Our body is not ours to abuse by arbitrary austerity

We often think of ourselves as our body or at least think of the body as ours. When we get spiritual knowledge, we understand that we are souls, parts of God, and that our body is a vehicle meant to be used for furthering our spiritual growth. One well-known implication of this vehicular understanding of the body is that we shouldn’t abuse it by arbitrary indulgence. Another less-discussed implication is that we shouldn’t torment it through arbitrary austerity either.

Austerity can be a potent practice, provided it is practiced under scriptural guidance for fulfilling life’s ultimate purpose: spiritual evolution towards love of God. The Bhagavad-gita (17.05-06) reproaches those who abuse their body by doing austerity for egoistic purposes. Such people may want to show the world how self-controlled they are – they have no spiritual purpose.

Usually, our self-centeredness impels us to pander to the body, but sometimes it may impel us to deprive the body. Srimad-Bhagavatam describes the demon Hiranyakashipu who performed phenomenal austerities for the demonic purpose of destroying God. Such austerity is in the mode of ignorance, for it ignores life’s purpose: spiritual evolution. Hiranyakashipu’s austerity was not for devotion to God, but for destruction of God.

The essence of the demonic mentality is not just sensual indulgence; it is malevolent defiance of God. That defiance usually manifests as indiscriminate indulgence, but it can occasionally manifest as indiscriminate abstinence too.

By regular Gita study, when love for God becomes our life’s driving purpose, we can incorporate healthily into our life various practices for inner growth such as austerity. The Gita also recommends bhakti-yoga as the time-honored process for spiritual evolution. When we get a taste for transcendental joy through regular bhakti-yoga practice, we outgrow the craving for mundane pleasure, be it through physical indulgence or through egoistic abstinence.

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Think it over:

What is the body meant for?

What is the essence of the demonic mentality?

Was your performance of austerity ever motivated more by ego than by devotion?

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