Monasticism and the monastics that this tradition has produced have been considered one of the greatest assets of human civilisation. Society has mostly revered this segment of the human population. The main reason for this reverence is the basic feature of monasticism: renunciation. It is quite difficult to live a life of true renunciation. And it is this difficulty that attracts respect from society. Though some faith-traditions or religions do not encourage monasticism, many major world religions celebrate it. The numerous monastic traditions across world religions have a rich and glorious history of saints and spiritual luminaries, who apart from having brought spiritual and psychological solace to countless lives, also made discoveries and inventions of science, and pioneered trends in philosophy, music, and culture.
Monasticism has also been criticised by many religious traditions for many centuries now. Such critique was the result of some serious thinking, which might not be accepted by many people. However, in recent times, we humans tend to ridicule every traditional and cultural institution just for the sake of ridiculing and putting them down. The monastic tradition has also suffered the same fate in the hands of people who become know-itall just by browsing the Internet and do not care to understand the subtleties and nuances of any thought. It has almost become a fashion nowadays to ridicule monastics. Faced with a dearth of content, the electronic media is too glib in showing down the monastic tradition. Let us analyse some of the major objections against monasticism.
Monastic life is a war against the inner tendencies
within and temptations without.
The first and the major objection that is raised against monasticism is that it is an easy escape from the trials of life. This objection comes from not understanding the nature of monastic life, to say the least. Monastic life, contrary to what many would like to believe, is not a life of eating, drinking, and making merry. As the Upanishads put it and as Somerset Maugham phrased it, it is a life of walking on the ‘razor’s edge’. It is a constant struggle with the mind and sense organs. Monastic life is a war against the inner tendencies within and a war against temptations without. A monastic life is a life centred in God. A monastic has to be independent of all bondage and completely dependent on God. It is an attempt to experience God, who is the substratum of the universe. It is easier to live a worldly life and face its trials with the hope of pleasures than to abnegate one’s ego by surrendering it to God.
What about some monastics who are concerned only with the pleasures of the world? Just as, if some people fail in a highly competitive examination, we do not blame the quality of the examination itself but we understand that those who failed were not up to the mark, similarly when some do not succeed in living up to the high standards of monastic life, we should not blame monasticism itself, but understand that those who failed could not keep up to the ideal.
The second objection to monasticism is that by becoming a monastic, one shuns one’s duty towards one’s parents. Here again, one should properly understand why someone becomes a monastic. If one becomes a monastic to cheat others, one ends up cheating oneself, and that kind of renunciation could not be called renunciation proper but could only be termed ‘monkey renunciation’, which would pull the person to the world sooner or later. One takes to the monastic life only because one finds more joy in God than in the world. Thus, renunciation is the natural giving up of something lower when one gets something higher. Monasticism is a higher calling, higher than the call for serving a nation or a community, the kind of call soldiers get. Therefore, just as soldiers often have to go to distant borders, far away from their parents, for the sake of their country, monastics also have to dive deep into the depths of their inner worlds for finding God. Monasticism is an offering to God by the parents and the monastic much as becoming a soldier is a sacrifice unto the country by the soldier and the parents.
The third and one of the common objections to monasticism is that if all were to become monks what would happen to the institution of marriage and how would the human species procreate. This objection is based on the logical fallacy of generalising a minority in the context of the entire population. It is like objecting to the profession of medicine by saying that if everyone was to become a doctor, who would become an engineer. This reasoning overlooks the obvious fact that all will never become monks and every one will never become a doctor. There are as many perspectives of and choices in life as there are human beings on this planet. Just because some people make a particular choice does not mean that everyone will make the same choice. Hence, it is illogical and unreasonable to say that monasticism goes against the institution of marriage. On the contrary, it could be easily argued that monasticism, which includes abstinence from procreation, is required to uphold the value and dignity of human procreation.
The fourth objection to monasticism that we would see here is that the monastic vocation is given a place above all other vocations. This objection would be found to be meaningless if we understand why society respects the monastic vocation. It is for the same reason why society respects learned or highly accomplished people. Because they have achieved something that is quite difficult, sometimes impossible, for the others. That is why people respect monastics because the very resolve to lead a monastic life is a great and daunting step. So, the respect that the monastic vocation gets is well-deserved. Some object that the monastic vocation is an imposition on the monastics and that they have to remain monastics all heir lives even if they do not want that. This is completely false. Every individual has the freedom to take to monastic life and leave it any time one wants. If someone does not exercise this choice due to fear of public criticism, that is not the fault of monasticism.
One of the important reasons for some people getting worked up on seeing a monastic or while talking about the monastic vocation is their inability to comprehend the reason why most monastics are happy and cheerful while those of the world have to constantly wade their way through the wrinkles of worry and stress. Thus, the worldly suspect that monastics are doing something terribly wrong for them to be happy. But, how can someone be happy in a sustained manner by doing something wrong? The reality is quite the opposite. The monastic vocation identifies the true cause of everything in this universe, rather the cause of the universe itself, to be God. Having thus understood the one truly responsible for everything, the monastic has no cares of the world and devotes one’s time in remembering and praying to God.