Brahmacharya is commonly understood as Celibacy which means non-indulgence in sexual activity. But the term Brahmacharya means more than that.
Let us have a look at its meaning, definition, related terms, and its usage in different contexts.
Etymology and Origin
The Sanskrit word Brahmacharya is the combination of two words: Brahman and Carya. The word Brahman is from the root ‘Brh‘ which means great or supreme; Carya is from the root ‘carati’ which means conduct. Hence Brahmacharya means 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 is the stage of life meant for education. This stage extends up to the age of twenty-four. The student typically goes to the place of Guru (monastery) for acquiring the knowledge 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.
The supreme duty of a student in Brahmacharya Ashrama is celibacy. Because of the importance of Celibacy in Brahmacharya Ashrama, both words are being used interchangeably. Later, the word Brahmacharya has been used to mean Celibacy.
It is evident that the word Brahmachari was earlier used to denote a Bachelor. Now, it denotes a person who has taken a resolve to abstain from all sexual activities in deeds, thoughts, and words.
It is very interesting to note that the word Ashrama, the literal meaning of which is a stage of life, indicates the place of the stage of life where disciple-hood takes place. This is how Ashrama also came to mean a monastery where disciples are undergoing the learning process.
Darshana Upanishad 1.14 defines Brahmacharya as brahmabhāve manaścāraṃ brahmacaryaṃ parantapa. It means the constant application of the mind in the path of becoming Brahman is Brahmacharya.’
Shandilya Upanishad defines Brahmacharya 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 Brahmacharya 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 into 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.
After successfully completing 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.
Rules for a Naishtika Brahmachari
A Naishtika Brahmachari should take resolve to maintain strict celibacy and should not give any room for carnal desires till his death. He should not even see women of age 10 to 50. Likewise, he should undertake to live with his Guru until death. He should maintain extreme sense-control (Indirya Nigraha). All Sense organs namely eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and body should be kept away from sensual pleasures.
According to Vasista Smriti, he should hand over all his Bikhsha (food procured as alms) to his Guru and eats only what his Guru gives. He should never sleep on a cot. 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 been slipped or escaped’. A person who has not slipped in Brahmacharya is Askalita Brahmachari. It may be interpreted in yet another way; Askalita Brahmachari is one whose sexual fluid has not been 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 Gopikas. In their earlier births, Gopikas were the devotees of the Lord. To fulfill their pious wishes of his devotees, the Lord allowed him to be loved and embraced. His love for them is pure and transcendental in nature. For Him, they are devotees and there is no question of any carnal desires in him. Moreover, Lord Krishna has never attached himself in the ethereal body.
Take the example of Sri Hanuman who is a Nitya Brahmachari. His tremendous strength and intellect are attributed to Brahmacharya.
If you have difficulty in 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, there were hundreds and hundreds of Yogis and Saints who practiced celibacy and excelled in spirituality. Invariably all religions of India prescribe celibacy as their moral code of conduct.
But modern science has yet to understand the glory of celibacy.
Celibacy helps the yogi to conserve the sexual energy and diverts it for spiritual development. It is the best instrument for spiritual progress. It boosts the practice of Pranayama and Yoga.
Take the life of any founder of Religion like Sri Buddha, Sri Mahavira, Sri Jesus Christ, Sri Adi Sankara, Sri Ramanuja and the like. They are all celibates. Understand their power of influence which is the outcome of the strength of Celibacy.
Mahatma Gandhi practiced Brahmacharya in his later part of life. His influence on people and others were due to the power of Celibacy. 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 wastage of energy. This conservation of energy improves health and immunity. It fills the body with Ojas which is a form of energy that gives focus and vitality. The vitality generated by means of Celibacy helps the yogi to reach the next level.
At the mental level, Brahmacharya improves focus and concentration. Other benefits include good memory, courage, and emotional stability. Negative mental tendencies like anger, passion, creed, worries, distractions, and irritability diminish and cease to exist. It improves confidence and will power. It generates internal peace and harmony. The intellect becomes sharper and more insightful.
The words are insufficient to express the glory of Brahmacharya . It should be realized. The vitality and wisdom will increase million-fold.
Brahmacharya in Yoga
In Raja Yoga, Brahmacharya 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 Brahmacharya, one gains vitality.”
Swami Vivekananda when commenting the above verse says, “the chaste brain has tremendous energy, gigantic will power, without that there can be no mental strength. All men of gigantic brains are very continent. It gives wonderful control over mankind. 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 raises to perfection. He attains irrepressible qualities or powers. On becoming perfected, the yogi is able to 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, “it is stated by Goraksha 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 yoga 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 is established in his body. The sexual fluid is under the control of the mind. Life depends on the sexual fluid. Hence sexual fluid and mind should be protected by all means.”
The type of Brahmacharya to be taken 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 Brahmacharya or moderation is enough.
Samadhi happens only when the conserved sex energy is brought up to 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. Modern yoga is nothing more than postural yoga. Yoga is confined to yoga poses. It is not even a full-fledged hatha yoga stream. Celibacy is not a pre-condition for them. At the same time without it, they could not advance beyond a certain point in the yogic path.
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 the student life has changed drastically and the approaches to yoga too.
Brahmacharya in Ayurveda
According to Danvantri, sexual energy is the Self itself. The secret of health depends on the preservation of this vital energy. For those losing this vital energy cannot have physical, mental, and spiritual developments.
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 Nidra and Brahmacharya. The cognitive capacity of the brain is increased by the practice of the three.
The rules of Ayurveda prohibits sex until the age of twenty-five. It claims that the body is not fully functional in physical, psychological, and emotional levels. It is allowed only during that too not immediately after a meal. The frequency should be once in 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. Those who waste will have unsteady and agitated Prana that results in mood swing, memory loss, and emotional imbalance.
Sattvic food is good for maintaining Celibacy. Rajastic and Tamasic foods should be avoided. Fruits, milk, and ghee are good examples of Sattvic food. Non-vegetarian food should be avoided.
Brahmacharya in Hinduism
According to Hinduism, no spiritual progress is possible without celibacy. 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 Brahmacharya.
Now, they call Sacrifice (Yajnya) which is Brahmacharya only; as it is only by means of celibacy that the knower attains that. They call ‘worship’ which is only celibacy; as it is 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 means of celibacy that one attains Salvation from Being (Sat). Now they call Mouna (silence) which is only celibacy; as it is only by means of celibacy that one understands Self and then meditates. (Verse 8.5.2).
Now, they call Anāshakāyana (imperishable or eternal) which is only celibacy; as the Self that one attains by means of 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 region of Brahma belongs to them who attains the two oceans Ara and Nya by means of 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. 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. Ocean of Aira is the ocean of nectar. Banyan tree-Somasavana is nectar dropping tree. The Aparajita region of Brahman is the 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 vadantiBhagavad Gita, Chapter 8, Verse 11
viśanti yadyatayo vītarāgāḥ ।
yadicchanto brahmacaryaṃ caranti
tatte padaṃ saṅgraheṇa pravakṣye
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 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, 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 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.
Celibacy in Agni Purana
Agni Purana lists eight-fold activities of restriction for better mastery of Brahmacharya. One should abstain from
- thinking of sexual activities and women
- talking about them
- making jokes about them
- imagining of sexual activities
- supporting someone interested in
- enticing someone interested in
- participating in such activities.
Celibacy in Srimad Bhagavatam
According to verse 5.5.12 & 13 of Srimad Bhagavatam, one should detach himself from his family and practice celibacy. Sex with one’s own wife is accepted as Brahmacharya as per scriptural injunctions. But illicit sex is against the religious principles and it prevents the progress of spiritual consciousness.
Brahmacharya in Jainism
Brahmacharya is one of the five-fold moral precepts or great vows of Jainism. It is compulsory for Jain ascetics. It is one of the basic duties to be observed in Jain monasteries. Like Hinduism, celibacy in words, thoughts, and deeds should be observed. For a family man in Jainism, Brahmacharya is sexual loyalty 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
- caressing sexual organs to influence desire
- excessive desire for sex drive even in relation to one’s own wife
- arranging marriages of those who are not family members.
Brahmacharya in Buddhism
Noble eight-fold 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
- 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.
Practicing celibacy is one of the right conducts of eight-fold paths of Theravada Buddhism. It is a prohibition on sexual misconduct. It refers to “not performing sexual acts”.
One must abstain from all sexual misconducts including getting sexually involved in 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, strict celibacy is insisted, because sexual cravings and relations encouraged worldly attachment. They become obstacles in the path of enlightenment.
Om Tat Sat!
- Ganganatha Jha, The Yoga Dharsana – 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, Chanogya 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.