Asceticism (Greek: askēsis) describes a life-style characterized by abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures (especially sexual activity and consumption of alcohol) often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals. Christianity and the Indian religions (including yoga) teach that salvation and liberation involve a process of mind-body transformation that is effected through practicing restraint with respect to actions of body, speech and mind. The founders and earliest practitioners of these religions (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism, the Christian desert fathers) lived extremely austere lifestyles refraining from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of material wealth. This is to be understood not as an eschewal of the enjoyment of life but a recognition that spiritual and religious goals are impeded by such indulgence. Asceticism is closely related to the Christian concept of chastity and might be said to be the technical implementation of the abstract vows of renunciation. Those who practice ascetic lifestyles do not consider their practices as virtuous but pursue such a life-style in order to satisfy certain technical requirements for mind-body transformation. There is remarkable uniformity among the above religions with respect to the benefits of sexual continence. Religions teach that purifying the soul also involves purification of the body which thereby enables connection with the Divine and the cultivation of inner peace. In the popular imagination asceticism is considered a sort of perversion (self-flagellation by birch twigs as the archetypal stereotype of self-mortification) but the askēsis enjoined by religion functions in order to bring about greater freedom in various areas of one's life, such as freedom from compulsions and temptations bringing about peacefulness of mind with a concomitant increase in clarity and power of thought.
Askesis is a Greek Christian term; the practice of spiritual exercises; rooted in the philosophical tradition of antiquity. Askesis is the discipline of repressing lust. Originally introduced as the spiritual struggle of the Greek Orthodox Church as the style of life where meat, alcohol, sex, and comfortable clothing are avoided, the term is now used in several other relations:
Many warriors and athletes, in Greek society, applied the discipline of askēsis to attain optimal bodily fitness and grace. The manner of life, the doctrine, or principles of someone who engages in askēsis is referred to as an ascetic.
"Otherworldly" asceticism is practiced by people who withdraw from the world in order to live an ascetic life (this includes monks who live communally in monasteries, as well as hermits who live alone). "Worldly" asceticism refers to people who live ascetic lives but don't withdraw from the world, much like Vincent Van Gogh in the 1800s.
Weber claimed that this distinction originated in the Protestant Reformation, but later became secularized, so the concept can be applied to both religious and secular ascetics.
(See Talcott Parsons' translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translator's note on Weber's footnote 9 in chapter 2)
David McClelland suggested that worldly asceticism is specifically targeted against worldly pleasures that distract people from their calling, and may accept worldly pleasures that are not distracting. As an example, he pointed out that Quakers have historically objected to bright colored clothing, but that wealthy Quakers often made their drab clothing out of expensive materials. The color was considered distracting, but the materials were not. Amish groups use similar criteria to make decisions about which modern technologies to use and which to avoid.
Most of the austerities and ascetic practices can be traced back to Vardhaman Mahavira, the twenty-fourth "fordmaker" or Tirthankara. The Acaranga Sutra, or Book of Good Conduct, is a sacred book within Jainism that discusses the ascetic code of conduct. Other texts that provide insight into conduct of ascetics include Yogashastra by Acharya Hemachandra and Niyamasara by Acharya Kundakunda. Other illustrious Jain works on ascetic conduct are Oghanijjutti, Pindanijjutti, Cheda Sutta, and Nisiha Suttafee.
Quotes on ascetic practices from the Akaranga Sutra as Hermann Jacobi translated it :
“A monk or a nun wandering from village to village should look forward for four cubits, and seeing animals they should move on by walking on his toes or heels or the sides of his feet. If there be some bypath, they should choose it, and not go straight on; then they may circumspectly wander from village to village. Third Lecture(6)”
'I shall become a Sramana who owns no house, no property, no sons, no cattle, who eats what others give him; I shall commit no sinful action; Master, I renounce to accept anything that has not been given.' Having taken such vows, (a mendicant) should not, on entering a village or scot-free town, &c., take himself, or induce others to take, or allow others to take, what has not been given. Seventh Lecture (1)
The degree of moderation suggested by this middle path varies depending on the interpretation of Theravadism at hand. Some traditions emphasize ascetic life more than others.
The basic lifestyle of an ordained Theravadin practitioner (bhikkhu, monk; or bhikkhuni, nun) as described in the Vinaya Pitaka was intended to be neither excessively austere nor hedonistic. Monks and nuns were intended to have enough of life's basic requisites (particularly food, water, clothing, and shelter) to live safely and healthily, without being troubled by illness or weakness. While the life described in the Vinaya may appear difficult, it would be perhaps better described as Spartan rather than truly ascetic. Deprivation for its own sake is not valued. Indeed, it may be seen as a sign of attachment to one's own renunciation. The aim of the monastic lifestyle was to prevent concern for the material circumstances of life from intruding on the monk or nun's ability to engage in religious practice. To this end, having inadequate possessions was regarded as being no more desirable than having too many.
Initially, the Tathagatta rejected a number of more specific ascetic practices that some monks requested to follow. These practices — such as sleeping in the open, dwelling in a cemetery or cremation ground, wearing only cast-off rags, etc. — were initially seen as too extreme, being liable to either upset the social values of the surrounding community, or as likely to create schisms among the Sangha by encouraging monks to compete in austerity. Despite their early prohibition, recorded in the Pali Canon, these practices (known as the Dhutanga practices, or in Thai as thudong) eventually became acceptable to the monastic community. They were recorded by Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga, and later became significant in the practices of the Thai Forest Tradition.
Similarly, divergent scriptural and cultural trends have brought a stronger emphasis on asceticism to some Mahayana practices. The Lotus Sutra, for instance, contains a story of a bodhisattva who burns himself as an offering to the assembly of all Buddhas in the world. This has become a patterning story for self-sacrifice in the Mahayana world, probably providing the inspiration for the auto-cremation of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc during the 1960s, as well as several other incidents.
Asceticism is rejected by modern day Judaism; it is considered contrary to God's wishes for the world. God intended for the world to be enjoyed, in a permitted context of course The Talmud says that "if a person has the opportunity to taste a new fruit and refuses to do so, he will have to account for that in the next world".
There are different categories of pleasure. From simple, short lived things, like eating something tasty, to more complex pleasures, such as the satisfaction of succeeding in a difficult task. The closest Judaism comes to asceticism is when it tries to teach people to enjoy the more intellectual and spiritual pleasures, and not to chase after the simpler pleasures.
However, Judaism does not encourage people to seek pleasure for its own sake but rather to do so in a spiritual way. An example would be thanking God for creating something enjoyable, like a wonderful view, or tasty food. As another example, sex should be enjoyed while remembering that a person may be fulfilling the commandments of marriage and pru-urvu (procreation), but that it should also be enjoyed. Food can be enjoyed by remembering that it is necessary to eat, but by thanking God for making it an enjoyable processes, and by not overeating, or eating wastefully.
Jews believe that God could just as easily have made food nutritious but bland, or sex could be an uncontrollable drive, however that is not what God wanted. God wanted people to take pleasure in living in his world.
Modern normative Judaism (and the Pharisees that developed it) is in opposition to the lifestyle of asceticism, and sometimes cast the Nazirite vow in a critical light. There did existed some ascetic Jewish sects in ancient times, most notably the Essenes and Ebionites. Some early Kabbalists may have, arguably, also held a lifestyle that could be regarded as ascetic.
Christian authors of late antiquity such as Origen, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine interpreted meanings of Biblical texts within a highly asceticized religious environment. Through their commentaries, they created a new “asceticized Scripture,” and in the process an asceticized version of Christianity. Scriptural examples of asceticism could be found in the lives of John the Baptist, Jesus, the twelve apostles and Saint Paul. The Dead Sea Scrolls revealed ascetic practices of the ancient Jewish sect of Essenes who took vows of abstinence to prepare for a holy war. Thus, the asceticism of practitioners like Jerome was hardly original (although some of his critics thought it was), and a desert ascetic like Antony the Great (251-356 CE) was in the tradition of ascetics in noted communities and sects of the previous centuries. Clearly, emphasis on an ascetic religious life was evident in both early Christian writings (see the Philokalia) and practices (see hesychasm). Other Christian followers of asceticism include individuals such as Simeon Stylites, Saint David of Wales, and Francis of Assisi. (See The Catholic Encyclopedia for a fuller discussion.) To the uninformed modern reader, early monastic asceticism may seem to be only about sexual renunciation. However, sexual abstinence was merely one aspect of ascetic renunciation. The ancient monks and nuns had other, equally weighty concerns: pride, humility, compassion, discernment, patience, judging others, prayer, hospitality, and almsgiving. For some early Christians, gluttony represented a more primordial problem than sex, and as such the reduced intake of food is also a facet of asceticism. As an illustration, the systematic collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the desert fathers and mothers has more than twenty chapters divided by theme; only one chapter is devoted to porneia ("sexual lust"). (See Elizabeth A. Clark. Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.)
Nowadays, the monastic state of Mount Athos, having a history of over a millennium, is a center of Christian spirituality and asceticism in Eastern Orthodox tradition. While Protestant Christianity (especially in Western Culture) has generally discredit the ascetic moral most prominently in the books such as "The Prayer of Jabez" claiming that wealth and power should be valued as divine empowerment and employ figures such as King Solomon for example. It is likely that relative modesty has replaced objective standards of abstinence.
Muhammad is quoted to have said, "What have I to do with worldly things? My connection with the world is like that of a traveler resting for a while underneath the shade of a tree and then moving on." He advised the people to live simple lives and himself practiced great austerities. Even when he had become the virtual king of Arabia, he lived an austere life bordering on privation. His wife Ayesha says that there was hardly a day in his life when he had two square meals (Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Vol.2, pg 198) taken from--