By Swami Harshananda
‘Great things can be done by great sacrifices only’ avers Vivekānanda. No wonder then, that, in order to attain mokṣa or liberation from transmigratory existence which is an extremely arduous task. Great effort is needed for that. This presupposes freedom from the bondages, duties and responsibilities of worldly life or family life. Hence tyāga or renunciation and tapas or austerities are often stressed in the religious scriptures. It is called asceticism. Mokṣa has been declared as the birthright of every human being and not the prerogative of only a handful of persons. The very purpose of the puruṣārtha concept and the āśrama scheme of life is to afford an opportunity for everyone to try for mokṣa.
In the Vedas and the Upanisads
Asceticism was not unknown to the Vedas. The reference about this topic is as follows:
- In the Ṛgveda there is a reference to the munis. They put on dirty garments and had great psychic powers.
- The Chāndogya Upaniṣad refers to the brahmacāri who remains celibate throughout his life and lives in his guru’s house, studying the scriptures.
- The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad clearly refers to the ṛṣis who had known the ātman, to have renounced the world and taken to a mendicant’s life.
- Some minor Upaniṣads like the Mahānārāyaṇa and the Kaivalya Upaniṣad state how some aspirants attained immortality by renouncing the world and worldly life.
- Other Upaniṣads like the Nāradaparivrājaka, the Paramahaṅsa and the Bhikṣuka deal directly with the monastic life.
The Two Paths
Though mokṣa was posited before the human beings as the final goal of life, the sages knew that all were not equally competent to pursue it vigorously and consciously. Hence they offered two paths to reach the goal are:
- The pravṛttimārga - path of activism
- The nivṛttimārga - path of detachment
Both of these goals if properly understood and assiduously practiced, will lead to the same goal.
In this way of life, a person was free to marry, raise a family and fulfill all the legitimate desires of the body and the mind, as per the dictates of the śāstras and the codes of dharma. In this stage of life, called ‘gārhasthya’, great stress was also laid upon the social responsibilities to be discharged by the couple and the family as a whole.
As the person passes through the various experiences of life, vairāgya will rise in his mind, making him gradually withdraw from the family life and turn his attention more and more towards the higher and the spiritual values of life. This is the essence of nivṛttimārga, even though the person may not formally take to the vānaprastha or the sanyāsa āśrama. In the nivṛttimārga, a person may take to sanyāsa or the last stage of life even from the first or the second without going through the other stages or āśramas, an intense feeling of vairāgya being the only criterion.
Asceticism and Monasticism
Asceticism or tapas in life was a common phenomenon even in the Vedic days. Anyone interested in spiritual welfare or even in achieving something which could not be got by ordinary human means, was advised to undergo tapas or austerities, the intensity of which depended upon the greatness of the goal desired to be achieved. For instance, the sage Bhṛgu, Varuṇa’s son, was advised to perform tapas to know Brahman. Hiranyakaśipu, the king of the rākṣasas or demons, undertook tapas to achieve greater powers to conquer the devas or the gods in heaven. So also Rāvaṇa, the king of Laṅkā.
Though asceticism does not necessarily include monasticism, it is an integral part of the latter. A sanyāsin or a monk is permitted to accept only the bare necessities of life like:
- Kaupīna - loincloth
- Kanthā - wrapper
- Daṇḍa - stick
- Kamaṇḍalu - water-pot
- Pādukā - wooden footwear
- Śikya - cloth hung over the shoulder, for collecting alms
These are necessary for the sustenance of the body so that he can practice spiritual disciplines in a better frame of mind.
Though sanyāsa was prescribed as the last stage of life and though individual monks existed in the society over the millennia, organised monasticism owes its origin to Śaṅkara. It already existed in Buddhism and Jainism though. Śankara established four chief monasteries in the four cardinal directions of India. They are:
- Jyotir Math a near Badari in the north
- Kālikā Maṭha at Dvārakā in the west
- Govardhana Maṭha at Puri in the east
- Śṛṅgerī Śāradāpīṭha at Śṛṅgerī in the south
He also appointed four of his disciples as the first pontiffs of these four monasteries. Later, other monastic and ascetic orders also came into existence.
List of Monastic and Ascetic Orders
Over the centuries several ascetic orders have come into existence, some of which are monastic and the others, not. They may be dealt with very briefly as follows:
- The Aghorapanthīs are the ascetics of a queer Śaiva order who worship Śiva as ‘Aghora’ but practice abominable things like cannibalism and eating from a human skull and so on.
- The Alakhnāmīs are a sect of śudra ascetics living mostly in Rajasthan. They are gentle by nature and practice nonviolence.
- The Daśanāmīs are the sanyāsins of the advaita school, established by Śaṅkara. They are ten in number, attached to the four principal maṭhas.
- The Kālāmukhās are a sect of ascetics belonging to the Śaiva order. They are so called since they deface their faces with black marks and symbols. They belong to the Nakuliśa-Pāśupata sect.
- The Kāpālikas are also ascetics of Śaiva sect using the kapāla or the human skull as a begging bowl. Hence it is named so.
- The Nāgā-sādhus are a militant sect of sanyāsins of the daśanāmī group organised by Madhusudana Sarasvatī. Their monasteries are called ‘akhādas’.
- The Nāthpanthis, also called Jogīs, are the followers of Matsyendranātha and Gorakṣanātha. They concentrate on Haṭhayoga and are vehemently opposed to association with women in any form.
- The Nirmalas are a sect of reformist ascetics more akin to Sikhism. They accept the worship of the five gods, revere the Granth Sāhib and consider that Rām and Rahim are the names of the same Supreme God. These gods are:
- The Rāmānandis are the sanyāsins belonging to the order established by Rāmānanda. They call their Vaiṣṇava tradition as ‘Śrīsampra-dāya’. Their tutelary deity is Sītā. Their centers are known as ‘dvāras’.
- The Udāsis are a sect of monistic sanyāsins started by Srīcand, the elder son of Guru Nānak. They accept the authority of the Vedas and worship the five deities. In addition, they revere Guru Nānak and the Grantha Sāhib. That is why they are also known as Nānakśāhis or Nānakpanthīs.
- The Vairāgis or Bairāgis are a sect of Vaiṣṇava ascetics who wear white robes and the urdhvapuṇḍra on their foreheads. They may grow beard and keep their hair matted. Four traditions or orders are recognized among them.
Modern Orders of Monasticism
Among the modern editions of ancient and traditional monasticism, the most important one is the Ramakrishna Order. Modern but simple way of living, community life, preaching work combined with social service activities distinguish it from the traditional monasticism. A parallel order for women of sanyāsinīs had also started since 1956.
Monasticism is still very much in vogue in the society as the way to lead life. The fact that many highly educated young men and women are opting for this life shows that it is still vibrant and a force to reckon with.
- He lived in A. D. 1863-1902.
- Ṛgveda 10.136.2
- Chāndogya Upaniṣad 2.23.1
- Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3.5.1
- Mahānārāyaṇa Upaniṣad 10.5
- Kaivalya Upaniṣad 1.3
- Śāstras means the holy scriptures.
- Dharma means righteous living.
- Vairāgya means disinterestedness through the maturing of wisdom.
- Vairāgya means the spirit of renunciation.
- Taittiriya Upaniṣad 3.1
- Viṣṇupurāṇa 1.17.2
- Bhāgavata 7.3
- Rāmāyaṇa, Uttarakānda 9 and 10
- Sanyāsa means the monastic life.
- He lived in A. D. 788-820.
- Aghora means the ‘non-terrible’.
- The name itself indicates the number.
- He lived in A. D. 1525-1632.
- He is also called Gorakhnāth.
- He lived in A. D. 1300.
- He lived in A. D. 1494-1629.
- He lived in A. D. 1469-1539.
- They do pañcāyatana pujā.
- Urdhvapuṇḍra means the vertical religious mark.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore