Asceticism and Renunciation Essay Sample

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The practice of asceticism and renunciation is central to the understanding of South Asian religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Orthodox views about ascetic practices are plagued with the thinking that the renouncers are the ones that give up work or in other words, the discipline of action. Typically, renouncers are merely seen as people dressed up in saffron clothes, wandering hither and thither on a pursuit to salvation (Olivelle 271). These views, despite having some truthful foundations, are still far from painting an accurate picture of these traditions and their respective religious associations. In order to gain an analytic insight regarding the various ascetic traditions and their connections with various religious beliefs, it is crucial to investigate the socio-cultural and historical foundations of these practices (Olivelle 271). It is axiomatic that an individual indulges in an activity wanting to achieve a defined purpose. In the case of renouncers, these individuals participate in activities which stress on gaining control over human senses that demand worldly pleasures and attachments (Olivelle 272).

The purpose behind these actions can be explained by making reference to two Indian divinities, which are samsara and moksa (Olivelle 274). Samsara simply means that life in this world is a suffering which continues through the cycle of death and rebirth (Olivelle 274). Moksa, on the other hand, is the final destination/ objective of human existence. It is the only way through which one can escape suffering, or in other words, the cycle of death and rebirth (Olivelle 274). The purpose of this essay is to prove that practices, such as asceticism emerged as a solution to end human suffering by making reference to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism respectively. Simultaneously, this essay also aims to negate the orthodox views about asceticism and renunciation by investigating the social, cultural and historical foundations of these practices. As the inception of the arguments of this essay, it will be helpful to understand the two key ascetic practices, one of which is carried forward by a hermit living in a forest and the other by a mendicant. Before beginning to analyze the strategic importance of two with regards to the aim of this essay, let’s define and distinguish between the two to prove how such definition leads to development of modern orthodox views.

It is believed that the Upanishads, other Vedas and the Buddhist literal sources are the earliest origins of information regarding the renouncer tradition (Olivelle 271). According to the description laid out in a Brahmanical law book, the hallmark of the lifestyle of an anchorite is his rejection to utilize anything interposed by humans (Olivelle 272). An anchorite, thus, lives in the forest and his necessities come from the wild. His participation in pivotal religious activities continues, however he is socially withdrawn from the society (Olivelle 272). A renouncer, on the other hand, is regarded as one who practices complete abstinence from worldly and sensual pleasures while living in vicinity to a civilized society (Olivelle 272). Introspection plays an important role in this tradition, since the renouncer must control all aspects of his body and mind to ensure a chaste lifestyle. Conclusively, it becomes clear that the descriptions of the two traditions stress on self cultivation, but they are very particular about the physical manifestations and strict austerity practices which must be undertaken by the renouncer.

The clothing, begging for food or living in forests gives rise to modern orthodox views about renunciation as they drastically deviate from a householder’s life. The truth put forward by the texts that will be referenced in this essay is that the main goal of the renouncer regardless of his physical manifestation/ strict austerity practices remains self enlightenment. This can be proved by referencing renunciation with Hinduism and more specifically to lord Krishna’s dialogue with Arjuna in the midst of the great war of Mahabharata. Arjuna demands his chariot be halted in the middle of the battle field so that he can see the warriors in his opposition (Miller and Moser 23). However, once he realizes that fighting this war will mean fighting with his own relatives and companions, he becomes dejected (Miller and Moser 24). It is to be noted at this point that the ascetic tradition active during the time frame of the Mahabharata was that which was associated with the lifestyle of anchorites (Olivelle 272). Shifting our focus to the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, Arjuna articulates his inner distress by explaining his dilemma of whether to fight the war by engaging in the massive killing of his own relatives or renounce war/ action and focus on his sacred/benign duties (Miller and Moser 26).

At this point, it becomes clear that Arjuna feels dejected to fight the war since he sees no pleasure, victory or delight in the killing of his kindred. Thus, he poses several concerns with regards to killing in the name of war, sins, family destruction, violence and his conflicting sacred values towards his comrades if he is to fight the war (Miller and Moser 26). In response to Arjuna’s distressed state, Krishna explains that an enlightened individual does not lament over the living or the dead since the body is impermanent and the soul never ceases to exist (Miller and Moser 31). The ascetic tradition exerts similar principals by stressing over abstinence from social intercourse (Olivelle 271). In further detail, physically withdrawing oneself from the society is representative of the values put forward in the Bhagwad Gita. The body is impermanent; hence forming attachments with worldly pleasures is seen as futile task to engage in (Miller and Moser 31). Furthermore, the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna raises critical questions regarding discipline in action and renunciation in action (Miller and Moser 41). The discussion about the two concepts is an important one since it serves to negate the many stereotypes/ orthodox views about the “ideal” of practicing renunciation.

As mentioned earlier, many people confuse renunciation to mean abandonment of work. Also, a renouncer is characterized more with his physical manifestations, such as clothing and rituals. In the dialogue that takes place between Arjuna and Krishna, the former asks whether renunciation of action or discipline of action is superior (Miller and Moser 57). In response, Krishna declares that although both are capable of bearing the same fruits, discipline in action is more important (Miller and Moser 57). A man of eternal renunciation, according to Krishna’s response, is one who is free from worldly attachments and the one who neither hates nor desires (Miller and Moser 57). Moreover, Krishna claims that it is, in fact, the foolish who try to distinguish between philosophy and discipline, because in all likelihood they are the same (Miller and Moser 57). Analytically speaking, it becomes clear at this point that renunciation cannot be explained merely by examining the lives of ascetics or renouncers. In fact, renunciation, explained by Krishna is a life long process that is tough to attain without discipline (Miller and Moser 58).

Krishna asserts that one who is armed with discipline is able to purify oneself and become the master of his/ her senses (Miller and Moser 58). By doing so, one is able to understand that function such as, walking, talking, sleeping and breathing are carried out by the senses, which in actuality are merely just objects. Once an individual gains this understanding, it is easy to detach oneself from selfish reasoning (Miller and Moser 58). The person who dedicates his actions to the pure spirit and relinquishes attachments is considered disciplined (Miller and Moser 58). It is to be noted that Krishna, in the beginning of his response regarded renunciation and discipline in action to result in the same good (Miller and Moser 57). Also, after discussing the details in Krishna’s response, it becomes clear that he stresses on the same values and beliefs as the ascetic traditions such as, purification of oneself. Thus, it can be said that renunciation be it practiced like a hermit, or be it practiced in discipline of action bear the same results. At this point, it becomes axiomatic that the two are actually the same. Asceticism and renunciation became an integral part of the Buddhist tradition as well.

The religious roots of these practices can be traced to the time of Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly regarded as the founder of Buddhism. In order to understand why renunciation became a central practice in Buddhism, it would be helpful to discourse upon the dialogue of the future Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) and his father (Suddhodana). Once the future Buddha apprises his father of his intentions to go on a path of renunciation, his father discourages the idea by associating it with old age and hence, rendering the process of renunciation as being incapable of being practiced in the young age (Olivelle 279). It is to be noted here that this is another stereotype that many people hold about renunciation. The views of the Suddhodana reflect the views of the society by asserting that renunciation must be practiced in the old age when the mind is steady and the senses are not easily excited (Olivelle 279). Moreover, to be able to withstand the hardships of the ascetic lifestyle is not possible in young age (Olivelle 279). Analyzing this argument put forward, it is inevitable that orthodox viewpoints see renunciation as an extremely strict practice involving living in the forest and abiding by strict rituals.

Before we are able to negate this viewpoint by connecting the practice of renunciation in Buddhism by the journey of enlightenment in Gautama Buddha’s life, it is important to discourse further upon the dialogue between the future Buddha and his father. In response to Suddhodana’s argument, Siddhartha asserts he must not renounce the world if he is promised four things (Olivelle 279). These four things, later on in the course of Buddhism, emerge as the four noble truths in this religion. Siddhartha claims that he shall waive his intention to renounce if he is never exposed to death, illness, old age and misfortune (Olivelle 279). By saying so, he implicitly exhorts the idea of life being a suffering where the mentioned miseries are inevitable. Furthermore, separation from worldly pleasures is reality which no one can question (Olivelle 279). Hence, the future Buddha says its better to separate oneself from these worldly pleasures willingly and attain salvation than it is to sit and wait for death to do the task. Siddhartha’s argument, thus, blatantly rejects correlation of renunciation with old age (Olivelle 280).

The later life of Gautama Buddha and the lessons learned from investigating the ways through which enlightenment is achieved by Gautama is important to understand since it devalues the importance of strict ascetic practices and instead values superiorly the purification of mind. The inception of Gautama’s journey to enlightenment is explained by strict ascetic practices under the guidance of several religious gurus (Kelen 26). However, it soon comes to the understanding of the Buddha that physical austerities are futile to the attainment of salvation (Kelen 28). Hence, for this reason, he advocates what he calls “the middle path” to gain enlightenment, which is heavily focused on the purification of mind and all other impurities (Kelen 34). Again, through connecting renunciation to the foundational beliefs of Buddhism, it becomes clear that the orthodox views with regards to renunciation are very limited in scope. Conclusively, Renunciation in both Hinduism and Buddhism is set on the idea of complete purification of the mind and body because that is the cardinal prerequisite to gaining enlightenment. The connections of Jainism with the practice of renunciation can also be explored to study the renouncer tradition in further depth.

The paper, so far, has discoursed heavily with regards the true nature of renunciation versus the orthodox views of renunciation. Thus, in the last section of the essay, renunciation and its religious roots to Jainism will be investigated in order to fulfill the purpose of the essay, to prove that renunciation even in Jainism was seen as a way to end human suffering. Simultaneously, it should also become apparent that, despite the fact that renunciation can be practiced differently in different religions, the true nature of the practice, however, does not deviate. In order to understand why renunciation became an important part of the Jainism, stories inspiring renunciation can be looked at. Specifically, references can be made to the story of Mahesvara, who on the occasion of his father’s death anniversary, engages in the sacrificial killing of a buffalo which is later fed to his own son. (Granoff 89) A sage, around that moment, enters the house and enlightens Mahesvara with the knowledge of the cycle of death and rebirth (Granoff 89). It comes as a shock to Mahesvara that the lover of his own wife is now his son and the sacrificed buffalo was actually the soul of his father (Granoff 89).

The main theme that arises from the story, and in fact, several other inspiring stories in Jainism stresses on overcoming the darkness of delusion and stepping into the light of enlightenment (Granoff 90). The solution presented is renunciation; however, similar to many religions, even Jainism also implicitly advocated that renunciation can be practiced in several different ways. Jainism can be divided into two different sects, Svetambara and Digambara. The former group is regarded as being the more liberal one which interpreted the teachings of Mahavira with regards to nudity and thus, allowed the monks to wear white clothing (sprunger). The latter group, however, are known for their strict practices that advocated old ideals regarding nudity (Sprunger). It should be noted that Digambara are the traditionalists that affirmed with orthodox views regarding renunciation, but the Svetambara rejected the traditionalist view while keeping the true nature of renunciation intact (sprunger).

The true nature of renunciation, as mentioned earlier, emphasized on purification of oneself by relinquishing attachments. This concept, in western dictionary, is called ultimate renunciation (Sprunger). In conclusion, by exploring the idea of asceticism and renunciation in various religious traditions, it should become clear that these practices are not limited to the adherence of physical austerities like many orthodox viewpoints advocate. Also, attempting to understand the true purpose of renunciation merely through one specific sect or one specific religion is a narrow way to think to about the concept.

In a nutshell, renunciation cannot be defined by the physical manifestations of the monks or the ritual practices that they engage in. In the Mahabharata, discipline in action becomes renunciation for Arjuna. In Buddhism, the “middle way” becomes renunciation for Gautama. In Jainism also, different sects approach renunciation differently. However, despite the differences the cardinal focus remains on the purification of the mind by relinquishing all attachments, so that one can enter an enlightened state. Therefore, the practice of renunciation and asceticism can be defined as an art that can be practiced in many different ways given the practitioner’s focus remains on complete purification of oneself.


Granoff, P. “Jain Stories of Renunciation.” In Lopez, D. S. Religions of India in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995. Olivelle, P. “The Renouncer Tradition.” In Flood, G. ed. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. Miller, B. S., and B. Moser. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. Kelen, Betty. Gautama Buddha – In Life and Legend. Federal Publications , Print.

Sprunger, Meredith . “An Introduction to Jainism.” . The Urantia Book Fellowship. Web. 12 Nov 2012. .

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