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Asceticism In Hindu Religion

In Hindu religion, asceticism, the practice of self-discipline for god-realization, involves japa, tapa, vrata, puracarana, practice of ashtanga (eight fold) Yoga and spiritual effort for self-realization or realization of Absolute Truth. This effort includes sravana (study or listening to the learned and pious), manana (contemplation) and nididhyasana (meditation).

All systems of spiritual discipline prescribe some measures for spiritual progress. Tapas is one of them. It involves austerity and self-sacrifice and makes the aspirant’s mind and body strong and steady. For any great achievement, austerity is essential. In spiritual life it is most essential because tapas is the very basis of spiritual progress.

The word ‘tapas’ is derived from the Sanskrit root tap which has various meanings – to give out heat, be hot, shine, to make hot or warm, to consume or destroy by heat, to suffer pain, to undergo self-mortification, to purify by austerity, etc.

The most appropriate meaning of the word tapas ‘is to produce mental heat’, i.e., energy or power. Through tapas, the aspirant’s mental energy or potentialities are developed, controlled, and refined.

In the texts japa is defined as vidhanena mantrocharanam which means ‘the repeated utterance or recitation of mantra according to certain rules. According to texts it is of three kinds

Verbal (vachika) – audible recitation of mantra

Upamsu japa – in this method the tongue and lips are moved. No sound is heard, only a slight whisper is heard.

Manasa Japa – in this method there is neither sound nor movement of the external organs. The mind is fixed on the meaning of the mantra.

Certain conditions are prescribed for japa. These are – physical cleanliness, simplicity of life, avoidance of mental disturbances, specific asanas (sitting postures), time and number of japa. The counting can be done with the help of a roasary (mala).

To get siddhi or mastery of a mantra, the ritualistic sadhana (perseverance) is practiced. It is the process of spiritual discipline and needs great tenacity and titiksha (forbearance).

There are many purashcarana sadhanas. Among them, worship of Gayatri, Devi, Shiva, Vishnu Rama and japa of their specific (ishta) mantra are famous and important.

In those purashcaranas the sadhaka should eat havisyanna (only those things which are used as an oblation) or take only milk, fruits, vegetables or anything obtained by bhiksha (begging). Before starting the purasarana, prayschitta vidhi is performed for the destruction of all adharmic deeds and bad karmas. Through this practice, great power, or energy is obtained which is helpful in the progress of sadhana.

In Hindu tradition and culture, the fourth stage of life (sannyasa ashrama) is the great symbol of asceticism. When one comes to know the futility of all human desires, when one comes to look upon the world as an illusion and becomes disgusted with it, such a person abandons all his nearest and dearest relatives, goes through the rites necessary for the life of sannyasa and repeats thrice at the top of his voice – I have abandoned everything and have become an ascetic. It is called diksha. This is the door to enter the stage of asceticism.

This last stage in the lifetime of a person represents the search for Truth and ultimate Freedom. Then the person becomes a bhikshu (wandering monk) and sannyasi (renunciate). Relinquishing all longing for material happiness, both here and hereafter, as well as the desire for self-gratification through progeny, wealth, or heavenly bliss after death, the monk practices total renunciation. Material objects have no glamour for him because he has realized that atman, the self within, is the source of all bliss. He even gives rituals and ritualistic worship. He lives a life of freedom, earned through strict observance of the religious and moral law, through asceticism.