Asceticism is a religious discipline designed to de-emphasise pleasures of the world, so that practitioners can concentrate on the spiritual life. It has been adopted by worshippers of various faiths. In general, it is the practice of strict self-denial, as a means to attain a higher spiritual plane. It is the state of being secluded from the world, in order to fulfil religious vows. Historically, asceticism has involved fasting, exposing oneself to heat or cold, sleep deprivation, and flagellation. Ascetics renounce worldly pleasures that distract from enlightenment and live a life of abstinence, and extreme self-denial.
In ancient times, in Egypt and Syria, many people abandoned their civic responsibilities and relationships, in order to commune with God. It was the beginning of a new and distinct social movement and was marked by their preference for solitariness. These early solitaries took up residence in caves near the oases of the Red Sea desert; discarding their worldly comforts and egos, and seeking a goal of spiritual enlightenment.
In the Indian context, there have been varied ascetic practices carried out by saints and hermits.
Some sadhus are known to practise extreme forms of self-denial to a deity/principle. Asceticism, in one of its most intense forms, can be found in Jainism, one of the oldest religions in the world. Jainism encourages fasting, yoga practices, meditation in difficult postures and other austerities.
According to the Jains, one’s highest goal should be liberation from the cycle of rebirth. For this, monks and nuns take vows of non-violence, truth, no-stealing, chastity and non-attachment. Most of their ascetic practices can be traced to Mahavira, who was sky-clad and accepted alms in the hollow of his palm. For more than 12 years, he neglected his body and bore pleasure and suffering with equanimity. Mahavira was the embodiment of an ascetic way of life .Jain ascetics still pursue the same way of life and live without possessions.
Some Shwetambar monks and nuns own only unstitched white robes and a bowl for eating food, and collecting alms. Digambar monks are sky-clad and carry nothing with them except a soft broom made of shed peacock feathers. They eat out of their hands; sleep on the floor, and sit on wooden platforms. They study scriptures, meditate and teach lay people. When death is imminent, many Jain ascetics take the final vow of santhara – a peaceful and detached death. Medicines, food and water are abandoned.
Asceticism leads us to self-mastery and enables us to achieve the goal that we have set for ourselves. A certain measure of ascetic self-denial is thus a necessary element in all that we undertake, whether in athletics or in politics ,in scholarly research or in prayer.
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