Hinduism and Celibacy or Brahmacarya

Brahmacharya or Celibacy

by Jayaram V

Hunting, gambling, sleeping by day, censoriousness, (excess with) women, drunkenness, (an inordinate love for) dancing, singing, and music, and useless travel are the tenfold set (of vices) springing from love of pleasure. (Manusmriti 7:47)

A twice-born student, who has involuntarily wasted his manly strength during sleep, must bathe, worship the sun, and afterwards thrice mutter the Rik-verse (which begins), 'Again let my strength return to me.' (Manusmriti 2:181)

Those who know the Veda declare that a voluntary effusion of seed by a twice-born (youth) who fulfils the vow (of studentship constitutes) a breach of that vow. The divine light which the Veda imparts to the student, enters, if he breaks his vow, the Maruts, Puruhuta (Indra), the teacher (of the gods, Brihaspati) and Pavaka (Fire). When this sin has been committed, he shall go begging to seven houses, dressed in the hide of the (sacrificed) donkey, proclaiming his deed. Subsisting on a single (daily meal that consists) of the alms obtained there and bathing at (the time of) the three savanas (morning, noon, and evening), he becomes pure after (the lapse of) one year. (Manusmriti 11:121-124)

Hinduism considers celibacy (brahmacharya) as an important virtue and an essential aspect of spiritual life. Manu, the famous law giver believed that desire would only grow by enjoyment and therefore abstinence from sensual enjoyment or renunciation of all pleasure was the best course (Manusmriti 2:96-97). Manu advised young students to practice celibacy and remain on guard in the company of women as they were by nature seducers (Manusmriti 2:223).

In ancient India, students who were engaged in the study of the Vedas and the knowledge of Brahman were exhorted to observe strict celibacy. Since control of desires was considered essential for self realization and sexual desire being the ultimate of all desires, observation of celibacy became an important feature of Hindu spiritualism. The idea that a student and follower of Brahman should be a strict celibate became so ingrained in the mind of people that over a period of time the word Brahmacharya became synonymous more with the idea of celibacy than with the studentship of Brahman.

In ancient India, apart form students, even the seers and sages observed strict celibacy most of their lives even though they were married. On important occasions and prior to performing religious ceremonies, the householders also abstained from sex and observed vows of celibacy. Sexual activity was completely prohibited for all women during menstruation. Manu prescribed the following rules for householders. (Manusmriti 3:45-49)

Let (the husband) approach his wife in due season, being constantly satisfied with her (alone); he may also, being intent on pleasing her, approach her with a desire for conjugal union (on any day) excepting the Parvas.

Sixteen (days and) nights (in each month), including four days which differ from the rest and are censured by the virtuous, (are called) the natural season of women.

But among these the first four, the eleventh and the thirteenth are (declared to be) forbidden; the remaining nights are recommended.

On the even nights sons are conceived and daughters on the uneven ones; hence a man who desires to have sons should approach his wife in due season on the even (nights).

A male child is produced by a greater quantity of male seed, a female child by the prevalence of the female; if (both are) equal, a hermaphrodite or a boy and a girl; if (both are) weak or deficient in quantity, a failure of conception (results).

He who avoids women on the six forbidden nights and on eight others, is (equal in chastity to) a student, in whichever order he may live.

Orthodox Hindus believe that abstinence from sex is essential for sublimating sexual energy (retas) into spiritual energy (tejas). They also believe that when a person controls his sexual impulse, instead of going out and dissipating, his sexual energy would change its direction and goes up through the back of his spine and activates his higher chakras, or centers of spiritual energy. Ancient Hindus firmly believed that observation of celibacy was very essential to reach the world of Brahman. Celibacy is also considered important for umnarried young men because according to Hindu beliefs souls that are awaiting their rebirth are said to reside in the seminal fluid, before they are transferred to the womb

Hinduism does not consider that sex is sinful. However sexual conduct is subject to the principles of dharma. Of the four stages (ashramas) of human life, only during the stage of householder a person was allowed to have sex. Only certain types of sexual activity is considered lawful. It is also subject to the predominant qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattvic sex is that which is practiced with a pure mind out of love for the purpose of procreation. Rajasic sex is that which is practiced out of egoism in which personal pleasure and demonstration of one's strength is the chief aim. Tamasic sex is that which is practiced out of cruelty in which there is a total disregard for social norms and the consent of the partner. Sexual act is also compared to a ritual as is evident from the following verse from the Chandogya Upanishad (2.13. 1&2).

The beckoning is the invocation (binkara). Making the request is the proposal (prasthava). Lying close to the woman, that is udgitha. Lying on the top of the woman, that is pratihara. Reaching the climax is the consecration. He comes to the finish, that is nidhana. This is the hymn to Vamadeva woven out of the act of sexual intercourse. He who knows this Vamadeva chant as woven on sexual intercourse, comes to intercourse, procreates himself from every act, reaches a full length of life, lives well, becomes great in offspring and in cattle, great in fame. One should not despise any woman. That is the rule."

While celibacy was an important moral value for the students and the priests, the ruling classes rarely observed celibacy. The same was true in case of merchant communities. The tantric form of worship considered sex as an important means for spiritual transformation. But those who indulged in such practices never gained public approval at any time in the history of Hinduism and the tantric cults remained mostly secretive for fear of public disapproval.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page