“Deconstruction of the Body in Indian Asceticism”

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The social body constrains the way the physical body is perceived. The physical experience of the body, always modified by the social categories through which it is known, sustains a particular view of society. There is a continual exchange of meanings between the two kinds of bodily experience so that each reinforces the categories of the other. As a result of this interaction the body itself is a highly restricted medium of expression. The forms it adopts in movement and repose express social pressures in manifold ways. The care that is given to it, in grooming, feeding and therapy, the theories about what it needs in the way of sleep and exercise, about the stages it should go through, the pains it can stand, its span of life, all the cultural categories in which it is perceived, must correlate closely with the categories in which society is seen in so far as these also draw upon the same culturally processed idea of the body.

The protection of bodily boundaries has been a major preoccupation of most traditional religions, and the Indian are no exception. Especially within the Brahmanical tradition, maintaining the purity of the body was and continues to be a major element of ritual and morality.

Anxiety about bodily margins and the preoccupation with keeping them clean express anxieties about social integrity and concern for maintaining social order. This anxiety and the resultant preoccupation with bodily purity increase with the increase in the perceived threat to the integrity of the social body. In Brahmanical ideology, then, the body is by definition a pure structure constantly threatened at its boundaries with impurity both through the discharge of bodily fluids and excrement, and from contact with impure substances and individuals.

The ascetic deconstruction begins with the body itself. Far from being something intrinsically pure that is under the constant threat of impurity, ascetic discourse presents the body as impure in its very essence, the source indeed of all pollution.

The body is impure in its very creation, produced, as it is, by sexual intercourse and born through the urinary canal. Detached from the spirit, the body—and society of which it is the symbol—is devalued as worthless. Indeed, we find this separation of consciousness from the body in several Indian theologies with deep ascetic roots.

Indians attend meticulously to maintaining the purity of both their bodies and their houses. This well-established correlation permits the ascetic to deconstruct both: the body is like a house full of filth and the house itself contains filthy bodies and hides filthy activities, especially sex. The parallel between body and house is interesting as much for its deconstruction of the body and the house, both nearly universal symbols of society, as for its resonance with the ascetic practice of leaving home and family and leading a homeless and wandering life.

An other major principle behind ascetic practices is the minimization of the food-effort, which is based on the ascetic ideology that sees creation as something deeply flawed and from which one must seek liberation. The Vedic tradition’s close association between food and creation would generate positive attitudes with regard to food if creation and human life are considered positively as things of value. If, however, creation is regarded as a fall from a more perfect state, then the same cosmic role of food would necessarily impart a negative value to food. This is what appears to have happened within the context of the samsaric view of creation shared by all ascetic traditions.

Then, there also is the symbolic complex of the hair of Indian ascetics. The public meaning of separation from society as well as the unconscious sexual associations of shaven and unkempt hair are operative within this symbolic complex. Ascetic hair in India comes in two forms: it may be completely shaved or it may be left unkempt and thus become matted. The former is associated with wandering mendicants, while the latter is obligatory for forest hermits, who are physically separated from society.

Thus there is a direct correspondence between social experience and bodily expression. Ecstatic states, spirit possessions, and lack of bodily control depend not as much on psychological maladjustment or economic deprivation as on the experience of weak social constraints. Social marginality is thus expressed through the medium of the body by the slackening of bodily control.

The deconstruction of the body can thus be seen as the expression of an anti-social and individualist ideology through the medium of the body. We can see in this type of religion the rejection of a religious view based on strong social constraints, such as we find in the early Vedic and the later Brahmanical traditions.

The ascetic deconstruction of the body throughout the history of Indian religions, however, has remained in lively tension with the socially approved expressions of bodily control. At many points the two attitudes and expressions influenced and modified each other.
Over time, moreover, ascetic traditions themselves became monastic institutions with powerful social, economic, and political roles within society. The social experience of individuals in such institutions was clearly not marginal, alienated, or revolutionary; their society was strong in terms of both group and grid.


Reference: Patrick Olivelle (1998), Asceticism, Chapter 7, Deconstruction of the Body in Indian Asceticism, p.188–210.

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