Category Archives: c. The Four Stages of Life

Sexuality in Hinduism

Sexuality in Hinduism is most notable through the observance of kama, one of Hinduism’s catur-purusartha’s (four human aims).  Within the Dharma Sastras contain prescriptions for how one should live one’s life, as well as outlining various religious duties (dharma).  Kama in this instance refers to fulfilment of sensual and sexual pleasure (Lidke 108).  Attainment of kama for males is prescribed in the second of the four asramas (life stages), the grhastha stage. This stage of life is known as the householder stage, and in it Hindus are expected to marry.  Sexual relations within a Hindu marriage are meant to be for procreation, however it is expected that couples will be intimate for pleasure also.  Sexual indulgence can become a problem that will cause unhappiness for grhasthas and self-restraint is cautioned.  Mentioned in various scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita is extramarital sex, considered taboo as marriage is seen as contractual and for life (Mehta 66-67).  The catur-purusartha exists within Hinduism’s caste system, and only the upper three classes undergo the rituals that transition from one asrama to the next (Mehta 63).

Rgveda 10.85 begins by telling us that there is a divinity to human marriage, in that it is modeled after the gods, before focusing on more on the humanness of marriage.  Simply by being a woman, a bride is seen as having inherent value to not only her husband, but her husband’s family as well.  This has to do with the expectation that children will be the result of a marriage (Menski 56).  If a husband dies before the woman has conceived, she is not destined to remain a widow, but can be married to another member of her husband’s family in the hopes of conception.  Ideally the original marriage will bear children, and so gods are invoked in certain rituals in the context of fertilization; Indra is invoked for strong sons while Agni is invoked for many sons (Menski 56).  At the same time that a bride is seen as an asset to her husband and his family, she may also be seen as a danger.  On a couples’ wedding night there is an expectation that the hymen will break and a woman will bleed during the act of intercourse.  This, of course, will defile the bedding, but it is also seen as a destructive blood in a Vedic marriage.  For this reason, a husband may consult a Brahmin to purify the cloth and bring longevity to the marriage (Menski 58).

Some Puranas personify kama as Kamadeva, the god of desire and passion.  By contrasting this god with Siva in the Siva Purana, this Purana is full of insight into how Hindus view sexuality.  As Siva is sometimes seen as the eternal brahmacarin and supernaturally chaste, his interactions with Kamadeva show the sexual side of Hinduism (O’Flaherty 141). Much of the literature focuses on Kamadeva as he relates to Siva, but the information gathered in these texts give the reader some idea of what influenced Hindu attitudes and rituals relating to sexuality.

While Siva is seen as chaste in many rituals, the idea that he is tempted or does not remain chaste throughout are common. Some of the myths actually place him in the position of the creator, with an erect penis (linga) and seminal fluid that acts as the seed of creation (O’Flaherty 143).  Siva’s chastity is, however, his most powerful weapon in myths in which he is juxtaposed with Kamadeva.  In one such myth, Siva is responsible for burning Kamadeva up, destroying him.  Modern interpretations of this myth hold it as a temptation story, whereas early interpretations view it as a wholly asexual act.  Siva, being compared to fire, when the two interacted is said to have melted or destroyed Kamadeva, who is likened to snow.  In this analogy, Siva is so pure and chaste that Kamadeva’s sexuality could not possibly have affected him (O’Flaherty 143-34).

The Puranas include a different story of Siva burning Kamadeva.  Siva may be aroused by the act or bring Kamadeva back more powerful.  In the Puranas, it is suggested that Siva, rather than being so chaste that he is not affected by Karmadeva, in fact recognizes his power and possibly admires him (O’Flaherty 145).

Hinduism is unlike many western religions in that it does not have a single canonical text, but many.  Other texts from early Hinduism that mention sexuality include the Upanisads and the Tantras (Doniger 2011).  Some Upanisads compare Vedic rituals to sexuality, such as the oblation of butter into the fire resembling the acts of procreation.  Each action taken in the ritual has a counterpart in love-making and eventual birth.  The Tantras take this notion one step farther and suggest that sexual intercourse is not simply like a ritual, but that the act itself is a ritual (Doniger 2011). The most in-depth text dealing with kama is the Kamasutra, a text from approximately the third century B.C.E.  By modern standards, the Kamasutra is a liberal text, with thoughts put forth on subjects such as women’s sexuality and homosexual behavior (Doniger 2011).  In opposition to the Vedas, the author of the Kamasutra, Vatsyayana, dismisses the notion that people should only have to procreate.  There is also the idea that since people of all ages are capable of understanding sexual acts, all should be familiar with the text.  The idea of female pleasure and sexuality is strong in the text, even suggesting a woman leave her husband if he is not satisfying her, in contrast to what earlier law texts say (Doniger, 2011).

The Dharma Sastras’ view of homosexuality is one of taboo; a man who engages in same sex activity is to be punished, however slightly, for the transgression. Vatsyayana holds different ideas, where instead of the defamatory kliba [translated as eunuch, but holds many other meanings] he uses hijra, a term that means third gender.  Rather than transgressive, third genders in the text are described in a more neutral way; hermaphrodites and bi-sexuals are treated the same as all others.  Throughout the Kamasutra are references to servants and friends who perform oral sex on members of the same sex.  The Kamasutra is unlike other texts, it is not a law book, but rather one that categorizes and attempts to explain sexuality.  In this way, it is not judgmental (Lidke 124).  This lighter view of homosexuality and transsexuality is found throughout both ancient and modern India (Doniger 2011).

Homoeroticism is an important aspect of Hindu literature, even if textual authorities disagree on its morality.  The Hindu concept of rebirth, as well as its views of gods as being androgynous, means that gender and sexuality can be viewed as fluid.  Heterosexuality, however, is still highly regarded as the normative sexuality (Lidke 124-125).  Hijras can also be found in the stories of the epics, such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.  In the former is the story of Sikhandhin, who begins the tale as Amba and is captured by a warrior.  After spurning his advances in favor of one she loves elsewhere, she is eventually rejected by both the one she loves and later the warrior and his brother.  She is granted a boon by Siva and asks to be reborn a male.  She is reborn as a female hijra, her boon having not been granted as she had hoped (Lidke 126-127).  Despite a long history of hijra populations and homoeroticism attitudes about sexuality and behavior changed during and after colonization. The British imposed anti-sodomy laws in 1860 and worked to impose Christian values (Lidke 127).  Despite the efforts of the British, hijras still exist in India to this day and include those who proclaim themselves neither man nor woman.  For a majority of Hijras the dominant gender is female, with dress and mannerisms being feminine whether one is biologically male or biologically female.  In lesbian relationships this means that both partners are feminine, since masculine hijras are rare (Penrose 4).

The Kamasutra also speaks explicitly about females and their sexuality, not only in regards to hijras and males but also in regards to their relations with other females.  There are references to penetration with sex toys, both of males and females.  The word used for the penetrator is svairini, although some translators also put forth that svairini can also mean oral sex partner or prostitute (Penrose 15).  The Kamasutra describes women as penetrators, both of men and of other women.  The text, while describing homosexual acts, does not categorize the women as such (see Kama Sutra 2.8.13).  Women’s sexuality in this context is defined by her dominance in the act of penetrating, not by the gender of her partner (Penrose 16).

Sexuality in Hinduism has been influenced by divine myths and written and revealed texts and has an effect on many aspects of life.  Each of the four stages of life (asram vyavastha) have something to say on the topic and dharmic prescription in place.  Sexuality also includes how gender is defined for Hindu’s, as the large and continuing hijras population is proof of.  The texts also often have a lot to say about how one should conduct oneself in regards to sexuality, although with multiple texts there are often times contradictions.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Benton, Catherine (2006) God of Desire: Tales of Kamadeva in Sanskrit Story Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Doniger, Wendy (2011) “From kama to karma: the resurgence of Puritanism in contemporary India.”   Social Research 78:1. Accessed February 7, 2016.

Herdt, Gilbert H (1994) Third sex, third gender: beyond sexual dimorphism in culture and history. New York: Zone Books

Kalra, Gurvinder “Hijras: the unique transgender culture of India” International Journal of Culture and Mental Health 5:121-26. DOI:10.1080/17542863.2011.570915

Lidke, Jeffrey S (2003) “A Union of Fire and Water: Sexuality and Spirituality in Hinduism.” In   Sexuality and the World’s Religions, edited by David W. Machacek and Melissa M. Wilcox, 101-32. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Mehta, J.M (2009) Four Spans of Human Life: Ashram Vyavastha. Daryaganj: Hindoology Books.

Menski, Werner F (1991) “Marital Expectations as Dramatized in Hindu Marriage Rituals.” In Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, edited by Julia Leslie, 47-67. Jawahar Nagar: Shri Jainendra Press.

Nanda, Serena (1990) Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijaras of India. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1973) Siva the Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press.

Penrose, Walter (2001) “Hidden in History: Female Homoeroticism and Women of a “Third Nature” in the South Asian Past.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:3-39. Accessed February 7, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3704787.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Kamasutra

Ashram vyavastha

Kamadeva

Sati

Sita

Siva

Visnu

The marriage of the Pandeva’s

The Ramayana

The Mahabharata

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2852834/Hidden-world-hijras-Inside-India-s-4-000-year-old-transgender-community-religious-respect-doesn-t-protect-modern-day-discrimination.html.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qs3_oHuMdE.

http://www.holifestival.org/legend-kaamadeva.html.

http://www.hinduhumanrights.info/the-kama-sutra-beyond-the-sex/.

http://www.hinduhumanrights.info/homosexuality-and-hinduism/.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kama_Sutra.

 

Article written by: Adam Smith (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

 

 

Celibacy (Brahmacarya)

In classical Hinduism, the origins of ascetic practices such as celibacy are highly debated. Chastity is defined as the abstinence of all sexual intercourse and celibacy was used to describe the single relationship status of an individual, but now more recent descriptions are approaching the definition of chastity (Olivelle 151). In Hinduism, the Sanskrit word Brahmacarya is used interchangeably to describe celibacy and chastity even though it is not the direct application of the use of the word. The word Brahmacarya more precisely refers to the first of four “religiously sanctioned modes of life” (Olivelle 158) called Asramas. These Asramas are prescribed phases of life originating from laws written in the first century CE. These were treatises written on the moral duty, and the nature of righteousness, called Dharma Sastras. Dharma is the proper actions, rituals, social and personal behaviors that are supported by the cosmic order (Rta), the natural rightness of things. One example would be The Laws of Manu containing several rules of proper social and personal conduct which include the four phases of life (Asramas). The Laws of Manu was written in the first century CE therefor “reflect the social norms of the time” and were “seldom followed strictly”. While in the Asrama known as the student stage, or Brahmacarya, it is the “student’s Dharma not to work for a living and to remain celibate” and in the second stage “a householder’s Dharma to be employed and lead a conjugal life with his partner” (Narayana 50).

The Laws of Manu go into great detail of many restricting rules and systems such as the caste and class system that are supported by even older highly regarded Vedic texts such as the Rg Vedas. The laws state, that only certain classes are permitted to commence the once highly regarded religious journey of studying the Vedas through the four Asramas. Studying the Vedas is a privilege only granted to the religious classes belonging in the greater classification group named the Twice-Born. The story of creation entitled ‘Hymn of the supreme person’ from the Rg Vedas can accommodate the origin of various elements of the universe such as the class system. It is the Purusa Sukta, Purusa is believed to be the original being of the universe from which the ultimate sacrifice was made to create man. The dismemberment of Purusa is the origin of the class system. “From his mouth came the priestly class, from his arms, the rulers. The producers came from his legs; from his feet came the servant class” (Narayanan 27). The Brahmin (priestly) class, Ksatriya (ruler) class, and Vaisya (producer) class make up the twice born, but do not include the Sudras (servant) class. The Twice Born have the privilege of following the prescribed Asramas to pursue the ultimate goal of complete liberation (Moksa) following a spiritual re-birth.

A ceremony must be performed to mark the second birth of a Twice-Born male into the studies of the Vedas. The sacred threat ritual (Upanayana) is the first ritual marking the rite of passage into the first Asrama (Brahmacarya). The Upanayana and marriage are examples of Samskara; a ritual that marks the rite of passage into the next Asrama. A different stage marks the pursuit of different goals and the attainment of a different set of knowledge or values. This can be better understood with the apprehension of Dharma. The first goal is to abide by the dharmic principles of sexual asceticism while studying the Vedas, but in the second Asrama (Grhastha), the focus shifts to the pursuit of sensory pleasure (Kama) and self-empowerment (Artha). In the third Asrama (Vanaprastha) one begins to practice various methods of gaining transformative insight, and in the last Asrama (Samnyasin) the goal is to attain the highest level of complete liberation.

If an individual were to attain moksha, through devoting one’s life to following the Asramas or other practices, the individual is then liberated from Samsara. In most Hindu philosophies (Darasanas) it is believed that every action has Karmic consequences, and after death in this world the Karmic seeds will bear fruit, and be the ultimate deciding factor of the realm of rebirth. Samsara is the cycle of endless rebirth in another realm unless the cycle can be broken by attaining Moksa (Olivelle 156). Liberation from endless cycles of Karmic rebirth is attained by dispelling illusion, and gaining transformative insight on the self (Atman) or knowledge about ultimate reality (Brahman) (Narayanan 52). Those that practice sexual asceticism tend to have as a goal the pursuit of liberation (Moksa). Since detaching from the sensual world is the first step toward renunciation, “the sexual impulse was viewed as the greatest source of attachment and the greatest impediment to progress on the spiritual path” (Olivelle 160). The biggest obstacle to ascetic detachment is the natural attraction towards the opposite sex, and the sexual nature of the body which is seen as impure (Olivelle 160). One of the five preliminary restraints (Yama) that need to be practiced is abstinence as highlighted in Yoga Sutra for the pursuit of liberation. Time and time again we see that sexual asceticism is clearly favored as one of the key practices in the bigger goal of attaining liberation, nonetheless during the householder (Grhastha) Asrama stage the practice of celibacy and chastity is disregarded.

It is the dharma of a married householder to raise children, therefor there are no negative karmic consequences. Offspring and marriage are undesirable to a renounced individual seeking liberation because they cannot help nor hinder the present Karmic state of the individual. Choosing not to practice celibacy, or believing in the institution of marriage and the action of procreation,  is closely tied to the rejection of ritual activity, and is seen as harmful to spiritual progress. This can explain why the acceptance of householder ideals such as procreation bears no fruit in the search for Moksa but one can also argue that it is indeed necessary for some Hindu religious practices. The Vedas talk about a great spiritual and physical debt that is owed to the gods since birth. Two of them are “offering sacrifices and procreating sons” (Olivelle 154). Vedic religion used sons for death rituals and thus, the birth of a son is “viewed as ensuring immortality of the father” (Olivelle 153). Some Vedic theology promotes the married householder way of life as being the ideal, while other Vedic theology also supports ascetic and celibate ideologies. These contrasting principles warrant different outcomes, but are supported and followed equally.

An unbalanced ratio of renouncers who neglect the benefits of the householder stage would be devastating for the continuity of the population and would require adjustments to the Asrama system over time to promote healthy proliferation. The four Asramas were originally meant for an individual wanting to pursue a sacred ascetic life; free of unnecessary ties with the artificial world. In the old Asrama system, after graduating from Vedic studies, the individual was able to choose between four modes of life to pursue permanently for this persons entire lifetime. There was the option to continue the Asrama of a student through adulthood and devote one’s life to the study of the Vedas while remaining celibate (Olivelle 159). Another Asrama was the forest-hermit, where the individual could roam the forest, and most texts mention the ability to have a wife or family while other texts order celibacy. And the last Asrama from the old system was the world renouncer, marked by celibacy and no familial ties (Olivelle 159). Years after the Common Era, the reformed version of the four Asramas were known to be temporary stages of life. Nonetheless, celibacy and chastity played a major role in all four Asramas. In the second Asrama, the Householder (Grhastha) stage, the pursuit of sensory pleasure (Kama) and self-empowerment (Artha) is permitted. The aims of each Asrama can be pursued in moderation and in the order prescribed (Narayanan 50). If one chooses, Brahmacarya is also practiced during the householder stage, as the term is adapted to justify the Dharmic duty to create offspring. Throughout time, The Laws of Manu closely guarded by the Brhamin class needed to change in order to more accurately parallel other popular Vedic beliefs. To further promote the highly reputed concept of Brahmacarya in the context of sexual asceticism, Brahmanical adaptations were made to integrate sexual asceticism in all Asramas including Grhastha. The householder equivalent to sexual asceticism is sexual intercourse with one’s wife at night if the sole purpose is procreation (Olivelle 162).  Domesticating the practice of Asceticism during the householder stage would be justified with Dharma. The Third Asrama is the Forest-Dweller (Vanaprastha) and the last is the renouncer (Samnyasin) Asrama, where death rituals are performed to shed the bonds of family, marriage, kids or sexual activities to facilitate the detachment from the world in the pursuit of Moksa (Olivelle 159).

Mental and Physical powers such as the ability to fly, the ability to see into the future and read minds are said to be related to the retention of semen, while the opposite effect of physical and mental impotence is related to sexual relations (Olson 165). “The celibate body is extremely fit, and as such evokes a divine and heroic mystique of epic proportion” (Alter 46). The internal, unnatural heat (Tapas) found in a celibate renouncer can lead to the acquisition of powers. Comparing the celibate renouncer to the sexually active householder, who generates a different kind of natural heat with no control over the excessive indulgence of sexual behavior, reveals a theme. The heating of the renouncer and cooling of the householder is the tension visible throughout the history of devotional Hinduism (Olson 167).

Brahmacarya is used to describe the model example of celibacy in Hinduism, referring to the stage of ascetic study of the Vedas, but not directly meaning chastity or celibacy (Olivelle 152). Brahmacarya comes prior to the accepted but unstable sensual release in the householder Asrama. This is followed by the necessary condition of sexual continence for the pursuit of liberation while renouncing the world. Celibacy, chastity, marriage, and procreation are all supported by the Hindu tradition, but at specific times throughout life and also within moderation.

 

Bibliography

Alter, Joseph (1994) “Sexuality and the Transformation of Gender Into Nationalism in North India.” The Journal of Asian studies 53:45-66.Accessed 07/01/2009.

Buswell. R, Lopez. D (2014) The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Narayanan, Vasudha (2002) “Chapter One: The Hindu Tradition.” In World Religions, Eastern Religions, edited by Willard G. Oxtoby, 12-125. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Olivelle, Patrick (2008) “Celibacy in Classical Hinduism.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 151-164. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Olson, Carl (2008) “Hindu Devotionalism, Tantra, and Celibacy.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 165-180. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Article written by: Uriel Karerwa (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Tirthas (Pilgrimage Sites)

The Vedic word tirtha, stemming from ter and tarate, means “ford, steps to a river, place of pilgrimage” (Saraswati 2). In time, the meaning of tirtha has spread to refer to all holy sites and items considered holy. To be considered a tirtha, there will likely be a special natural characteristic of the geography, it will be associated with deities, or it will have been a place where holy sages, yogis and rsis spent time. Thus, a tirtha can refer to a body of water, speech, ritual, trees, time periods, places gods inhabit, and many more important things considered holy by Hindu devotees. Bodies of water are especially considered holy; they represent purity, a characteristic considered essential to Hindu puja and yajna. In the Puranas, tirtha-yatra (pilgrimage) to these holy mountains and bodies of water have become very important to Hindus. Tirtha-yatra is considered action toward absolution of wrongdoing and an attempt to create merit through karma (action) (Saraswati 3). Through these definitions, it is clear that a tirtha can represent many things considered important to a Hindu devotee.

It is important to note that tirthas are often considered to have different levels of importance and, thus, unequal merit amounts. Since the Hindu tradition does not have one main holy site, certain places of pilgrimage have been ordered in importance by multiple sources, such as the Mahabharata or the Puranas. These rankings are based on beliefs that more important tirthas will lead a Hindu to a higher level of purity (Jacobsen 122 and Saraswati 6). Some sites, like the Ganga River, are even considered to erase sin or bad karma accumulated over the entirety of a lifetime. This near-hierarchical labeling is seen as important because Hindu devotees wish to visit the sites with the greatest dharmic benefit. Because many tirthas claim to offer higher redemption or purity, it is argued that Hindus will take the tirtha-yatra most beneficial to their dharmic journey (Jacobsen 124). Rating the various tirthas does not necessarily mean to show actual hierarchy of the most important sites. They do, however, highlight the most popular tirthas, showing their sociological and cultural significance to the Hindu tradition. Misrikh, for example, is considered by some to be one of the most important tirthas. The Mahatmyas say that all waters of every tirtha is present at Misrikh, so it is likened to being purified by all tirthas at once (Jacobsen 56). However, others may believe the Ganga river is more powerful in its purifying abilities.

Going on pilgrimage can be seen as a stronger and alternative form of worship to Hindu deities. Pilgrimage to a tirtha is often based on a physical, geographical site. These tirthas are often physical locations where Hindus believe gods and other important persons have come from, and thus are manifest. Historical religious relevance is the main reason for this tradition and it often leads to strong devotion. Several authorities on Hindu tirtha-yatra have classified and analysed present-day tirthas, and have come up with a useful system to observe which sites are considered sociologically, religiously and most culturally relevant to devotees of the tradition. Of the 142 tirthas studied, just under 60% were water associated [see Bhardwaj 87: referring to river banks, river sources, confluences of rivers or coasts]. This emphasizes the importance of proximity to running water as an important characteristic of a holy place in connection to the significance of ritual purity of the soul and a strong connection with bathing (Bhardwaj 88).

Hindu devotees and pilgrims bathe in the sacred waters at Pura Tirta Empul on the island of Bali (Tampaksiring, Bali, Indonesia)
Hindu devotees and pilgrims bathe in the sacred waters at Pura Tirta Empul on the island of Bali (Tampaksiring, Bali, Indonesia)

Tirtha-yatra is considered to be more challenging than visiting a local tirtha or temple, even though travelling methods and transportation have improved with new technology. Hindus believe that participating in a tirtha-yatra with long distances and difficulty allows the pilgrim to reap all the benefits the holy place may offer. Exposure to hardship and austerity are believed to enable the earning of merit and the removal in impurity (Nordin 414). This also influences rankings of the tirthas. The Brahma Purana states that the Ganga River is thought to have come from Visnu, the Saravati River stems from Brahma, and the Narmada River comes from Siva. Bathing in any of these rivers is believed to create huge amounts of merit and relieve the Hindu devotee of all sin (Saraswati 5). Yet a Hindu who lives close to the Ganga River does not have to make great effort to visit this site. Thus, it may be seen as more desirable to travel to a different tirtha that is further away. Simply visiting the Ganga would be easy for this Hindu and thus he may not gain the extra dharmic auspiciousness that tirtha-yatra claims to offer (Jacobsen 21). Anthropologist Victor Turner discusses tirtha-yatra as a spiritually transitional rite of passage for Hindus. Turner’s suggests that devotees psychologically and spiritually prime themselves and change during a tirtha-yatra. By embarking on a pilgrimage, a devotee enters a phase that can be considered a “liminal state” different from daily life. Turner claims that this liminal state allows the “liberation of human capacities of cognition, affect, [and] volition.” (Weber 527) Thus, when a pilgrim enters this “liminal state,” he is considered to be in a phase of fluctuation. Turner argues that this “liminal state” allows a pilgrim to cross over from his ordinary life and experience deeper spirituality and achieve holiness or purity. After ending the pilgrimage and exiting the “liminal stage,” the pilgrim is considered to have experienced “cultural creativity” and become something new.

Other important tirthas include mountains and forests. The Himalayas have become one of the supreme mountain tirthas. Sanctuaries like Badarinath, Kedarnath and Amarnath on the Himalayas are sought out by many of these pilgrims (Eck 335). They also involve a difficult journey, which is often associated with more merit. Forests, too, have come to represent some of the most symbolic tirthas: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, two of the most important epics in Hinduism, have introduced the forests that heroes like Rama and the Pandavas were exiled to. Because these heroes are widely known in Hindu culture, forest tirtha-yatra is often pursued, especially by those in the vanaprastha and samnyasin stages of life when this activity is encouraged. Furthermore, certain religiously significant cities have become tirthas. Among them are Ayodhya, the capital of Rama; Varanasi, the city of Siva on the Ganga; and Dvaraka, the capital of Krshna within Western India (Eck 335). This sacred geography of India is extremely important to Hindu culture: through tirtha-yatra to these holy places, Hindus are able to physically engage in their religious history. [For more information on specific associations between Hindu gods and geography, see Eck 323-344].

While tirtha-yatra is often based on a geographically significant site, the intention is for a visitation to a tirtha to be considered a spiritual “crossing over” by the devotee: these holy places represent characteristics in the Mahabharata and the Puranas that are idealized in order to lead one to become a more dharmic being. It is suggested that Hindu devotees who bathe in earthly tirthas and spiritual tirthas receive “the supreme goal” of greater purity or even enlightenment (Eck 341). Thus, a Hindu devotee does not only physically engage in a tirtha: he aims to spiritually cross over samsara and illusion and draw himself closer to mukti through his pilgrimage.

The tirtha-yatra also functions to reconnect Hindu devotees to the greater tradition they are immersed in. The Mahabharata considers going on pilgrimage to be superior even to sacrifice (Bhardwaj 29). In the first and second dialogues in the Mahabharata over 330 places are mentioned as holy sites intended as tirtha-yatra. Furthermore, a clockwise tour of the India, starting at Pushkara and ending in Prayaga (modern Allahabad) is suggested in this text in order to fully experience the full religious journey (Bhardwaj 43). A long tirtha-yatra is also suggested to give a Hindu devotee a full idea of the vastness of India’s holy land and thus allow an essence of connection and uniformity between devotees. Attending Hindu festivals also allows a devotee to connect with his peers within the tradition. The Allahabad Kumbh Mela is one festival that occurs every twelve years and connects millions of devotees together, encouraging them to engage in tirtha-yatra. This festival stems from the sagar manthan (ocean-churning) story present in the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and several Puranas, and has become a part of orthodox Hindu tradition (MacLean 875).

Interaction between Hindu devotees and a tirtha is especially meaningful as it is one of the only forms of worship that allows the Hindu to interact with their religious traditions outside of gender and caste. Because pilgrimage can be less expensive than elaborate upper-varna rituals, tirthas are more accessible to lower varnas, untouchables, women, widows and those with illness. The village of Mehandipur near the capital of Rajasthan in India is a tirtha site known especially for attracting those with illness (Dwyer 5). Often these ill devotees have sought medical and traditional healing practices already. Thus, those at Mehandipur are often visiting as a last attempt to find healing, but also to erase bad karma. The hope is that the auspiciousness of the tirtha will lead to a supernatural cure (Dwyer 6). Generally, in India, mixing of caste is strictly taboo: it is believed to reduce purity of higher castes and thus interfere with important yajna rituals. For the lower varnas or the untouchable caste, social mobility is not possible (Bhardwaj 151). However, it is suggested that several sacred Hindu tirthas allow social and religious mobility: caste distinction fades away while on tirtha-yatra, especially in regards to necessities. For example, while on tirtha-yatra, food generally cannot be refused by anyone, even if it comes from a member of a lower caste. Food handling, an issue of purity that is usually regulated in the caste system, has its taboos erased and ends up providing a basis of equality for the lower castes, which, in the secular world is typically denied (Bhardwaj 151-152).

While visiting a tirtha, many Hindus participate in different puja or yajna practices in attempts to gain merit. Vows, prayers, holy baths, dana (gift giving), and other worship done at a household shrine is often acceptable (Saraswati 28). Furthermore, certain acts can be done by devotees at certain tirthas to gain that particular god’s attention. For example, worship to Siva can be done at the Ganga River, using the river’s water, milk, honey, or bhanga (Saraswati 29). Analysis on 142 tirthas shows that an estimated 36% of these holy sites focus on chief worship of Siva, while 29% focus on Visnu [see Bhardwaj 90: further breakdown and analysis]. Chief worship of deities is suggested to be a cause of attracting pilgrims to particular tirthas.

Because tirtha-yatra is not guaranteed to be a safe journey, ideas of “good death” are focused upon as further motivation for going on pilgrimage. Hindu pilgrims prepare themselves for possibly dangerous encounters. A pilgrimage may also be done to induce death, or commemorate a recent death (Nordin 403-404). The hardship and effort associated with tirtha-yatra, combined with the absolution of sin is believed to offer the assurance of a “good death” and thus a path to mukti (Nordin 408). The idea of a transfer of divine energy and removal of pollution or evil propagates the belief in supernatural deities capable of this (Nordin 414). “Good death” while on pilgrimage is believed to be a reward for a Hindu believer: 70% of pilgrims studied by Nordin believed death while on pilgrimage was auspicious and beneficial to the self (Nordin 418) and it is a common idea that this “good death” will put a devotee at the feet of Siva or Visnu (Nordin 420).

Some pilgrims desire these “good death” outcomes so greately that their deaths arguably verge on suicide. A portion of pilgrims put themselves in danger purposefully while at a tirtha and believe their fate will be decided by Siva (Nordin 425). Yet by placing themselves in physical illness or subjecting themselves to illness, their actions could be explained as actions toward suicide (atma hatya), which is believed to be a sin as explained through the Dharma Shastras and other Hindu dharma (Nordin 426). Furthermore, 61% of pilgrims studied by Nordin believed ritual suicide while on tirthayatra is a sin (Nordin 418). The difference between “good death” and the sin of suicide is thus very slight but simply perpetuated by hopes of the creation of good karma.

Works Referenced and Further Recommended Reading

Bhardwaj, Surinder Mohan (2003) Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers. p 29-152.

Dwyer, Graham (1998) “The Phenomenology of Supernatural Malaise: Attribution, Vulnerability and the Patterns of Affliction at a Hindu Pilgrimage Centre in Rajasthan.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, Vol. 42, No. 2, p 5-6. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Eck, Diana L. (1981) “India’s ‘Tirthas’: ‘Crossings’ in Sacred Geography.” History of Religions, Vol. 20, No. 4. p 323-344.

Ganguli, Kisari Mohan (trans.) (1896) The Mahabharata Book 13: Anusasana Parva. p. CIII. Calcutta: Bharata Press.

Jacobsen, Knut A. (2013) Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: Salvific Space. New York: Routledge. p 21-124.

Lannoy, Richard (2000/2001) “Benares as Tirtha.” India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 4. p 6-17. New Delhi: India International Centre.

MacLean, Kama (2003) “Making the Colonial State Work for You: The Modern Beginnings of the Ancient Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 62, No. 3. p 875. Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies.

Messerschmidt, Donald A. (1981) “Hindu Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas.” Current Anthropology. Vol. 22, No. 5. p 571-572. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Morinis, Alan E. (1984) Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: A Case Study of West Bengal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nordin, Andreas (2009) “Good-death Beliefs and Cognition in Himalayan Pilgrimage.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 21, No. 4. p 403-426. Boston: BRILL.

Saraswati, Baidyanath (1985) Traditions of Tirthas in India: The anthropology of Hindu pilgrimage, Varanasi: NK Bose Memorial Foundation. p 2-29.

Weber, Donald (1995) “From Limen to Border: A Meditation on the Legacy of Victor Turner for American Cultural Studies.” American Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3. p 525-528. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation:

Puja

Siva

Visnu

Good Death

Atma Hatya

Karma

Mukti/Mokti

Samsara

Dana

Household Shrines

Panentheism

Caste

Varna

Untouchables

Mahabharata

Dharma Shastras

Puranas

Atman

Rama

Varanasi

Vanaprastha

Samnyasin

Hardwar

Ganga River

Austerity

Auspiciousness

Mahatmyas

Merit

Rsi

Vedas

 

Related Websites

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/596892/tirtha

http://www.hinduism.co.za/tirtha.htm

http://www.tirthaguru.org/pilgrimage.htm

http://www.ometc.net/2010/02/what-is-the-meaning-of-tirtha.html

http://www.hindutirathyatra.com/

http://www.indianscriptures.com/vedic-lifestyle/beginners-guide/yatra-pilgrimage-in-hinduism

http://www.hinduwebsite.com/sacredscripts/hinduism/dharma/dharma_index.asp

http://larryavisbrown.homestead.com/files/xeno.mahabsynop.htm

 

Article written by: Kate Kovacs (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

 

 

Samnyasa (Renunciation)

Hindu renouncers from the Vaisnava sect on their way to the Kumbha Mela in Nasik
Hindu renouncers from the Vaisnava sect on their way to the Kumbha Mela in Nasik

 The exact roots of samnyasa (renunciation) in the Hindu tradition have been a subject of some debate by scholars. Many scholars propose that the roots of renunciation are found in the Vedas, specifically the Rg Veda [For a list of conclusions linking renunciation to the Vedas, see Tiwari (1977)]. With the creation of the Upanisads (c. 8th century BCE) and the philosophy expounded in them(Vedanta) , there was a switch in paradigm which focused not solely on the external merit provided by completing sacrificial rituals, but rather on the internal experience of individuals and the ultimate attainment of moksa (liberation from cyclic worldly existence). The Upanisads introduced moksa as the idea of atman (individual soul) seeking union with Brahman (the universal soul). Moksa was an individual concern, which needed no deities or intermediaries and, therefore renunciation was a release of bonds from both the indenture of society to the brahmins (the priestly caste) for spiritual mediation and the body (see Thapar 843-852). In Brahmanism, samnyasa is the fourth asrama (stage of life) in which the samnaysin (renouncer) turns his [the Vedas and Vedanta texts were most likely written by men and so reflect a male perspective, for a female perspective on renunciation, see Olivelle 84-85] or her focus away from the attainment of worldly concerns, such as artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure) to the pursuit of moksa (liberation) (see Rodrigues 89-94).

Introspection and the growing urbanization broke the system of control and reciprocity established by Vedic ritual, namely the payment of daksina (payment given to a priest so that the merit from the ritual will transfer from the priest to the patron). In theory, the idea of renunciation could negate the class system altogether, as it was the jnana (knowledge) motivated karma (action) of an individual and not status which determined salvation. In some cases this new doctrine took a path of heterodoxy rejecting the supremacy of the Vedas. Some of the major sects which rejected the Vedas and promoted asceticism and renunciation were Jainism and Buddhism, both of which stressed that knowledge could not be given by a deity and that it must be gained by the individual (ultimately through the distancing of an individual from society in order to attain liberation). The formation of such sects caused a disruption of the power the brahmins held over the other classes and eventually the doctrine of renunciation was incorporated into Brahmanism as one of the four asramas. The asramas linked the samnyasins to a socially productive life through delineating an ideal sequence to life, each stage aiming at specific goals (see Thapar 840-848) [There is debate as to whether or not samnyasa was included in the original creation of the asrama system, for more information, see Kaelber 110-124].

The asramas begin with the brahmacarya (student life) and are followed by the grhasta (the householder’s life), the vanaprastha (the retired life, also called the forest dweller stage) and the fourth and final stage in the asrama system is the samnyasa (life of complete renunciation) (see Tiwari 121,). The goals associated with the stages are dharma (righteousness) attributed to the student, kama (pleasure) and artha (skill, wealth) to the householder, and moksa, being the ultimate goal of all the stages but only being truly attainable after leaving retired life and entering samnyasa. In the Asrama Upanisad, the asramas are further divided into four subsections each, with the goal of each stage being to seek self through the completion of sacrifices. In the last asrama true liberation is found by the mendicant that abandons all perceptions of the world gathered throughout the prior stages, viewing all experiences and people (regardless of class) with lack of judgement. In this way, the samnyasin enacts a final sacrifice, that of her or his worldly self and bridges the notion of sacrifice associated with the Vedas and the complete renunciation of the world elevated in Vedanta (see Olivelle 154-157).

Before the new philosophy of moksa and samnyasa had become established, karma (action) alone was seen to be the way to immortality. The performance of sacrificial offerings of Vedic ritual, was considered to be right action, however without the proper jnana (knowledge) of proper ritual action, as was known to a brahmin priest, ritual action was ineffective. [Texts such as the Brahmanas, Srauta Sutras, and the Dharma Sutras stress the importance of karma and performance of proper ritual, see Kaebler 75] By knowing Brahman, as the brahmin priest claimed to know, one could know all. Moksa and the necessary renunciation to attain it were then dependent on jnana (knowledge) of Brahman and the meaning of karma was extended to cover every action, not just the right action of sacrificial offering. This view coupled with the notion of samsara (the view that a person was part of a cyclic existence of death, rebirth, sorrow, and suffering) illustrated the ineffectiveness of karma to truly attain immortality. All actions are tied to results and are motivated by worldly desires, such as kama and artha, thus only true knowledge could motivate true actions and liberate one from the fruits of their actions (see Kaebler 73-79). Karma, to the elightened one, would be nullified of its imprint as all actions would be filtered through true jnana in its purest sense. The knowledge of Brahman could not be gained through intellectual learning alone, it could only be fully understood through the revelation of self through deep introspection into atman itself. It is here that dhyana (meditation) becomes paramount to the person who wishes to attain moksa. This is evident in a passage from the Katha Upanisad: “This self cannot be attained by instruction nor by intellectual power, nor even through much hearing. It is to be attained only by the one whom he chooses. To such a one the self reveals its own nature” (see Tiwari 68).

So the task of the samnyasin becomes to uncover the forgotten knowledge of self through sruti (revelation) of self in relation as Brahma. In this way, renunciation is not of the true self; it is a renunciation of avidya (ignorance) of the self, and thus, the cause of errors through karma (actions). Renunciation is then directed to the world and its phenomena, or rather the attachment one feels toward the worldly occurrences. This philosophy seems to suggest the outright rejection of the world as a whole, however it is actually a reinterpretation of it. Brahman is the ultimate reality of the universe, so removing the falseness of the self removes the false view of the world, leaving only the absolute reality of both self and the world. Brahman as the pure world also illuminates the goals of the asrama system (dharma, artha, kama, and moksa) as legitimate goals provided by the world, provided that the individual does not become attached to the fruits of their actions in order to obtain them (see Tiwari 67-73, 73-85).

Accomplishment of moksa through self realisation can only be achieved by ridding the self of all of the passions and judgements that make up human conditioning. Realising the atman (self) will free the self from egoism and the desires of the self for gratification, and will also unite the samnyasin with all humankind as atman is seen to be synonymous with Brahman. In this way the samnyasin can turn their focus outward and love all others as one being, regardless of caste, gender, race, or any other social marker. In order to cultivate this, one must rid themselves of the illusions of the mind which give rise to ego and the latent desires which constitute emotional response to one’s experiences (see Tiwari 91-97). In ridding the self of its human conditioning, the Vedanta teaches the overcoming of egoism, as do other renuncitory traditions such as Buddhism, which deny the self as being permanent. As mentioned, this also allows individuals to find their existence in the existence of all living beings. This functions to remove the rights of the individual and still allow the person to fulfill their obligations without the satisfaction of self.

The true self is also revealed by ridding the self of vasanaksaya (latent desires and emotions that give rise to mental conditioning such as anger, jealousy, covetness). In other words, the samnyasin is expected renounce their attachment to ego and to the external phenomena of the world which prevent one from reaching liberation (see Tiwari 97-103). Within the Bhagavad Gita, Krisna tells Arjuna of the importance of meditation to rid the self of passions and ego, “Who puts desire aside without reserve, together with their aims, and binds the senses fast on every side, with intellect held firm, he comes to rest, keeping his mind intent upon the self, thinking of nothing; but, then if the mind should wander needlessly, he leads it back towards the jurisdiction of the self. The highest bliss awaits the taintless man whose passions are subdued, of peaceful mind, for whom all things are Brahman and nothing else” (Hodgkinson 69-70).

The renunciation of society poses some interesting concerns about the progress of society, as a person is given the freedom to leave the obligations of society and no longer is bound by the institutions set up to contain society. The importance of sacrifice in order to sustain rta (cosmic order) is compromised, as the samnyasin is expected to abandon their family ties and to discard the sacrificial string and topknot, extinguish the sacred fire [they are important symbols of the status of a dvija (twice born) and of ritual obligation], and give up any other material possessions that they have acquired during their life (see Rodrigues 78-80). The samnyasin then dons a begging bowl, a staff and an ochre robe as their only possessions and spends the remainder of their life as a vagabond, depending solely on the charity of others for food. It is in this dependency on and opposition to the goals of the grhastha (householder) that highlights the connection of the samnyasin to society. The samnyasin depends on the alms given by the grhastha and, in exchange the grhastha receives the merit from helping a samnyasin in their holy pilgrimage, and also teachings from the samnyasin about the righteous path of life. The acquisition of samnyasa into the asrama system, particularly as the terminal and most noble asrama, affirms the samnyasin as a model of ideal selfless behaviour and also prevents young people from leaving their obligations prematurely (Thapar 882-890,891-900).

The requirement of the samnyasin to leave all accumulated wealth to their loved ones serves as a tool for the smooth transfer of wealth to kin and promotes a work ethic for Indian society which mirrors the Protestant ethic. A person should then work hard with true detachment from the fruits of their actions and yet work hard to attain the fruits for the purpose of passing them on to kin. This is an effective way of dispelling greed, ego, domination and exploitation while reinforcing commitment. As an institution, the renunciants serve to correct social problems, being that samnyasins are renowned for their spiritual discipline and control over their personal behaviour. Samnyasa serves a similar purpose to religious founders in other religions, as it unites followers in a common practice with a universal goal and makes the institution accessible to all persons. This universality can be seen through the reoccurring theme of renunciation in the popular stories of both Rama, and of the Pandavas, which are known to the majority of Indians. These stories reinforce the righteousness of renunciation, even in the life of kings. The universal goal of samnyasa, by recognition of the true self as manifest in all being, also warns society against murder, lying, and other actions which harm others (see Tiwari 118-126,132).

Samnyasa promotes the spiritual growth of the individual, but also allows for the individual to participate in social cohesion. Its institutionalisation through incorporation in the Vedanta literature, helps to make the ideas of renunciation both universal and still remain a profoundly individual endeavour. Jivanmukti (attainment of moksa in one`s lifetime) is obviously a difficult goal, and must be looked at as an ideal to be attained through faith and dedication and not as a guaranteed attainment . The significance of samnyasa lies in the recognition of the actual possibility to reach a stage in this life in which ultimate peace is found. It becomes an enlightened view of the world and the individual as part of it (see Tiwari 111).

References and Related Reading

Hodgkinson, Brian (2003) The Bhagavad Gita: A verse Translation. Delhi: Books For All.

Kaelber, Walter, O (1989) Tapta Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Olivelle, Patrick (1992) Samnyasa Upanisads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary P (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Thapar, Romila (2000) Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History. New Delhi: Oxford University Press

Tiwari, K.N (1977) Dimensions of Renunciation in Advaita Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related topics For Further Investigation

Asceticism

Bhakti Yoga (Loving devotion as the path to liberation)

Gayatri mantra (Vedic verse to be chanted thrice daily for twice born classes)

Jati (Hereditary Occupational Caste)

Jnana Yoga (Knowledge as a path to liberation)

Karma Yoga (selfless action as a way to liberation)

Monastic renunciation

Pativrata ideal (renunciation of self for the well-being of one’s husband)

Renunciation specific to Buddhism or Jainism

Rg Veda evidence of asceticism and renunciation

Rsis

Samsara (Cyclic worldly existence)

Samskaras (rites of passage)

Sraddha ritual (death ritual)

The asrama system (four life stages)

The Bhagavad Gita

Upanayana (Investiture with the sacred thread)

Upanisads

Vanaprastha (forest-dweller stage)

Varna system (class system)

Women as samnyasin

Helpful Related Websites

http://www.yogavidya.com (The Bhagavad Gita and the Siva Samhita online)

http://www.astro.uni.torun.pl/~kb/hinduism.html (Directory of sites related to numerous Hindu topics)

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/index.htm#maha (online versions of many texts)

http://www.yogapoint.com (insider views on Yoga and philosophy)

http://www.hinduismtoday.com (archived articles about renunciation and other topics

Article written by Daniel Manson (2008) who is solely responsible for its content

Moksa

The Hindu concept of moksa is that of complete liberation from suffering and death. Once moksa is attained, individuals are free from the cycle of karma, within which they must endure or reap the consequences of their actions, as well as samsara (the cycle of rebirth) or worldly existence (Shivkumar 77). Moksa is the last of the four Hindu goals of life and may be sought during the samnyasin (renouncer) stage of life (Prasad 5). [More about the four goals of life can be found in Rodrigues (2006)]. While it is scarcely mentioned in the other Vedas, the Upanisads declare the importance of liberation and the Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy formed by Sankara has emphasized it as the ultimate goal of life (Kumar 22). Advaita Vedanta teaches that avidya (ignorance) and maya (illusion) in this world keep people from the realization of the true self (atman) and Ultimate Reality (Brahman) (Shivkumar 30).

According to the Upanisads, Brahman is the creator of the universe, transcends the universe, and is the universe (Shivkumar 28). Atman is the very essence of the true self within each person and is also Ultimate Reality. Atman and Brahman are one entity and this realization, that one’s true self is also Brahman, is what brings about moksa. This is illustrated in the Upanisads by the story of Svetaketu and his father Uddalaka (Arapura 73). Although Svetaketu has completed his formal education, his father must still teach him about the subtle essence of reality, which is the truth about Brahman and Atman, tat tvam asi (that thou art). In this way, Uddalaka shows his son that Atman and Brahman are one. This understanding is only possible once the two forms of ignorance, nama (name) and rupa (form), have been defeated (Shivkumar 149). Just as the name and form of a river disappears when it is united with the sea, one who achieves right outlook or wisdom (vidya) becomes united with Brahman. Although there is debate over the characteristics of enlightenment after one achieves moksa, the Upanisads declare that this state of pure consciousness is filled with intense joy (Chakrabarti 7).

Vedanta philosophy asserts that an adhikari (eligible person) for the pursuit of moksa must undergo personal training through spiritual practices (Kumar 112). This training creates within adhikaris four main qualities that help them to attain liberation. The first, called nityanityavastuviveka, is the power to discriminate between permanent and impermanent. This is especially important since one must identify the transcendent essence of the universe. Ihamutrarthabhogaviraga, the second quality, is detachment from worldly and other-worldly objects. This can be cultivated during the samnyasin stage of life by renouncing one’s possessions and migrating frequently from place to place (Rodrigues 2006:93). The third quality, samadamadisadhanasampat, is the development of self-control through six properties: restraining the internal organ, controlling the external sense organs, abstaining from all but the pursuit of truth, practicing tolerance, focusing the mind, and having faith in spiritual teachings (Kumar 112). Finally, the adhikari must possess mumuksutva, which is a strong desire to be released from samsara. Even though the end of suffering may not be enough to fuel this desire, as it also entails giving up worldly pleasure, Advaita Vedanta enhances motivation by characterizing enlightenment as perpetual bliss (Chakrabarti 5).

Three main paths (yogas) to attaining moksa are emphasized in the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the famous epic the Mahabharata (Shivkumar 30). The first of these is jnana (transcendental knowledge), which is gained through contemplation and meditation on the true nature of the self (Raghavachar 266). One may also develop knowledge by learning from a guru (spiritual teacher) or an individual who has already achieved enlightenment (Shivkumar 141). Study of the Vedas with close attention to Vedanta can also lead to the accumulation of knowledge required to bring about the realization of moksa. In addition, Patanjali’s Raja Yoga, and other forms of yoga can also be used to pursue knowledge of Atman/Brahman because it leads to the silence of the mind so that one can see the truth (Ravindra 177). Although the Bhagavad Gita maintains that anyone, regardless of class (varna), can achieve moksa, it may be easier for individuals in certain varnas to pursue a specific path to liberation. Since intense study of spiritual matters is an asset in following jnana, the Brahmin priestly class who spend a great deal of time learning and reading Vedic texts may be exposed to an environment that is more facilitative to the attainment of moksa through jnana than individuals in other varnas.

The second main path to moksa is that of karma (action) (Shivkumar 145). The Bhagavad Gita teaches that action should be disciplined. In detaching themselves from this world, adhikaris should renounce all attachment from the fruits of their actions. For example, they should not perform deeds simply because these deeds will bring them success. However, this does not mean that a person seeking moksa should renounce all action and practice inaction. Rather, God (or Visnu) in the form of Krsna declares that the world would be destroyed if he did not perform actions. He concludes that people should dedicate all their actions to God. The philosopher Ramanuja further interprets this instruction as stating that followers should put themselves under the control of God and become God’s tools (Raghavachar 266). As a result of this dedicated action, the cyclic law of karma falls away and gives rise to one’s inner spirit or Atman/Brahman. Despite this focus on action, there is some controversy over whether or not practicing dharma (righteousness/duty) is a valid way to attain moksa (Ingalls 3). This is very similar to the debate over the importance of good works versus faith in Protestant Christianity as a means for entering heaven. Regardless of Sankara’s insistence that dharma is a worldly goal bound by samsara, many Hindus follow the Bhagavad Gita’s view of righteous action as an essential part of the journey to attaining moksa.

Bhakti (loving devotion) is the third core path to moksa. This path, of which anyone is capable, requires full faith in God, an intense love for him and absolute surrender to him (Shivkumar 147). Ramanuja proclaims that bhakti must evolve from the disciplines of karma and jnana and that love emerges from the decision of the seeker to meditate on the nature of Brahman (Raghavachar 267). Devotion is the result of experience or knowledge of God, love of God cultivated by experience, and disciplined service to God. Despite these philosophical stipulations, this path is often seen as a simpler way of achieving moksa than both karma and jnana. Bhakti is believed to extend divine grace to seekers of Brahman/Atman because it can be followed by anyone regardless of caste, knowledge, opportunity for action or past deeds. Therefore, it is often spoken of as a universal and democratic way to enlightenment.

There are also other ways of attaining moksa than those accentuated in the Bhagavad Gita. Prapatti (self-surrender) is the humble offering of one’s burden and responsibility as part of humanity over to God in order to attain enlightenment (Raghavachar 270). It is performed in a single act that is final, absolute and cannot be repeated. Seekers hand over their whole selves, along with the responsibility of attaining moksa, to God. In the Ramanujite tradition, the actual process of prapatti entails three meditative mantras (sacred utterances), two self-offering sentences, and the recitation of the last verse of Krsna’s instruction to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

In contrast, Hindu Grammarians believe that words are both reflections of Brahman/Atman as well as the means through which he can be known (Coward 209). In both the Vakyapadiya and his commentary on Patanjali’s Mahabhasya, Bhartrhari emphasizes that the study of grammar, through the correct use of words and the knowledge of their essence, can lead to moksa. The use of speech purified by grammar gives the speaker spiritual merit, which results in wellbeing and moral power. Conversely, speech that is tainted by the incorrect use of words confuses the mind and creates ignorance (avidya). Therefore, the Yoga of the Word as the practice of studying and abiding by grammar rules is another way to realize the true essence of Atman and Brahman.

The concept of moksa also exists in Jainism but the ideas that surround it are somewhat different. Jains believe that individuals are held in the bondage of samsara through karmic matter that clings to the self as a result of one’s evil desires and predispositions (Shivkumar 84). Moksa is achieved through cutting off the self from any connection with karmic matter. The way to liberation is composed of the three jewels: right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. Once an individual has achieved moksa and becomes liberated, that person transcends samsara and remains forever at the apex of the universe (Jaini 223). Here, the liberated individual resides in a state of pure consciousness and supreme peace (Shivkumar 116).

Conversely, Buddhism holds the concept of nirvana, which is akin to moksa in that it is the end of all worldly suffering (Shivkumar 161). However, nirvana does not involve connecting oneself to a god-like concept such as Brahman. It postulates that the self is impermanent and there is no Atman or greater self (Rodrigues 2004:174). Rather, nirvana is an understanding of Ultimate Reality as dynamic process that is continually changing and this realization leads to the extinction of desire, hatred and illusion. Nirvana is achieved through adherence to the Noble Eightfold Path, which requires the individual to strive for right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (Shivkumar 174).

Moksa is a goal that encompasses many common human desires: to find one’s true self, to end ignorance and worldly suffering, and to connect oneself with a more meaningful and powerful whole. Such enlightenment does not come automatically to an individual; rather, it must be sought after. As a result, there are many different paths to moksa and many more interpretations of how to follow these paths (Kumar 49). However, all Hindu interpretations consistently convey that a person must reach an understanding of Atman and Brahman as the true essence of reality in order to attain moksa.


REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Arapura, John (1995) “Spirit and Spiritual Knowledge in the Upanisads.” In Hindu Spirituality: Vedas Through Vedanta [Vol. 1]. Krishna Sivaraman (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 64-85.

Chakrabarti, A. (1983) “Is Liberation (Moksa) Pleasant?” Philosophy East and West, 33, no. 2 (Apr): 167-182.

Coward, Harold (1995) “The Reflective Word: Spirituality in the Grammarian Tradition of India.” In Hindu Spirituality: Vedas Through Vedanta [Vol. 1]. Krishna Sivaraman (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 209-228.

Ingalls, Daniel (1957) “Dharma and Moksa.” Philosophy East and West, 7, no. 1/2 (Apr-Jul): 41-48.

Jaini, Padmanabh (1980) “Karma and the Problem of Rebirth in Jainism.” In Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Wendy O’Flaherty (ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 217-238.

Kumar, Shashiprabha (2005) Self, Society and Value: Reflections on Indian Philosophical Thought. Khajuri Khas: Vidyanidhi Prakashan.

Prasad, Rajendra (1971) “The Concept of Moksa.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 31, no. 3 (Mar): 381-393.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli (1980) The Hindu View of Life. London: Mandala Books.

Raghavachar, S. (1995) “The Spiritual Vision of Ramanuja.” In Hindu Spirituality: Vedas Through Vedanta [Vol. 1]. Krishna Sivaraman (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 261-274.

Ravindra, Ravi (1995) “Yoga: The Royal Path to Freedom.” In Hindu Spirituality: Vedas Through Vedanta [Vol. 1]. Krishna Sivaraman (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 177-191.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2004) “Buddhism.” In World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Tom Robinson, Hillary Rodrigues, Jim Linville, and John Harding (eds.). Lethbridge: University of Lethbridge. pp. 157-185.

Shivkumar, Muni (2000) The Doctrine of Liberation in Indian Religion. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Brahman

Atman

Bhagavad Gita

Advaita Vedanta

Sankara

Ramanuja

Jnana

Karma

Bhakti

Hindu Grammar

Bhartrhari

Patanjali’s Raja Yoga

Samsara

The four asramas

The four purusarthas

The Upanisads

Vedanta

Maya

Avidya/vidya

Tat tvam asi

Gurus

The four varnas

Dharma

Krsna

Arjuna

Prapatti

Yogas

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://hinduism.iskcon.com/concepts/106.htm

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/beliefs/moksha.shtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moksa

http://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/h_enlighten.asp

http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp/

http://www.veda.harekrsna.cz/encyclopedia/upanisadas.htm

http://www.geocities.com/advaitavedant/

http://www.advaita.org.uk/resources/resources.htm

Article written by: Stefanie Duguay (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Asceticism

In traditional Hindu life, there are four stages which a Hindu would, theoretically, complete in order to acquire the greatest chance of attaining the ultimate goal of moksa (liberation). These stages include the sisya (student) stage, the grhasta (householder) stage, the vanaprastha (forest-dweller) stage and the samnyasin (renouncer stage). This last stage of the samnyasin is one of total renunciation of social and material things. It would typically be this time in one’s life when one would dedicate oneself entirely to attaining moksa, particularly by engaging in specific practices. One such set of practice that these renouncers would often adopt was asceticism. However, it is important to note that ascetic practices are not limited to the samnyasins. Many laypeople also practice forms of asceticism, such as Vrata [On Vrata and the Pativrata Ideal, see Rodrigues 2005: 160-167], to achieve higher objectives. Nevertheless, in general, the asceticism practiced by renouncers is usually more concentrated and intensely followed. This essay will be focusing mostly on the asceticism of the samnyasin. Therefore, any reference to asceticism or ascetic practices will refer to the customs of the standard samnyasin, unless otherwise stated.To go into great detail of all the differentiations and variations of ascetic practices would probably construct a small book. I can only give a brief background, explain the practices that are most widely used, and give the example of a famous ascetic who has contributed to modernization of the practice.

Before discussing the particularities and practices of asceticism, it is important to look at the background and origin of this practice. According to David M. Miller and Dorothy C. Wertz, in their book Hindu Monastic Life, the word “ascetic” is a translation into the word sadhu, which actually translates as “holy man” (Miller and Wertz 2), a term often used to describe a renouncer.This can give us an idea of what the literary origin is, but to discern the actual foundation of the practice is quite a bit harder.As Patrick Olivelle informs us in his translation of the Samnyasa Upanisads, there are many theories about where the practice of asceticism originated (Olivelle 19-22).He breaks these down into two main theories: that asceticism is a development of the Vedic tradition, and that asceticism is a newer practice than the traditional Vedic religion which “challenged and transformed the Vedic religion” (Olivelle 20).Olivelle sides with the assertion that ascetic practices did not develop out of the old Vedic tradition, but that they are a recent custom which tested and criticized the old Vedic ways. Even so, Olivelle states clearly that ascetic practices could not have appeared out of nowhere and says that “[he does] not subscribe to the view put forward by some scholars that ascetic modes of life were non-Aryan in origin” (Olivelle 21).Olivelle suggests that, even though asceticism has close ties with sacrificial religion and even though the Vedic religion set the conditions in which asceticism is set, asceticism acts as an original element that challenged some of the old Vedic traditions, such as sacrificial theology.

With this brief background of asceticism we can begin to discus what asceticism really is.To become an ascetic means to give up completely, as mentioned before, social and material things. The ascetic is then meant to meditate and concentrate on attaining the final goal of moksa. Since ascetics do not have anything at all, except perhaps a begging bowl and a staff, they rely totally on the lay community to provide for them food and sometimes clothes and shelter. As Vail F. Lise says in his article “Unlike a Fool, He Is Not Defiled: Ascetic Purity and Ethics in the Samnyasa Upanisads”: “ascetics are told to remain in solitude as much as possible, meditating and dis-identifying with their bodies. Nonetheless, Upanisadic passages about the virtues and behaviour proposed for samnyasis are unexpectedly rich in ethical reflection” (Lise 374). Lise is commenting on how, although ascetics are prescribed to not care about any worldly thing, they are taught to be moral, just, and wise among other men. Lise explains this further by saying that “the liberated renouncer is a master of silence, quite patient, and wise in matters of Brahman” (395). In response to this, a question that might arise is: how would one know about these rigorous ascetic practices and ways? The answer is in the Samnyasa Upanisads which “provide a basis in Vedic revelation for the institution of renunciation (samnyasa) and for the rules and practices associated with that state” (Olivelle 5). Therefore, the Samnyasa Upanisads are used as a guideline as how to live the life of the holy man. These Upanisads have been studied rigorously and elaborated on as the practice of asceticism grows and popularizes. Nonetheless, one of the only ways to fully understand true asceticism is to watch and learn from a genuine ascetic. It is important to remember that the customs mentioned are the typical routines practiced by Hindu ascetics. There are many people who do not follow the samnyasin path quite so rigorously and there are those take it to the extreme.

There have been many significant Hindu ascetics in the Indian history; for example, Mahatma Gandhi who helped India fight for independence from Britain [For additional information on Mahatma Gandhi see Robinson and Rodrigues (2006) pg 160; and Rodrigues (2005) pg 47-48, 422-424, and 249-250]. In their article “Karma Samnyasa: Sarkar’s reconceptualization of Indian asceticism” Shaman Hatley and Sohail Inayatullah discuss the life of the guru (teacher) Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. Sarkar was a Tantric [On Tantrism see Robinson and Rodrigues (2006) pg 158-159] teacher who lived in the 20th century and who revolutionized Hindu asceticism. Hatley and Inayatullah go into detail about what Sarkar thought that asceticism really was, as they say, “the ascetic stands as a critic of society – not merely a post modern literary critic but one that questions the basis of current society by attempting to transform it” (Hatley and Inayatullah 14). In this way, Sarkar is saying that asceticism is not only about the physical state of renunciation, but also about the exercise of proper mental ethics. The article also emphasizes how Sarkar’s studies did not hold much interest in the traditional ways of Hinduism, but wanted to transform the religion by using asceticism to “eliminate elements based in social custom (such as asrama) and myth” (Hatley and Inayatullah 14).By studying Sarkar, Hatley and Inayatullah have introduced an interesting, modern, way to look at the practice of asceticism.

Overall, the practice of asceticism is a broad topic with a rich history and development.Ascetic practices have been used to help change and develop the Vedic Hindu tradition.Even the concept of the samnyasin has become increasingly revolutionized as more people become interested in these ascetic ways.This practice has, recently, even travelled to the West. Westerners are becoming increasingly interested in Hindu practices. Many books on ascetic practices such as meditation, renunciation, and cleansing of the mind now line the shelves of Western bookstores.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READINGS

DeBary, William (1966) The Hindu Tradition. New York; Random House Inc.

Hatley, Shaman and Sohail Inayatullah (Feb 99) “Karma Samnyasa: Sarkar’s

Reconceptualization of Indian Asceticism”. Journal of Asian & African Studies

(Brill). 34:139, 14

Kaelber, Walter (1989) Tapta Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi; Sri

Satguru Publications

Miller, David and Dorothy C. Wertz (1976) Hindu Monastic Life: the Monks and

Monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal and London; Mc Gill-Queen’s

University Press

Narayan, Kirin (1989) Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu

Religious Teaching. Philadelphia; University Press

Olivelle, Patrick, trans (1992) Samnyasa Upanisads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and

Renunciation. New York; Oxford University Press

Robinson, Thomas and Hillary Rodrigues (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the

Essentials. Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2005) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics; Online

Books, Ltd.

Vail, Lise (Fall 2002) “Unlike a Fool, He Is not Defiled: Ascetic Purity and Ethics in the

Samnyasa Upanisads.” Journal of Religious Ethics. 30:373-397, 25

Related Topics for Further Investigation:

Atman

Brahman

Dharma

Guru

Sadhu

Swami

Yogas (Karma, Jnana, Bhakti, Raja, Kondalini, Hatha)

Yogi

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic:

www.founder.proutist-universal.org

www.prout.org

http://www-scf.usc.edu/~hso/faq.htm

http://buddhism.kalachakranet.org/pre_buddhism_history.html

Article written by Jahliele Paquin (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.