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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Asceticism

The practice of rigorous self-denial, sometimes called tapas. The term is most often encountered regarding the spiritual practices of monks and hermits, hence an ascetic is one who retires into solitude to practice rigid self-denial and meditation. One who does this is also called a yati and sometimes even a yogi, although the latter term has a wider application.

Gautama BUDDHA had a number of encounters with Indian ascetics. Having practiced severe self-denial during his search for enlightenment he was critical of its efficacy; with Potthapada he argued on the soul; with Nigrodha, on the value of the ascetic life; with Ajita on the states of consciousness. (Quoted in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, M. Eliade, p. 187)

Helena P. BLAVATSKY was somewhat critical of this practice. In her article “Misconceptions” (CW VIII:73) she writes, “European Theosophists have very little to do with ‘asceticism.’ It is a hereditary disease of the Hatha-Yogis, the Hindu prototypes of the Christians who whip themselves and mortify their flesh until they become idiots and converse with the Devil without converting him. The Theosophists, even in India, protest against the Yogism of the fakirs. A solitary ascetic is a symbol of the most cowardly egotism; a hermit who flees from his brothers instead of helping them to carry the burden of life, to work for others.”

Ascetic practice may be undertaken by devotees of different persuasions with a variety of motivations. The devout Christian monk may do so as an outward sign of saintliness. The Buddhist monk may do so to avoid distraction from the task of purifying the mind. It has been stated by many theosophical writers that any such practice, taken to extreme, is highly undesirable. All the vehicles used during an incarnation should, it is maintained, be treated with respect and maintained in such condition that the occupant is enabled to live as fulfilled a life as possible.

P.S.H.

 

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