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Hindu Asceticism

( Originally Published 1922 )



THROUGHOUT the history of Hinduism ascetic ideals have maintained so strong a hold on the minds of the cultured and uncultured classes alike that it may be well to devote some attention to the subject of asceticism itself. There is no land in the world in which ascetic practices have been so widely followed. To the mind of the Hindu, the life of the sannyasi who has freed himself from all human ties, and stripped himself of all -that ministers to physical comfort and well-being, has almost always seemed to be the highest. There are many who in the full vigour of their life have not been able to bring themselves to the point of breaking family and social ties, who, when death is near, take refuge in the estate of the sannyasi after the manner of those souls described by Milton, who dying put on the weeds of Dominic or Francis. And there are multitudes who pass through life, engaging in all its social activities, who hope for another life in which they shall be more favourably situated for the casting off of worldly goods and worldly ties. Even in their case the ascetic element is not wholly lacking, as is evidenced by the fasts and penances to which so many of them submit themselves. We have further to remember the widespread practice of Yogic exercises, inspired by a purpose not essentially different. All this is an expression of a deeply rooted belief in the efficacy of discipline or negation of the flesh as an aid to the attainment of the highest.

The rationale of Hindu asceticism has already been made sufficiently clear. It has its justification in a widely accepted philosophical theory of the nature of reality. It was certainly no philosophical theory that originally gave rise to it. It was rather the practice that suggested the theory : or, if this statement seems too strong, it may at least be said that the practice gave a great impetus to the development of the theory. But the theory has in turn reinforced the practice, in a measure refined it, and provided for it a justification in reason which is lacking to ascetic practices followed to this day by more primitive peoples. Hindu asceticism in its distinctive form can therefore be justly criticized only if it is considered in relation to the intellectual basis on which it rests.

It is well, however, to bear in mind the fact that ascetic elements have found a place in the ideals of men apart from considerations so fundamental. Almost universal among primitive peoples are certain forms of ascetic practice, inspired by motives magical or sacrificial. Such practices were followed in India in ancient times; and they have persisted to the present day. So far as such motives have been operative, we have in Hindu asceticism the same spirit as that manifested in the ascetic practices followed in connexion with ancient Greek, Phrygian, and Egyptian cults. Further, asceticism has found a place in some form or other within most, if not all, of the higher religions of the world. Mahommedanism has its feast of Ramazan, observed so religiously by all believers ; and it has its faqirs. Christendom has had its great company of anchorites and monks, and its hair shirts and whips and other instruments for the subduing of the flesh. And it has numbered within it men like St. Simeon Stylites, who in their efforts to free themselves from the dominion of the body, have gone to the wildest extremes of self-denial and self-torture.

There are, of course, distinctions which must be recognized between the ascetic practices which have been followed in connexion with different religions; and even in connexion with the same religion. There has been considerable confusion as to what is to be included under the head of ascetic practices. Some would include acts of self-restraint which amount to nothing more than the curbing of wanton desires or the girding of the mind and body to distasteful tasks. Certain Indian writers of modern times would go so far as to include work for the development of the material resources of their country. This is obviously far too wide a denotation to give to the term asceticism, for it would be thus made to cover all effort that is inspired by any purpose. Yet it is not easy to draw a clear line of division. There may seem to be a world of difference between the man who sacrifices a meal that a hungry neighbour may be fed and him who betakes himself to monastic life, between the man who abstains from alcoholic liquors and him who abstains from all but the barest necessaries of existence. Yet, after all, it depends chiefly on the motive whether there is or is not. It is curious to find that so many people have failed to grasp this elementary distinction, and to observe the impression made on a certain type of mind by certain forms of self-sacrifice apart from any consideration of the motives inspiring it. This, it may be remarked in passing, is an interesting evidence of the strength of the ascetic `instinct in human nature. We shall not here attempt any-thing so precarious as a definition of asceticism, but shall content ourselves with drawing certain distinctions between motives to self-denial and austerity, which must be held clearly in view if we are to arrive at any satisfactory estimate of the moral value of the practices in question.

In the first place, a broad general division may be made among motives to asceticism according as the good aimed at is that of the individual or of society. The history of Christian asceticism furnishes us with examples of both classes of motives. When St. Francis of Assisi subjected himself to privations and hardships, he did so in the service of Christ among men. This motive led to acts of remarkable self-sacrifice—the sharing of his single garment with another, the continual submission of himself to all kinds of indignities and privations. He found satisfaction in this life, and he even maintained that ` in these things is perfect joy. Yet suffering was not endured for its own sake but for the sake of others.

Jesus illustrates the other askesis when He says : ` If thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee : for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell (Matt. v. 30). It will be seen that in both of these cases the motive is an ethical one. In the one case it is the good of others that is directly sought, one enduring suffering or want that others may suffer less. In the other case it is self-discipline, undertaken not for the mere sake of casting off, but for the better government and direction of the individuals activities as a whole. It will be observed that in Christian morality these motives are not in antagonism to each other, and it could be shown that a self-discipline which has no social reference, however widely it may be practised, is not in accordance with the fundamental principles of the Christian religion. Yet the two motives can be distinguished.

In Hindu asceticism the social motive has been but little apparent. It is only in quite recent times that the idea of suffering and sacrifice for the sake of others has laid powerful hold on the mind of any large section of the Hindu people. The other motive, however, of the discipline of the individual soul, has operated powerfully. The aim has been to break down all that has been understood to interfere with the freedom of the soul, and as an aid to the attainment of this end there have been practised in India forms of self-mortification and penance which have few parallels in the whole history of human conduct.

It is unnecessary to recapitulate here what has been said in earlier chapters regarding the various ramifications of the ascetic idea, or of the various ends which it has been believed possible for the individual to attain through various practices--the power to coerce the gods and the power to bend nature to ones will, to which they have been supposed to give access. In so far as these have been the ends sought, we must look on these practices as not in themselves strictly moral, and what ethical value they may have come to have must be regarded as in a way accidental. Yet it may be claimed that just as the alchemy which was practised with a view to the discovery of the philosophers stone led to the discovery of other things of more solid and lasting value, so these crude ascetic practices contributed to the realization of ends attainable through the curbing of the desires and the mortification of the flesh, higher than the mere subjugation to ones arbitrary capricious will of the powers that govern the universe. It is to the highest ideals sought through asceticism within Hinduism to which in a critical study our attention should be chiefly directed. The Christian would demand that the Christian mind should be judged not by reference to such vagaries as those presented by the lives of men like St. Simeon Stylites, but ultimately by reference to the teaching and practice of Christ, and the Hindu may similary claim that there is an essential and an accidental in Hindu practice, through whatever process the essential may have come to be discovered, and however much the accidental may have at times obscured the essential. So we may leave aside the primitive expressions of Hindu asceticism, whether appearing early in time or persisting to the present day.

Asceticism, so defended, has been believed to have value in the way of discipline for the soul in two ways. On the one hand, Yogic practices and less extravagant forms of self-restraint have the effect, if not of leading to freedom, of raising the soul to a higher position in future births. On the other hand, the breaking of all worldly ties is a condition of the attainment of final deliverance. These two ideas are not contradictory to each other, but are in their main principle in harmony, for the ultimate goal is in both cases the same. This is well brought out regarding the Yoga philosophy with its ascetic exercises by Max Muller, when he says :

It is to serve as a Taraka, as a ferry, across the ocean of the world, as a light by which to recognize the true independence of the subject from any object ; and as a preparation for this, it is to serve as a discipline for subduing all the passions arising from worldly surroundings.

The reference here is to the Yoga philosophy and to its peculiar metaphysical position, but there are similar ideas of the value of physical discipline in connexion with the other systems. It is true that the method by which this discipline works is connected with the doctrine of karma, the merit of particular acts becoming the property of the agent, and this explanation of the relation of act to agent we have already seen reason to reject. But the principle might be maintained apart from this, and it might be held that ascetic practices have a kathartic value, which is conserved through succeeding births, on grounds which would be free from the difficulties which beset the doctrine of karma in its familiar form. Indeed, there seems to be ground for believing that in certain places there is an implied distinction between the effect of certain kinds of austerities and penances, which are the fruit of desire as are other acts, and which accordingly have their appropriate fruits in future births, and that of actions which are the expression of the mortification of desire, though the process may not have reached completion. Whether this be so or not, we can see how it is possible for some to regard Hindu asceticism in its higher forms as moral discipline, aiding the soul to that more and more complete severance from the world which will issue finally in that act of insight in which worldly ties shall be completely broken, the illusion of individuality dispelled, and freedom attained.

On such grounds the claim may be made that Hindu asceticism has high ethical value. Whether we can admit this or not will depend on the view we take of certain considerations to which attention must now be directed. We have already considered the general bearings of Hindu philosophical thought on ethics, and we have come to the conclusion that it provides no satisfactory basis for a theory of morals. But it may be replied that we have taken too narrow a view of morality, and that the recognition of an end to the attainment of which ascetic discipline is so valuable a means, implies that a place has been given to moral effort which has been far too little regarded. The Christian admits that if the right hand proves an occasion of stumbling it should be cut off, and so does the Hindu. Where is the difference? It would not be quite true to reply that the Christian believes in sacrifice with a view to the attainment of a greater good, for the Hindu would answer that he believes in greater sacrifice with a view to the attainment of a still greater good. So the question would resolve itself again into that of the specific nature of the good to be attained. Dr. Rabindranath Tagore has well described the Hindu position when he says :

In the typical thought of India it is held that the true deliverance of man is the deliverance from avidya, from ignorance.

It is not in destroying anything that is positive and real, for that cannot be possible, but that which is negative, which obstructs our vision of truth. When this obstruction, which is ignorance, is removed, then only is the eyelid drawn up which is no loss to the eye.

With part of this we should probably all agree. The moral life is carried on through the negating of the lower that the higher may find its true expression. But what is not made clear by typical Indian thought, in spite of all that Dr. Rabindranath has said, is that there are lower and higher forms of activity. Indian asceticism has most normally found its justification in the idea that it is an aid to the cutting of the roots of desire, to the negation of all activity. The right hand is cut off not that the individual may be helped in the task of directing better the activities of the body, but because its activities from their very nature lead the soul astray. Looked at from this point of view, Hindu asceticism is no longer a moral discipline. It is in its essential nature non-moral.

The case may be stated in a slightly different way. Can we have a true morality that is not social, that is not based on an assumption of the permanent worth of individuality and of society? Can we have a true good that is not a social good? In our Western thought self-sacrifice has seldom been regarded as an end in itself. It has been practised with a view to a fuller realization of the self. It is the lower and more capricious selves that men have sought to slay, making of them stepping-stones to higher things. The true self has been conceived as social. It finds its true expression in activities which bring it into various relationships with other selves. This thought again is connected with the conception of reality as a unity in diversity, To Hindu thought, on the other hand, reality has commonly appeared to be a unity without diversity, or a plurality of existences ultimately without diversity. So asceticism has served as a means not to the stripping of the individual life of hindrances to its true expression of itself within a society of selves, but to the destruction of selfhood itself so far as it is individual. In the light of this the moral life may be held to find its highest expression in asceticism, but we would reply that this is not morality in the sense in which the term has been used traditionally, or in any sense which the etymology of the term justifies. A true morality involves a recognition of the worth of individuality, and of the value of society as the sphere in which it finds its true expression. Hindu thought provides us with no philosophy of society, for its system of dharma is not a philosophy. So we are led to the conclusion that Hindu asceticism as defended by philosophic thought does not partake of the nature of ethical activity.



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