Intentional Asceticism

by | Sep 15, 2023

My long-standing friend and publisher of several books Piyush Kumar sent me a copy of Lifespan, a book by David Sinclair, regarding the science behind aging, during my stay at AIIMS, New Delhi. Dr. Sinclair (b. 1969) is an is an Australian-American biologist and a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. The book declares aging as a disease and proclaims that it can be treated. This sounds hoary, but the description of aging as the root of all other diseases was an eye-opener. 

The book is rooted in science. Written for general readers in a storytelling mode, it first describes life as information (DNA) that evolved over the earth in different life forms before human beings arrived and then passed on to us by our ancestors. So, each one of us carries within us intelligence that is 3.7 billion old, when life developed on earth that was formed 4.5 billion years ago. Some apelike creatures in Africa began to walk habitually on two legs some 5 million years ago and evolved into large-brain modern human beings some 12,000 years ago. 

Now this intelligence, stored in our DNA, that we have received from our parents, contains the secrets of how life survived all along. Though the general impression is that the human genome is fully decoded, and we have some 25,000 functional genes, that make our bodies, the reality is that of the 3 billion base pairs of our DNA, less than 2 percent codes proteins and the rest — 98.5 percent of DNA sequences – remain unexpressed throughout our life span, or so the scientist believes. 

Dr. Sinclair postulates in the book “The Information Theory of Aging,” a concept that aging happens at the DNA level. This theory, like a tripod, stands on three legs: (1) Aging is caused by a loss of information in the DNA;  (2) The environment around genes decides to switch off/on genes; and (3) Loss of information happens by loss of repetitive DNA sequences at the end of a chromosome, called Telomere every time a cell is copied and is one of the main causes of aging, and it may be delayed and even repaired.

The unexpressed genome, which is most of it, carries survival circuits embedded. How our ancestors survived without food, when they were chased by wild animals, and unprotected under severe heat and old. So, Dr. Sinclair argues, what if we relive those situations – by intermittent fasting, exercising – running even if no animal is chasing you, and having cold/ hot water baths – to activate the survival circuit?

It makes perfect sense, and even if I ignore the most recent scientific discoveries, fasting is a tradition found in every major religion in the world, along with extreme physical exertion on undertaking strenuous pilgrimages and ritual baths – both in hot springs and ice-cold mountain rivers. These practices kept our ancestors healthy for the duration of their lives, which were between 30 and 40 years. Shankaracharya lived for 31, Swami Vivekananda lived for 39 years, and both of them traversed India on foot and worked tirelessly to their very last day. Dr. Kalam lived for 84 years and died giving a lecture at IIM, Shillong, in front of a packed auditorium. 

In a typically American way, the book subtly promotes supplements and medicines for reversing aging, and when you browse through the Internet all major remedies mentioned in the book – Sirtuins activators, NAD Boosters, Rapamycin – are already being sold online, as natural products and food supplements. But the point I am drawing here is to return to a simple life, a simple diet, doing some manual labour every day, sleeping for eight hours, and a few minutes of meditation. These are the surest ways to improve the internal environment around genes.

A sedentary life style of eating and  sitting is a sure way of getting in to health related issues. Human bodies are have evolved to do physical labour. The Greek term askesis, which means to exercise, practice, and train, is the source of the English word asceticism. It was initially used to refer to sports, but over time the term came to mean systematic and rigorous training of the will, the mind, and the soul in order to achieve a more virtuous existence or a better spiritual state. A spiritual seeker, or Tapasvi, is essentially an ascetic in the Vedic society.

देवद्विज्गुरुप्रज्ञपूजनं शौचमार्जवम्। 

ब्रह्मचर्यमहिंसा शरीरं तप उच्यते॥

Worship of gods, saints, teachers, and wise men; purity, simplicity, celibacy, and non-violence are called austerities of the body. (Gita 17.14).

Fundamentally, asceticism is a self-discipline and self-denial program that is voluntary, prolonged, and at least partially systematic, in which one forgoes immediate, sensuous, or profane gratifications in order to achieve a better spiritual condition or a more profound absorption in the sacred. I have seen Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam an embodiment of this intentional asceticism. He will stay away from all indulgences and think several times even before changing his shoes or buying a new pair of socks. He entered the President’s House in 2002 with two suitcases as his personal luggage and checked out 5 years later with the same two suitcases. 

Asceticism is characterized by fasting, celibacy, poverty, seclusion, and even discomfort like sleeping on the floor. But there is also “inner asceticism,” which is harder to explain but even more important. Such asceticism involves staying away from wants and entanglement with sensory objects and staying away from the vanity fair of the world like awards and felicitations. The yoga system is distinctive because it combines both outward and inside asceticism.

Asceticism has a positive effect on a person’s willpower. It takes years of consistent practice to master.  As you continue to practice, stronger spiritual abilities begin to emerge. What was originally referred to as the hostile effects of the demons were nothing more than ingrained memories from our DNA that were manifesting in the present. Because doing so is impossible, these cannot be suppressed. Allow them to come as ideas and emotions, but resist acting on them with your willpower.

The purity of body and mind is very beneficial. Daily bathing, fresh clothing, moderate consumption of fresh food, and avoidance of pointless thoughts are all prerequisites for purity. No one would pour something into a dirty cup, and the same is true of a heart full of animosity. Whatever term is used, the best cure is to keep calling out God’s name. If you continue to live in this manner for a few weeks, you will experience communion with the supernatural, or reality that lies outside the realm of the senses and the mind.

So why not begin by fasting one day every two weeks, if not more frequently?  Join the ongoing and well-established Ekadashi Vrat tradition of fasting on the eleventh lunar day of a waning or waxing moon. Eat only home-cooked meals, avoid using the fridge and microwave, say no to all sweets including confectioneries and cool drinks, and drink as much water as possible! The goal is to be healthy until the very end, not to live longer! Die at work, surrounded by loved ones, not in a hospital bed being watched over by masked strangers. The decisions you make today, not just a desire or a prayer, will determine it.

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18 Comments

  1. Thank you for a very useful blog, as usual. At its root, asceticism is cutting to the fundamentals: a life by consuming bare minimum and doing what’s most important and valuable to you. To live simply, we must first focus on our values and the aspects of our life that are vital to our existence. In my opinion, living a simple life means living a life most fulfilling to you because you are investing your time and energy into things that matter the most.

    The intention arises from the awareness of what’s most important to you, investing your time in meaningful things, giving your energy to things that matter, differentiate facts from hypotheses and leave space to do nothing and practicing gratitude for every little blessing. But perhaps the most important is to become aware of what’s most important to you. Do you know the parts of your life that you will not abandon no matter what happens? How connected are you to yourself? It is essential to keep revisiting the values that are truest to you.

  2. Your inimitable style of making complex concept to understand in simple way is outstanding, Prof Tiwariji!

    Your message on the decisions to be taken today go a long way in experiencing reality that lies outside body and mind!!

  3. Very well written Sir. Thankfully you have not touched my evening glass of good whiskey.
    Scientists are wrecking their brains on how to reverse aging. But we humans always knew it in past and present. But is it not scary if we all just stay alive and dont relieve this earth of the burden that we are???

  4. Sir, The single most important attribute to becoming successful is self-discipline. It helps one stay focused on reaching one’s goals and gives the gumption to stick with difficult tasks, allowing one to overcome obstacles and discomfort as we push ourselves to new heights. What exactly is self-discipline?

    Bhagvan Shri Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita (6. 5):

    उद्धरेदात्मनाऽऽत्मानं नात्मानमवसादयेत्।
    आत्मैव ह्यात्मनो बन्धुरात्मैव रिपुरात्मनः।।

    Save yourself by yourself, do not bring yourself down; Because you are your own friend, and you are your own enemy.
    Thank you, Sir, for making us realize these great truths of life.

  5. Thank you for giving us Asceticism 101.

    I always considered asceticism not for me, but you have shown how it is relevant to our lives. I am a regular reader of your blog, which you have been writing twice a month for the last 3 years. Simplicity/Minimalism and Mindfulness/Awareness have been your favorite themes.

    Intentional asceticism can offer an alternative perspective by encouraging simplicity and minimalism. By reducing material possessions and attachments, individuals can experience greater freedom from consumerism pressures, leading to a more meaningful life.

    By intentionally simplifying one’s life and reducing distractions, individuals can become more aware of their thoughts, emotions, and surroundings. This heightened awareness can lead to greater self-understanding and a deeper appreciation for life.

  6. There is always a desire to seek materialistic means of salvation through control of the body. Asceticism has not disappeared. For many people, contemporary forms of discipline are centred around things like keeping fit, including rigorous workouts, going to the gym and controlling one’s diet. Thank you for explaining asceticism as a way of life in which the material aspects are reduced to the utmost simplicity and minimum. There is no mysticism here, only pragmatism.

  7. Asceticism in Indian religions includes a spectrum of diverse practices, ranging from the mild self-discipline, self-imposed poverty, and simple living typical of Buddhism and Hinduism, to more severe austerities and self-mortification practices of monks in Jainism. But I am amazed to see the science behind it. The concept of setting in action “survival circuits” by physical exercise and fasting is eye-opening. No wonder that our parents’ generation lived healthier than ours. The plight of the present younger generation – the prevalence of obesity, hair loss, and early onset of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease – can be addressed by observing a weekly/ fortnightly fast and indulging in some physical work every day, if nothing else walking a mile. Thank you fRespected Sir, for enlightening us.

  8. Wonderful promotion of Ekadashi Vrat!

    Steve Jobs, the man behind Apple, was one of the most well-known ascetics of our time. His no-nonsense appearance became legendary. His outfit, which was essentially a black turtleneck, blue jeans, and sneakers, was suitable for any day and situation. He couldn’t have been sidetracked by his daily clothing choices if this hadn’t happened. I’ve read that the interior of his home was rather plain.

    Ingvar Kamprad, the creator of IKEA, referred to resource waste as a “mortal sin”. He tried to be sensible and economical both in his personal and professional lives. While travelling to developing nations, Kamprad took advantage of affordable haircuts in addition to buying at flea markets. He also drove the same automobile for about 20 years and took economy flights.

    These two contemporary world leaders serve as examples of how a healthy dose of asceticism can aid in developing adequate self-control. Asceticism can appear in the form of moderation in eating, sensible consumption, and a measured lifestyle. Of course, such a frugal way of life might not be advantageous to a system of exchange based purely on commodities. Even so, it unquestionably makes sense from both a personal and an environmental perspective.

  9. Thank you Sir, for another wonderful blog. Asceticism is the spiritual journey of a person who has disconnected from worldly affairs. But can ascetics really isolate themselves from the physical world they live in? Do they worry about world news and events in the outside world? If so, how do they combine asceticism and worldly concerns?

    Asceticism is a tight control over the mind, body, and feelings caused by the desire to get away from the overabundance of consumption. Ascetic practices are used for many purposes. For example, many religious traditions encourage the voluntary renunciation of habitual blessings at periodic or specific times in the religious calendar, usually to purify a person’s soul or prepare for a significant ritual event.

    Besides controlling food intake, asceticism also includes the development of moral qualities that require self-restraint and discipline, such as patience and forbearance. It is regarded as an important component of spiritual growth, which includes a wide range of practices aimed at identifying vices and cultivating virtue.

    And I must add Media asceticism – to control the flow of information we consume through digital channels. People can completely reject social networks or limit the time spent on them. Media asceticism also includes the filtering of news and the development of personal rules for consuming news. Thank you again for creating awareness about the right and beneficial things.

  10. The secret to long life is probably what our rishis termed- alpahar.

    To survive with low amounts of food one has to take the ‘right’ foods. These right foods by their very nature do not incite hunger storms. Why? Because good gut bacteria are promoted! The latter produces all the necessary vitamins and a whole series of nutrients that may well be absent in the food and these promote satiety.

    Modern industrial food has largely destroyed this paradigm.

  11. Beautifully put.

    As Richard Finn describes asceticism as a journey towards spiritual transformation with three premises: (i) the simple is sufficient; (ii) the bliss is within, and (iii) the frugal is plenty.

    What’s enchanting is that Ascetics hardly want anything from the world and deny the pleasure of flesh to self-renounce themselves as a way to soul-consciousness.

    Divine!!!

  12. Thank you, Arun Ji. As usual, you are able to see science in a very simple way…

  13. GEMS:
    “1)return to a simple life, a simple diet, doing some manual labour every day, sleeping for eight hours, and a few minutes of meditation.
    2)Asceticism involves staying away from wants and entanglement with sensory objects and staying away from the vanity fair of the world like awards and felicitations. The yoga system is distinctive for it.
    3) Asceticism has a positive effect on a person’s willpower.
    4) The purity of body and mind is very beneficial. Daily bathing, fresh clothing, moderate consumption of fresh food, and avoidance of pointless thoughts are all prerequisites for purity.
    5) the best cure is to keep calling out God’s name.
    6) Join the ongoing and well-established Ekadashi Vrat tradition of fasting on the eleventh lunar day of a waning or waxing moon. Eat only home-cooked meals, avoid using the fridge and microwave, say no to all sweets including confectioneries and cool drinks, and drink as much water as possible! The goal is to be healthy until the very end.”

    GREAT LEARNING FROM BLOG SIRJI

  14. Dear Sir, Yes, you are right, the purity of mind and body is very necessary to live a healthy and fruitful life. It is been 8 years since I have been completely fasting each Thursday, avoiding taking any food, however, sometimes milk and plenty of water for only the whole day. Now, I am observing that my body system gets off on Thursday morning and does not demand anything to take inside, peace of mind and lightness in the body I feel. Even after constant work from home during this COVID-19 period, I managed to maintain my weight, I feel this is due to fasting.
    Sometimes, I feel its spiritual effects as well, where I can notice nature’s sign when something is going to happen, both right and wrong. I don’t know but my body starts giving me some indications, I am still learning to understand the science behind this. Warm Regards.

  15. Very nicely explained the habits of taking fresh food in daily diet & one day fast & some light exercise to avoid ageing

  16. Dr Arun Ji, Thank you, for sharing wonderful eye opening blog on diet from you.

    Personally I know Dr Sinclair and we were often having lab meetings together when I was in Harvard. He is celebrity scientist in Harvard.

    Based on Sirtuins activators, he started a company called Sirtris and later acquired by GSK for a ~750 million dollars.

    Within Harvard, not many people believed him. As always, coin has two sides, as he does, both friends and enemies or haters.

    Once again thank Prof Arun Ji for sharing your insights on asceticism and/or healthy living in general.

  17. ‘Eat only home-cooked meals, avoid using the fridge and microwave, say no to all sweets including confectioneries and cool drinks, and drink as much water as possible! The goal is to be healthy until the very end, not to live longer! Die at work, surrounded by loved ones, not in a hospital bed being watched over by masked strangers. The decisions you make today, not just a desire or a prayer, will determine it’

    Could not have described it better my friend, we all need healthy lives!

    May The Lord Jesus the great physician give us such lives by His grace.

  18. Dear Prof. Thank you for sharing your insights on asceticism and/or healthy living in general.
    I am a convert to intentional abstinence from unhealthy eating and drinking habits.

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