Category Archives: F. Indian Philosophical Schools

Hindu Asceticism

In traditional Hindu life, there are four stages which a Hindu would, theoretically, complete in order to acquire the greatest chance of attaining the ultimate goal of moksa (liberation). These stages include the sisya (student) stage, the grhasta (householder) stage, the vanaprastha (forest-dweller) stage and the samnyasin (renouncer stage). This last stage of the samnyasin is one of total renunciation of social and material things. It would typically be this time in one’s life when one would dedicate oneself entirely to attaining moksa, particularly by engaging in specific practices. One such set of practice that these renouncers would often adopt was asceticism. However, it is important to note that ascetic practices are not limited to the samnyasins. Many laypeople also practice forms of asceticism, such as Vrata [On Vrata and the Pativrata Ideal, see Rodrigues 2005: 160-167], to achieve higher objectives. Nevertheless, in general, the asceticism practiced by renouncers is usually more concentrated and intensely followed. This essay will be focusing mostly on the asceticism of the samnyasin. Therefore, any reference to asceticism or ascetic practices will refer to the customs of the standard samnyasin, unless otherwise stated.To go into great detail of all the differentiations and variations of ascetic practices would probably construct a small book. I can only give a brief background, explain the practices that are most widely used, and give the example of a famous ascetic who has contributed to modernization of the practice.

Before discussing the particularities and practices of asceticism, it is important to look at the background and origin of this practice. According to David M. Miller and Dorothy C. Wertz, in their book Hindu Monastic Life, the word “ascetic” is a translation into the word sadhu, which actually translates as “holy man” (Miller and Wertz 2), a term often used to describe a renouncer.This can give us an idea of what the literary origin is, but to discern the actual foundation of the practice is quite a bit harder.As Patrick Olivelle informs us in his translation of the Samnyasa Upanisads, there are many theories about where the practice of asceticism originated (Olivelle 19-22).He breaks these down into two main theories: that asceticism is a development of the Vedic tradition, and that asceticism is a newer practice than the traditional Vedic religion which “challenged and transformed the Vedic religion” (Olivelle 20).Olivelle sides with the assertion that ascetic practices did not develop out of the old Vedic tradition, but that they are a recent custom which tested and criticized the old Vedic ways. Even so, Olivelle states clearly that ascetic practices could not have appeared out of nowhere and says that “[he does] not subscribe to the view put forward by some scholars that ascetic modes of life were non-Aryan in origin” (Olivelle 21).Olivelle suggests that, even though asceticism has close ties with sacrificial religion and even though the Vedic religion set the conditions in which asceticism is set, asceticism acts as an original element that challenged some of the old Vedic traditions, such as sacrificial theology.

With this brief background of asceticism we can begin to discus what asceticism really is.To become an ascetic means to give up completely, as mentioned before, social and material things. The ascetic is then meant to meditate and concentrate on attaining the final goal of moksa. Since ascetics do not have anything at all, except perhaps a begging bowl and a staff, they rely totally on the lay community to provide for them food and sometimes clothes and shelter. As Vail F. Lise says in his article “Unlike a Fool, He Is Not Defiled: Ascetic Purity and Ethics in the Samnyasa Upanisads”: “ascetics are told to remain in solitude as much as possible, meditating and dis-identifying with their bodies. Nonetheless, Upanisadic passages about the virtues and behaviour proposed for samnyasis are unexpectedly rich in ethical reflection” (Lise 374). Lise is commenting on how, although ascetics are prescribed to not care about any worldly thing, they are taught to be moral, just, and wise among other men. Lise explains this further by saying that “the liberated renouncer is a master of silence, quite patient, and wise in matters of Brahman” (395). In response to this, a question that might arise is: how would one know about these rigorous ascetic practices and ways? The answer is in the Samnyasa Upanisads which “provide a basis in Vedic revelation for the institution of renunciation (samnyasa) and for the rules and practices associated with that state” (Olivelle 5). Therefore, the Samnyasa Upanisads are used as a guideline as how to live the life of the holy man. These Upanisads have been studied rigorously and elaborated on as the practice of asceticism grows and popularizes. Nonetheless, one of the only ways to fully understand true asceticism is to watch and learn from a genuine ascetic. It is important to remember that the customs mentioned are the typical routines practiced by Hindu ascetics. There are many people who do not follow the samnyasin path quite so rigorously and there are those take it to the extreme.

There have been many significant Hindu ascetics in the Indian history; for example, Mahatma Gandhi who helped India fight for independence from Britain [For additional information on Mahatma Gandhi see Robinson and Rodrigues (2006) pg 160; and Rodrigues (2005) pg 47-48, 422-424, and 249-250]. In their article “Karma Samnyasa: Sarkar’s reconceptualization of Indian asceticism” Shaman Hatley and Sohail Inayatullah discuss the life of the guru (teacher) Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. Sarkar was a Tantric [On Tantrism see Robinson and Rodrigues (2006) pg 158-159] teacher who lived in the 20th century and who revolutionized Hindu asceticism. Hatley and Inayatullah go into detail about what Sarkar thought that asceticism really was, as they say, “the ascetic stands as a critic of society – not merely a post modern literary critic but one that questions the basis of current society by attempting to transform it” (Hatley and Inayatullah 14). In this way, Sarkar is saying that asceticism is not only about the physical state of renunciation, but also about the exercise of proper mental ethics. The article also emphasizes how Sarkar’s studies did not hold much interest in the traditional ways of Hinduism, but wanted to transform the religion by using asceticism to “eliminate elements based in social custom (such as asrama) and myth” (Hatley and Inayatullah 14).By studying Sarkar, Hatley and Inayatullah have introduced an interesting, modern, way to look at the practice of asceticism.

Overall, the practice of asceticism is a broad topic with a rich history and development.Ascetic practices have been used to help change and develop the Vedic Hindu tradition.Even the concept of the samnyasin has become increasingly revolutionized as more people become interested in these ascetic ways.This practice has, recently, even travelled to the West. Westerners are becoming increasingly interested in Hindu practices. Many books on ascetic practices such as meditation, renunciation, and cleansing of the mind now line the shelves of Western bookstores.


DeBary, William (1966) The Hindu Tradition. New York; Random House Inc.

Hatley, Shaman and Sohail Inayatullah (Feb 99) “Karma Samnyasa: Sarkar’s

Reconceptualization of Indian Asceticism”. Journal of Asian & African Studies

(Brill). 34:139, 14

Kaelber, Walter (1989) Tapta Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi; Sri

Satguru Publications

Miller, David and Dorothy C. Wertz (1976) Hindu Monastic Life: the Monks and

Monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal and London; Mc Gill-Queen’s

University Press

Narayan, Kirin (1989) Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu

Religious Teaching. Philadelphia; University Press

Olivelle, Patrick, trans (1992) Samnyasa Upanisads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and

Renunciation. New York; Oxford University Press

Robinson, Thomas and Hillary Rodrigues (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the

Essentials. Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2005) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics; Online

Books, Ltd.

Vail, Lise (Fall 2002) “Unlike a Fool, He Is not Defiled: Ascetic Purity and Ethics in the

Samnyasa Upanisads.” Journal of Religious Ethics. 30:373-397, 25

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Yogas (Karma, Jnana, Bhakti, Raja, Kondalini, Hatha)


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Article written by Jahliele Paquin (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.


Jainism is the heterodox branch of Hinduism, with roots tracing all the way back to 500 B.C.E. Some say the existence of Jainism is much older, but it has not yet been proven. The Jains trace their origins back to India, where their existence represents a little less than a million and a half of the world’s population. European scholars, who familiarized themselves with Jainism through samples of Jaina literature, hastily came to the conclusion that Jainism was just a subsidiary of Buddhism. It has now been proven beyond reasonable doubt that Jainism is not an offshoot of Buddhism, and is at least as old as Buddhism (see Dasgupta 169-170). The leader of Jainism is attributed to Vardhamana Mahavira, the last prophet, also known as Tirthankara of the Jains. Jainism has twenty-four Tirthankaras: Risabha (being the first), Ajita, Sambhava, Abhinandana, Sumati, Padmaprabha, Suparshva, Candraprabha, Puspadanta, Sitalnatha, Sreyamsa, Vasupujya, Vimala, Ananta, Dharma, Santi, Kuntha, Aara, Mallinatha, Munisuvrata, Nami, Nemi, Parsvanath, and last but not least, Mahavira.

Jain Tirthankara, 12th century AD (Gwalior Archaeological Museum 2017)

According to belief of orthodox Jains, the Jaina religion is eternal, and it has been revealed again and again in every one of the endless succeeding periods of the world by innumerable Tirthankaras” (Dasgupta 169). All the Tirthankaras have attained moksa at their death, and are regarded as “Gods” by the Jain worshippers. There are two main sects of Jain worshippers: The Svetambaras and the Digambaras.

The Svetambaras are known as “the wearers of white clothes,” whereas the Digambaras are known as “the cloth less.” Digambaras are found mainly in Southern India but also in the Northwestern provinces such as: Eastern Rajputana and the Punjab. The Svetambaras on the other hand, are mainly found in Gujarat, and Western Rajputana, but they can also be found all over Northern and Central India. Although both sects generally agree on all the fundamental principles of Jainism, the Digambaras keenly believe that perfect saints such as the Tirthankaras live without food, and that a monk who owns any property and wears clothes cannot obtain moksa. They also contend that no woman can obtain moksa. The Digambaras deny all canonical works of the Svetambaras and state that the values the Svetambaras have were lost immediately after Mahavira. The Digambaras, who separated from the Svetambaras, developed eccentric religious rituals. Sanskrit works of the Digambaras go way back before the works of the Svetambaras if we do not include the canonical works of the Svetambaras. The views of these two sects differ when it comes to the true meaning of existence (samsara) but both believe that Mahavira was the true leader of this complex religion.

Mahavira was a ksatriya (warrior) of the Jnata clan. He was the second son of Siddhartha and Trisala. The Svetambaras believe that the embryo of Mahavira was transferred from a Brahmin (priestly class) lady named, Devananda to the womb of Trisala. This story however, is frowned upon by the Digambaras. Siddhartha and Trisala gave him the name Vardhamana (Vira or Mahavira). Mahavira later went on to marry Yasoda, who later gave birth to their only daughter. At the age of thirty, Mahavira’s life had changed drastically. With the death of his parents and the permission of his brother, Mahavira became a monk, and after twelve years of self-humiliation and meditation “he attained omniscience” (see Dasgupta 173). He eventually attained moksa in 480 B.C.E. after preaching for approximately forty years making him the very last Tirthankara known to Jains. Mahavira was also an avid follower of the five great vows (panca-mahavrata), which consist of: Ahimsa, Satyam, Asteyam, Brahmacaryam, and Aparigraha.

Ahimsa is defined as “abstinence from all injury to life” (Chatterjee & Datta 107). Life is seen as existence that goes beyond the “moving beings.” Plants and beings inhabiting bodies of the earth are also seen as being part of ‘life’. Thus, the ideal of the Jains is, therefore, “to avoid abusing life not only through the moving beings, but also of the non-moving ones” (Dasgupta 169). Often seen throughout India, are Jain saints who try to follow this ideal. They are seen wearing a piece of cloth that is tied over their noses so they do not inhale and destroy the life of any organism floating in the air. “The Jaina attitude of ahimsa is the logical outcome of their metaphysical theory of the potential equality of all souls and recognition of the principle of reciprocity” (Chatterjee & Datta 107). This basically means do to others, what you would want done to you. The typical Jain tries to perform this duty in everything he or she does, because he or she wants to be consistent with the principle he or she has adopted. Not only is ahimsa practiced through action, but it also must be practiced through thought, speech and action. The next vow is to abstain from falsehood.

Satyam does exactly this through the vow of truthfulness, which consists of speaking of things that are not only true, but also moral and pleasant. Without the moral and pleasant qualifications, speaking the truth can lead to “vulgarity, frivolity, vilification, etc” (see Chatterjee & Datta 108). In order to carry out the perfect maintenance of satyam, Jains must surmount greed, fear, anger and even stealing.

Asteyam is the vow to abstain from stealing. It emphasizes the point to never take what is not given to you. A Jain writer once said, “wealth is but the outer life of man and to rob wealth is to rob life.” This alludes back to the vow of ahimsa with the “sanctity of property” being a direct comparison of the “sanctity of life” (See Dasgupta 180-211).

Another vow that has extreme importance in the conducting of Jain principles is that of brahmacaryam. This is the abstinence from self-indulgence. Brahmacaryam is seen in the context of abstaining from celibacy, however it goes deeper than that. It is interpreted as the vow to give up kama (self-indulgence) of every form. Jains believe that although physical indulgence may stop, the continuation of self-indulgence may still occur through subtle forms such as: speech, thoughts, and in the hopes of enjoyment hereafter in heaven. In order to abide by this vow, a Jain must, therefore, resist all forms of self-indulgence whether it is external or internal, subtle or obvious, and even direct or indirect.

Last but not least comes aparigraha, the abstinence from all attachment. “This is explained as the vow to give up all attachment dealing with the five senses: pleasant sound, touch, color, taste and smell” (Chatterjee & Datta 108). Attachment to any of the world’s objects means the soul is placed under bondage to the world, and according to sources, it causes rebirth, and liberation is unattainable without the withdrawal of attachment. The only way to overcome this attachment is through “right knowledge, faith and proper conduct.” When a person successfully overcomes the forces of all passions and karmas, the soul becomes free from its bondage and in turn attains liberation (moksa). When liberation is attained, Jains believe the fourfold perfection is achieved. It consists of: infinite knowledge, infinite faith, infinite power, and infinite bliss (see Chatterjee and Datta 109-111). Mahavira as well as the other twenty-three Tirthankaras achieved these five great vows and to assume the role of the prophets in Jainism.

Although these prophets are sacred and revered, they are not considered Gods. In fact, Jainism does not believe in God. The skepticism of the Jains is based on the following grounds: “Like the existence of God, the qualities of omnipotence, unity, eternity and perfection, are generally attributed to Him” (Chatterjee & Datta 110). If God is the “all mighty” (omnipotent), then God is supposed to be the cause of all things. The Jains however, argue that through the omnipotence of His character. They feel that He did not create everything and through that the Jains come to reject the belief in God. The Jains do, however, feel it necessary to meditate on and worship the liberated souls. The tirthankaras already possess the perfections, as mentioned earlier, and so they easily take the place of God in the eyes of the Jains. “The liberated souls serve only as beacon lights” (Chatterjee & Datta 111). This guides the Jainas to ultimate liberation.

The Jain religion is undoubtedly one of the oldest religions out there that are still being practiced to this day. Despite Jains being dispersed all throughout the world presently, the total Jain population hasn’t changed much. Its strict rules thus make it a “religion of the strong and the brave” (Chatterjee & Datta 111). It has recently become a scholar’s fervor to explore this antediluvian religion, due to its teachings, and its ability to function without a God. The complexity of this religion will most definitely have scholars enticed to find out more about this religion and perhaps dig its roots back to before 500 B.C.E. when it was first noted as being found.


Bhargava, Dayanand (1968) Jaina Ethics. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Chapple, Christopher (1993) Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Serf in Asian Traditions. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Chatterjee, S., and Datta, D.M. (1984) An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1975) A History of Indian Philosophy: Volume I. Delhi: Motilal


Tahtinen, Unto (1976) Ahimsa: Nonviolence in Indian Tradition. Ahmedabad: Navajivan

Publishing House.

Thapar, Romila (1992) Interpreting Early India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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Written by Raj Shah (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.