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“Faking Asceticism: East and West” Panel at the XXI IAHR World Congress 2015 in Erfurt

Aug 25, 2015 | 09:00 AM - 11:00 AM

The XXI IAHR World Congress 2015 in Erfurt will feature an exploratory panel on a largely ignored aspect of the history of asceticism, namely the intense debates around what constitutes “true asceticism” and what “false asceticism,” what distinguishes the “simulant” and “fake” from the “authentic” and “sincere.” The panel was initiated by Prof. Dr. Almut-Barbara Renger and Dr. Tudor Sala (Institut für Religionswissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin). Prof. Renger is head of the C02 research project (“Asceticism in Motion: Forms and Transfer of Habitualized Knowledge in Antiquity and Late Antiquity”) of the Collaborative Research Center SFB 980 “Episteme in Motion” and Dr. Sala is COFUND Fellow in the Excellence Cluster TOPOI (B-5, “Personal Authorisation of Knowledge”).

The conveners have succeeded in drawing to this panel leading experts in the regional and comparative study of asceticism in western and eastern religions, who will explore the question of “fake asceticism” in late antique Christian monasticism, medieval Japanese Buddhism, and the yogic asceticism of the Aghorī in India. (For titles and abstracts, see program below.) Papers, panelists, and audience will profit from the insights of the world-expert on comparative asceticism, Prof. Dr. Oliver Freiberger (Department of Asian Studies, University of Texas at Austin), who will act as a respondent.


XXI. IAHR World Congress 2015 in Erfurt

Faking Asceticism: East and West

25-118 | TUESDAY August 25, 9 A.M. | 115


Project Abstract:

The ancient world was a culture of suspicion. The individual, whether stranger, neighbor, or kin, was under constant scrutiny in a face-to-face society in which rivalry, competition, and misgivings nagged at the surface of the self. The circumstance of being world-renouncers would not have placed ascetics in the blind spot of public mistrust. The performative, elitist, and counter-cultural aspects of ancient asceticism actually exposed it to a heightened scrutiny from outsiders, critics, and rivals alike. The papers of the panel thematize practices and polemics that constructed ‘ascetic deceit’ in Mediterranean and Asian cultures, with a special focus on the processes of institutionalization, innovation, and change that initiated or framed the various normative dichotomies of ‘genuine’ versus ‘fake’ ascetics, and ‘true’ versus ‘false’ asceticisms


Paper Abstracts:

Jun.-Prof. Dr. Blossom Stefaniw (Theology, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz)

Fake Men and Real Ascetics: Masculinity and the Passions in Palladius’ Lausiac History

In the "Historia Lausiaca," Palladius recounts tales of monks estranged from their genitals. Pachon is so distressed by sexual desire that he attempts to force a snake to bite his penis, Stephanos continues weaving while a doctor removes his cancerous genitalia, Heron's organs rot and fall off, and Elias is relieved of sexual feeling when held down by angels and castrated. Why such explicit talk about catastrophic organs? This paper will show that Palladius is arguing toward an ideal of true masculinity as apatheia, construed on a spectrum between suffering and repose, and for the validity of evagrian bodies as locations of true asceticism to a eunuch in the imperial court, thus attaching the religious capital of the desert to new locations as intimate as the empty space between the legs of the chamberlain, and as public as the forbearance of the emperor in a period of ascetic controversy.


Prof. Dr. Christoph Kleine (Religious Studies, Universität Leipzig)

The “transferal of precepts” (jukai) in medieval Japanese Buddhism as symbolic asceticism

Being an ethical and a soteriological religion, Buddhism links liberation to a methodic regimentation of one's conduct of life, necessarily implying the renunciation of the fulfillment of basic human needs – i.e. “asceticism” in a broad sense. The methodic regimentation of one's conduct of life and the rationalization of a specific religious lifestyle is primarily grounded in codified behavioral norms for various status groups which become compulsory as soon as an individual receives them in a ritual called “transferal/reception of the precepts” (Jap. jukai). On the basis of various source materials from the Kamakura period (1185–1333) I will test the hypothesis that in medieval Japan this ritual did not actually signify the taking up and pursuit of an ascetic life but rather the transferal of a specific charisma that was supposed to purify the recipient of his sins and endow him with the same stock of virtue he would have gained by leading a moral life as an ascetic renouncer.


Dr. Christof Zotter (Indology, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg)

Who is a „true“Aghorī?

In India, the notion of the “fake” ascetic is probably as old as the idea of asceticism as a legitimate way to salvation. In order to indicate the range of arguments that can support such an accusation and imply different understandings of what a “real” ascetic is or should be the paper will concentrate on the example of the “Aghorī ascetics”. While in the colonial accounts these cremation ground dwellers are customarily accused of being imitators lacking any theological background or mere imposters who took the robe of an ascetic to extract money from the timid folk, modern scholars have explained the Aghorīs’ extreme practices as coherently fitting the logic of yogic asceticism. Furthermore, it will be shown that followers of the tradition have yet other ways to define who is a “true” Aghorī and who is a “fake” one.