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Is extreme asceticism the path to liberation?

The results of an image search through the World Wide Web for ‘Standing Babas’ can make one wince. Coming face-to-face with pictures of ulcerated feet and swollen legs can have that effect.

A Khareshwari or Standing Baba is a Hindu who has taken the vow to not sit or lie down for 12 or more years. To the average person, the austerity is inexplicable. It elicits shock and amazement at first, and confusion later–why would anyone voluntarily inflict such pain upon themselves?

The Khareshwaris are not alone. The  Aghoris barely wear anything and survive in terrible living conditions. They eat human corpses, animal faeces and drink urine. But, for what? You ask.

As explained by Gavin Flood in his book The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition, the Hindu ascetic, holding his arm aloft, is conforming to tradition and appropriating a cultural form as an act of will–a will that, in the end, seeks its own destruction. “Asceticism must be seen in the context of a ritual,” he emphasises.

Asceticism, the practice of self-mortification and self-denial to reach enlightenment, is fundamental to all major religions.

It is common knowledge that, at some point in history, human beings started linking self-mutilation, flagellation or voluntary pain (ascetic behaviour) to enlightenment. And while reiterating the elusive word ‘enlightenment’ doesn’t help understand their reasons, it does point towards a certain goal.

Who is an ascetic?

The word ascetic comes from the Greek word askesis, meaning training of athletes. During the early centuries of the Christian era, the word referred to the practice of celibacy. Later, it began to mean extreme physical austerities.

Asceticism, the practice of self-mortification and self-denial to reach enlightenment, is fundamental to all major religions. Even though discipline and abstinence are also parts of the ascetic life, the extreme behaviour associated with it is what incites maximum curiosity.

For Flood, asceticism is the reversal of the flow of the body, which is also an attempt to reverse the flow of time. “The ascetic submits her life to a form that transforms it, to a training that changes a person’s orientation from the fulfilment of desire to a narrative greater than the self,” he writes.

The Khareshwaris stand to achieve spiritual enlightenment. The Aghoris do what they do to reach God or moksha. The only commonality between all extreme ascetic practices seems to be ‘self-inflicted suffering’ and the goal of enlightenment. All of them accept pain willingly, eventually making it a method for the body’s transcendence.



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