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Olivelle, The Renouncer Traditions

Olivelle, The Renouncer Traditions - W»—'mle classique...

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Unformatted text preview: W»— 'mle classique. Manuel cles Groningen. ant Tamil country (An Imskrita Ranga Annual 9 cheod 1987, pp. 1-19. 'otional Tradition of India. 3. LeligionsgeschichteP,” in a and its Literature. vol. I: in). Bombay. 'terature, vol. II: From the éry. a. Pondichéry. l Study. Varanasi. d Civilization, vol. 1: From his. Madras (repr). Pancaratra Studies," in ., 1 Sui 8. iition of the Caurasi Pada. as. an Outline of its History the Gupta period up to I. a] Bhdsd Religious Poetry lFr. Mallison. eds, Dave» S in Honour of Charlotte iriavala Mamurii. Madras. ”a, ed. H. Kern. Calcutta. actity," in Schomer and r1 Santism." in Sehomer lilpputtakalayam. hachary. Baroda, 1 9 76. l CHAPTER 12 The Renouncer Tradition Patrick Olivelle Shawn-headed and clad in yellow~orange robes — whether they are Buddhist _ ' monks in Thailand, Sadhus in the indian countryside. or Hare Krishnas in' American airports — that is the enduring image of Indian religion that many westerners carry in their minds. The cultural institution behind these modern manifestations. an institution which we have chosen to call the “renouncer tra~ dition." is very old. it goes back to about the middle of the first millennium BCE and took shape along the mid—Gangetic plane in roughly what is today the state of Bihar. The image of Indian religion as essentially world~renouncing and ascetic (Dumont 1960). however, is grossly inaccurate. Yet. behind that image lies a kernel of truth: the renouncer tradition has been a central and important ingre» dient in the sociocultural mix that contributed to the formation of the historical religions in India. As any human institution. nevertheless. that kernel and the Indian religions themselves changed over time and space. The earliest historical information about the renouncer tradition comes from the Upanisads and other vedic writings. as well as from Buddhist literary sources. Given the uncertainly of their dates, however, it is impossible to give a precise or certain date to the origin of that tradition: hence. my vague reference to “the middle of the first millennium BCE. ” The earliest datable source that attests to the existence of the renouncer tradition is the Asokan inscriptions of the middle of the third century BCE. Around this time, if I may be permitted to generalize, two competing ascetic traditions appear to have crystallized: anchorites living settled lives in forest hermitages cut off from social intercourse. and renouncers living . itinerant lives in the wilderness but in interaction with towns and villages from -- which they begged their food. An ancient Brahmanical law book describes the normative lifestyle of anchorites: 2 72 PATRICK omvsttii An anchorite shall live in the forest. living on roots and fruits and given to austerities. He kindles the sacred fire according to the procedure for recluses and refrains from eating what is grown in a village. He may also avail himself of the flesh of animals killed by predators. He should not step on plowed land or enter a village. He shall wear matted hair and clothes of bark or skin and never eat anything that has been stored for more than a year. (Gautmna Dlmrmasfitm, 3.26—35) The anchorite's life is marked by his refusal to avail himself of any product medi— ated by human culture. His clothing and food come from the wild; lie is not per— mitted to step on plowed land, the symbol of human culture and society. The anchorite has physically withdrawn from society, even though he continues to participate in some of the central religious activities of society, such as main- taining a ritual fire and performing rituals. At least some of the anchorites may have lived in family units; we hear often of wives and children living in forest hermitages. The renouncer, on the other hand, lives in proximity to civilized society and in close interaction with it. A mendicant shall live without any possessions. be chaste, and remain in one place during the rainy season. Let him enter a village only to obtain almsfood and go on his begging round late in the evening, without visiting the same house twice and without pronouncing blessings. He shall control his speech. sight. and actions; and wear a garment to cover his private parts, using, according to some, a discarded piece of cloth after washing it. Outside the rainy season. he should not spend two nights in the same village. He shall be shavemheaded or wear a topknot: refrain from injuring seeds; treat all creatures alike, whether they cause him harm or treat him with kindness; and not undertake ritual activities. (Gautama Dharmasatm, 3.11—25) The renouncer’s withdrawal from society is not physical but ideological. He does not participate in the most central of sociorcligious institutions: family and sex. ritual fire and ritual activities, a permanent residence, and wealth and economic activities. He is a religious beggar, depending on social charity for his most basic needs. Of these two ascetic institutions, the one that became central to the develop~ ment of Indian religions and cultures was the renouncer tradition. The hermit culture became obsolete at least by the beginning of the common era and lived on only in poetic imagination; some of the most beloved of Indian poetry and drama, including the two great epics, Rdmdyanu and Mahabharata, center around hermit life in the forest. gakuntala, the famous Indian heroine immortalized by the Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa, was a girl living in a forest hermitage. But it had little historical influence on Indian religion. fruits and given to ocedure for recluses also avail himseif of plowed land or enter I '. or skin and never ' autumn Dharmasdtm, of any product medi— he wild; he is not per- ture and society. The )ugh he continues to ociety. such as main- :f the anchorites may ildren living in forest 1 civilized society and remain in one place almsfood and go on me house twice and :ht, and actions; and 0 some, a discarded iould not spend two :r a topknot; refrain i6 him harm or treat utama Dharmasfitm. t ideological. He does ions: family and sex, vealth and economic ity for his most basic ntral to the develop— radition. The hermit mmon era and iived if Indian poetry and ‘cirata, center around inc immortalized by :st hermitage. But it THE RENOUNCER ‘l‘RADi’I‘ION 273 The Origins There is a longstanding and ongoing scholarly debate regarding the origin of the renouncer tradition. To simplify a somewhat intricate issue, some contend that the origins of Indian asceticism in general and of the renouncer tradition in par— ticular go back to the indigenous non—Aryan population (Bronkhorst 1993, Pande 1978, Singh 1972). Others, on the contrary, see it as an organic and logical development of ideas found in the vedic religious culture (Heesterman 1964). . It is time. I think, to move beyond this sterile debate and artificial dichotomy. They are based, on the one hand. on the false premise that the extant vedic texts provide us with an adequate picture of the religious and cultural life of that period spanning over half a millennium. These texts, on the contrary, provide only a tiny 'window into this period, and that too only throws light on what their priestly authors thought it important to record. It is based, on the other hand, on the untenable conviction that we can isolate Aryan and nonnAryan strands in the Indian culture a millennium or more removed from the original and putav tive Aryan migrations. It is obvious that the ancient lndian society comprised numerous racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups and that their beliefs and prac— tices must have influenced the development of Indian religions. It is quite a dif— ferent: matter. however. to attempt to isolate these different strands at any given point in Indian history (Olivelle 1993, 1995b). It is a much more profitable exercise to study the social. economic, political. and geographical factors aiong the Gangetic valley during the middle of the first millennium ace that may have contributed to the growth of ascetic institutions and ideologies (Olivelle 1993, Gombrich 1988). This was a time of radical social and economic change, a period that saw the second urbanization in India — after the initial one over a millennium earlier in the Indus Valley ~ with large king— doms, state formation, a surplus economy. and long—distance trade. Ambition, strategy, drive, and risk—taking all played a role in both a king's quest for power and a merchant‘s pursuit of wealth. A similar spirit of individual enterprise is evident in a person's decision to leave home and family and to become a wan— dering mendicant. The new social and economic realities of this period surely permitted and even fostered the rise of rival religious ideologies and modes of life. _ The Formative Period of Indian Religions The second half of the first millennium BCE was the period that created many of the ideological and institutional elements that characterize later Indian reli— gions. The renouncer tradition played a central role during this formative period of Indian religious history. 274 PATRICK mavens WM Renouncers often formed groups around prominent and charismatic ascetic leaders, groups that often developed into major religious organizations. Some of them. such as Buddhism and Jainism. survived as major reiigions; others. such as the Ajivakas, existed for many centuries before disappearing. Renunciation was at the heart of these religions. Even though the ideal of homeless wandering is often maintained as a theological fiction. many of these renouncer groups. such as the Buddhist and the Jain, organized themselves into monastic communities with at least a semic permanent residence. These communities vied with each other to attract lay members, donors and benefactors, and for political patronage. A significant feature of these celibate communities is that they Were voluntary organizations. the iirst such religious organizations perhaps in the entire world. and their continued existence depended on attracting new members. Another was the admission, at least in some traditions such as the Buddhist and the Iain. of women and the creation of female monastic communities. If voluntary celibate communities that rejected marriage were remarkable even for men, they must certainly have been, revolutionary in the case of women. ri‘he influence of renouncer practices and ideologies was not iimited to what we have come to regard as non—Hindu or “heterodox” traditions; their influence can be seen within the Brahmanical tradition itself. Indeed, during this early period of Indian history the very division into ”orthodox" and “heterodox” is anachronistic and presents a distorted historical picture. Scholars in the past have argued that some of the changes within the Brahmanicai tradition. such as the creation of the cis’rama (orders of iife) system. was instituted as a defense mechanism against the onslaught of renunciation. Evidence does not support such claims. The Brahmanical tradition was not a monolithic entity. The debates. controversies, and struggles between the new ideologies and lifestyles of renunciation and the older ritualistic religion took place as much within the Brahmanical tradition as between it and the new religions (Oiiveile .i 993). This struggle created new institutions and ideas within that tradition. the cismme system being one of the more remarkable and enduring. Some of the fundamentai values and beliefs that we generally associate with Indian religions in general and Hinduism in particular were at least in part the creation of the renouncer tradition. These include the two pillars of Indian theologies: sanzsdm — the belief that life in this world is one of suffering and subject to repeated deaths and births (rebirth); moksa/nirvcina w the goal of human existence and. therefore. of the religious quest is the search for liberation from that life of suffering. All iater Indian religious traditions and sects are fundamentally ideologies that map the processes of Samsara and Moksa and technologies that provide humans the tools for escaping samsaric existence. Such technologies inciude different forms of yoga and meditation. An offshoot of these ideologies and technologies is the profound antiritualism evident in most later traditions. In the areas of ethics and values. moreover. renunciation was principally responsible for the ideals of nonwinjury (ahimsd) and vegetarianism- d charismatic ascetic ‘ganizations. Some of . aligions; others, such -' :aring. Renunciation en maintained as a . as the Buddhist and - with at least a semi- l other to attract lay age. ; is that they were ' itions perhaps in the on attracting new _ e traditions such as of female monastic ected marriage were revolutionary in the {S not limited to what itions: their influence red, during this early 2" and “heterodox” is Scholars in the past anical tradition, such nstituted as a defense nee does not support onolithic entity. The cologies and lifestyles e as much within the s (Oiivelie 1993). This tradition, the tisrama nerally associate with ire at least in part the two pillars of Indian one of suffering and nirvana — the goal of .e search for liberation .ditions and sects are isara and Moksa and .nsaric existence. Such ation. An offshoot of alism evident in most ver, renunciation was i) and vegetarianism. 'rnr. announces TRADITION 2 7 5 Several of the renouncer movements that turned into major religions were founded by people who had renounced the world, Gautama Buddha and the line Mahavira in the case of Buddhism and Jainism. Within these religions the ‘ monastic communities are at the center of both theology and ecclesiastical structure. Within the Brahmanical tradition, on the other hand, the situation was more complex. in the old vedic religion. the Brahmin was the ritual specialist and religious leader, but these very functions required that he get married and father children, activities diametrically opposed to renunciation. We will examine diverse attempts to integrate the ideals of these two poles of the tradition at both the institutional and the theological levels. The tension between the two ideals of religious living, however. continued to exist throughout the history of the Brahmanicai and Hindu traditions. Values in Conflict The debate on the conflicting value systems of renunciation and the society— oriental vedic religion is recorded in many early texts and revolved especially around the male obligation to marry, father offspring, and carry out ritual duties. These obligations were given theological expression in a novel doctrine, probabiy the resuit of that very debate on values. The ”doctrine of debts" posited that a man is born with three debts —— to gods, ancestors, and vedic seers —~ debts from which one can be freed oniy by offering sacrifices, begetting offspring, and studying the Vedas. An ancient text waxes eloquent on the importance of a son, who is viewed as the continuation of the father and the guarantor of his immortality: A debt he pays in him, And immortality he gains, The father who sees the face Of his son born and alive. Greater than the delights That earth, fire, and water Bring to living beings, is a father's delight in his son. (Aitareya Brdhmarin, 7.13) And in what appears to be a dig at ascetic claims, the same text continues: What is the use of dirt and deer skin? What profit in beard and austerity? Seek a son, 0 Brahmin, He is the world free of blame. WW 276 PATRICK cum-11.1.1; The proponents of ascetic and renunciatory values, on the other hand, dismiss these claims for sons and rituals. Their View of immortality and libera_ tion is centered not on outward activities but on inward self—cultivation. Sons, sacrifices, and riches only guarantee the return to a new life of suffering within l the wheel of sanisara. An Upanisad comments on the futility of sacrifices: Surely. they are floating unanchored, these eighteen forms of the sacrifice. the rites within which are called inferior; The fools who hail that as the best. return once more to old age and death. (Mandala: Upanisad, 1.2) l The Upanisads also devalue the importance of marriage and progeny: This immense, unborn self is none other than the one consisting of perception here among the vital functions. It is when they desire him as their world that wander- ing ascetics undertake the ascetic life of wandering. It was when they knew this that men of old did not desire offspring. reasoning "Ours is this self, and it is our world. What then is the use of offspring for us?" (Brimdcimnyaka Upanisad, 4.4.2 2) This conflict in values and ideologies is often presented as a contrast between ( village and wilderness. the normative geographical spaces of society and renun- ciation. People inhabiting these spaces are destined to vastly different paths after I death. the villagers returning back to the misery of earthly existence and asceties proceeding to immortality: Now, the people who know this, and the people here in the wilderness who ven- l erate thus: “Austerity is faith" —- they pass into the flame. from the flame into the day, from the day into the fortnight of the waxing moon. from the fortnight of the waxing moon into the six months when the sun moves north. from these months i into the year, from the year into the sun, from the sun into the moon, and from the l moon into lightning. Then a person who is not human — he leads them to bmhmtm. This is the path leading to the gods. The people here in villages. on the other hand. who venerate thus: “Gift-giving is offerings to gods and to priests" — they pass into the smoke, from the smoke into the night. from the night into the fortnight of the waning moon. and from the fort» night of the waning moon into the six months when the sun moves south. These do not reach the year but from these months pass into the world of the fathers. and from the world of the fathers into space. and from space into the moon. This is King Soma. the food of the gods, and the gods eat it. They remain there as long as there is a residue, and then they return by the same path they went. (Chrindegya Upariisad, 5.10.1——2) The theological debates concerning the two value systems tool; place as much I within the Brahmanical circles as between the sencalled orthodox Brahmanism ' and the heterodox sects. The intense discussion between Krsna and Arjuna in l, on the other hand, nmortality and libera— self-cultivation. Sons, 3 life of suffering within 5 Hit}? of sacrifices: or; 1. .2) and progeny: ing of perception here ir world that wander- when they knew this this self, and it is our rake Upanisad. 4.4.22) 1 as a contrast between 3 of society and renun— tly different paths after earthly existence and e wilderness who ven» om the flame into the m the fortnight of the :h, from these months to moon. and from the eads them to brahman. rate thus: "Gift-giving B. from the smoke into KM], and from the fort» n moves south. These world of the fathers, e into the moon. This ' remain there as long :hey went. (Chrindogya ms took place as much )rthodox Brahmanism 1 Krsna and Arjuna in l l 'rns RENOUNCER 'lfRAlH'lTION 2 77 the Bliagavad Gitii on the issue of the relative value of renunciation and engage— ment in one’s socially appointed duties is a classic example of such controversy and debate. The As’rama System The system of four cis'ramas (orders of life) was an early attempt to institutional— ize renunciation within Brahmanical social structures. Created probably around the fourth century BCE, the system in its original form proposed four alternate modes of religious living that young adults could pursue after they had comm pleted their period of temporary studentship following vedic initiation. These were: continuing to be a student until death. getting married and setting up a household. withdrawing to the forest as a hermit, or becoming a renouncer (Olivelle 19...
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