Why are spiritual mediators characterized by self-denial?
May 4, 2016 2:43 PM   Subscribe

Brahmins, shamans, priests, ascetics, monks, holy kings - all of them have some kind of taboo or another that prohibits sex or the tastiest food items. Jesus, Buddha, and Moses all had intense experiences of deprivation and self-denial before spiritual zeniths. My question is - why is that those individuals considered the most spiritually powerful are also taxed with the most prohibitions or expected to have undergone difficult and costly experiences?

Is it a costly signal of cooperative intent or trustworthiness? Not necessarily: Among the Barama River Carib, if you wanted to become an evil shadow-person-ninja (kanaima), you consumed nothing except white mushrooms and rain water captured in leaves.

Looking for theory for psychology, cognitive science, anthro, religious studies, sociology, philosophy, and anything else! Thanks, MeFi!
posted by mrmanvir to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Reading up on bicameralism may point you in the right direction as far as why undergoing strenuous experiences is considered a path to spiritual enlightenment.
posted by griphus at 2:52 PM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

What you're looking for is understanding asceticism. It's usually a sign of extreme devotion. "I love this principle, so I'll do XYZ to show it."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:03 PM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think it's probably more useful to look at this as a strain of asceticism that has filtered through a lot of world religions over the years, and less as WHY IS IT ALWAYS THUS. Because this isn't something that's a universal.

For example, I'm not sure we can assume that shamans "have some kind of taboo that prohibits sex or the tastiest food items". Shamanism is a huge cross-cultural spiritual phenomenon, so to say that all shamans are like X is probably a gross oversimplification. (And aside from ignorant pop-cultural representations, I can't say that I necessary draw that conclusion about them in the first place?)

Priests -- it really seems like it depends what kinds of priests we're talking about. Eastern Orthodox priests and Protestant ministers can marry. Not to mention that the priest analogues in other Abrahamic religions don't have any particular ascetic tradition that is universally applied, as far as I know.

Holy Kings -- what even is that? Can you cite some real-world examples of what you're talking about here? It's hard to answer a question based on a generalization based on something from a story or the D&D character guide or something.

As for monks and ascetics, you're sort of asking "why are people who have dedicated their lives to asceticism so ascetic?" I mean... because they see it as an important aspect of their dedication to god?

As for the Brahmins, this is where it gets interesting and probably a useful question to ask.

I head a theory recently that the entire concept of asceticism comes from Hinduism and Buddhism in the first place, and that it came to Western religions through classical scholars like Pythagoras who visited and studied in India. There's also the fact that syncretism between spiritual ideas from both East and West was happening a lot around the time that Christianity came on the scene, which might be why there was such a strong pull towards establishing ascetic religious orders in a world where it had previously been somewhat unfamiliar. Especially the transition from occasional celibacy* which was common in Roman religion, to things like self-mortification, living on pillars, anchorites, and the like.

As for why the Brahmins adopted certain ascetic practices in the first place, this same source (a Great Courses entry on culinary history, of all places) suggested that Brahmins adopted their dietary restrictions as a sort of trade off to keep the rest of the population in check. Sort of like, sure, we're the "highest" caste, but you guys can do all this stuff we're not allowed to, so it all evens out. I'm not sure I buy it (and there are a lot of other ascetic strains in Hindu and Buddhist theology, beyond just food and caste, so who knows really), but it's an interesting idea. And one that I think might translate to the rest of the people in your question: if you're a social elite, and the whole overarching concept of your society is that you have a special connection to god, and you have access to basically whatever and an extreme power imbalance, it's probably better if you don't go out of your way to lord it over everyone else. And thus, the closer to god, the humbler the material enjoyment of the world. Again, despite the fact that I don't think it's useful to necessarily draw the connection between All Career Religious People and asceticism as a generalization. But in the situations where it's the case, maybe this?

*Even the Vestal Virgins were only required to be virgins until their period of service in the temple was ended; most of them married once their Vestal career finished.
posted by Sara C. at 3:18 PM on May 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

there may be a relation to signalling theory. this note suggests the same thing, with possible references.

edit: this article seems relevant too.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:21 PM on May 4, 2016

oh, well, you mention that in the question, sorry.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:35 PM on May 4, 2016

Not sure this theory actually holds up with regard to all religious traditions (it doesn't in Judaism) -- where in the story of Moses are you seeing asceticism? He had to take off his shoes, and he lived as a shepherd at the time of his spiritual awakening, but that wasn't really a deprivation.

The High Priest of the Torah was required to be married and dressed in the finest clothing available. And he definitely got to eat well (first pick from the sacrifices, for one thing). The lower level priests all had meat and bread as part of their service.

Kings David and Solomon were also pretty well known as non-self-deprivers, and they wrote a good chunk of scripture (presumably divinely inspired).
posted by Mchelly at 3:40 PM on May 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

I remember encountering a spiritual justification of asceticism a while back, which intimated a lot of it had to do with the concept of mind-body dualism, wherein the body was considered as a 'prison' of sorts for the spirit-as-inmate: and all bodily desire would be seen as occluding or otherwise removing oneself from access to deeper spiritual meaning.

An ideologically-held monism, likewise, wherein oneness is a devotional concept, might encourage a sort of existential appropriation of the maxims that its followers adhere to; pursuing an "All that is is one only" concept would lead to pursuing a lifestyle in which all content and distinction could disappear, in favor of a closer alignment (or congruence to) the Enlightened.
posted by a good beginning at 3:48 PM on May 4, 2016

Thanks for the comments so far! These ideas are intriguing!

W.r.t. it being a universal or not, for shamans or medicinal witch-doctors specifically, there are the rousalii of Romania, the apprentice sorcerers of the Jivaro*, the apprentice shamans of the Yanamomo*, the Warao have food taboos on religious practitioners*, the kay of the Canela*, the tale of Kamairaho of the GuaranĂ­*, the medicine-men of the Arunta*, the medicine-men of the Ulithi*, the sorcerers of the Yap*, and the sikerei (shamans/medicine-men) of the Mentawai people. At least in small-scale societies with healer-trance traditions, it seems self-denial is prominent, often for initiates but also throughout the life course.

Everything with an asterisk is on the Human Relations Area Files (if you search for documents that have the tags that are something like TABOOS and MEDICINE-MEN).

For Moses, I had in mind having been very thirsty and then being on Mount Horeb and talking to God. And for Jews what about the Kohanim? I recall them being taboo'd from touching dead bodies and having sex with virgins (which are admittedly not very self-denial-ey...).
posted by mrmanvir at 4:00 PM on May 4, 2016

Buddhism was actually a reaction to ascetic Hinduism and officially is on the books as teaching neither asceticism or hedonism but rather a middle way between those two extremes.

Zen Buddhist priests can and do marry, but I think the main thing about people dedicating their lives to a highly contemplative, rigorous religious practice is that they just make crappy boyfriends/girlfriends. It's not so much about the sex as about the logistics, I think.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:03 PM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Maybe we ought to distinguish between asceticism imposed by rule books on clergy, etc, and the periods of trial and denial that seem common to founders of some religions.

In the latter case, it seems very much like a self-imposed rite of passage, entered into with the expectation that it will be finite in duration and will produce, one way or another, results. I.e., the world I perceive around me, including my own physical existence, has failed to give me the answers I want. At best, that world is a distraction. So, I will find a way to push it aside as much as possible, and listen for an answer.

Both wandering in a desert and sitting under a tree trying to starve yourself seem to fit that. But, i don't think Jesus or Buddha were all that ascetic after they began their preaching.

(Of course, it all might be backstory filled in later by publicists.)
posted by justcorbly at 4:03 PM on May 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is just my take, but I have researched and read a lot about this topic, spent time with some of these tribes, and undergone some of these rituals myself.

A lot of tribal societies have difficult and / or painful rituals children had to undergo to become fully adults or be seen as part of the tribe. Hardship, self-denial, and deprivation focus the mind like no other experience -- it changes you in deep ways. This is also the case for being inducted into higher levels of spiritual engagement (the vision quest, things like the Sundance, etc). The way you come through the trial sets you on your path to become a healer or shaman. Some tribes consider that you can only become a healing shaman if you have healed yourself of some serious physical or mental illness.

You enter a completely different state of consciousness when you undergo these trials. Often you are riding a very thin line between life and death. It's a deeply spiritual experience, whether you want it to be or not, but especially if that's your goal.
posted by ananci at 4:20 PM on May 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

The idea is that to concentrate and focus on spiritual matters, you have to let go of your dependence/attachment to material things and physical hungers. If you're going to prioritize the spiritual world, you must separate yourself from dependence on the physical world.
posted by deanc at 4:30 PM on May 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

I agree with deanc.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:10 PM on May 4, 2016

It's less about having to forego the pleasures of the world than that those pleasures become less attractive in light of, or in proportion to, one's interest in spiritual pursuits. As soren lorensen points out above, asceticism can become its own form of attachment and thus becomes a problem in its own right.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:37 PM on May 4, 2016

The excellent book Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul, covers much of this territory, though as obvious from the title it's more about trials than asceticism.

A very bad summary of the book's thesis would be: Pain dismantles the self. Therefore by deliberately accepting pain the self can be reconstructed under controlled conditions. In religious practices the pain is used to reconstruct the self with devotion to God at the centre. (This is an overly-superficial summary of a remarkably dense and profound book which I really can't over-recommend. It totally covers psychology, cognitive science, anthro, religious studies, sociology, philosophy and more)
posted by coleboptera at 5:50 PM on May 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

FWIW Kohanim restriction is actually that they cannot touch or be associated with dead bodies and cannot marry women who have previously been married or are converts. I think it is not quite right to conflate this with the concept of asceticism -- it is really about maintaining ritual "purity" which is kind of a different concept. [As an aside, *all* Orthodox Jews have tons and tons of restrictions on daily life, much bigger than the Kohanim restrictions, and following those restrictions does not make them especially holy in the content of their own society, they are just a requirement for being a member of that society and religious group.]

If you're asking for personal theories, I also think there's an element of making the experience costly not just to signal co-operative intent or trustworthiness, but to gain respect from others by demonstrating dedication.
posted by phoenixy at 1:42 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with deanc too.

It's because those things are distracting and keep you controlled by the desires of the body. When you know your hunger can be 'fed' then that hunger keeps increasing. It's just a matter of distraction. If you are 'aware' of how you operate then you'll come to learn that this hunger can never be satisfied, so you will try to remove every sort of hunger that is not necessary.

It is also possible that these people are all 'extremes' of character ('all or nothing' people) so they cannot do things in moderation (including the enjoyment of food, sex etc.) therefore they need to basically go cold turkey.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:25 AM on May 5, 2016

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