Lecture Six: Witnesses 6.4

6.4 Socializing ascetism


In the classical Upaniṣads we see the emergence of a new model of the sage. Unlike the older (almost archaic) seer of the Ṛg-veda, this sage does not seek to master uncertainty through a visionary power and its accompanying sense of certainty and trust. Rather, the sage now aims at uncovering the principle in virtue of which all experience is possible. This principle is itself undetermined, free from any specific content, and consequently cannot be objectified or identified in any specific way. The true Self (ātman) is neither me, nor you, nor they, it is a universal, eternal, unchanging witness of all that happens. This true Self is the same across the whole of reality, it exists in all beings, it cannot be differentiated because it comes before any difference. It is pure unity, non-dual or intransitive awareness. Being free from difference, it is free from becoming, and hence also beyond action and time. The true Self is eternal, and thus it is beyond any possible form of uncertainty. The path to discovering this true Self is a disciplined process of withdrawal from the senses (the main provider of experiential differentiation) and the deliberate induction of a state akin to dreamless sleep, or perhaps even death. The true Self can be found only by turning inward. In contrast with the poietic practice of the seer based on visionary trance, the sage in the Upaniṣads resorts to anesthetic trance.

The true Self is beyond individuality, embodiment, and consociation. It is universal and unaffected by differences, including social differences. But since the true Self can be accessed, experienced and enjoyed only insofar as the ordinary, empirical self is discarded, the sort of solution provided by the true Self brings its own paradox, since full mastery of uncertainty (the purpose of the empirical self) can now be achieved only by foregoing the empirical self. One can become a real master of uncertainty only by ceasing to be an individual, specific, personal self, and merging into the non-dual, all-embracing ultimate reality. If uncertainty can be mastered by the empirical self only by forfeiting on its own empirical nature, then this solution is sui generis, since it might also be interpreted as entailing that the empirical self, insofar as it remains such, cannot achieve full mastery. Seeking the true Self is a way of admitting that uncertainty cannot be escaped by those who remain in the world of becoming (which includes the worlds through which the cycle of rebirth connects present, past, and future generations). Certainty is found only by going beyond the world. The soteriological ideal of the Upaniṣads has radical and potentially disruptive implications for ordinary consociation.

By the end of Lecture Five we noticed how the older Vedic seer had to face a potential conflict between his own visionary power and the communal background from which that power both arose and escaped. One way the seer can resolve this tension is by ‘becoming immortal,’ which entails putting himself at a distance from the rest of the community, like a god. However, gods are still actively involved with the life of the community. The sage of the Upaniṣads, by seeking and realizing the true Self, becomes independent from the community, but his practice also inevitably devalues the foundations of social bonds, potentially challenging the meaningfulness of social life itself and of its order.

To appreciate this point, we can observe how the problems of ascetism and renunciation of ordinary life have been treated between the period of the older Upaniṣads up to the beginning of the common era. Patrick Olivelle, in his The Āśrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution (1993), charted in detail some key aspects of this issue.

In the early Brāhmaṇical literature, the term śramaṇa (Pāli samaṇa, literally ‘one who strives’)

is used predominantly in an adjectival sense to describe a special way of life of certain seers, although the literature does not provide details of that life. It is reasonable to assume, however, that this mode of life was considered in some way extraordinary and that it incorporated the ritual exertions. […] The term in its use in the Brahmanical documents, however, implies no opposition to either Brahmins or householders; in all likelihood it did not refer to an identifiable class of people, much less to ascetic groups as it does in later literature. (Olivelle 1993, 15-16)

The idea of ritual exertion and striving (tapas) is pervasive in the Ṛg-veda, and rituals often require preparation, which can include various practices meant to predispose or purify the officiant. Devoting oneself to ritual exertions does not entail taking up an ascetic life because the former are somewhat temporary commitments while the latter is a life-long resolution. In the world of the Ṛg-veda, the householder (the chief of an extended family group, equivalent to the Latin paterfamilias) is the main actor. The life of the householder is based on performing rituals, procreating, and providing for the family (understood as an extended kin). Innumerable hymns praise this ideal and invoke the support of the gods for ensuring its thriving. Household life naturally entails ownership of material goods and people. Moreover, being a householder and being able to perform rituals requires being officially married and sexually active. This state is often preceded by a period of training, in which the boy leaves his family, and lives as a celibate student with a teacher, who instructs him in the Vedas and in how to become a good householder himself upon his return at home.

The ideal sage of the Upaniṣads, however, breaks with this model.[1] Anesthetic trance detaches him from sensual pleasures (including sex) and attachments (family, sons, wife, house, cattle, possessions, pleasures), since he knows another way of achieving supreme bliss.[2] Moreover, anesthetic trance is at odds with active engagement, not only in the world, but also with rituals, which are thus devalued. Celibacy and anti-ritualism go together, and they both stand in sharp contrast with the traditional model of the householder.[3] If in early times the śramaṇa might have been just a seer particularly devoted to cultivating visionary power through ritual exertion, around the sixth century BCE, the terms come to refer to a diverse range of individuals and groups who start to renounce the household life and live at the borders of society. Many of them lived as hermits or as homeless wanderers. These groups are sometimes openly critical of the brahmin way of life (like the Buddhist and the Jains), but Olivelle’s discussion shows that they are not a purely exogenous phenomenon. The śramaṇa movement is rooted in the internal and multifarious development of brahmin thought and practices.[4]

This development required negotiation. Already within the Brāmaṇas (the commentarial texts devoted to explaining the performance and meaning of the sacrificial rituals), it is possible to observe a strong emphasis on the importance of marriage and procreation. Only a married male with his legitimate wife can be a legitimate officer of a Vedic ritual. This central social aspect receives eschatological overtones. As Olivelle notices:

The vedic conceptions of immortality as freedom from death and of the family as the true and complete person are reflected in the belief that a man’s immortality is found in his son. The family line continues in the son despite the death of the father; the son inherits the paternal estate and replaces the father as the ritual and economic head of the family. As the son survives after the father’s death, so the father in his son survives his own death. This appears to be the meaning of the statement that a father is born again in his son. This new birth frees him from the death that must eventually end the life begun at his first birth. In a very significant way, therefore, the family is what guarantees human immortality. (Olivelle 1993, 43)

 It would be quite puzzling to assume (as Olivelle seems to suggest) that this sort of immortality through procreation is all that was literally at stake for the older Vedic seers. As discussed in Lecture Five, the seer’s own immortality was connected to their becoming a god and hence dropping outside the cycle of rebirth and re-death. Begetting children does exactly the opposite. Immortality through rebirth is also inconsistent with rebirth conceived through procreation, given that in this case father and son exist simultaneously. Moreover, if the father could be reborn in the living son, then there would be no world of the forefathers, since they would have all been reborn in their descendants as well. Even if the Vedic texts might not be crystal clear on their views on rebirth, reducing immortality and (or) rebirth to physical procreation seems to entail a number of obvious puzzles that would jeopardize the whole system. More likely, then, we can assume that this sort of immortality achieved through procreation is meant in a looser, perhaps more metaphorical sense, although this does not diminish its importance. On the contrary, the very idea of elevating procreation to a way of achieving immortality seems a strong rhetorical weapon to defend the need of marriage and sexual activity as essential for achieving a soteriological goal in a period when competing and opposed soteriological views were emerging.

This new soteriological view boils down to a contrast between household life and celibate life. To reinforce this contrast, theologians developed the idea that all men come to life with debts, which are often spelled out as debts towards the ancient seers, their forefathers, and the gods. Debts are repaid by fulfilling the duties of studentship, household life, and sacrifice, respectively (Olivelle 1993, 46-53). In this scheme, it becomes clear that the pillars of the traditional community (traditional knowledge, ancestors, and ritual practices) are seen as something that possesses valid claims over new-born individuals, and it is accepted that the individual ought to comply with them before being entitled to taking any other decision, including choosing to live a celibate life. Renunciation is seen as a threat to the stability and survival of the community since it emancipates the individual to the point that he will no longer contribute to the biological and symbolic continuity of the social infrastructure. One strategy for facing this challenge is to subordinate the freedom to renounce to the condition of having first absolved one’s debts towards the community, which means having first passed through household life.

Olivelle discusses a number of socio-economical changes that take place around the sixth century BCE in north India and that might have supported this clash of views. The emergence of new larger political bodies (kingdoms) was germane to a ‘second urbanization’ (the first one occurred during the period of the Indus Valley civilization, in the third millennium BCE), established a wide network of communication roads, and was accompanied by a sufficient surplus to allow some members of the community to survive on alms food without working. However, the connection between these socio-economic transformations and the actual symbolic and conceptual contents of the new ascetic ideal do not seem to match well.[5] The ascetic ideal is provided by the adult male who renounces his wealth and comfort to live in the forest or become a homeless wanderer, the very opposite of what urban brahmins or emerging merchants usually do.

Be that as it may, Olivelle convincingly argues that the new soteriological ascetic ideal was not something extraneous, but was supported by certain groups of brahmins who were also the authors of the Upaniṣads, in which it first surfaces. The problem, though, is that the ascetic ideal seems to be directly opposite to the traditional one of the householder, and thus challenges the established orthodoxy. To avoid this clash, Olivelle suggests that, around the fifth century BCE, more ‘liberal’ (Olivelle 1996, 96) brahmins introduced what is known as the āśrama system.

In its earlier form, the system encompasses four lifestyles: householder, life-long student, hermit, and ascetic wanderer. This scheme should be regarded primarily as a normative model rather than as an actual descriptive account of the historical social reality, although it eventually had an impact on how social life was shaped. In this scheme, once the young boy has accomplished his studies and has returned to his parents’ home, he is given the option of choosing freely one among the four ways of life. Except for the householder, the other three options entail celibacy: the life-long student would live with a teacher, the hermit typically alone in the forest (although this was no longer clear in later times), while the ascetic would be a homeless wanderer.

This scheme can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, it seeks to establish an equal dignity and value for conflicting ways of life, asserting that they all lead to the same ultimate goal. On the other hand, it invites comparisons and hierarchies. Olivelle shows that the earliest sources that discuss this system tend to keep the household life as the best among the four and as the most traditional and conservative solution. At the same time, the progressive acceptance of this fourfold scheme contributed to the normalization of the idea of ascetic life as one option within the traditional Brahminical world. But the issue was not settled and the tension between the conflicting ideals that the āśrama system tries to harmonize kept evolving.

While there is a tendency to accept the ideal of renunciation, this comes at the cost of assimilating it with the institutions of old age. The custom that old parents could retire before death, allowing their sons to inherit and partition the father’s estate, was progressively merged with the idea that retirement in old age was the ideal stage for devoting oneself to hermitage and renunciation. But making renunciation an old age practice is a way of stressing that the necessary condition for accessing it is first to become a householder and establish a family. Only one who acquired wealth and goods could abandon them. Nevertheless, associating renunciation with old age entails a sort of obligation to undertake the life of a renunciant at some point, by thus making it compulsory for all and no longer a matter of free choice for some.

The historical details of the evolution of the āśrama system are complex and we shall skip over them.[6] For present purposes, we can simply note how, by the beginning of the common era, the āśrama system enters what Olivelle calls its ‘classical’ formulation, in which the four life-styles are conceived of in a chronological sequence: in young age, one lives as a celibate student, then one gets married and lives the family life of a householder, then, in old age, one becomes a hermit devoted to seclusion and austerity, and eventually one becomes a renunciant. Everyone (or at least Brahmin males—the inclusion of warriors and commoners is less automatic) now has to go through the whole cycle in one life. Actual implementation was significantly more flexible. Just to mention two points: the stage of hermit became progressively obsolete and difficult to discern from the stage of renunciant, and several sources continued to defend the idea that one could remain a household for the entire life, or even become a renunciant at a very early age if the appropriate knowledge and attitude of detachment was robust enough (Olivelle 1993, 173-182).

The āśrama system (either in its early, or in its classical form) is not a solution to the paradox of mastery, but rather a way in which this paradox becomes manifest, and is historically acknowledged and managed. Consider the classical formulation of the system with its progression. A progression suggests a sense of teleology, in which earlier stages somehow prepare and lead towards later stages. But it is unclear how household life could lead, in a teleological sense, towards renunciation, given that the two conditions are diametrically opposed in terms of the core values they embody, and they were also explicitly perceived to be so. However, if there is no teleological progression, then the idea of including all stages loses its normative justification. One might just remain a householder or become a renunciant (as in the early version of the system). And yet, in this case the problem of the relative value or superiority of one way of life over the other will inevitably resurface in the form of a dilemma, which asks the individual to choose between prioritizing consociation (household life) or (dis)embodiment (the need for individual salvation through ascetism). 

  1. With an important qualification. The Upaniṣads are composite and heavily edited texts, often assembled by joining various components, which might come from different sources and periods. In their heterogeneity, thus, it is not surprising to see even the oldest Upaniṣads, like in the last chapters of the Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad, illustrate the duty of a householder of having sex with his wife and various rituals to affect conception.
  2. And yet it is interesting to note that, on one occasion, supreme bliss is compared with orgasmic pleasure: ‘He rests there oblivious to everything, just as a young man, a great king, or an eminent Brahmin remains oblivious to everything at the height of sexual bliss’ (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad II.1, transl. Olivelle 1996, 26).
  3. In later developments, some Indian schools (especially the Advaita, around the nineth century of the common era) developed this tendency by presenting the liberated sage as someone utterly above and beyond all social and legal rules, hence licensing a number of apparently odd behaviors. See discussion in Olivelle 1993, 222-232. Something analogous is also a trope discussed in Hellenistic philosophy, especially stoicism, cf. Michael Foucault, On the Government of the Living (2012), lecture 8, especially pp. 176-187.
  4. A clash between theory and practice in these views on soteriological liberation concerns the universalist model conceived in theory, and a number of exclusivist social restrictions that apply in practice to those who can actually pursue and embody that model. There is evidence of both male and female ascetics coming from all of the Arya classes (brahmins, warriors, commoners), barring the fourth (the servants). Since in pursuing the true Self one transcends all individuality, even this exclusion is already a bit suspicious. However, as time went by, theologians reached almost unanimous consensus on the norm that the only acceptable way of life for a woman was that of wife-mother, and in even later times, discussions hints at the idea that only Brahmin males are qualified to purse an ascetic life. See discussion in Olivelle 1993, 183-201.
  5. Explaining symbolic transformations by appealing to changes in material conditions betrays a materialist interpretation analogous to that already exposed by Cauvin and discussed in Lecture Three.
  6. A relatively late group of twenty Upaniads (called by Western scholars Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads), composed roughly between the third and the twelfth century of the common era, provide further insights into the development of renunciation and ascetic practices in traditional Indian culture (although mostly associated with the Advaita school). See Patrick Olivelle’s translation: Samṇyāsa Upaniads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation (1992). For an interesting comparison between some aspects of Indian ascetism and the Christian Desert Fathers, see Oliver Freiberger, ‘Locating the Ascetic’s Habitat: Towards a Micro-Comparison of Religious Discourses’ (2010), who notices: ‘that the spectrum of an ascetic practice can extend into the nonascetic sphere shows that asceticism is a cultural technique that is located on a continuum in relation to the surrounding cultural context.’ Brian Besong, ‘Virtue and Asceticism’ (2019) elaborates on the philosophical argument that might underpin the undertaking of ascetic practices, not necessarily in religious contexts. He argues that ‘asceticism is reasonable as a means to acquire virtue because it simulates, and allows one to habituate, one of the most difficult aspects of acting rightly: judging and then acting in accord with one’s judgment against internal countervailing pressures’ (Besong 2019, 125).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Tragedy of the Self Copyright © 2023 by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.