Renouncing India

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Jatinder Verma examines the growing tension in India between the ingrained religious way of life and the powerful modernised society around it, as he explores the role of the ascetic in modern Indian life and culture.

India has aspirations to become a new global superpower. The middle class is over 300 million strong and growing fast. But India still operates as a deeply structured traditional society, with rigid religious codes and a caste system underpinning all aspects of life, especially in rural areas.

Jatinder Verma considers the impact of the ascetic on Indian mainstream life and politics and asks whether it can survive the profound economic transformation that is taking place in India at present.

According to traditional scriptures, the ideal life in India should be lived in defined stages. Between the ages of 12-25 you are a student, between 25-50 you should be a householder, from 50-75 you take the role of an elder, and from 75 you are encouraged to become an ascetic - totally renouncing the world and its possessions to live beyond the normal rules of society.

"Renouncing India" describes the lives of ascetics in India including the more extreme younger religious dropouts. It contrasts religious culture in one of the most globalised cities in India, Delhi, with life in one of India's most religious cities, Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges. What does such a spectacularly radical tradition, where men and women give up their homes and families to undergo severe penance, say about the nature of Indian modernity?