THEOSOPHY, Vol. 42, No. 1, November, 1953
(Pages 6-9; Size: 12K)


[Part 4 of a 29-part series]

IT seems impossible to discuss Theosophical history without devoting some attention to the word asceticism, and to the widely divergent philosophies with which this term has been associated. Although this Greek word came into use subsequent to the life of Buddha, Buddha is often regarded as one of the first great "ascetics" in the Theosophical tradition; yet, in considering his transition from the mode of life into which Siddhartha was introduced at birth to the austere simplicity of his later years, we must take into account the fact that "the enlightened one" chided the hermits of his time for their useless mortifications of the flesh.

In the first place, Buddha pointed out, the hermit's motivation was often questionable. He was apt to seek escape from the necessary moral decisions of earthly life -- an "easy" escape -- rather than the type of wisdom which makes correct moral decisions an "easy" matter. Second, a contemptuous treatment of the body could be seen to be a failure of responsibility. The physical human organism, like all other living things, needs gentle nurture, for it, too, is a repository of beauty, and can become also a repository of truth and goodness. So while Buddha taught continuous discipline of the psychical and physical man, his austerity was reserved, never comparable to the fanatical intolerance of the body which the anchorites of his day represented. As a current Buddhist publication puts it:

For six years he mingled with ascetics and hermits, practicing the difficult systems of salvation they taught, subjecting his body to the severest of disciplines, but he realized that the extremes of asceticism like luxury led one nowhere. The truest path to enlightenment, he found, lay in patient and systematic examination of all aspects of life, and discovering the solution to its sufferings.
So there are two entirely contradictory orientations of thought in regard to asceticism, as maintained by its devotees themselves. As is usually the case, the non-ascetics derive their impression of what the term means from often partially insane "yogis" of India or the flagellants of medieval times. The Greek disciple, always philosophical rather than fanatical, approached the subject in an entirely different manner. Asceticism derives from askeein, which simply means "to exercise." For the Greeks, a very close correlation existed between athleticism and asceticism, for the man who follows the solitary path of vigorous self-discipline was regarded as "in training" for a specific "end of the soul." For those in the school of Pythagoras, discipline was never advocated on the ground that evil is inherent in the body, but undertaken only because, otherwise, higher visions and perception could not become clear. It was simply that man himself, and not his body, must be established as master.

One who reads and reflects on the discussion of asceticism proffered in H.P.B.'s Key to Theosophy will note that she there undertakes to demonstrate, as did Buddha, that there are two entirely different kinds of ascetic practice -- the one mandatory for the students of higher wisdom, and the other a crime against nature, "mere folly." On the second page of this chapter in the Key, H.P.B. also calls attention to the Greek derivation, stating that the Theosophical "ascetic" is "like an athlete who is training and preparing for a great contest, not like the miser who starves himself into illness that he may gratify his passion for gold." H.P.B. then distinguishes between physical asceticism, which may be prompted entirely by "selfish ends," and moral asceticism, indicating that it is the latter alone with which the Theosophist is concerned; restraint is to follow ethical decision, is properly pursued only when it results from ethical decision, and has no ultimate value in itself -- i.e., means must not be confused with ends. Thus we find her writing, in 1880, that it is "absurd" for it to be assumed that she, herself, was an "ascetic" in the usual sense. Why absurd? Because, she wrote in "A Year of Theosophy," the practical needs of the Theosophical Movement at that time demanded her involvement in a multitude of practical affairs. It is therefore to be noted, too, that in denying her own "asceticism" there is no indication that a present inability to lead an isolated reflective life occasioned her regret. The point here seems to be that whether or not one is able to be an ascetic in the formal sense, is a matter to be determined by Karma and not by personal, willful decision. [Note: For those who might like to read it, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to HPB's "A Year of Theosophy" article at the end of this one.--Compiler]

This philosophy becomes part of the central theme for W. Q. Judge's "Living the Higher Life." Here, at some length and in detail, he makes it clear that those who seek to escape the world of physical and psychical involvement before they are truly ready will cause untold miseries. Mr. Judge describes four stages of natural processes for "asceticism" according to the laws of Manu, and indicates how provident, in this case, was the Wisdom underlying those famous "laws." He makes plain that, while the struggle within the nature of each man must embody a certain kind of psychological violence -- while "the kingdom of heaven" may be conquered by siege as in the story of Arjuna regaining his kingdom -- the kingdom of Karma cannot be won through actions which force the pace. Following H.P.B.'s line of thought as developed in The Key to Theosophy and elsewhere, Mr. Judge indicates how serious may be the consequences for any willful disciples who insist upon "access" before Karma permits.

Take the case of one who has not done all his duty to his family, before he dies, or before he takes the vows of renunciation and becomes an ascetic. Such ascetics find themselves attracted by the family defects and selfishness of themselves (which hitherto perhaps lay more or less dormant and now become kindled and awakened by the selfishness of the relatives) and are disturbed in the performance of the duties of their new order or Ashrama, however unselfish their relatives have been "unconsciously" or unintentionally. In spite of themselves these relatives arrest the progress of the ascetics in whom the family defects become thus strengthened and developed. Such is the mysterious law of attraction. This man must be born again (1) either in the same family, with the family defects strengthened, both in himself and in his family; (2) or in another family. In the first case, the noble qualities of the family are not strengthened and therefore gradually disappear both from him and from the family. In the second case, he becomes an undutiful son, brother or husband, in his new family, firstly because of the natural law of repetition which, with the terrible Karmic interest, strengthens the tendency in him to disregard duty; secondly because of the "counter family attractions" (or repulsions). Let not this unfortunate wanderer from the post of his family duty console himself with the foolish idea that this tendency would confine its havoc to family traits (good and evil) and to family duties alone. It would extend itself in all directions, wherever it can; it would make him disregard his duties to his nation and to himself (or in other words, to humanity). He would suddenly be surprised to find himself apathetic to his nation and to his highest nature, or to mankind. Such are the mazes and unknown ramifications of our evil or good propensities.
Similarly, Gandhi, perhaps the greatest ascetic of modern times, once counseled his disciples to stop wasting their energies by trying to force themselves along a path of conduct which they did not actively desire. In the Vishva-Bharati Quarterly, he cautioned students:
As long as you desire inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired.
An interesting consideration in regard to asceticism, from the standpoint of Theosophical study, is that asceticism can be accorded a functional place in the scheme of educating the young. We recall Joseph Wood Krutch recommending that modern universities slow down their tempo sufficiently to make possible the incorporation of a "Thebaid" as an alternative to the much reading and little thought of university work. What Dr. Krutch meant was that if each college were surrounded by virginal forests and if each student recognized that part of his assimilation of knowledge required his occasional retirement to seclusion, he would stand a far better chance of concluding his university life with the serenity of a philosopher. The name "Thebaid" derives from the hermits who lived near the city of Thebes, and who were rightly regarded by some of the city dwellers as men possessed of a wisdom which could not be gleaned from tablets and recitations. Asceticism is profoundly relevant to education, for men do not develop profundity merely in the company of others, but more from exploring the vastness of their own internal problems. This, it appears, is one fundamental fact about ideal education which we of the West have failed to grasp, and in respect to which the savants of the East are qualified to be our teachers.

The paradox in respect to "asceticism," then, is sharply drawn, for there seems to be one sort of asceticism demanded by Theosophical teachings, while another conception of asceticism, according to both H.P.B. and W.Q.J., absolutely precludes a grasp of Theosophy and destroys capacity to practice it.

[Note: Here's the link to HPB's article, entitled "A Year of Theosophy", that was mentioned in the above article by the Editors.--Compiler]

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