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This volume brings together papers on Indian ascetical institutions and ideologies published by Patrick Olivelle over a span of about thirty years. Asceticism represents a major strand in the religious and cultural history of India, providing some of the most creative elements within Indian religions and philosophies. Most of the major religions, such as Buddhism and Jainism, and religious philosophies both within these new religions and in the Brahmanical tradition, were created by world-renouncing ascetics. Yet ascetical institutions and ideologies developed in a creative tension with other religious institutions that stressed the centrality of family, procreation and society. It is this tension that has articulated many of the central features of Indian religion and culture. The papers collected in this volume seek to locate Indian ascetical traditions within their historical, political and ideological contexts.
|Series:||Cultural, Historical and Textual Studies of South Asian Religions , #1|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Patrick Olivelle is Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions at the University of Texas at Austin, where he served as Chair of the Department of Asian Studies from 1994 to 2007. He previously taught in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington from 1974 to 1991, where he was the Department Chair from 1984 to 1990.
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Ascetics and Brahmins
Studies in Ideologies and Institutions
By Patrick Olivelle
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2011 Patrick Olivelle
All rights reserved.
Introduction to Renunciation in the Hindu Traditions
Shaven-headed and clad in yellow-orange robes — whether they are Buddhist monks in Thailand, Sadhus in the Indian countryside, or Hare Krishnas in American airports — that is the enduring image of Indian religion that many westerners carry in their minds. The cultural institution behind these modern manifestations, an institution which we have chosen to call the "renouncer tradition", is very old. It goes back to about the middle of the first millennium BCE and took shape along the mid-Gangetic plane in roughly what is today the state of Bihar.
The image of Indian religion as essentially world-renouncing and ascetic (Dumont 1960), however, is grossly inaccurate. Yet, behind that image lies a kernel of truth: the renouncer tradition has been a central and important ingredient in the socio-cultural mix that contributed to the formation of the historical religions in India. As any human institution, nevertheless, that kernel and the Indian religions themselves changed over time and space.
The earliest historical information about the renouncer tradition comes from the Upanisads and other Vedic writings, as well as from Buddhist literary sources. Given the uncertainly of their dates, however, it is impossible to give a precise or certain date to the origin of that tradition: hence, my vague reference to "the middle of the first millennium BCE." The earliest datable source that attests to the existence of the renouncer tradition is the Asokan inscriptions of the middle of the third century BCE. Around this time, if I may be permitted to generalize, two competing ascetic traditions appear to have crystallized: anchorites living settled lives in forest hermitages cut off from social intercourse, and renouncers living itinerant lives in the wilderness but in interaction with towns and villages from which they begged their food.
An ancient Brahmanical law book describes the normative lifestyle of anchorites:
An anchorite shall live in the forest, living on roots and fruits and given to austerities. He kindles the sacred fire according to the procedure for recluses and refrains from eating what is grown in a village. He may also avail himself of the flesh of animals killed by predators. He should not step on plowed land or enter a village. He shall wear matted hair and clothes of bark or skin and never eat anything that has been stored for more than a year. (GDh 3.26–35)
The anchorite's life is marked by his refusal to avail himself of any product mediated by human culture. His clothing and food come from the wild; he is not permitted to step on ploughed land, the symbol of human culture and society. The anchorite has physically withdrawn from society, even though he continues to participate in some of the central religious activities of society, such as maintaining a ritual fire and performing rituals. At least some of the anchorites may have lived in family units; we hear often of wives and children living in forest hermitages.
The renouncer, on the other hand, lives in proximity to civilized society and in close interaction with it.
A mendicant shall live without any possessions, be chaste, and remain in one place during the rainy season. Let him enter a village only to obtain almsfood and go on his begging round late in the evening, without visiting the same house twice and without pronouncing blessings. He shall control his speech, sight, and actions; and wear a garment to cover his private parts, using, according to some, a discarded piece of cloth after washing it. Outside the rainy season, he should not spend two nights in the same village. He shall be shaven-headed or wear a topknot; refrain from injuring seeds; treat all creatures alike, whether they cause him harm or treat him with kindness; and not undertake ritual activities. (GDh 3.11–25)
The renouncer's withdrawal from society is not physical but ideological. He does not participate in the most central of socio-religious institutions: family and sex, ritual fire and ritual activities, a permanent residence, and wealth and economic activities. He is a religious beggar, depending on social charity for his most basic needs.
Of these two ascetic institutions, the one that became central to the development of Indian religions and cultures was the renouncer tradition. The hermit culture became obsolete at least by the beginning of the common era and lived on only in poetic imagination; some of the most beloved of Indian poetry and drama, including the two great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, center around hermit life in the forest. Sakuntala, the famous Indian heroine immortalized by the Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa, was a girl living in a forest hermitage. But it had little historical influence on Indian religion.
1.1. The Origins
There is a long-standing and ongoing scholarly debate regarding the origin of the renouncer tradition. To simplify a somewhat intricate issue, some contend that the origins of Indian asceticism in general and of the renouncer tradition in particular go back to the indigenous non-Aryan population (Bronkhorst 1993, Pande 1978, Singh 1972). Others, on the contrary, see it as an organic and logical development of ideas found in the Vedic religious culture (Heesterman 1964).
It is time, I think, to move beyond this sterile debate and artificial dichotomy. They are based, on the one hand, on the false premise that the extant Vedic texts provide us with an adequate picture of the religious and cultural life of that period spanning over half a millennium. These texts, on the contrary, provide only a tiny window into this period, and that too only throws light on what their priestly authors thought it important to record. They are based, on the other hand, on the untenable conviction that we can isolate Aryan and non-Aryan strands in the Indian culture a millennium or more removed from the original and putative Aryan migrations. It is obvious that the ancient Indian society comprised numerous racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups and that their beliefs and practices must have influenced the development of Indian religions. It is quite a different matter, however, to attempt to isolate these different strands at any given point in Indian history (Olivelle 1993, 1995b).
It is a much more profitable exercise to study the social, economic, political, and geographical factors along the Gangetic valley during the middle of the first millennium BCE that may have contributed to the growth of ascetic institutions and ideologies (Olivelle 1993, Gombrich 1988). This was a time of radical social and economic change, a period that saw the second urbanization in India — after the initial one over a millennium earlier in the Indus Valley — with large kingdoms, state formation, a surplus economy, and long-distance trade. Ambition, strategy, drive, and risk taking all played a role in both a king's quest for power and a merchant's pursuit of wealth. A similar spirit of individual enterprise is evident in a person's decision to leave home and family and to become a wandering mendicant. The new social and economic realities of this period surely permitted and even fostered the rise of rival religious ideologies and modes of life.
1.2. The Formative Period of Indian Religions
The second half of the first millennium BCE was the period that created many of the ideological and institutional elements that characterize later Indian religions. The renouncer tradition played a central role during this formative period of Indian religious history.
Renouncers often formed groups around prominent and charismatic ascetic leaders, groups that often developed into major religious organizations. Some of them, such as Buddhism and Jainism, survived as major religions; others, such as the Ajivakas, existed for many centuries before disappearing. Renunciation was at the heart of these religions.
Even though the ideal of homeless wandering is often maintained as a theological fiction, many of these renouncer groups, such as the Buddhist and the Jain, organized themselves into monastic communities with at least a semi-permanent residence. These communities vied with each other to attract lay members, donors, and benefactors, and for political patronage.
A significant feature of these celibate communities is that they were voluntary organizations, the first such religious organizations perhaps in the entire world, and their continued existence depended on attracting new members. Another was the admission, at least in some traditions such as the Buddhist and the Jain, of women and the creation of female monastic communities. If voluntary celibate communities that rejected marriage was remarkable even for men, it must certainly have been revolutionary in the case of women.
The influence of renouncer practices and ideologies was not limited to what we have come to regard as non-Hindu or "heterodox" traditions; their influence can be seen within the Brahmanical tradition itself. Indeed, during this early period of Indian history the very division into "orthodox" and "heterodox" is anachronistic and presents a distorted historical picture. Scholars in the past have argued that some of the changes within the Brahmanical tradition, such as the creation of the asrama (orders of life) system, was instituted as a defense mechanism against the onslaught of renunciation. Evidence does not support such claims. The Brahmanical tradition was not a monolithic entity. The debates, controversies, and struggles between the new ideologies and lifestyles of renunciation and the older ritualistic religion took place as much within the Brahmanical tradition as between it and the new religions (Olivelle 1993). This struggle created new institutions and ideas with that tradition, the asrama system being one of the more remarkable and enduring.
Some of the fundamental values and beliefs that we commonly associate with Indian religions in general and Hinduism in particular were at least in part the creation of the renouncer tradition. These include the two pillars of Indian theologies: samsara — the belief that life in this world is one of suffering and subject to repeated deaths and births (rebirth); moksa/nirvana — the goal of human existence and, therefore, of the religious quest is the search for liberation from that life of suffering. All later Indian religious traditions and sects are fundamentally ideologies that map the processes of Samsara and Moksa and technologies that provide humans the tools for escaping samsaric existence. Such technologies include different forms of yoga and meditation. An offshoot of these ideologies and technologies is the profound anti-ritualism evident in most later traditions. In the areas of ethics and values, moreover, renunciation was principally responsible for the ideals of non-injury (ahimsa) and vegetarianism.
Several of the renouncer movements that turned into major religions were founded by people who had renounced the world, Gautama Buddha and the Jina Mahavira in the case of Buddhism and Jainism. Within these religions the monastic communities are at the center of both theology and ecclesiastical structure.
Within the Brahmanical tradition, on the other hand, the situation was more complex. In the old Vedic religion, the Brahmin was the ritual specialist and religious leader, but these very functions required that he get married and father children, activities diametrically opposed to renunciation. We will examine diverse attempts to integrate the ideals of these two poles of the tradition at both the institutional and the theological level. The tension between the two ideals of religious living, however, continued to exist throughout the history of the Brahmanical and Hindu traditions.
1.3. Values in Conflict
The debate on the conflicting value systems of renunciation and the society-oriental Vedic religion is recorded in many early texts and revolved especially around the male obligation to marry, father offspring, and carry out ritual duties. These obligations were given theological expression is a novel doctrine, probably the result of that very debate on values. The "doctrine of debts" posited that a man is born with three debts — to gods, ancestors, and Vedic seers — debts from which one can be freed only by offering sacrifices, begetting offspring, and studying the Vedas. An ancient text waxes eloquent on the importance of a son, who is viewed as the continuation of the father and the guarantor of his immortality:
A debt he pays in him,
And immortality he gains,
The father who sees the face
Of his son born and alive.
Greater than the delights
That earth, fire, and water
Bring to living beings,
Is a father's delight in his son. (AB 7.13)
And in what appears to be a dig at ascetic claims, the same text continues:
What is the use of dirt and deer skin?
What profit in beard and austerity?
Seek a son, O Brahmin,
He is the world free of blame.
The proponents of ascetic and renunciatory values, on the other hand, dismiss these claims for sons and rituals. Their view of immortality and liberation is centered not on outward activities but on inward self-cultivation. Sons, sacrifices, and riches only guarantee the return to a new life of suffering within the wheel of samsara. An Upanisad comments on the futility of sacrifices:
Surely, they are floating unanchored,
these eighteen forms of the sacrifice,
the rites within which are called inferior;
The fools who hail that as the best,
return once more to old age and death. (MunU 1.2.7)
The Upanisads also devalue the importance of marriage and progeny:
This immense, unborn self is none other than the one consisting of perception here among the vital functions. It is when they desire him as their world that wandering ascetics undertake the ascetic life of wandering. It was when they knew this that men of old did not desire offspring, reasoning "Ours is this self, and it is our world. What then is the use of offspring for us?" (BU 4.4.22)
This conflict in values and ideologies is often presented as a contrast between village and wilderness, the normative geographical spaces of society and renunciation. People inhabiting these spaces are destined to vastly different paths after death, the villagers returning back to the misery of earthly existence and ascetics proceeding to immortality:
Now, the people who know this, and the people here in the wilderness who venerate thus: "Austerity is faith" — they pass into the flame, from the flame into the day, from the day into the fortnight of the waxing moon, from the fortnight of the waxing moon into the six months when the sun moves north, from these months into the year, from the year into the sun, from the sun into the moon, and from the moon into lightning. Then a person who is not human — he leads them to brahman. This is the path leading to the gods.
The people here in villages, on the other hand, who venerate thus: "Gift-giving is offerings to gods and to priests" — they pass into the smoke, from the smoke into the night, from the night into the fortnight of the waning moon, and from the fortnight of the waning moon into the six months when the sun moves south. These do not reach the year but from these months pass into the world of the fathers, and from the world of the fathers into space, and from space into the moon. This is King Soma, the food of the gods, and the gods eat it. They remain there as long as there is a residue, and then they return by the same path they went. (CU 5.10.1–2)
The theological debates concerning the two value systems took place as much within the Brahmanical circles as between the so-called orthodox Brahmanism and the heterodox sects. The intense discussion between Krsna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita on the issue of the relative value of renunciation and engagement in one's socially appointed duties is a classic example of such controversy and debate.
Excerpted from Ascetics and Brahmins by Patrick Olivelle. Copyright © 2011 Patrick Olivelle. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Abbreviations; Preface; 1. Introduction to Renunciation in the Hindu Traditions; 2. The Ascetic and the Domestic in Brahmanical Religiosity; 3. Village vs. Wilderness: Ascetic Ideals and the Hindu World; 4. A Definition of World Renunciation; 5. From Feast to Fast: Food and the Indian Ascetic; 6. The Beast and the Ascetic: The Wild in the Indian Religious Imagination; 7. Deconstruction of the Body in Indian Asceticism; 8. Contributions to the Semantic History of ‘samnyasa’; 9. The Semantic History of ‘asrama’; 10. Renunciation in the ‘Samnyasa Upanisads’; 11. Odes of Renunciation; 12. Ritual Suicide and the Rite of Renunciation; 13. The Renouncer’s Staff: ‘trivistabdha’, ‘tridanda’, and ‘ekadanda’; 14. ‘Pancamasramavidhi’: Rite for Becoming a Naked Ascetic; 15. Anandatirtha’s ‘Samnyasapaddhati’: A Handbook for Madhvaite Ascetics; 16. Renouncer and Renunciation in the ‘Dharmasastras’; 17. King and Ascetic: State Control of Asceticism in the ‘Arthasastra’; Bibliography; Index