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asceticism

asceticism comes from the Greek word ‘askesis’, meaning ‘exercise’ or ‘training’ — in an athletic sense. It refers to the rigorous and systematic techniques used to alter patterns of life — especially concerning eating, sexual behaviour, and sleep — in order to achieve religious ends. Underlying ascetical practices is the belief that there exists a relationship between such practices and moral development, that is, between the body and the soul or mind. This training or control of the body is seen as the deepest sign of moral transformation. For example, in the early Church it was thought that one could smell sanctity: a virgin would look and smell different, and it was believed that saints' dead bodies, if later exhumed, would be found still intact and would smell sweet. To discipline and train the body is to discipline and train the soul, and thus to purify the soul from its passions in order to love God more perfectly.

Asceticism, in some form or another, is found in most religions, though it is treated with some suspicion in Judaism and Islam on the grounds that its practices may deny the goodness of God's creation. It has been found amongst certain groups of philosophers, such as the Stoics and Cynics, to indicate practices designed to overcome the vices and develop the virtues.

Asceticism in Christian history

Asceticism developed within early Christianity in the context of eschatological beliefs. Early Christians lived in expectation of the second coming of Christ in which all the bodies of those already gathered into Christ's kingdom would share in the glory of His risen body. Living with these eschatological hopes, some began to think that through human control and renunciation of the body — their own ascetical behaviour — they might hasten this second coming of Christ and thus the full redemption of the world. There had been some precedent for this is the community of the Essenes, for example — the community of male Jews living near the Dead Sea in the first century, who had sought to bring Israel back to God by their own disciplined way of life.

Perhaps the first organized Christian ascetics were those who came to be known as Encratites in the second century, some of whom were linked to Gnosticism, or to Ebionite or Docetic groups. They believed that the church should be made up of women and men who were sexually continent and who also abstained from wine and meat. These activities were to be avoided because they linked humans to animals. To engage in a society which relied upon marriage arrangements was to enter into the animal-like cycle of coupling, reproduction, and death. Some of these Encratite communities produced the apocryphal Gospels and Acts, such as the group in Syria which produced the Acts of Thomas and the Gospel of Thomas. These texts strongly urge abstention from the world: structures of society, such as family, marriage, wealth, and dependents, are all to be rejected. The body is the ‘switching-point’ where one meets the world and where one must therefore break the connection. All Encratites lived as groups of celibate male and female Christians, not as individual recluses, and they survived and grew by attracting converts.

In the fourth century, with the formation of Christendom after Constantine's conversion, asceticism developed more fully, and celibacy became the ideal for Christians. Historians have often explained this by suggesting that Christians were seeking a form of purity which had been lost with the Christianization of the Empire. Christians ceased to be persecuted and therefore the possibility of the ultimate act of ascetical Christianity — martyrdom — was removed. As Christianity became rich and established, with the building of lavish churches and cathedrals, and the clergy became more powerful and entwined in the state's activities, there seemed to be a new need for a symbolic punishment: the answer, especially for clergy, was to engage in ascetical practices. There is much truth in this explanation — although before the fourth century there were others, as well as the Encratites, who engaged in asceticism.

Asceticism in its ‘golden age’, within Christianity, took several forms. Some went into the desert, especially the Egyptian desert, to battle their demons — most famously, perhaps, St Antony at the end of the third century. There was a long tradition of people doing this, including Jesus himself: it was seen as a thoroughly biblical activity, a response to a call from scripture. The enormity of the desert represented leaving the ‘world’ and ‘this present age’. Both women and men went into the desert and the sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers were collected, as people visited them to seek their wisdom. Their circumstances varied enormously. Some had their libraries with them, while others found a cave or created a cell on the ridge of a mountain where they hoped to survive against the heat, the scarcity of food, and the wild animals. All kept an ascetic regime of vigil and prayer, eating and fasting, and some manual labour. Sexual continence was important but probably not an overriding concern for many, as they struggled to survive both physically and psychically within the vastness of the desert and within the ascetic regime. The greater concern was that the ascetic might lose his or her humanity (what we might call sanity) — break out of the strict regime and approach or even reach mental breakdown. The body was central in all of this activity: these desert ascetics paid great attention to it because they were striving for purity of heart and thereby a future glory for their bodies. Some lived alone while others gathered into groups and in this way, initially in Egypt, monasticism evolved — that is, the organization of monks and nuns into formalized communities. The Egyptian monks, in particular, cultivated a singleness of heart: their practices of self-mortification were designed to reduce the need for food, sleep, and sex, and thereby ‘remake’ the body, taking it back to its ‘natural’ or ‘pure’ state. The fourth-century Life of Antony, traditionally attributed to Athanasius, highlights the ways in which Antony's body did not suffer from being shut up for 20 years, but rather was restored to its natural state.

There were those who wished to lead the ascetic life but could not leave their city. These included women and clergy. Many women, especially élite women, who wished to lead the ascetic life, dedicated their lives as Holy Virgins and created ascetic households: ‘the desert in the city’. Girls and women who dedicated themselves to God in this way rejected the calls of society. They tended to be women from the upper orders of society where the primary purpose was to circulate wealth through their marriages and the bearing of male heirs. Ambrose, in his treatise De Virginibus, gave encouragement to those young women who wished to dedicate themselves as Holy Virgins but encountered opposition from their parents. Indeed, Ambrose grew up in such a holy household, for his elder sister, Marcellina, was a consecrated virgin and lived with their widowed mother and companions in their wealthy Italian home. The ‘cubiculum’, the inner bedroom of consecrated virgins such as Marcellina, was the only ‘desert’ which Italian Christian men such as Ambrose would have known.

In the Middle Ages, a growing emphasis on the humanity and passion of Christ led to ascetical practices based on an imitation of the physical sufferings of Christ, in particular amongst the mendicant orders. The fifteenth-century Imitation of Christ (most probably written by Thomas à Kempis) instructed the Christian in this sort of ascetic spirituality.

Sixteenth-century Reformation theologies of salvation, which emphasized the depravity of humankind and the worthlessness of any human activities, necessarily undermined the whole rationale for, and practice of, asceticism. Heirs of the Protestant reformation, such as Puritans, well-known for abstaining from the pleasures of the body, cannot be said to have been truly ascetics, for their practices of denial were cast merely in negative terms; asceticism proper is for the body and not against it, a view which has continued into the modern period within the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Asceticism and Buddhism

Buddhist ascetical practices are about releasing a person from desire, suffering, and rebirth as represented by the body, sex, and death. That is, achieving Nirvana, and freeing a person from addictive attachments. But over and against what can often seem a dualistic attitude to mind and body within Buddhism, many Buddhist texts see extreme physical ascetical practices as fruitless. This stems from the Buddha's own experience. In the early stages of his quest for Enlightenment, he embarked on a very extreme form of self-mortification, and he became very thin: his limbs withered, his ribs became gaunt, his scalp shrivelled and his belly clung to his backbone. A sculpture of the Buddha, now in the Lahore Museum, represents him in this state. He found that neither these ascetical practices nor his earlier life of comfort as a prince brought him to any understanding of the questions he had about life, suffering, and death. Thus he developed his ‘Middle Way’. His emphasis was on moderation, for he believed both indulgence and denial to be confusing to the mind. In several discourses he was critical of those monks who practised extreme asceticism: those who went naked or wore only rags, those who slept on the ground or on thorns, and those who restricted their food intake very severely. The Buddha allowed 12 optional ascetic practices, all of which emphasized moderation; he resisted attempts to make five of these compulsory for monks.

There is perhaps a tension within Buddhist attitudes about asceticism and the body, as reflected in a set of 13 ascetical practices named the dhuntangas. These are: wearing rag robes; using only three robes; begging alms; visiting all houses when begging; eating once a day; eating only from the bowl; not taking second helpings; living in the forest; living at the foot of a tree; living in the open air; living in a cemetery; being satisfied with whatever dwelling one has; sleeping in a sitting position and never lying down. This list is generally not found in canonical texts, and several of the practices have been seen as marginal, and continue to be regarded as marginal today. Indeed contemporary Buddhist monks and nuns, for example in Thailand, have found that physical decorum is important, alongside any of these ascetical practices, in the presentation of their bodies socially. The proper external conduct of the body — such as the wearing of the robe neatly, good deportment, downcast eyes, and observation of good behaviour — is frequently seen as evidence for a state of virtue. This social reality, coupled with an emphasis on moderation in asceticism, contrasts with Buddhist meditations on the body which would seem to present — and sometimes cultivates — a very dualistic notion of mind and body.

Asceticism and other major religions

Sikhs regard asceticism with some caution, for austere practices and penances are seen as irrelevant and unhelpful to spiritual development, though an appropriate self-discipline may involve abstention from alcohol and advocacy of a vegetarian diet. There is an exception in an ascetic order, the Udasis. Islam likewise regards asceticism with suspicion, although fasting during the month of Ramadhan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, derived from the Koran.

Judaism has generally given little place to asceticism, except in early ascetic groups such as the Essenes, and amongst the Nazirites; Jewish ascetics who vow to abstain from grape products, from cutting hair, and from touching a corpse. A Nazirite is described as ‘holy to the Lord’ in Leviticus 21: 6. The rabbis expressed varying, sometimes conflicting views about the Nazirites; for example, in one Talmudic passage, one rabbi remarks that the Nazirite is holy because he denies himself wine, and a person who fasts, denying himself all food and drink, is even holier, while another rabbi says the Nazirite is a sinner because he denies himself God's gift of wine, and a person who fasts completely is an even greater sinner.

Rather, in Judaism, the emphasis is always on thanksgiving for daily blessings. For example, fasting in itself is usually seen as displeasing to God and is important only for specific reasons on specific designated occasions, such as Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, a wide variety of views on asceticism are found in the Talmud. In the Jerusalem Talmud it is said, against asceticism, that a person will be obliged to give an account before God for every legitimate pleasure he has denied himself. Medieval Jewish thinkers were often influenced by Greek philosophy, sometimes taking a dualistic attitude to body, with the view that the destruction of the soul occurs in direct proportion to the building up of the body.

Jane Shaw

Bibliography

Brown, P. (1988). The body and society. Men, women and sexual renunciation in early Christianity. Columbia University Press, New York.
Coakley, S. (ed.) (1997). Religion and the body. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


See also religion and the body.

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Asceticism

Asceticism (Gk., askesis, ‘exercise’, as of an athlete). The practice of self-denial or self-control as a means of religious attainment through discipline. Asceticism occurs in all religions, since in all religions there are more important things in life than living, and to attain particular goals, or to serve others, the giving up of some things on one's own behalf may be the only way forward. Nevertheless, asceticism is somewhat suspect in Judaism (but see BAḤYA BEN JOSEPH) and in Islam, because it seems to imply a denial of the goodness of God's creation. Even so, ṣawm (fasting during the month of Ramadhan) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam; see also ZUHD.

In Hinduism, the most basic structure of ordinary life, the four stages of life (āśrama) are marked by discipline, culminating in complete renunciation; the practice of asceticism is marked pravrajya (going forth from home). The efficacy of self-mortification (tapas) is so great that even the gods engage in it. This is even more marked in Jainism, where the ideal is the one who dies his death before it actually occurs (see SALLEKHANĀ). The practice of control becomes literally manifest in the many techniques of yoga.

All of these were practised by Gautama in the early stages of the quest for enlightenment which culminated in his becoming the Buddha.

Renouncing these practices as counterproductive, the Buddha came to be critical of contemporary ascetic movements, and in several discourses he describes and criticizes their many and varied practices. Although the Buddha prohibited extreme practices, he allowed twelve optional practices (dhutanga) of a moderately ascetic kind but resisted the attempt to make five of them compulsory for monks; thirteen are listed in Visuddhimagga 11.

Among Jains, the commitment to asceticism is the central dynamic of the whole system. Those far enough advanced in the emancipation of jīva from karma (see GUNASTHĀNA) undergo initiation (dīkṣa) and take the Five Great Vows (mahāvrata); but the laity are closely integrated, by being on the same path, and by the formality of dāna, gifts in support of the ascetics. The two immediate aims of the Jain ascetic counterbalance each other, saṃyama being restraint, and tapas being the generation of ‘heat’ (i.e. spiritual power).

Among Sikhs, asceticism is viewed with caution: the Gurus advocated for all Sikhs full involvement in family life coupled with self-discipline. For the amritdhārī this frequently means a vegetarian diet and avoidance of alcohol. Austerities and penances are considered painful, irrelevant and not conducive to spiritual development. (see GRAHASTI; NIRMALĀ; SRĪ CHAND; TOBACCO.)

The origins of Christian asceticism are to be found in the strongly eschatological consciousness of early Christians who looked forward to an imminent end of the world in which good would triumph over evil in a holy war. They were to prepare themselves by watchfulness, prayer, fasting, and, for many, sexual continence (cf. 1 Samuel 21. 5), anticipating martyrdom as the test of their faithfulness and a sign of the imminence of the final struggle. With the triumph of Christianity in the 4th cent. this attitude of eschatological awareness was inherited by the monastic movement, and Christian asceticism became archetypically monastic. A systematic understanding of the demands of such asceticism on human nature was developed, notably by Evagrius, and later by Cassian and Dorotheus. The Renaissance brought a reaction against Christian asceticism, intensified by the Reformation with its tendency to suggest the worthlessness of human effort.

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Asceticism

39. Asceticism (See also Austerity, Discipline.)

  1. Albigenses heretical and ascetic Christian sect in France in 12th and 13th centuries. [Christian Hist.: EB, I: 201]
  2. Alexis, St. patron saint of beggars and hermits. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewer Dictionary, 22]
  3. Anthony, St. founder of monasticism. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 49]
  4. Béguines 12th-century French mendicant order. [Fr. Hist.: Espy, 9899]
  5. Cathari heretical and ascetic Christian sect in Europe in 12th and 13th centuries. [Christian Hist.: EB, II: 639]
  6. Cistercians Roman Catholic monastic order observing strict asceticism, founded in 1098. [Christian Hist.: EB, II: 948]
  7. Clare, St. founder of mendicant Order of Poor Glares. [Christian Hagiog.: Hall, 69]
  8. Crazy Ivar lived in hole on side of river bed. [Am. Lit.: O Pioneers!, Magill I, 663665]
  9. Diogenes (412323 B. C.) despised worldly possessions; made his home in a tub. [Gk. Hist.: Hall, 104]
  10. Fakirs fanatical mendicant sects found primarily in India. [Asian Hist.: Brewer Note-Book, 310]
  11. Franciscans 13th-century religious order whose members lived in poverty. [Christian Hist.: EB, IV: 273]
  12. Gandhi, Mohandas K. (18691948) Indian spiritual leader; embodied Hindu abstemiousness. [Indian Hist.: NCE, 1042]
  13. Jerome, St . Christian monastic leader who searched for peace as hermit in desert. [Christian Hist.: EB, V: 545]
  14. Manichaean Sabbath Manichaean observance of Sunday, demanding abstinence from food and sex. [Christian Hist.: EB, VIII: 746]
  15. Paul of Thebes, St . first Christian hermit; cave-dweller most of life. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 268]
  16. Priscillianism rigorously ascetic Christian sect found in Europe until the 6th century. [Christian Hist.: EB, VIII: 219]
  17. Stoicism philosophical school in Greco-Roman antiquity advocating rationality and austerity. [Gk. Hist.: EB, VIII: 746]
  18. Stylites, St. Simeon Christian monk whose philosophy was so ascetic that he dwelt atop a column to meditate. [Christian Hist.: EB, IX: 216]
  19. Timon of Athens lost wealth, lived frugally; became misanthropic when deserted by friends. [Br. Lit.: Timon of Athens ]
  20. Trappist monks order with austere lifestyle. [Rom. Cath. Hist.: NCE, 2779]
  21. Waldenses members of 12th-century French religious movement living in poverty. [Christian Hist.: EB, X: 519]
  22. Xenocrates temperate philosopher, noted for contempt of wealth. [Gk. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 1169]

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asceticism

asceticism (əsĕt´ĬsĬzəm), rejection of bodily pleasures through sustained self-denial and self-mortification, with the objective of strengthening spiritual life. Asceticism has been common in most major world religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity: all of these have special ascetic cults or ascetic ideals. The most common ascetic practice is fasting, which is used for many purposes—to produce visions, as among the Crow; to mourn the dead, as among various African peoples; and to sharpen spiritual awareness, as among the early Christian saints. More extreme forms have been flagellation (see flagellants) and self-mutilation, usually intended to propitiate or reach accord with a god. Asceticism has been associated with taboo in many non-Western societies and in such well-developed religions as Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. See Essenes; fakir; hermit; Rechabites.

See W. J. Sheils, ed., Monks, Hermits and the Ascetic Tradition (1985).

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asceticism

asceticism the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons. The term comes (in the mid 17th century, via medieval Latin or Greek) from Greek askētēs ‘monk’, from askein ‘to exercise’.

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Asceticism

ASCETICISM.

This entry includes two subentries:

Hindu and Buddhist Asceticism
Western Asceticism

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