Op-ed / Debate

The Long Path to Enlightenment

The ancient Indian ascetic practice of detachment from worldly goods looks a little like modern simplicity—but appearances can be deceiving.
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This article contributes to the debate, “Why We Yearn for the Simple Life

A common Indian folk tale tells the story of a forest-dwelling hermit who had neither possessions nor troubles, except that a mouse was nibbling away at his loincloth. He bought a cat to keep the mouse away, then a cow to provide milk for the cat. He then hired a man to collect fodder for the cow. Feeling lonely, the man brought his family to live in the forest with him. The process continued until one day the hermit found himself married and living in a house. The hermit’s singular attachment to his loincloth led to a cascade of other attachments and desires that brought with them a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows.

Simple living has been a pursuit and topic of contemplation for over two millennia. According to monastic traditions that originated in India—including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism—the path to enlightenment involves detachment from worldly goods and burdens. Buddha himself was a prince who had every material luxury at his disposal, and he walked away from it all for a life of renunciation. As the folk tale warns, this is a difficult thing to achieve; even hermits and monks are at risk of being pulled back into the world of stuff.

American experiments in simple living have a relatively long history too, from historic Shaker and Amish communities to today’s tiny house movement and off-the-grid living. These have generally been a response to the industrialization and consumerism that are an integral part of capitalism, and to the resulting assault on human dignity and the natural world. Today, people simplify their lives in order to become more self-sufficient, to manage their lives better and reduce stress, and to increase their quality of life and become more environmentally sustainable. Their lifestyle shifts help them find more time to pursue passions and meaningful relationships. Simplicity has come to be understood as a path to happiness.

At first glance, this modern pursuit of simplicity looks very similar to that of a Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain monk. But they are fundamentally different. Ascetics are focused on overcoming desire and attachment; they believe that a life built on a desire for wealth, objects, food, sex, children, fame, and other ephemeral things will result in pain and suffering. For them, detachment from things is not a goal but a byproduct of detachment from one’s ego and social identity.

Moderns, whether American or Indian, seek simplicity to gain control over their lives. Monks renounce such control. Moderns simplify their lives in pursuit of self-sufficiency. Monks reject independence as illusory and surrender themselves to a higher reality.

The modern simplicity movement is not nearly as deep a re-examination of life as it purports to be. It may reduce a person’s ecological footprint, but it’s still very much rooted in ideas of American individualism: There are many possible living arrangements that can address economic scarcity or reduce our environmental impact, but the simplicity of a privately owned tiny house appeals to the deep-seated American longing for privacy and a place of one’s own—suburbia shrunk down.

If we are to reach a modern kind of enlightenment—a better, happier way of living—it will require a much more creative re-examination of our needs, habits, and lifestyles. There may be some answers in long-lived traditions that are still thriving today.

Meena Khandelwal is an anthropologist and feminist scholar who has conducted research on female Hindu renunciation in the northern Indian cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh. She is the author of Women in Ochre Robes and a co-editor of Women’s Renunciation in South Asia (with Sondra Hausner and Ann Grodzins Gold). She is currently studying migration, development, the environment, and efforts to improve biofuel cookstoves in India. Khandelwal received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and is currently associate professor of anthropology and of gender, women’s, and sexuality studies at the University of Iowa.


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