Short notes on the Ascetic Motivation

I attempt to guess/intuit the motivation of the ascetics, who most willingly practise self-denial according to the scriptural recommendations. Certainly, the immediate answer is that they do so to be eligible for attaining moksa (liberation from samsara), hence perhaps a more accurate title to the note should revolve around the foundation of one's desire to attain moksa (even though in the course of his endeavour he must abandon even the desire to attain moksa).

(please note that this note was/is being written rather hastily, hence there is no organisation, rather there is disorganisation; I hope the reader will forgive me for this, because I make haste here only to save some time which I have to devote to more urgent matters, while also fulfilling, even if only partly, my desire to have these thoughts written down for some one else's possible insight and feedback; kindly pardon also my extreme tendency to ramble sans coherence, coupled with my tendency to write on matters uncomprehensively and inconclusively)

The question is: what motivates the ascetic to pursue renunciation of pleasurable experiences?

Let me present three different views of three individuals who pursue spirituality: (note that the phrase "pursuing spirituality" does not imply the kind of superficially spiritual lifestyle, typified by some American aspirants who claim to practise Yoga yet continue to indulge in the American dream) 

Alex: what's great in achieving a career and having a good family? real greatness is in becoming an ascetic, a philosopher, a realised soul, everything else is so cheap.

Henry: this life of sensuality, i am sick of it. i have realised that it is of no use, it is a worthless thing to achieve. i want to quit all this. i want to attain higher aspirations like philosophy which only give me real joy and not sensual pleasures.

Richard: thinking that you will be great if you are spiritual is tamasic, even if you do not expect others to call you great but are satisfied with your own self-image of being great. taking up spirituality because it only provides happiness is rajasic — a man's lust for his wife is sheer innocence compared to your rajasic attitude for gaining everlasting happiness, you are more lusty than him certainly. you should practise spirituality only because it is said so in the holy texts, because bhagavan tells us to do so, not because it brings happiness/peace/satisfaction, one should practise spirituality even if it lead to you getting to hell, if bhagavan tells us to do something we should do it, that's all.

(names of the persons chosen based on etymological implications)

If we analyse their attitudes with respect to the opinion of Krsna as informed in the Bhagavad Gita, then it is clear that Richard is correct (BG 2.47 lucidly clarifies).

If we consider Western philosophy, we see that Alex and Henry clearly come from a an ethically consequentialist stance. Consequentialism has its own limits (evident if you read some criticism of works from the Pragmatic schools of thought), deontology is unacceptable to some (Amartya Sen touches on this in his first chapter of The Argumentative Indian).

The ideal solution, to me, is virtue ethics, the school adhered to by Stoicism. In fact, Stoicism in its general ethical principles agrees with the Gita, except in their diet (historically, most Stoics see no fault in consuming food of animal origin, except notables like Seneca the Younger).

Some references:

BG 16.23-24 (deontological aspects)
BG 14.16, 18.25 (consequentialist aspects)
BG 3.19-20, 12.10, 17.20, 18.9 (virtue-ethical aspects)
BG 3.33, 18.60 (svabhava)

On a more personal plane, I can say the following: (to answer the question "why do/would you pursue spirituality?", quoted from my private journal dated 01MAR2008)

I pursue spirituality because it gives me greater awareness. I cannot really claim to pursue spirituality per se, because I am not involved in any spiritual practices (not even pranayama), I merely go on rambling in thought streams that appeal to me to lead somewhere that is better than where I am now. I think haphazardly, disorganisedly, simply because I love thinking. Now if you ask "why bother to know something when you're happy", the simple answer is that there are people whose svabhava does not permit them to be satisfied even in the midst of the most titillating experiences. It is all one's svabhava, whose programmer is the great lord, to whom I offer my prayers and gratitude for letting me think better.

Alex and Henry derive their motivation towards spirituality from their failures in their materialistic ambitions. Had they not been frustrated with materialism, they would have never come to pursue spirituality. In the case of Alex, the motivation is not materialistic per se, but it is based on incorrect values, pride being the most evident. He derives his sense of self-esteem and pride from pursuing spirituality, even though, as Robert says, it is not acknowledged by others, he is happy by defining himself to be of high esteem provided he follows spirituality.

Therefore, both Alex and Henry have incorrect foundations to begin with. Their motivations are falsifiable at least from a consequentialist point of view, by which we realise that pride and kama are not the way to spirituality. Krsna does not subscribe to consequentialism, in fact he explicitly states that he is in favour of deontology (refer to the quotes from BG I mentioned above).

Some aspirants may point out how Patanjali thinks that the objective of Yoga is to minimise suffering (YS 2.2), but in response to that is a statement from the Bhagavad Gita, which, by virtue of it being classed as Smrti (while YS is lower than Smrti, being the work of an individual scholar rather than a Rsi) has greater authority: BG 18.8, which states that endeavouring to avoid suffering (klesa) is born of rajas and hence is in disaccord with the principles of asceticism.

Returning to our example though, we realise that Richard, by virtue of his motivation that depends on very few factors and is thus the purest and the strongest, will succeed in spirituality because his mind and intellect has grown to become independent of the duality of pleasure and lack thereof. Quite clearly, Krsna favours the attitude of Richard.

To our relief, although only after exhaustive searching, we have astonishing answers that could not more exactly address such a question, right from the Mahabharata,  Santi Parva Section CCXIX-CCXX.


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