On Asceticism

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A reflection on the Maitrayana Upanishad

I have in previous reflections (see Monism Redux and Against Grand Unity) stated my opposition to the idea of asceticism. However, I have largely left the definition of this term unstated. For clarification, I think it is important to approach the idea of asceticism with an open heart, admit its virtues and then attempt to explore the reasoning behind my rejection of the path of asceticism.

Thus stands the question: what is asceticism? From my perspective, asceticism is a path of living one’s life withdrawn from society, focused solely inwards and away from physical reality. The reasons for asceticism can be varied but is mainly based upon the ideas of the impermanence of physical realities, a dualistic vision of the world which describes matter as evil and spirit as good and fear of pleasure and desire as tempters, leading the soul astray.

To begin with, we must examine the virtues of the ascetic life. Firstly, the focus on truth and understanding over the threats of pain, deprivation and death is something to be admired. The willingness of a true ascetic to reject even their bodies, position in society and progeny in this pursuit deserves some merit. However, I think that their belief is somewhat misaligned.

The vice of asceticism in my mind is the renunciation of physical reality, not their pursuit of truth. The idea that we should be willing to abstain from pleasures, be subject to pain and suffer destruction in our pursuit of truth is valid. However, the ascetic confuses the act of abstaining from pleasures, suffering pain and undergoing destruction with the realisation of truth. If we enjoy pleasure but do not allow it to consume us, do we threaten our mental growth? Does being hungry, thirsty, sleep deprived or tortured make us any wiser, or just more miserable?

To have great ambitions, indomitable willpower and infinite patience surely is a gift for those who seek to understand the universe, at least within the bounds of finite human knowledge. To think that knowledge can only be attained by the rejection of our facilities and withdrawal from society confuses recognition of the impermanence of our lives with the active destruction of our social selves. We do not need to remove ourselves from the world to understand its realities – and for most people, I would suggest such removal does little more than blinker their understanding as they pour out their lifetime in the rejection of the body.

Original text

the Maitrayana Upanishad


S.H. Raza, White Cross, 2007


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