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Ascetic redirects here. You might also be looking for acetic acid. The term should not be confused with aestheticism.

Asceticism (from the Greek: ἄσκησις, áskēsis, "exercise" or "training" in the sense of athletic training) describes a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals. Some forms of Christianity (see especially: Monastic life) and the Indian religions (including yoga) teach that salvation and liberation involve a process of mind-body transformation effected by exercising restraint with respect to actions of body, speech, and mind. The founders and earliest practitioners of these religions (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism, the Christian desert fathers) lived extremely austere lifestyles refraining from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of material wealth. This is to be understood not as an eschewal of the enjoyment of life but a recognition that spiritual and religious goals are impeded by such indulgence.

Asceticism is closely related to the Christian concept of chastity and might be said to be the technical implementation of the abstract vows of renunciation. Those who practice ascetic lifestyles do not consider their practices virtuous in themselves but pursue such a lifestyle in order to encourage, or 'prepare the ground' for, mind-body transformation.

In the popular imagination, asceticism may be considered obsessive or even masochistic in nature. However, the askēsis enjoined by religion functions in order to bring about greater freedom in various areas of one's life (such as freedom from compulsions and temptations) and greater peacefulness of mind (with a concomitant increase in clarity and power of thought).



The adjective "ascetic" derives from the ancient Greek term askēsis (practice, training or exercise). Originally associated with any form of disciplined practice, the term ascetic has come to mean anyone who practices a renunciation of worldly pursuits to achieve higher intellectual and spiritual goals.

Askesis is a Greek Christian term; the practice of spiritual exercises; rooted in the philosophical tradition of antiquity. Originally introduced as the spiritual struggle of the Greek Orthodox Church as the style of life where meat, alcohol, sex, and comfortable clothing are avoided, the term is now used in several other relations.

Sociological and Psychological Views

Early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber made a distinction between innerweltliche and ausserweltliche asceticism, which means (roughly) "inside the world" and "outside the world", respectively. Talcott Parsons translated these as "worldly" and "otherworldly" (some translators use "inner-worldly", but that has a different connotation in English and is probably not what Weber had in mind).

"Otherworldly" asceticism is practiced by people who withdraw from the world in order to live an ascetic life (this includes monks who live communally in monasteries, as well as hermits who live alone). "Worldly" asceticism refers to people who live ascetic lives but don't withdraw from the world.

Weber claimed that this distinction originated in the Protestant Reformation, but later became secularized, so the concept can be applied to both religious and secular ascetics.

(See Talcott Parsons' translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translator's note on Weber's footnote 9 in chapter 2)

20th century American psychological theorist David McClelland suggested that worldly asceticism is specifically targeted against worldly pleasures that distract people from their calling, and may accept worldly pleasures that are not distracting. As an example, he pointed out that Quakers have historically objected to bright colored clothing, but that wealthy Quakers often made their drab clothing out of expensive materials. The color was considered distracting, but the materials were not. Amish groups use similar criteria to make decisions about which modern technologies to use and which to avoid.[1]

Religious motivation

Self-discipline and abstinence in some form and degree is a part of religious practice within many religious and spiritual traditions. A more dedicated ascetical lifestyle is associated particularly with monks, yogis or priests, but any individual may choose to lead an ascetic life. Shakyamuni Gautama (who left a more severe ascetism to seek a reasoned "middle way" of balanced life), Mahavir Swami, Anthony the Great (St. Anthony of the Desert), Francis of Assisi, and Mahatma Gandhi can all be considered ascetics. Many of these men left their families, possessions, and homes to live a mendicant life, and in the eyes of their followers demonstrated great spiritual attainment, or enlightenment.


Sadhus, but believed to be holy, are known for the extreme forms of self-denial they occasionally practice. These include extreme acts of devotion to a deity or principle, such as vowing never to use one leg or the other, or to hold an arm in the air for a period of months or years. The particular types of asceticism involved vary from sect to sect, and from holy man to holy man.[2]

The Rig Veda describes non-Vedic Kesins (long-haired ascetics) and Munis (silent ones).[3][4] The Kesins are described as friends of Vayu, Rudra, the Gandharvas and the Apsaras.[5] There is also another story in the Rig Veda that Dhruva the son of Uttanapada (the son of Manu) performs penance, making him "one with Brahma."[6]

Sanyasa is one of the four stages of life in Hinduism.

The term "tapas" is used in the Rig Veda to connote the burning of desires.[7]

Keeping silence, even in times of verbal abuse was practiced by Hindu ascetics.[8]

Yajnavalkya also describes Brahmans as "Bhiksacaryas."[5]


Asceticism, in one of its most intense forms, can be found in one of the oldest religions known as Jainism. Jainism encourages fasting, yoga practices, meditation in difficult postures, and other austerities.[9] According to Jains, one's highest goal should be Moksha (i.e., liberation from samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth). For this, a soul has to be without attachment or self indulgence. This can be achieved only by the monks and nuns who take five great vows: of non-violence, of truth, of non-stealing, of non-possession and of celibacy. Most of the austerities and ascetic practices can be traced back to Vardhaman Mahavira, the twenty-fourth "fordmaker" or Tirthankara. The Acaranga Sutra, or Book of Good Conduct, is a sacred book within Jainism that discusses the ascetic code of conduct. Other texts that provide insight into conduct of ascetics include Yogashastra by Acharya Hemachandra and Niyamasara by Acharya Kundakunda. Other illustrious Jain works on ascetic conduct are Oghanijjutti, Pindanijjutti, Cheda Sutta, and Nisiha Suttafee.

Ascetic vows

Sthanakvasi Jain monk

As per the Jain vows, the monks and nuns renounce all relations and possessions. Jain ascetics practice complete non-violence. Ahimsa is the first and foremost vow of a Jain ascetic. They do not hurt any living being, be it an insect or a human. They carry a special broom to sweep any insects that may cross their path. Some Jains monks wear a cloth over the mouth to prevent accidental harm to airborne germs and insects. They also do not use electricity as it involves violence. Furthermore, they do not use any devices or machines.

As they are possession less and without any attachment, they travel from city to city, often crossing forests and deserts, and always barefoot. Jain ascetics do not stay in a single place for more than two months to prevent attachment to any place. However, during four months of monsoon (rainy season) known as chaturmaas, they continue to stay at a single place to avoid their killing life forms that thrive during the rains. Jain monks and nuns practice complete celibacy. They do not touch or share a sitting platform with a person of opposite sex.

Dietary practices

Jain ascetics follow a strict vegetarian diet without root vegetables. Shvetambara monks do not cook food but solicit alms from householders. Digambara monks have only a single meal a day. Neither group will beg for food, but a Jain ascetic may accept a meal from a householder, provided that the latter is pure of mind and body and offers the food of his own volition and in the prescribed manner. During such an encounter, the monk remains standing and eats only a measured amount. Fasting (i.e., abstinence from food and sometimes water) is a routine feature of Jain asceticism. Fasts last for a day or longer, up to a month. Some monks avoid (or limit) medicine and/or hospitalisation out of disregard for the physical body.

Austerities and other daily practices

White-clothed Acharya Kalaka

Other austerities include meditation in seated or standing posture near river banks in the cold wind, or meditation 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 (almost) completely without possessions. Some Jains (Shvetambara monks and nuns) own only unstitched white robes (an upper and lower garment) and a bowl used for eating and collecting alms. Male Digambara monks do not wear any clothes and carry nothing with them except a soft broom made of shed peacock feathers (pinchi) and eat from their hands. They sleep on the floor without blankets and sit on special wooden platforms.

Every day is spent either in study of scriptures or meditation or teaching to lay people. They stand aloof from worldly matters. Many Jain ascetics take a final vow of Santhara or Sallekhana (i.e., a peaceful and detached death where medicines, food, and water are abandoned). This is done when death is imminent or when a monk feels that he is unable to adhere to his vows on account of advanced age or terminal disease.

Quotes on ascetic practices from the Akaranga Sutra as Hermann Jacobi translated it[10][2]:

“A monk or a nun wandering from village to village should look forward for four cubits, and seeing animals they should move on by walking on his toes or heels or the sides of his feet. If there be some bypath, they should choose it, and not go straight on; then they may circumspectly wander from village to village. Third Lecture(6)”

'I shall become a Sramana who owns no house, no property, no sons, no cattle, who eats what others give him; I shall commit no sinful action; Master, I renounce to accept anything that has not been given.' Having taken such vows, (a mendicant) should not, on entering a village or scot-free town, &c., take himself, or induce others to take, or allow others to take, what has not been given. Seventh Lecture (1)


The Buddha as an ascetic. Gandhara, 2-3rd century CE. British Museum.


The historical Siddhartha Gautama adopted an extreme ascetic life after leaving his father's palace, where he once lived in extreme luxury. But later the Shakyamuni rejected extreme asceticism because it is an impediment to ultimate freedom (nirvana) from suffering (samsara), choosing instead a path that met the needs of the body without crossing over into luxury and indulgence. After abandoning extreme asceticism he was able to achieve enlightenment. This position became known as the Madhyamaka or Middle Way, and became one of the central organizing principles of Theravadin philosophy.

The degree of moderation suggested by this middle path varies depending on the interpretation of Theravadism at hand. Some traditions emphasize ascetic life more than others.

The basic lifestyle of an ordained Theravadin practitioner (bhikkhu, monk; or bhikkhuni, nun) as described in the Vinaya Pitaka was intended to be neither excessively austere nor hedonistic. Monks and nuns were intended to have enough of life's basic requisites (particularly food, water, clothing, and shelter) to live safely and healthily, without being troubled by illness or weakness. While the life described in the Vinaya may appear difficult, it would be perhaps better described as Spartan rather than truly ascetic. Deprivation for its own sake is not valued. Indeed, it may be seen as a sign of attachment to one's own renunciation. The aim of the monastic lifestyle was to prevent concern for the material circumstances of life from intruding on the monk or nun's ability to engage in religious practice. To this end, having inadequate possessions was regarded as being no more desirable than having too many.

Initially, the Tathagatta rejected a number of more specific ascetic practices that some monks requested to follow. These practices — such as sleeping in the open, dwelling in a cemetery or cremation ground, wearing only cast-off rags, etc. — were initially seen as too extreme, being liable to either upset the social values of the surrounding community, or as likely to create schisms among the Sangha by encouraging monks to compete in austerity. Despite their early prohibition, recorded in the Pali Canon, these practices (known as the Dhutanga practices, or in Thai as thudong) eventually became acceptable to the monastic community. They were recorded by Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga, and later became significant in the practices of the Thai Forest Tradition.


The Mahayana traditions of Buddhism received a slightly different code of discipline than that used by the various Theravada sects. This fact, combined with significant regional and cultural variations, has resulted in differing attitudes towards asceticism in different areas of the Mahayana world. Particularly notable is the role that vegetarianism plays in East Asian Buddhism, particularly in China and Japan. While Theravada monks are compelled to eat whatever is provided for them by their lay supporters, including meat, Mahayana monks in East of Asia are most often vegetarian. This is attributable to a number of factors, including Mahayana-specific teachings regarding vegetarianism, East Asian cultural tendencies that predate the introduction of Buddhism (some of which may have their roots in Confucianism), and the different manner in which monks support themselves in East Asia. While Southeast Asian and Sri Lankan monks generally continue to make daily begging rounds to receive their daily meal, monks in East Asia more commonly receive bulk foodstuffs from lay supporters (or the funds to purchase them) and are fed from a kitchen located on the site of the temple or monastery, and staffed either by working monks or by lay supporters.

Similarly, divergent scriptural and cultural trends have brought a stronger emphasis on asceticism to some Mahayana practices. The Lotus Sutra, for instance, contains a story of a bodhisattva who burns himself as an offering to the assembly of all Buddhas in the world. This has become a patterning story for self-sacrifice in the Mahayana world, probably providing the inspiration for the self-immolation of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc during the 1960s, as well as several other incidents.


The history of Jewish asceticism goes back thousands of years to the references of the Nazirite (Numbers 6) and the Wilderness Tradition that evolved out of the forty years in the desert. The prophets and their disciples were ascetic to the extreme including many examples of fasting and hermitic living conditions. After the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile and the prophetic institution was done away with a different form of asceticism arose when Antiochus IV Epiphanes threatened the Jewish religion in 167 BCE. The Hassidean sect attracted observant Jews to its fold and they lived as holy warriors in the wilderness during the war against the Seleucid Empire. With the rise of the Hasmoneans and finally Jonathan's claim to the High Priesthood in 152 BCE, the Essene sect separated under the Teacher of Righteousness and they took the banner of asceticism for the next two hundred years culminating in the Dead Sea Sect.

Asceticism is rejected by modern day Judaism; it is considered contrary to God's wishes for the world. God intended the world to be enjoyed, in a permitted context of course.[11]

However, Judaism does not encourage people to seek pleasure for its own sake but rather to do so in a spiritual way. An example would be thanking God for creating something enjoyable, like a wonderful view, or tasty food. As another example, sex should be enjoyed while remembering that a person may be fulfilling the commandments of marriage and pru-urvu (procreation), but that it should also be enjoyed. Food can be enjoyed by remembering that it is necessary to eat, but by thanking God for making it an enjoyable processes, and by not overeating, or eating wastefully.

Modern normative Judaism is in opposition to the lifestyle of asceticism, and sometimes cast the Nazirite vow in a critical light. There did exist some ascetic Jewish sects in ancient times, most notably the Essenes and Ebionites. Some early Kabbalists may have, arguably, also held a lifestyle that could be regarded as ascetic.[citation needed]


Different religious groups within Christianity have differing views on the subject of asceticism; the Catholic Church, as well as the Eastern Orthodox churches, Oriental Orthodox churches, and some Anglican churches, all see value in asceticism, while most of the Protestant denominations view asceticism generally in a negative light (an exception would be the practice of fasting). One Christian context of asceticism is the liturgical season of Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, leading up to Easter. During this season Catholics are counseled to practice prayer, fasting, especially on Fridays and special holy days, and charitable giving. Many other Christians also practice these traditional Lenten disciplines.

In the Christian Gospels, both the practice of asceticism, and also the enjoyment of the good things of the world are depicted, which seem to each have their proper time and place. John the Baptist, forerunner to Jesus, is depicted as a desert ascetic according to the image of an Old Testament Prophet "Clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey" (Mk 1:6). Jesus also is depicted as spending 40 days fasting in the desert and experiencing temptations prior to the beginning of his ministry (Lk 4 1-13). Later, Jesus is frequently depicted sharing and enjoying food and drink with his followers and others, including publicly known sinners, to the scandal of some people. Jesus' followers ask him about this: "They said to him, 'John's disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.' Jesus answered, 'Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast'" (Lk 5:33-35). This has most often been interpreted to mean that after Jesus' death his followers will practice fasting, at least sometimes.

Catholic and Orthodox Christians have strongly tended to view Christian fasting, chastity and other ascetic practice as oriented toward desire and love for Christ (the "bridegroom" of the Church, still really present, these traditions believe, in the Eucharist) over and above all other things, even though the entire creation is affirmed as good. In Catholic spiritual theology this is expressed as an inseparable relationship between ascetical and mystical theology, as if the human and divine dimensions of living the Christian spiritual life of incarnate divine love, for instance as described by St. John of the Cross.

Protestant Christians vary widely in their attitudes toward and practices of asceticism. The Protestant reformers often strongly criticized monasticism and Catholic ascetical practices, contrasting these human works through which people participate in working out their salvation, with "faith alone" in Jesus as savior. Some Protestants are vehement about this to the point of rejecting the whole idea of asceticism, citing St. Paul's teaching in his epistle to the Romans that justification is by faith in Jesus rather than by works such as adherence to Jewish law, or similarly in 1 Timothy 4:2-3 speaks against those who would turn Christians away from true faith by imposing unnecessary religious rules: "liars with branded consciences.... forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God required to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth." However, many Protestants embrace "spiritual disciplines" such as fasting and disciplined dedication to prayer as a positive and Biblically-based means of growth in the Christian life. The Lutheran Church encourages fasting during Lent, similar to the Roman Catholic teaching. Individuals in mainline Pentecostal denominations undertake both short and extended fasts as they believe the Holy Spirit leads them. For Charismatic Christians fasting is undertaken at the leading of God. Fasting is done in order to seek a closer intimacy with God, as well as an act of petition. Holiness movements, such as those started by John and Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield in the early days of Methodism, often practice such regular fasts as part of their regimen.

Saint Paul speaks of his own asceticism in his New Testament epistles, and also offers some nuance about true and false asceticism. For instance he writes of disciplining his body like an athlete, in order to subordinate it to reason in the service of the Gospel: "Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things. They do this to win a crown of leaves that wither, but we a crown that is imperishable" Cor 9:25.

Asceticism within Catholic tradition includes spiritual disciplines practiced to work out the believer's salvation, and express one's repentance for sin, with the ultimate aim of purifying the heart and mind, by God's grace, for encounter with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, (see Kenosis). Although certain monks and nuns today such as those in the Roman Catholic religious orders of the Carthusians, and Cistercians, are known for especially strict acts of asceticism, even more rigorous ascetic practices were common in the early Church. The deserts of the middle-east were at one time said to have been inhabited by thousands of hermits[12] amongst whom St. Anthony the Great (aka St. Anthony of the Desert), St. Mary of Egypt, and a particularly unusual example is St. Simeon Stylites.

Christian authors of late antiquity such as Origen, Jerome[13], St. Ignatius[14], John Chrysostom, and Augustine interpreted meanings of Biblical texts within a highly asceticized religious environment. Scriptural examples of asceticism could be found in the lives of John the Baptist, Jesus, the twelve apostles and Saint Paul. The Dead Sea Scrolls revealed ascetic practices of the ancient Jewish sect of Essenes who took vows of abstinence to prepare for a holy war. Thus, the asceticism of practitioners like Jerome was hardly original (although some of his critics thought it was), and a desert ascetic like Antony the Great (251-356 CE) was in the tradition of ascetics in noted communities and sects of the previous centuries. Clearly, emphasis on an ascetic religious life was evident in both early Christian writings (see the Philokalia) and practices (see hesychasm). Other Christian followers of asceticism include individuals such as Simeon Stylites, Saint David of Wales, and Francis of Assisi. (See The Catholic Encyclopedia for a fuller discussion.) To the uninformed modern reader, early monastic asceticism may seem to be only about sexual renunciation. However, sexual abstinence was merely one aspect of ascetic renunciation. The ancient monks and nuns had other, equally weighty concerns: pride, humility, compassion, discernment, patience, judging others, prayer, hospitality, and almsgiving. For some early Christians, gluttony represented a more primordial problem than lust, and as such the reduced intake of food is also a facet of asceticism. As an illustration, the systematic collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the desert fathers and mothers has more than twenty chapters divided by theme; only one chapter is devoted to porneia ("sexual lust"). (See Elizabeth A. Clark. Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.)

Nowadays, the monastic state of Mount Athos, having a history of over a millennium, is a center of Christian spirituality and asceticism in Eastern Orthodox tradition.


The Islamic word for asceticism is zuhd.

Muhammad is quoted to have said, "What have I to do with worldly things? My connection with the world is like that of a traveler resting for a while underneath the shade of a tree and then moving on." He advised the people to live simple lives and himself practiced great austerities. Even when he had become the virtual king of Arabia, he lived an austere life bordering on privation. His wife Ayesha said that there was hardly a day in his life when he had two square meals (Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Vol.2, pg 198) taken from--[15]

"Asceticism is not that you should not own anything, but that nothing should own you." -Ali ibn Abi Talib[16]


Sufism evolved not as a mystical but as an ascetic movement, as even the name suggests; the word Sufi may refer to a rough woolen robe of the ascetic. A natural bridge from asceticism to mysticism has often been crossed by Muslim ascetics. Through meditation on the Qur'an and praying to Allah, the Muslim ascetic believes that he draws near to Allah, and by leading an ascetic life paves the way for absorption in Allah, the Sufi way to salvation. (See Alfred Braunthal. Salvation and the Perfect Society. University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.)


In Zoroastrianism, active participation in life through good thoughts, good words and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep the chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster's concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of asceticism and monasticism.

Secular motivation

Examples of secular asceticism:

  • A Starving Artist is someone who minimizes their living expenses in order to spend more time and effort on their art.
  • Many professional athletes abstain from sex, rich foods, and other pleasures before major competitions in order to mentally prepare themselves for the upcoming contest.
  • Straight Edge people abstain from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and casual sex as part of a sub-culture lifestyle choice.
  • Many revolutionaries have also adopted asceticism, among the most important being Stalin and Adolf Hitler; Hitler was known throughout his life for abstemiousness and an aloof, though not asexual, attitude to women. Stalin lived in one room, having only tobacco tub as a pleasure.[citation needed]

Religious versus secular motivation

The observation of an ascetic lifestyle can be found in both religious and secular settings. For example, practices based on a religious motivation might include fasting, abstention from sex, and other forms of self-denial intended to increase religious awareness or attain a closer relationship with a purported "divine". Non-religious (or not specifically religious) practices might be seen in such an example as Spartans undertaking regimens of severe physical discipline to prepare for battle.


In the third essay ("What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?" On the Genealogy of Morals#Third Treatise: "What do ascetic ideals mean?") from his book On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche discusses what he terms the "ascetic ideal" and its role in the formulation of morality along with the history of the will. In the essay, Nietzsche describes how such a paradoxical action as asceticism might serve the interests of life: through asceticism one can attain mastery over oneself. In this way one can express both ressentiment and the will to power. Nietzsche describes the morality of the ascetic priest as characterized by Christianity as one where, finding oneself in pain, one places the blame for the pain on oneself and thereby attempts and attains mastery over the world,[17] a technique which Nietzsche locates at the very origin of secular science as well as of religion.

See also


  1. ^ McClelland, The Achieving Society, 1961
  2. ^ Rules and Regulations of Brahmanical Asceticism - Yatidharmasamuccaya of Yadava Prakasa/ Translated by Patrick Olivelle (Sri Satguru Publications/ Delhi) is a must-read book in this context.
  3. ^ P. 77 An Introduction to Hinduism By Gavin D. Flood
  4. ^ P. 137 The Rig Veda By Wendy Doniger, Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty
  5. ^ a b P. 377 Classical Hinduism By Mariasusai Dhavamony
  6. ^ P. 460 Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature By John McClintock, James Strong
  7. ^ P. 34 India and the Greek world: a study in the transmission of culture By Jean W. Sedlar
  8. ^ P. 134 The rule of Saint Benedict and the ascetic traditions from Asia to the West By Mayeul de Dreuille
  9. ^ Frank William Iklé et al. "A History of Asia", page ?. Allyn and Bacon, 1964
  10. ^ Hermann Jacobi, "Sacred Books of the East", vol. 22: Gaina Sutras Part I. 1884
  11. ^
  12. ^ for a study of the continuation of this early tradition in the Middle Ages, see Marina Miladinov, Margins of Solitude: Eremitism in Central Europe between East and West (Zagreb: Leykam International, 2008)
  13. ^ New Advent - Catholic Encyclopedia: Asceticism, quoting St. Jerome
  14. ^ From Chapter 1 of a letter from Ignatius to Polycarp
  15. ^ USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts
  16. ^ [1]
  17. ^ The final sentence of the book puts it like this: "For man would rather will even nothingness than 'not will.'" (Kaufmann's trans.)


  • Valantasis, Richard. The Making of the Self: Ancient and Modern Asceticism. James Clarke & Co (2008) ISBN 978-0-227-17281-0.[3]

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ASCETICISM, the theory and practice of bodily abstinence and self-mortification, generally religious. The word is derived from the Gr. verb &c7K w, " I practise," whence the noun 81 K'61s and the adjective aaxfnKO; and it embodies a metaphor taken from the ancient wrestling-place or palaestra, where victory rewarded those who had best trained their bodies. Not a few other technical terms of Greek philosophic asceticism, used in the first instance by Cynics and Neo-pythagoreans, and then continued among the Greek Jews and Christians, were metaphors taken from athletic contests - but only metaphors, for all asceticism, worthy of the name, has a moral purport, and is based on the eternal contrast of the proposition, "This is right," with the proposition, "That is pleasant." The ascetic instinct is probably as old as humanity, yet we must not forget that early religious practices are apt to be deficient in lofty spiritual meaning, many things being esteemed holy that are from a modern point of view trifling and even obscene. We may therefore expect in primitive asceticism to find many abstentions and much self-torture apparently valueless for the training of character and discipline of the feelings, which are the essence of any healthy asceticism. Nevertheless these non-moral taboos or restraints may have played a part in building up in us that faculty of preferring the larger good to the impulse of the moment which is the note of real civilization. Aristotle in his Ethics defines, as the barbarian's ideal of life, "the living as one likes." Yet nothing is less true; for the savage, more than the civilized man, is tied down at every step with superstitious scruples and restrictions barely traceable in higher civilizations except as primitive survivals. It is not that savages are devoid of the ascetic instinct. It is on the contrary over-developed in them, but ill-informed and working in ways unessential or even morally harmful. It is the note of every great religious reformer, Moses, Buddha, Paul, Mani, Mahomet, St Francis, Luther, to enlighten and direct it to higher aims, substituting a true personal holiness for a ritual purity or taboo, which at the best was viewed as a kind of physical condition and contagion, inherent as well in things and animals as in man.

It is useful, therefore, in a summary sketch of asceticism, to begin with the facts as they can be observed among less advanced races, or as mere survivals among people who have reached the level of genuine moral reflection; and from this basis to proceed to a consideration of self-denial consciously pursued as a method of ethical perfection. The latter is as a rule less cruel and rigorous than primitive forms of asceticism. Under this head fall the following: - Fasting, or abstention from certain meats and drinks; denial of sexual instinct; subjection of the body to physical discomforts, such as nakedness, vigils, sleeping on the bare ground, tattooing, deformation of skull, teeth, feet, &c., vows of silence to be observed throughout life or during pilgrimages, avoidance of baths, of hair-cutting and of clean raiment, living in a cave; actual self-infliction of pain, by scourging, branding, cutting with knives, wearing of hair shirts, fire-walking, burial alive, hanging up of oneself by hooks plunged into the skin, suspension of weights by such hooks to the tenderer parts of the body, self-mutilation and numerous other, often ingenious, modes of torture. Such customs repose on various superstitions; for example, the self-mutilation of the Galli or priests of Cybele was probably a magical ceremony intended to fertilize the soil and stimulate the crops. Others of the practices enumerated, probably the greater part of them, spring from demonological beliefs.

Fasting is used in primitive asceticism for a variety of reasons, among which the following deserve notice. Certain animals and vegetables are taboo, i.e. too holy, or - what among Semites and others was the same thing - too defiling and unclean, to be eaten. Thus in Leviticus xi. the Jews are forbidden to eat animals other than cloven-footed ruminants; thus the camel, coney, hare and swine were forbidden; so also any water organisms that had not fins and scales, and a large choice of birds, including swan, pelican, stork, heron and hoopoe. All winged creeping things that have four feet were equally abominable. Lastly, the weasel, mouse and most lizards were taboo. All or nearly all of these were at one time totem animals among one or another of the Semitic tribes, and were not eaten because primitive men will not eat animals between which and themselves and their gods they believe a peculiar tie of kinship to exist. Men do not eat an animal for which they have a reverential dread, or if they eat it at all, it is only in a sacramental feast and in order to absorb into themselves its life and holy properties. Such abstinences as the above, though based on taboo, that is, on a reluctance to eat the totem or sacred animal, are yet ascetic in so far as they involve much self-denial. No flesh is more wholesome or succulent than beef, yet the Egyptians and Phoenicians, says Porphyry (de Abst. ii. 11), would rather eat human flesh than that of the cow, and so would two hundred and fifty millions of modern Hindus. The privation involved in abstention from the flesh of the swine, a taboo hardly less widespread, is obvious.

Similar prohibitions are common in Africa, where fetish priests are often reduced to a diet of herbs and roots. That such dietary restrictions were merely ceremonial and superstitious, and not intended to prevent the consumption of meats which would revolt modern tastes, is certain from the fact that the Levitical law freely allowed the eating of locusts, grasshoppers, crickets and cockroaches, while forbidding the consumption of rabbits, hares, storks, swine, &c. The Pythagoreans were forbidden to eat beans.

Another widespread reason for avoiding flesh diet altogether was the fear of absorbing the irrational soul of the animal, which especially resided in the blood. Hence the rule not to eat meats strangled, except in sacramental meals when the god inherent in the animal was partaken of. It is equally a soul or spirit in wine which inspires the intoxicated; the old Egyptian kings avoided wine at table and in libations, because it was the blood of rebels who had fought with the gods, and out of whose rotting bodies grew the vines; to drink the blood was to imbibe the soul of these rebels, and the frenzy of intoxication which followed was held to be possession by their spirits. The medieval Jews also held that there is a cardiac demon in wine which takes possession of drunken men; and the Mahommedan prohibition of wine-drinking is based on a similar superstition. The avoidance of wine, therefore, by Rechabites, Nazirites, Arab dervishes and Pythagoreans, and also of leaven in bread, is parallel to and explicable in the same way as abstention from flesh. Porphyry (de Abst. i. 19) acquaints us with another widespread scruple against flesh diet. It was this, that the souls of men transmigrated into animals, so that if you ate these, you might consume your own kind, cannibal-wise. Contemporary meat-eaters set themselves to combat this prejudice, and argued that it was a pious duty to kill animals and so release the human souls imprisoned. In the same tract Porphyry relates (ii. 48) how wizards acquired the mantic powers of certain birds, such as ravens and hawks, by swallowing their hearts. The soul of the bird, he explains, enters them with its flesh, and endows them with power of divination. The lover of wisdom, who is priest of the universal God, rather than risk the taking into himself of inferior souls and polluting demons, will abstain from eating animals. Such is Porphyry's argument.

The same fear of imbibing the irrational soul of animals, and thereby reinforcing the lower appetites and instincts of the human being, inspired the vegetarianism of Apollonius of Tyana and of the Jewish Therapeutae, who in their sacred meals were careful to have a table free from blood-containing meats; and the fear of absorbing the animal's psychic qualities equally motived the Jewish and early Christian rule against eating things strangled. It was an early belief, which long survived among the Manichaean sects, that fish, being born in and of the waters, and without any sexual connexion on the part of other fishes are free from the taint which pollutes all animals quae copulatione generantur. Fish, therefore, unlike flesh, could be safely eaten. Here we have the origin of the Catholic rule of fasting, seldom understood by those who observe it. The same scruple against flesh-eating is conveyed in the beautiful confession, in the Cretans of Euripides, of one who had been initiated in the mysteries of Orpheus and became a "Bacchos." The last lines of this, as rendered by Dr Gilbert Murray, are as follows:- "Robed in pure white, I have borne me clean From man's vile birth and coffined clay, And exiled from my lips alway Touch of all meat where life bath been." This Orphic fast from meat was only broken by an annual sacramental banquet, originally, perhaps, of human, but later of raw bovine flesh.

The Manichaeans held that in every act of begetting, human or otherwise, a soul is condemned afresh to a cycle of misery by imprisonment in flesh - a thoroughly Indian notion, under the influence of which their perfect or elect ones scrupulously abstained from flesh. The prohibition of taking life, which they took over from the Farther East, in itself entailed fasting from flesh. A fully initiated Manichaean would not even cut his own salad, but employed a catechumen to commit on his behalf this act of murder, for which he subsequently shrived him.

We come to a third widespread reason for fasting, common among savages. Famished persons are liable to morbid excite ment, and fall into imaginative ecstasies, in the course of which they see visions and spectres, converse with gods and angels, and are the recipients of supernatural revelations. Accordingly King Saul "ate no bread all the day nor all the night" in which the witch of Endor revealed to him the ghost of Samuel. Weak and famished, he hardly wanted to eat the fatted calf when the vision was over. Among the North American Indians ecstatic fasting is regularly practised. A faster writes down his visions and revelations for a whole season. They are then examined by the elders of the tribe, and if events have verified them, he is recognized as a supernaturally gifted being, and rewarded with chieftaincy. All over the world fasting is a recognized mode of evoking, consulting and also of overcoming the spirit world. This is why the Zulus and other primitive races distrust a medicine man who is not an ascetic and lean with fasting. In the Semitic East it is an old belief that a successful fast in the wilderness of forty days and nights gives power over the Djinns. The Indian yogi fasts till he sees face to face all the gods of his Pantheon; the Indian magician fasts twelve days before producing rain or working any cure. The Bogomils fasted till they saw the Trinity face to face. From the first, fasting was practised in the church for similar reason. In the Shepherd of Hermas a vision of the church rewards frequent fasts and prayer; and it is related in extra-canonical sources that James the Less vowed that he would fast until he too was vouchsafed a vision of the risen Lord. After a long and rigorous fast the Lord appeared to him. Not a few saints were rewarded for their fasting by glimpses of the beatific vision. Dr Tylor writes on this point as follows (Prim. Cult. ii. 415): "Bread and meat would have robbed the ascetic of many an angel's visit: the opening of the refectory door must many a time have closed the gates of heaven to his gaze." Among the Semites and Tatars worshippers lacerate themselves before the god. So in 1 Kings xviii. 28 the priests of Baal engaged in a rain-making ceremony, gashed themselves with knives and lances till the blood gushed out upon them. The Syriac word ethkashshaph, which means literally to "cut oneself," is the regular equivalent of to "make supplication." Among Greeks and Arabs, mourners also cut themselves with knives and scratched their faces; the Hebrew law forbade such mourning, and we find the prohibition repeated in many canons of the Eastern churches. At first sight these rites seem intended to call down the pity of heaven on man, but as Robertson Smith points out, their real import was by shedding blood on a holy stone or in a holy place to tie or renew a blood-bond between the God and his faithful ones. We have no clear information about the mind of the Flagellants, who in 1259, and again in 1 349, swarmed through the streets of European cities, naked and thrashing themselves, till the blood ran, with leather thongs and iron whips. They were penitents, and no doubt imbued with the ancient belief that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.

Asceticism then in its origin was usually not ascetic in a modern sense, that is, not ethical. It was rather of the nature of the savagetaboo, the outcome of totemistic beliefs or a mode of averting the contaminating presence of djinns and demons. Above all, fasting was a mode of preparing oneself for the sacramental eating of a sacred animal, and as such often assisted by use of purgatives and aperients. It was essential in the old Greek rites of averting the Keres or djinns, the ill regulated ghosts who return to earth and molest the living, to abstain from flesh. The Pythagoreans and Orphic mystae so abstained all their life long, and Porphyry eloquently insists on such a discipline for all who "are not content merely to talk about Reason, but are really intent on casting aside the body and living through Reason with Truth. Naked and without the tunic of the flesh these will enter the arena and strive in the Olympic contest of the soul." It is time to pass on to Buddhist asceticism, in its essence a more ethical and philosophical product than some of the forms so far considered. The keynote of Buddhist asceticism is deliverance from life and its inevitable suffering. Once at a village where he rested the Blessed One (Buddha) addressed his brethren and said: "It is through not understanding and grasping four Noble Truths, 0 brethren, that we have had to run so long, to wander so long in this weary path of transmigration, both you and I." These noble truths were about sorrow, its cause, its cessation and the path which leads to that cessation. Once they are grasped the craving for existence is rooted out, that which leads to renewed existence iz destroyed, and there is no more birth. The Buddha believed he had a way of Truth, which if an elect disciple possessed he might say of himself, "Hell is destroyed for me, and rebirth as an animal, or a ghost, or in any place of woe. I am converted, I am no longer liable to be reborn in a state of suffering, and am assured of final salvation." Suffering, said the sage in his great sermon at Benares, is inseparable from birth and old age. Sickness is suffering, so is death, so is union with the unloved, and separation from the loved; not to obtain what one desires is suffering; the entire fivefold clinging to the earthly is suffering. Its origin is the thirst for being which leads from birth to birth, together with lust and desire, which find gratification here and there; the thirst for pleasures, for being, for power. This thirst must be extinguished by complete annihilation of desire, by letting it go, expelling it, separating oneself from it, giving it no room. This extinction is achieved in eight ways, namely rectitude of faith, resolve, speech, action, living, effort, thought, self-concentration.

In this gospel we must be done with the outer world, participation in which is not the self, yet means for the self birth and death, appetites, longings, emotions, change and suffering, pleasure and pain. He that has put off all lust and desire, all hope and fear, all will to exist as a sinful, because a sentient, being, has won to the heaven of extinction or Nirvana. He may still tread the earth, but he is a saint or Brahman, is in heaven, has quitted the transient and enjoys eternity.

Such was the Buddha's gospel, as his most ancient scriptures enunciate it. Nirvana is constantly defined in them as supreme happiness. It is not even clear how far, if we interpret it strictly, this philosophy leaves any self to be happy. However this be, its practical expression is the life of the monk who has separated himself from the world. Five commandments must be observed by him who would even approach the higher life of saint and ascetic. They are these: to kill no living thing; not to lay hands on another's property; not to touch another's wife; not to speak what is untrue; not to drink intoxicating drinks.

Though couched in the negative, these rules must be interpreted in the amplest and widest sense by all believers. The Order, however, which the would-be ascetic can enter by regular initiation, when he is twenty years of age, entails a discipline much more severe. He has gone forth from home into homelessness, and has not where to lay his head. He must eat only the morsels he gets by begging; must dress in such rags as he can pick up; must sleep under trees. Mendicancy is his recognized way of life. Furthermore, he must abstain all his life from sexual intercourse; he may not take even a blade of grass without permission of the owner; he must not kill even a worm or ant; he must not boast of his perfection. In practice the lives of Buddhist monks are not so squalid as these rules would lead us to suppose. Thanks to the reverent charity of the laymen, they do not live much worse than Benedictine monks; and the prohibition to live in houses does not extend to caves. Everywhere in India and Ceylon they hollowed out cells and churches in the cliffs and rocks, which are the wonder of the European tourist.

But long before the advent of Buddhism, the hermit, or wandering beggar, was a familiar figure in India. No formal initiation was imposed on the would-be ascetic, save (in the case of young men) the duty to live at first in his teacher's house. One who had thus fulfilled the duties of the student order must "go forth remaining chaste," says the Apastamba, ii. 9.8. He shall then "live without a fire, without a house, without pleasures, without protection; remaining silent and uttering speech only on the occasion of the daily recitation of the Veda; begging so much food only in the village as will sustain his life, he shall wander about, neither caring for this world nor for heaven. He shall only wear clothes thrown away by others. Some declare that he shall even go naked. Abandoning truth and falsehood, pleasure and pain, the Vedas, this world and the next, he shall seek the Universal Soul, in knowledge of which standeth eternal salvation." Such a life was specially recommended for one who has lived the life of a householder, and, having begotten sons according to the sacred law and offered sacrifices, desires in his old age to abandon worldly objects and direct his mind to final liberation. He leaves his wife, if she will not accompany him, and goes forth into the forest, committing her and his house to his sons. He must indeed take with him the sacred fire and implements for domestic sacrifice, but until death overtakes him he must wander silent, alone, possessing no hearth nor dwelling, begging his food in the villages, firm of purpose, with a potsherd for an alms bowl, the roots of trees for a dwelling, and clad in coarse worn-out garments. "Let him not desire to die, let him not desire to live; let him wait for his appointed time, as a servant waits for the payment of his wages. Let him drink water purified by straining with a cloth, let him utter speech purified by truth, let him keep his heart pure. Let him patiently bear hard words, let him not insult anybody, let him not become any one's enemy for the sake of this perishable body.. .. Let him reflect on the transmigrations of men, caused by their sinful deeds, on their falling into hell, and on their torments in the world of Yama.. .. A twice-born man who becomes an ascetic thus shakes off sin here below and reaches the highest Brahman" (Laws of Manu, by G. Biihler, vi. 85).

This old-world wisdom of the Hindus, a thousand years before our era, is worthily to be paralleled from the Manichaeism of about the year 400. Augustine has preserved (contra Faustum, v. i) the portraiture of a Manichaean elect as drawn by himself: "I have given up father and mother, wife, children and all else that the gospel bids us, and do you ask if I accept the gospel ? Are you then still ignorant of what the word gospel means ? It is nothing else than the preaching and precept of Christ. I have cast away gold and silver, and have ceased to carry even copper in my belt, being content with my daily bread, nor caring for the morrow, nor anxious how my belly shall be filled or my body clothed; and do you ask me if I accept the gospel ? You behold in me those beatitudes of Christ which make up the gospel, and you ask me if I accept it. You behold me gentle, a peacemaker, pure of heart, a mourner, hungering, thirsting, bearing persecutions and hatreds for righteousness' sake, and do you doubt whether I accept the gospel.. All that was mine I have given up, father, mother, wife, children, gold, silver, eating, drinking, delights, pleasures. Deem this a sufficient answer to your question and deem yourself on the way to be blessed, if you have not been scandalized in me." The Greek Cynics (see Cynics) played a great part in the history of Asceticism, and they were so much the precursors of the Christian hermits that descriptions of them in profane literature have been mistaken for pictures of early monasticism. In striving to imitate the rugged strength and independence of their master Socrates, they went to such extremes as rather to caricature him. They affected to live like beggars, bearing staff and wallet, owning nothing, renouncing pleasures, riches, honours. For older thinkers like Plato and Aristotle the perfect life was that of the citizen and householder; but the Cynics were individualists, citizens of the world without loyalty or respect for the ancient city state, the decay of which was coincident with their rise. Their zeal for renunciation often extended not to pleasures, marriage and property alone, but to cleanliness, knowledge and good manners as well, and in this respect also they were the forerunners of later monks.

Philo (20 B.C.-A.D. 40) has left us many pictures of the life which to his mind impersonated the highest wisdom, and they are all inspired by the more respectable sort of cynicism, which had taken deep root among Greek Jews of the day. One such picture merits citation from his tract On Change of Names (vol. i. 583, ed. Mangey): "All this company of the good and wise have of their own free will divested themselves of too copious wealth; nay, have spurned the things dear to the flesh. For of good habit and lusty are athletes, since they have fortified against the soul the body which should be its servant; but the disciples of wisdom are pale and wasted, and in a manner reduced to skeletons, because they have sacrificed the whole of their bodily strength to the faculties of the soul." His own favourite ascetics, the Therapeutae, whose chief centre was in Egypt, had renounced property and all its temptations, and fled, irrevocably abandoning brothers, children, wives, parents, throngs of kinsmen, intimacy of friends, the fatherlands where they were born and bred (see Therapeutae). Here we have the ideal of early Christian renunciation at work, but apart from the influence of Jesus. In the pages of Epictetus the same ideal is constantly held up to us.

In the Christian Church there was from the earliest age a leaning to excessive asceticism, and it needed a severe struggle on the part of Paul, and of the Catholic teachers who followed him, to secure for the baptized the right to be married, to own property, to engage in war and commerce, or to assume public office. One and all of the permanent institutions of society were condemned by the early enthusiasts, especially by those who looked forward to a speedy advent of the millennium, as alien to the kingdom of God and as impediments to the life of grace.

Marriage and property had already been eschewed in the Jewish Essene and Therapeutic sects, and in Christianity the name of Encratite was given to those who repudiated marriage and the use of wine. They did not form a sect, but represented an impulse felt everywhere. In early and popular apocryphal histories the apostles are represented as insisting that their converts should either not contract wedlock or should dissolve the tie if already formed. This is the plot of the Acts of Thecla, a story which probably goes back to the first century. Repudiation of the tie by fervent women, betrothed or already wives, occasioned much domestic friction and popular persecution. In the Syriac churches, even as late as the 4th century, the married state seems to have been regarded as incompatible with the perfection of the initiated. Renunciation of the state of wedlock was anyhow imposed on the faithful during the lengthy, often lifelong, terms of penance imposed upon them for sins committed; and later, when monkery took the place, in a church become worldly, partly of the primitive baptism and partly of that rigorous penance which was the rebaptism and medicine of the lapsed, celibacy and virginity were held essential thereto, no less than renunciation of property and money-making.

Together with the rage for virginity went the institution of virgines subintroductae, or of spiritual wives; for it was often assumed that the. grace of baptism restored the original purity of life led by Adam and Eve in common before the Fall. Such rigours are encouraged in the Shepherd of Hermas, a book which emanated from Rome and up to the 4th century was read in church. They were common in the African churches, where they led to abuses which taxed the energy even of a Cyprian. They were still rife in Antioch in 260. We detect them in the Celtic church of St Patrick, and, as late as the 7th century, among the Celtic elders of the north of France. In the Syriac church as late as 340, such relations prevailed between the "Sons and daughters of the Resurrection." It continued among the Albigenses and other dissident sects of the middle ages, among whom it served a double purpose; for their elders were thus not only able to prove their own chastity, but to elude the inquisitors, who were less inclined to suspect a man of the catharism which regarded marriage as the "greater adultery" (maius adulterium) if they found him cohabiting (in appearance at least) with a woman. There was hardly an early council, great or small, that did not condemn this custom, as well as the other one, still more painful to think of, of self-emasculation. In the Catholic church, however, common sense prevailed, and those who desired to follow the Encratite ideal repaired to the monasteries.

Authorities.-E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (London, 1903); Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites (London, 1901); J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion; F. Max Muller, The Sacred Books of the East; Victor Henry, La Magie dans l'Inde antique; J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (London, 1900), and Adonis, Attis, Osiris (London, 1906); Georges Lafay, Culte des divinites d'Alexandrie (Paris, 1884); Dollinger, Sectengeschichte des Mittelalters (Munich, 1890); Fr. Cumont, Mysteries of Mithra (Chicago, 1903); Zuckler, Gesch. der Ascese (1863). See also under PURIFICATION. Goldziher, "De l'ascetisme aux premiers temps de l'Islam," in Revue de l'histoire des religions (1898), p. 314; Muratori, De Synisactis et Agapetis (Pavia, 1709); Jas. Martineau, Types of Ethical Theory (Oxford, 1885); T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics (Oxford, 1883); Franz Cumont, Les Religions orientales dans le paganisme romain (Paris, 1907); Porphyrius, De Abstinentia; Plutarchus, De Carnium Esu. (F. C. C.)

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A term derived from the Greek verb ἀσκέω, meaning "to practise strenuously," "to exercise." Athletes were therefore said to go through ascetic training, and to be ascetics. In this usage the twofold application—to the mode of living and the results attained—which marks the later theological implication of the term is clearly discernible. From the arena of physical contests the word easily passed over to that of spiritual struggles; and preChristian writers speak of the "askesis" of the soul or of virtue—the discipline of the soul, or the exercise in virtue. But the physical idea, no less than the moral, underlies the meaning of the term in medieval Christian parlance. The monastery, as the place where the required life of abstemiousness is lived under rigorous regulation and discipline, becomes the "asketerion," a word which to the classical Greek conveyed only the notion of a place reserved for physical exercise; while the monks were the "ascetikoi," the ascetics, under discipline attaining unto the perfect practise.



It is thus seen that both the term and the idea which the term expresses are of non-Jewish origin and implications. Judaism can not be said to encourage Asceticism, even in the restricted sense of discipline. Rationalists have indeed affected to construe the ritual legalism of both the Pentateuch and the later rabbinical codes as a disciplinary scheme, devised by God or man with the view of bringing men under rigid restriction of freedom of action, in the satisfaction of the appetites and the control of the passions, to a higher degree of moral perfection. But even before comparative studies had shown that most, if not all, of the so-called disciplinary contrivances of the Mosaic scheme rest on notions altogether other than those assumed, the rigorous constructionists among Jewish theologians put themselves on record as utterly inimical to the ascription of utility, either moral or material, to the divine laws. They were simply divine commandments, and to inquire into their origin or their purpose was forbidden—"Ḥuḳḳah Ḧaḳḳaḳti; we'en attem reshuyim leharher aḦareha" (I have decreed the statute; but you are not permitted to inquire into its reasons; Yoma 67b; Sifra, AḦare, xiii.).

At all events, Judaism is of a temper which is fatal to asceticism; and the history of both Judaism and the Jews is, on the whole, free from ascetic aberrations. Fundamental to the teachings of Judaism is the thought that the world is good. Pessimism has no standing-ground. Life is not under the curse. The doctrine of original sin, the depravity of man, has never had foothold within the theology of the synagogue. It never held sway over the mind and the religious imagination of the Jews. In consequence of this the body and the flesh were never regarded by them as contaminated, and the appetites and passions were not suspected of being rooted in evil. The appeal to mortify the flesh for the sake of pleasing Heaven could not find voice in the synagogue.

Torture of the Flesh.

Asceticism is indigenous to the religions which posit as fundamental the wickedness of this life and the corruption under sin of the flesh. Buddhism, therefore, as well as Christianity, leads to ascetic practises. Monasteries are institutions of Buddhism no less than of Catholic Christianity. The assumption, found in the views of the Montanists and others, that concessions made to the natural appetites may be pardoned in those that are of a lower degree of holiness, while the perfectly holy will refuse to yield in the least to carnal needs and desires, is easily detected also in some of the teachings of Gautama Buddha. The ideal of holiness of both the Buddhist and the Christian saint culminates in poverty and chastity; i.e., celibacy. Fasting and other disciplinary methods are resorted to to curb the flesh. Under a strict construction of the meaning of Asceticism, it is an error to assume that its history may be extended to embrace also certain rites in vogue among devotees to fetishism and natureworship. Mutilations, the sacrifice of the hair, dietary observances and prohibitions, which aboundin all forms of religion at a certain stage of development, do not spring from the notion of the sinfulness of the natural instincts and of life. Nor is the sacrificial scheme in any way connected with Asceticism. The idea of privation is foreign to it. If the offering was a gift to the Deity and as such entailed upon the offerer the parting with something of value, the expectation which animated him was invariably that of receiving rich return. But whatever theory must be accepted in explanation of the various rites of mutilation, and of the sacrificial ritual, certain it is that Judaism from the beginning set its face most sternly against the one, and materially restricted the other. Mutilations for whatever purpose and of whatever character were absolutely prohibited. Funeral horrors and superstitions were not tolerated. The Levitical code restricted sacrifices to one place. The priests only were entrusted with the office at the altar. And, if the Prophets are the truest expounders of the ideals and ideas of the religion of Israel, even the sacrificial and sacerdotal system, with its implications of extraordinary and precautionary cleanliness and physical abstemiousness, was of little vital moment.

Fasting, which plays so essential a part in the practises of ascetics, found official recognition only in the development of the Day of Atonement. The Prophets, again, had little patience with fasting. There are some obscure allusions to fast days of popular observance; but the Prophets of exilic and postexilic days insist on the futility of this custom. Isaiah (lviii.), while appealing for a broader charity and deeper sense of justice, maintains that these, and not fasting, are the expression of a will sanctified unto God. It is characteristic of the attitude of later Judaism that this very chapter has been assigned for the Hafṭarah for the Day of Atonement, the one penitential fast-day of the synagogue.


Nevertheless, fasting among the Jews was resorted to in times of great distress. The Book of Esther, of late date, illustrates this for the period included in the Biblical canon. Rabbinical sources prove the growing tendency to abstain from drink and food whenever memories of disaster marked the days of the synagogal calendar, or instant danger threatened the community. In the scheme of the synagogue the one fast-day of the Bible received no less than twenty-two as companions (compare Fasting). Still, it may be doubted whether this multiplication of fast-days can be taken as a sign of an increased tendency to Asceticism. Probably the theory of Robertson Smith ("The Religion of the Semites," p. 413) still holds good to a large extent in explanation of many of the fast-observances of later Judaism, as undoubtedly it does for the voluntary and occasional fast-days mentioned in the historical books of the Bible; namely, that Oriental fasting is merely a preparation for the eating of the sacrificial meal. The rabbinical injunction, not to eat too late a meal on the eve of the Sabbath-day, so as to enjoy all the more that of the Sabbath, tends to corroborate the theory. Perhaps this also underlies the rabbinical report that some examples of rabbinical piety fasted every Friday (in preparation for the Sabbath).

Ascetics in Talmud.

Among the Rabbis some are mentioned as great and consistent fasters. Rabbi Zeira especially is remembered for his fondness of this form of piety. Yet to make of him an ascetic would transcend the bounds of truth. He fasted that he might forget his Babylonian method of teaching before emigrating to Palestine (B. M. 85a). The story continues that he abstained from drink and food for the period of one hundred days, in order that hell-fire might later have no power over him. Simon ben YoḦai is depicted as an ascetic in the traditions preserved in rabbinical literature. But exposed to persecutions under the Hadrian régime, and often in danger of his life, his whole mind was of an exceptionally somber turn for a Jewish teacher. Moreover, his ascetic practises were not inspired by a consciousness of the futility of this life and its sinfulness, but by the anxiety to fulfil to the letter the Law, to ponder on the Torah day and night. He begrudged the hours necessary for the care of the body as so many precious moments stolen from the study of the holy Law. He envied the generation of the desert who had been fed on heavenly manna, and were thus absolved from the care for their daily bread; an echo of this sentiment may be detected in the petition of Jesus for daily bread (on Simon b. YoḦai, see Bacher, "Ag. Tan." ii. 70-149).

Still, with all these seeming leanings to ascetic conduct, these rabbis did not encourage individual fasting. The community in distress did indeed proclaim a public fast; and it was the duty of the loyal member to participate. For he who would not share in the distress would have no part in the consolation of the people (Ta'an. 11a). The habitual faster was called a sinner (ib.). This judgment was enforced by an appeal to the Biblical text in connection with the "Nazir's" (Nazarite's) expiatory sacrifice (Num 6:11). Rabbi Zeira would not permit his disciples to indulge in extraordinary practises of self-restraint, if they presumed thereby to reflect on the piety of others saner than they. The title applied to such an adept at saintly practises is characteristically deprecatory for his attitude of mind: his conduct is declared to smack of conceit, if not of hypocrisy (Yer. Ber. ii. 5d).

The attempt has been made to explain the Biblical Nazarites as forerunners of monastic orders addicted to the practise of ascetic discipline. Pentateuchal legislation concerning them shows them to have been merely tolerated. Modern criticism explains their peculiarities as arising from motives other than those that determine the conduct of ascetics. The Biblical Nazirs, forerunners of the Nebi'im (Prophets), were protestants against the adoption of the customs and the religious rites of the Canaanites. In their dress and mode of life they emphasized their loyalty to Yhwh, enthroned on the desert mountain. Wine and the crown of hair were sacred to the gods of the land. Their very appearance emphasized their rejection of the new deities. And in later days the number of those that took the Nazarite vow was exceedingly small. One is inclined to the opinion that no case occurred in which the Pentateuchal provisions became effective.

Essenes not Ascetics.

Nor may the Essenes be classed among the order of ascetics. While some of their institutions, notably celibacy, appear to lend support to the theory that would class them as such, their fundamental doctrines show no connection with the pessimism that is the essential factor in Asceticism. They were political indifferentists; they were but little, if at all, under the sway of national aspirations. They stood for a universal fellowship of the pure and just. They set but little store by the goods of this earth, and were members of a communistic fraternity. But it is inadmissible to construe from these elements of their hopes and habits the inference that in them is to be found a genuine Jewish order of monks and ascetics.

A stronger case against the theory that Judaism is a very uncongenial soil for the growth of Asceticism might be made out by an appeal to the later Jewish mystics, the Ḥasidim and Cabalists of various forms, all ecstatic fantastics, and—this is a point that must not be overlooked—more or less strongly under the influence of distinctly non-Jewish conceits.

Looking upon this life as essentially good, according to Gen 1:31; upon the human body as a servant of the spirit, and therefore not corrupt; upon the joys of earth as God-given and therefore to be cherished with gratitude toward the divine giver; having a prayer for every indulgence in food and drink; a benediction for every new experience of whatever nature, gladsome or sad—the Jew partook with genuine zest of the good cheer of life, without, however, lapsing into frivolity, gluttony, or intemperance. His religion, that taught him to remember his dignity as one made in the image of God, and to hold his body in esteem as the temple of God's spirit within, a dwelling of the Most Holy, "a host," as Hillel put it, "for the guest, the soul," kept the Jew equidistant from the pole of self-torturing pessimism, from the mortification of the flesh under the obsession of its sinfulness and foulness, and from the other pole of levity and sensuousness. Never intemperate in drink or food, he sought and found true joy in the consecration of his life and all of its powers and opportunities to the service of his God, a God who had caused the fruit of the vine to grow and the earth to give forth the bread, a God who created the light and sent the darkness, a God who, as a Talmudical legend—one of the many with Elijah for their subject—has it, reserves paradise "for them that cause their fellows to laugh" (Ta'an. 22a). The most beautiful saying of the rabbis about Asceticism is: "Man will have to give account in the future for every lawful enjoyment offered to him which he has ungratefully refused" (Rab in Yer. Ḳid., at the close); compare TanḦ., end, "The wicked in his life is considered as one dead," etc.

Bibliography: Lazarus, Ethics of Judaism, §§ 246-256.

This entry includes text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.
This article needs to be merged with Asceticism (Catholic Encyclopedia).

Simple English

Ascetic redirects here. You might also be looking for acetic acid. The term should not be confused with aestheticism.

]] Asceticism (Greek: askēsis) is a word that describes a certain life-style. This life-style is different from others mainly because those who practice it abstain from various sorts of worldly pleasures, especially sexual activity and drinking of alcohol. Often, their aim is to follow religious and spiritual goals. Christianity and the Indian religions (including yoga) teach that salvation and liberation involve a process of mind-body transformation that is done through practicing restraint with respect to actions of body, speech and mind. The founders and earliest practitioners of these religions (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism, the Christian desert fathers) lived extremely austere lifestyles. They rejected sensual pleasures and the accumulation of material wealth. This is to be understood not as an eschewal of the enjoyment of life but a recognition that spiritual and religious goals are impeded by such indulgence. Asceticism is closely related to the Christian concept of chastity and might be said to be the technical implementation of the abstract vows of renunciation. Those who practice ascetic lifestyles do not consider their practices as virtuous but pursue such a life-style in order to satisfy certain technical requirements for mind-body transformation. There is remarkable uniformity among the above religions with respect to the benefits of sexual continence. Religions teach that purifying the soul also involves purification of the body which thereby enables connection with the Divine and the cultivation of inner peace. In the popular imagination asceticism is considered a sort of perversion (self-flagellation by birch twigs as the archetypal stereotype of self-mortification) but the askēsis enjoined by religion functions in order to bring about greater freedom in various areas of one's life, such as freedom from compulsions and temptations bringing about peacefulness of mind with a concomitant increase in clarity and power of thought.

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