ascetics

Hindu asceticism is a very ancient institution. Munis (men of contemplation) and yatis (men of self-control) are mentioned even in the Ṛgveda. Tapas (auste-rity), vairāgya (detachment), tyāga (renunciation), brahmacarya (celibacy) are virtues extolled in the Vedic and Upaniṣadic literature. Saṁnyāsa (monastic life) as one of the four āśramas (stages of life) is well-known.

Dissatisfaction with the worldly life, hope of finding eternal peace and faith in the state of liberation called mokṣa, must have prompted some people to take to the ascetic way of life as a means to their cherished goal. There is reason to believe that such ascetics existed in good numbers.

Tapas (austerity including mortification of the flesh), brahmacarya (celibacy), jñāna and vidyā (learning) and yoga (contemplation and meditation) were the prescribed disciplines for the ascetics. They had to be assiduously cultivated.

Modes of dress varied from stark nakedness to wearing ochre-coloured robes. Wearing just a kaupīnam (loin-cloth) or tattered garment picked up from the roadside was often commended. Other possessions permitted were: kamaṇḍalu (waterpot), pavitra (cloth used as strainer), daṇḍa (staff), pātra (vessel of gourd for food), śikya (loop of rope to carry the food-pot) and sometimes, a pair of tongs for tending fire.

There were ascetics who lived alone and others who lived in groups, sometimes building monasteries for their stay and activities. Several orders of ascetics have been known to exist, such as saṁnyāsins (including the daśanāmis), bairāgis, kabīrpanthis and so on. Each of these orders had its own methods of initiation for the novices desiring to enter it.

Though ascetic life was permissible only for the dvijas (‘twice-born’) in the earlier days, later history of asceticism shows that people from all castes have taken to it.

Women also could become ascetics though for obvious reasons, their number and orders were very much less.

See also SAṀNYĀSA, SAṀNYĀSINS and TAPAS.