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November 2017 Edition of Power Politics is updated.  Happy Diwali to all our subscribers and Distributors       November 2017 Edition of Power Politics is updated.   Happy Diwali to all our subscribers and Distributors       
Issue:Sep' 2017


Power of asceticism

Rajesh Bhola

Since medieval times there have been many who fled from their careers and worldly pleasures into jungles, mountains and ashrams, thinking that spirituality was only to be found in these isolated places. Most soon discovered that they could not escape from their thoughts, since they carried their psychological baggage with them. Their past, which was supposedly forsaken, was constantly intruding upon their minds and chasing them even in this absolute aloofness. Although they had apparently renounced the 'vibrant and throbbing' world, they were unable to escape this world's influence and its attractions. Little did they realize that it is the daily life experiences, problems and challenges that are the tools for developing the sagacious qualities of self-restraint, egoless behavior and asceticism - while living very much within this material world. The idea is not to find the answer in 'escape'.
Asceticism and monasticism are two religious disciplines designed to de-emphasize the pleasures of the world, so that the practitioners can concentrate on the spiritual life.
Both have been adopted by worshipers of various faiths. In general, asceticism is the practice of strict selfdenial, as a means to attain a higher spiritual plane.
Monasticism is the state of being secluded from the world, in order to fulfill religious vows. While most monks are ascetic, ascetics do not have to be monks.
Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, meaning exercise, training and practice.
Ascetics renounce worldly pleasures that distract from spiritual growth and enlightenment and live a life of abstinence, austerity and extreme self-denial. Asceticism is common in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. It is not to be confused with Stoicism. Stoics believe that holiness can reside only in the spiritual realm, and all physical matter is evil. Ascetics do not necessarily believe that the flesh is evil, but they do go to great lengths to deny the flesh, in order to transform the mind or free the spirit. Historically, Asceticism has involved fasting, exposing oneself to heat or cold, sleep deprivation, flagellation, and even self-mutilation. Asceticism is usually associated with monks, priests and yogis. In ancient times, as early as the late second century, in Egypt and Syria, more than a few people abandoned their civic responsibilities, relationships and personal crises in order to seek relief and commune solely with God. It was the beginning of a new and distinct social movement and came to be known - from this preference for solitariness - as Monasticism. These early solitaries fled to the desert and took up residence in caves and near the oases of the Red Sea desert, discarding their worldly comforts and egos and seeking a goal of spiritual enlightenment. Some of them lived hermit-like, in strict separation.
In similar manner, in the Indian context, there have been varied ascetic practices carried out by saints and hermits. There are several terms for ascetics in Hinduism. Some sadhus are known to practice extreme forms of self-denial or devotion to a deity or principle. Some vow never to use one leg or to hold an arm in the air for a period of months or years. The particular types of asceticism involved vary from one sect or holy man to another. Asceticism in one of its most intense forms can be found in Jainism, one of the oldest religions. Jainism encourages fasting, yoga practices, meditation in difficult postures and other austerities. According to Jains, one's highest goal should be 'nirvana' (liberation from this worldly cycle of birth and rebirth). For this, a soul has to 'live' without attachment or selfindulgence. This can be achieved only by the monks and nuns who take great vows of non-violence, truth, nostealing, chastity and non-attachment. Most of their austerities and ascetic practices can be traced to Mahavira, who wore clothes just for a year and a month and after that walked about naked and accepted alms in the hollow of his hand. For more than twelve years Mahavira neglected his body and abandoned any care of it. With equanimity he bore pleasure and suffering. He had cut off all earthly ties and was not stained by any worldliness. Other austerities include meditation in a seated or standing posture near river banks in the cold wind, or atop hills and mountains, especially at noon when the sun is at its fiercest. Such austerities are undertaken according to the physical and mental limits of the individual ascetic. Jain ascetics are completely without possessions. Some Shvetambara monks and nuns own only unstitched white robes an upper and lower garments and a bowl - used for eating, and collecting alms. Male Digambara monks do not wear any clothes and carry nothing with them