Published on 19th May, 2023, in The Hindu.
The naked philosophers: the reason some Indian ascetics renounced their robes
The naked ascetic in India is euphemistically referred to as Digambara or sky-clad. These are men who have rejected the material world totally: not just relationships and property, but also clothes. The earliest images are found in Mathura’s Kankali Tila and are about 2,000 years old. They belong to the Jain faith.
The idea of naked ascetics is an old one, familiar to the Buddha who forbade monks from wandering in the nude. So the idea of nude ascetics is at least 2,500 years old, if not older. The Greeks who accompanied Alexander, 2,300 years ago, encountered them and referred to them as gymnosophists or naked philosophers.
As per Jain lore, Mahavira’s parents were followers of a hermit, Parsva, who lived 2,800 years ago in the current Bihar region. Parsva was the first hermit in history who probably spoke of karma and destiny. This idea of rebirth is missing in earlier layers of the Veda but appears in the later Vedic texts, and early Upanishads, dated back to the same time as Parsva. Parsva did not practise nudity, as per the tradition of Shwetambara or white-robed Jains. The more conservative Digambara Jains disagree; for them, male nudity is integral to Jain monasticism.
The Tamil epic Manimekalai, which is about 1,500 years old, refers to two types of naked ascetics: the Ajivika and the Nigrantha. Ajivika means those who endure life. Nigrantha refers to those who consciously untie all knots of life. Both were yogis, seeking to do yoga to uncrumple the crumpled mind and break free from the limitations of the body.
Our understanding of Ajivika can be flawed as all information about them comes from Buddhists and Jains who were rival monastic orders. Most scholars agree that the Ajivika believed that humans have no free will, while Nigrantha believed humans have free will. The reasons they both chose nudity is very different.
According to Shwetambara texts, Mahavir gave away all that he possessed except one robe to cover his body. He gave even half of that to a needy man. The other half of Mahavir’s robe got caught in a thorny thicket of bushes. Mahavir did not untangle it as that would mean attachment. This choice of not clinging to the cloth led to Mahavir becoming sky-clad.
Buddhist texts suggest that Gosala, the eventual founder of Ajivika sect, was born to a poor family in a cowshed. His father carried images of gods on his head. In poverty, he was enslaved. When he ran away from slavery, his master tried to catch him and caught his clothes instead, disrobing him. Gosala saw his disrobing as an act of fate, and accepted nudity.
Food and starvation
As per Jain lore, Gosala was a companion of Mahavira. Gosala argued that humans cannot change their destiny; they have to accept whatever comes their way, and endure suffering. He came to this conclusion after three incidents where Mahavir foretold events that Gosala was unable to change. Mahavir told Gosala once that he would only get rotten food in alms, and despite his best efforts Gosala could not collect anything else. Mahavir told Gosala another time that no one would be able to eat rice cooked in milk in a clay pot and as predicted, the pot broke and its contents fell into the fire. The third time, on enquiry, Mahavir confirmed that a plant in the forest would survive the rains. Gosala uprooted that plant, but the following year found the uprooted plant regrowing at the spot it had been thrown.
Feeling the futility of seeking food, Gosala promoted the practice of fasting to death. He came up with the doctrine of eight finalities: the last drink, dance, song, storm, solicitation, fortune, war, and breath. He probably refused to participate in the Jain practice of gochari or grazing, when monks seek minimum food to sustain themselves. He probably valourised death by starvation, speeding up the inevitable.
Living in caves
Some of the earliest man-made caves in India, the Barabar caves of Bihar, now called Lomasa caves, linked to Ashoka’s grandson, Dashrath, and dated 2,200 years ago, were meant to be places where hermits would take shelter during the rainy season, and even fast to death. These caves are located near Gaya, a site associated with Hindu funeral rituals even today.
The next set of man-made caves are found in Odisha. These Udaygiri caves were carved by King Kharavela, who attacked Magadh. They were for Jain monks, for their residence during rainy seasons, and perhaps for the practice of fasting to death ( sallekhana). Unlike Ajivikas, the Jains believed fasting to death was a choice.
Once Gosala made fun of an ascetic who let lice feed on his flesh. The ascetic opened his eyes and released fiery missiles at Gosala. Mahavir protected Gosala with cool rays. Realising that occult powers ( siddhi) can be obtained through meditation and mind control, Gosala also acquired these powers over time. As more people followed Mahavir, Gosala became increasingly jealous. He wanted to argue with Mahavir but he refused to respond, choosing silence instead. Despite Mahavir’s instruction, a few of his students began arguing with Gosala and in a fit of fury, he used his new found occult powers to release fiery missiles from his eye at Mahavir. Mahavir still refused to respond.
This was not a submission to events. This was conscious refusal to indulge anger and ignorance of another.
While Ajivika believed that circumstances cannot be changed, and life has to be endured, Mahavir was clear that our response to circumstances can be controlled. We can choose not to debate, not to be angry, not to react. That is free will.