pain;and at least in
India there are great similarities between the ascetic and the warrior
ethic. Death in battle and death in the forest, for example, are
considered the only deaths suitable for a king or nobleman. I would place
within CA other kinds of ascetic behavior expected of individuals by society,
such as the initiatory rites involving bodily pain or ascetic regimen.



ELITEASCETISM: I am not completely satisfied with this name, but
I cannot come up with anything better. It is within this category that
I locate the types of human behavior that have traditionally been
called“ascetic”. I call it“elite”because it is associated with
extraordinary feats of self-control requiring unusual and often life-long effort,
and because for the most part it is practiced by select individuals,
especially religious virtuosi.
Space does not permit me to explore all the different types of elite
asceticism both within socially sanctioned institutions and within
antisocial protest movements, although frequently the latter type of
movements end up themselves becoming social institutions. At least in the
ancient Indian context —and this is probably true also of early
Christianity—ascetic ideology and practice have some of the elements
identified in Valantasis’s definition;they oppose and challenge
societal values and ideology. Going to the wilderness, leading homeless and
vagabond lives, abandoning economic, sexual, and ritual activities,
living lives of poverty and mendicancy—all these are surely symbolic of
the ascetic’s rejection of core societal values and institutions.
The extraordinary is always a relative term, its meaning
depending on what is taken as ordinary in a given time and place. In this
sense, elite asceticism is always culturally determined. Thus EA is
overlaid upon and determined by CA, just as CA is overlaid upon RA.
Nevertheless, I think we can safely speak of some universal features of
elite asceticism in relation to the extraordinary level of intensity and
persistence in ascetic self-control, features that relate to three major
areas of ascetic control: sex, food, and pain. The control of the
sexual appetite is a central element even of CA, but EA takes this control
to a different level involving either life-long celibacy or abstinence
from sex for prolonged periods of time. The control of hunger and
pain, however, is an even more central hallmark of EA.


Turning now to the data provided by Indian religions, in
particular the mainstream Brahmanical tradition, let me return to the
term “asceticism”. Although it is both inevitable and justifiable for
scholarly discourse to produce a specialized vocabulary,
nevertheless, especially when we are investigating historical phenomena, it is
important to find out what kinds of terms within the indigenous
discourse correspond to the specialized terms of the scholarly
discourse. In other words, is there an Indian or, given that it is the
dominant language of ancient Indian textual production, a Sanskrit
term that corresponds to asceticism?
The closest one can come is the term tapas. Etymologically
related to the term for heating and burning, the term denoted the

For a discussion of tapasand its relation to asceticism, see Kaelber 1989.