The practice of celibacy is commonly perceived as the essence of Brahmacharya, which entails refraining from engaging in sexual activities. However, Brahmacharya encompasses a broader connotation beyond celibacy alone. Furthermore, in India, it is regarded as the supreme path to lead one’s life. There exist numerous stringent regulations that individuals must adhere to throughout their lives. Nevertheless, a man devoted to his family and an ascetic possess distinct sets of principles guiding their conduct.
Let us delve into the depths of its meaning, definition, significance, interpretation, guidelines, related terminology, and the numerous benefits it offers across diverse scenarios.
Etymology and Origin
The term Brahmacharya in Sanskrit is formed by merging two words: Brahman and Carya. Brahman is derived from the root ‘Brh’ which signifies greatness or supremacy, while Carya is derived from the root ‘carati’ which denotes conduct. Hence, it signifies the supreme conduct.
Ancient Hindus divided the lifespan of men into four disciplines (Ashrama): Brahmacharya (student life), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired life), and Sanyasa (renounced life).
Brahmacharya Ashrama, which is one of the four stages of life, is primarily dedicated to education. Commencing at the age of twelve and continuing until the age of twenty-four, this stage entails the student’s residing at the Guru’s abode (monastery) to acquire a deep comprehension of scriptures, philosophy, logic, and self-discipline. During this period, he should perform moral duties and practice celibacy, righteousness, and other ethical guidelines as prescribed by the scriptures.
Nevertheless, celibacy stands as the utmost obligation for a student in this Ashrama. Due to the significant emphasis on celibacy within this Ashrama, the term Brahmacharya, originally denoting student life, came to be synonymous with celibacy. Thus, the term has acquired the meaning of celibacy. Similarly, in ancient times, a Brahmachari referred to a bachelor, but over time, it evolved to represent an individual who has committed to refrain from any sexual activities in actions, thoughts, and speech.
It is quite fascinating to observe that the term Ashrama, which originally denoted a phase of life, now signifies the location where disciples engage in their learning journey. Consequently, Ashrama has also evolved to represent a monastery where disciples undergo the process of acquiring knowledge and wisdom.
Let us look into some definitions of the term.
Darshana Upanishad 1.14 defines the term as “brahmabhāve manaścāraṃ brahmacaryaṃ parantapa.” It means ‘the constant application of the mind in the path of becoming Brahman is Brahmacharya.’
Shandilya Upanishad defines the term as “brahmacaryaṃ nāma sarvāvasthāsu manovākkāyakarmabhiḥ sarvatra maithunatyāgaḥ”. It means ‘the abstinence from all forms of the bodily union by the mind, speech, and body.‘
In the commentary of Chandogya Upanishad, Sri Sankara defines the term as ‘the renunciation of desire for women‘.
Types of Brahmachari
A Brahmachari is a person who undergoes Brahmacharya. Generally, there are two kinds of Brahmachari.
- Upakurvana Brahmachari
- Naishtika Brahmachari
Let us have a look at the kinds one by one.
If one opts to choose Grihastha Ashrama after Brahmacharya Ashrama, he is Upakurvana Brahmachari. Upakurvana Brahmachari maintains celibacy until his studies are over and Naishtika Brahmachari maintains celibacy for the whole of his life.
Subsequent upon the successful completion of Brahmacharya Ashrama at the age of twenty-five, if one chooses not to proceed conventionally to the Grihastha Ashrama and opts for continuing the life of an ascetic for the attainment of liberation by maintaining celibacy and living with his Guru, he is a Naishtika Brahmachari.
Brahmacharya Rules for a Naishtika Brahmachari
A Naishtika Brahmachari should take a resolve to maintain strict celibacy and should not give any room for carnal desires till his death. Also, he should not even see women aged 10 to 50. Likewise, he should undertake to live with his Guru until death. Moreover, he should maintain extreme control of his senses (Indirya Nigraha). In other words, He should keep all Sense organs namely the eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and body away from sensual pleasures.
According to Vasista Smriti, he should hand over all his Bikhsha (food procured as alms) to his Guru and then, he should eat only what his Guru gives. Also, he should never sleep on a cot. Likewise, he should not use perfumes.
Naishtika Brahmachari is otherwise known as Askalita Brahmachari. Skalitha means ‘that has slipped or escaped’. Askalita means ‘that has not slipped or escaped’. Therefore, a person who has not slipped in Brahmacharya is Askalita Brahmachari. The other interpretation is that Askalita Brahmachari is one whose sexual fluid has not slipped away from him.
The other name of Naishtika Brahmachari is Nitya Brahmachari. Nitya means permanent.
It is not a surprising fact that Lord Sri Krishna was a Nitya Brahmachari, though he kept himself in the company of Gopikas. In their earlier births, Gopikas were the devotees of the Lord. To fulfill the pious wishes of his devotees, the Lord allowed them to love and embrace. But his love for them is pure and transcendental. For Him, they are devotees and there is no question of any carnal desires in him. Moreover, Lord Krishna has never attached himself to the ethereal body.
Take the example of Sri Hanuman who is a Nitya Brahmachari. His tremendous strength and intellect are because of Brahmacharya.
If you have difficulty believing this, take the case of Swami Vivekananda who was also a Brahmachari. His strength of memory and wisdom were just the result of Celibacy.
In India, hundreds and hundreds of Yogis and Saints practiced celibacy and excelled in spirituality. Moreover, all religions of India invariably prescribe celibacy as their moral code of conduct.
But modern science has yet to understand the glory of celibacy.
Celibacy helps the yogi conserve sexual energy and diverts it for spiritual development. Moreover, It is the best instrument for spiritual progress. Also, It boosts the practice of Pranayama and Yoga.
Take the life of a founder of any religion like Sri Buddha, Sri Mahavira, Sri Jesus Christ, Sri Adi Sankara, Sri Ramanuja, and the like. What is the common thread that connects them? They are all celibates. Right? Understand their power of influence which is the outcome of the strength of Celibacy.
Mahatma Gandhi practiced celibacy in his later part of life. His influence on people and others was due to the power of Celibacy. Likewise, One could not ignore the influential power of speech delivered by Swami Vivekananda in the Parliament of World Religions.
At the physical level, there is no waste of energy. Also, his conservation of energy improves health and immunity. It fills the body with Ojas which is a form of energy that gives focus and vitality. Moreover, the vitality generated using Celibacy helps the yogi to reach the next level.
At the mental level, it improves focus and concentration. Likewise, Other benefits include good memory, courage, and emotional stability. Also, Negative mental tendencies like anger, passion, creed, worries, distractions, and irritability diminish and cease to exist. Besides, it improves confidence and willpower. Moreover, it generates internal peace and harmony. Hence, the intellect becomes sharper and more insightful.
The words are insufficient to express the glory of it. One should realize this to understand its glory. The vitality and wisdom will increase a million-fold.
Brahmacharya in Yoga
In Raja Yoga, celibacy is one of the five-fold Yama. Yama is the code of conduct or Self-discipline observed as a pre-condition for the progress in the path of yoga.
Verse 2.38 of Yoga Sutra of Patanjali says, “brahmacharya pratiṣṭhāyāṁ vīrya-lābhaḥ.” It means, “By the mastery of celibacy, one gains vitality.”
Swami Vivekananda when commenting on the above verse says, “The chaste brain has tremendous energy, gigantic willpower, without that there can be no mental strength. All men with gigantic brains are very continent. It gives wonderful control over humanity. Leaders of men have been very continent, and this is what gave them power. Therefore the yogi must be continent.”
Vyasa while commenting on the same verse says, “On attaining continence, one gains vitality. By the attainment, the yogi rises to perfection. Besides, he attains irrepressible qualities or powers. On becoming perfected, the yogi can infuse wisdom to his disciples.”
Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Verse 1.64 of Hatha Yoga Pradapika says,
“tathā hi ghorakṣha-vachanam
varjayeddurjana-prāntaṃ vahni-strī-pathi-sevanam prātaḥ-snānopavāsādi kāya-kleśa-vidhiṃ tathā“
It means, “Goraksha states that one should keep himself away from evil-minded, fire, women, traveling, early morning bath, fasting, and bodily strain.”
Besides, verses 2.88 to 91 state, “The yogi who protects the sexual fluid overcomes death. The preservation prolongs his life. The body of the yogi who preserves sexual fluid emits a pleasant smell. For him, there is no fear of death until the sexual fluid does not escape from his body. The sexual fluid is under the control of the mind. Life depends on the sexual fluid. Hence, one should protect sexual fluid and mind by all means.”
The choice of the type of celibacy depends on the goal of the yogi. If liberation is the goal of the yogi, Naishtika Brahmacharya is more suitable. For lesser goals, less vigorous celibacy or moderation is enough.
Samadhi happens only when the conserved sex energy reaches the Crown Chakra. In the case of sexual indulgence, precious energy is wasted. If the yogi conserves the energy, he can bring that up to higher centers. If the container has a big hole at the bottom, it can not be filled.
Modern Yoga and Celibacy
Modern Yoga misunderstands the concept of celibacy in Yoga. In other words, Modern yoga is nothing more than postural yoga. It is confined to yoga poses. It is not even a full-fledged hatha yoga stream. Celibacy is not a pre-condition for them. In essence, they could not advance beyond a certain point in the yogic path without celibacy.
Approaches to yoga have become narrower. Earlier people pursued the path of yoga for spiritual progress and liberation. Now people approach yoga for health, fitness, mental peace, or something like that. Hence, celibacy and other restraints are not relevant to modern yoga.
In ancient India, celibacy was the precondition for the student of any discipline. It was not limited to the study or practice of yoga alone. Now student life has changed drastically. Likewise, the approaches to yoga also change.
Brahmacharya in Ayurveda
According to Danvantri, sexual energy is the Self itself. The secret of health depends on the preservation of this vital energy. Therefore, those losing this vital energy cannot have physical, mental, or spiritual development.
In Ayurveda, Ahara (diet), Nitra (sleep), and Brahmacharya (continence) are called Trayostambh (three pillars) of health. They are the essential pillars that promote a healthy lifestyle. By Ahara, we can control both sleep and continence. The cognitive capacity of the brain is increased by the practice of the three.
The rules of Ayurveda prohibit sex until the age of twenty-five. It claims that the body is not fully functional at physical, psychological, and emotional levels. It is allowed only after the age of twenty-four, that too, not immediately after a meal. The frequency should be once a fortnight during summer and weekly thrice during other seasons.
Seminal fluid is the last Dhatu (humor) that is formed out of Majja (marrow). One drop of seminal fluid is made up of forty drops of blood. Hence, those who waste will have unsteady and agitated Prana which results in mood swings, memory loss, and emotional imbalance.
Sattvic food is good for maintaining Celibacy. Hence, one should avoid Rajasic and Tamasic foods. Fruits, milk, and ghee are good examples of Sattvic food. Also, one should avoid Non-vegetarian food.
Brahmacharya in Hinduism
According to Hinduism, no spiritual progress is possible without celibacy. Moreover, it is a must for attaining liberation.
Celibacy in Chandogya Upanishad
The fifth section of the eighth chapter of Chandogya Upanishad highlights the importance of celibacy.
Importance of Brahmacharya
Now, they call Sacrifice (Yajna) which is celibacy only; as it is only by the means of celibacy that the knower attains that. Besides, they call ‘worship’ which is only celibacy; as it is the only means of celibacy that the Self is attained. (verse 8.5.1).
They, now, call Sattrayana (Sacrificial session) which is only Celibacy; as it is only by employing celibacy that one attains Salvation from Being (Sat). Besides, they call Mouna (silence) which is only celibacy; as it is only through celibacy that one understands Self and then meditates. (Verse 8.5.2).
Also, they call Anāshakāyana (imperishable or eternal) which is only celibacy; as the Self that one attains using celibacy never perishes. Now, they call Aranyāyana (ocean path) which is only celibacy; as Ara and Nya are the two oceans in the region of Brahman which is in the third world (Manomaya Kosha or mental body) wherein the Airammadiya lake, the Banyan tree-Somasavana, Aparijita (invincible) city of Brahman, and the Golden (Hall) specially built by the Lord are located. (Verse 8.5.3).
The benefits of Celibacy
The region of Brahma belongs to those who attain the two oceans Ara and Nya using celibacy. For them, there is freedom of action in all regions. (Verse 8.5.4).
The oceans and regions do not have an external existence. Because they are located inside. Sri Shankara concludes that Ara, Nya, and other things connected with the region of Brahman are purely mental objects. They are not for those who are not firm in their celibacy. The Ocean of Ara is the ocean of nectar. The Banyan tree Somasavana is nectar nectar-dropping tree. The Aparajita region of Brahman is a region that cannot be conquered by persons other than with Celibacy.
Celibacy in Bhagavad Gita
praśhāntātmā vigata-bhīr brahmachāri-vrate sthitaḥ
manaḥ sanyamya mach-chitto yukta āsīta mat-paraḥ
It means, “with a tranquil, fearless, and steady mind combined with a firm resolve of celibacy, the watchful yogi should meditate on me, having me alone as the superior goal.”
Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6, Verse 14
In the next verse, he says, ‘Such a yogi of pure mind attains liberation and takes repose in me with supreme peace.’
yadakṣaraṃ vedavido vadanti
viśanti yadyatayo vītarāgāḥ ।
yadicchanto brahmacaryaṃ caranti
tatte padaṃ saṅgraheṇa pravakṣye
Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 8, Verse 11
It means, “that word which the scholars of Veda utter, desiring which great sages of renunciation practice celibacy, I shall explain that process in short.”
He continues in the next verse, “The process is that of detachment from all the sensual engagements. One establishes himself in that yoga by shutting all the doors of senses, fixing the mind in the heart, and placing Prana at the top of the head.”
Verses 3.37 to 3.41
Sri Krishna gives the details of the ill effects of lust. Lust is the immediate cause of frustrated desire. Anger arises from frustrated desire. Lust is the underlying cause of these. As fire is hidden in the smoke, as the mirror is hidden in dust, as the embryo is covered in the womb, likewise the universe is covered by different degrees of lust.
The knowledge of man is covered by his eternal enemy lust which cannot be satisfied and burns like a fire.
Lust takes abode in the senses, mind, and intellect. By doing so, it covers the real knowledge of a person and bewilders him.
Hence O Arjuna! Destroy this destroyer of knowledge and realization by regulating your senses.
Brahmacharya Rules as per Agni Purana
Agni Purana lists eight-fold activities of restriction for better mastery of celibacy. One should abstain from
- thinking of sexual activities and women
- talking about them
- making jokes about them
- imagining sexual activities
- even supporting someone interested in
- enticing someone interested in
- participating in such activities.
Celibacy in Srimad Bhagavatam
According to verses 5.5.12 & 13 of Srimad Bhagavatam, one should detach himself from his family and practice celibacy. Sex with one’s wife is accepted as celibacy as per scriptural injunctions. But illicit sex is against religious principles and it prevents the progress of spiritual consciousness.
Brahmacharya in Jainism
Continence is one of the five-fold moral precepts or great vows of Jainism. Moreover, it is compulsory for Jain ascetics. Also, it is one of the basic duties to be observed in Jain monasteries. Like Hinduism, celibacy in words, thoughts, and deeds should be observed. As far as a family man in Jainism, Brahmacharya is sexually loyal to his life partner.
According to Somadeva, the ten concomitants of sexual desire are wine, meat, gambling, music including songs and dances, bodily decoration, intoxication, libertines, and aimless wanderings.
In Upasakadasanga, five transgressions of the vow celibacy are given. They are
- A woman leading a disorderly life.
- A widow or harlot.
- The act of caressing sexual organs to influence desire.
- Having an excessive desire for sex drives even with one’s own wife.
- Arranging marriages of those who are not family members.
Brahmacharya in Buddhism
The noble eightfold path (Arya-Ashtanga-Marga) is the summary of Buddhist practices that lead to salvation from the vicious cycle of painful births and deaths. The eight-fold paths are given below.
- The right view
- Right resolve
- Right Speech
- The right conduct
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- The right-mindedness
- Right Samadhi
The fourth practice is right conduct which includes non-killing, non-stealing, celibacy, and absence of material desires.
Moreover, Practicing celibacy is one of the right conducts of the eight-fold paths of Theravada Buddhism. It is not only a prohibition on sexual misconduct. Also, it refers to “not performing sexual acts”.
One must abstain from all sexual misconducts including getting sexually involved with someone unmarried, someone married, someone betrothed to another person, and female convicts or someone prohibited by dhamma convictions. This is for lay Buddhists.
But for nuns and monks in monasteries, the insistence on strict celibacy is because sexual cravings and relations result in worldly attachment and become obstacles in the path of enlightenment.
Om Tat Sat!
- Ganganatha Jha, The Yoga Darsana – the translation of Vyasa Bhasya of Yoga-sutra of Patanjali, Rajaram Tukaram Tatya, 1907.
- Swami Vivekananda, Patanjali Yoga Sutras, https://www.pdfdrive.com/the-yoga-sutras-of-patanjali-by-swami-vivekananda-e17534288.html.
- Ganganatha Jha, Chandogya Upanishad with Sankara Bhasya (English), Oriental Book Agency, Poona, 1942.
- Dayanand Bhargava, Jaina Ethics, Motilal Banarsidass, 1968.
- Dada Bhagwan, Celibacy attained with understanding, Mahavidegh Foundation, 2005.