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The first monks: before 600 BC

Hinduism, the earliest among the world's great religions, is also probably the first to involve a form of monasticism. The rejection of worldly goods and desires, central to the Hindu concept of holiness, inclines devotees to conditions of poverty - among them the life of a hermit. There is evidence that before about 600 BC some Hindu hermits live in groups descibed as ashramas.

But they remain a collection of solitary holy men rather than a community of monks. They do not seem to have accepted any form of communal rule.

Jain monks: from the 6th century BC

The change from hermit to monk comes with the emergence, from within Hinduism, of the stricter Jainists. The followers of Mahavira in the 6th century BC are organized in strict orders of monks and nuns, devoting themselves to reducing the spiritual burden of karma while their few physical needs are looked after by lay members of the community.

The same natural progression later occurs among Christian hermits living far from civilization in the deserts of Egypt.

Buddhist monks: from the 6th century BC

In no religion have monks played such a central part as in Buddhism. Leading his followers into holiness a generation after Mahavira, Buddha also organizes them into communities. But his own glimpse of the divine truth specifically excludes the extreme asceticism of the Jains.

The order of Buddhist monks, known collectively as Sangha, is much involved in the world. Monks circulate in society preaching, teaching, collecting their daily food in their begging bowls, soliciting alms for the monastery. They involve the lay public rather than keeping it at arm's length, with the result that monks have played a prominent part in all Buddhist societies.

One result of such involvement in everyday life is that Buddhist monasteries, as opposed to individual monks, have tended to become increasingly rich and influential. This has often led to hostility and persecution, most notably with Buddhists in China.

The close interconnection between monks and the community survives today in southeast Asia. In Burma, Cambodia and Thailand it is customary for boys and young men to lead the life of a monk for at least several months, receiving religious instruction and discovering the perspective of poverty.

The Essenes: 2nd - 1st century BC

In the Jewish and Christian tradition Elijah and Elisha are inspiring examples of godly hermits, and Judaism provides the earliest known order of monks in the Middle East - the Essenes. It is likely that they first opt out of Jewish society in the 2nd century BC in protest against a secular leader, Simon Maccabaeus, becoming the high priest in the Temple.

The Essenes live a closely regulated monastic life. The brothers meet at dawn for prayers, then work at practical tasks throughout the day except for two meals, at midday and in the evening, which are eaten together in silence. On the Sabbath manual work is replaced by prayer, meditation and study of the Torah.

After 63 BC there is more than the rule of the Maccabees to fuel Essene disgust at the condition of the world. Judaea is under Roman rule, and the Essenes begin to place renewed faith in an old dream - the arrival of the Messiah. He is no longer to be a temporal ruler from the house of David, bringing in a superior form of government. By now he has become an apocalyptic figure, who will destroy this wicked world and lead the elect into a better one. The Essenes are not the only desert hermits with this in mind. John the Baptist is their contemporary.

A great deal is known about one community of Essenes from the survival at Qumran of their holy texts and documents - the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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