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Brahmacarya, literally meaning "spiritual practice", refers to a life-style characterized by abstinence from sex. While the term brahmacārī generally refers to a young student of the sacred scriptures, a member of the first āśrama, it is also used for anyone observing brahmacarya-vrata, a vow of abstinence. Among all vows, brahmacarya is called the bṛhad-vrata, or "the great vow".


1 Definition of brahmacarya

Brahmacarya is defined in Yajnavalkya's words [1]:

karmaṇā manasā vācā sarvāvasthāsu sarvadā | sarvatra maithuna-tyāgo brahmacaryaṁ pracakṣate ||

"In deed, in mind, in speech, in all situations, at all times, in all places renouncing sex – this is called brahmacarya."

Commenting on Bhagavad-gītā 17.14, Rāmānuja has defined brahmacarya as follows: brahmacaryaṁ yoṣitsu bhogyatā-buddhi-yuktekṣaṇādi-rahitatvam – "Brahmacarya means the absence of a frame of mind in which women are seen as objects of enjoyment."

The Amara-kośa dictionary, pointing to the constituents of this compound word, defines it more broadly as brahma carati iti brahmacarya – "A spiritual way of acting, that is brahmacarya." Then, brahmacarya is not attained by mere abstinence from sex; brahmacarya is present when celibacy is accompanied with spiritual practice.

1.1 Eight aspects of brahmacarya

The eight aspects of sexual activity a brahmacārī should abstain from are enumerated in Vairāgya-martānda (12.144-145), cited from Dakṣa-smṛti, as follows:

smaraṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ keliḥ prekṣaṇaṁ guhya-bhāṣaṇam | saṅkalpo’dhyavasāyaś ca kriyā-nirvṛtir eva ca || etan-maithunam aṣṭāṅgaṁ pravadanti manīṣiṇaḥ | viparītaṁ brahmacaryam etad evāṣṭa-lakṣaṇam ||

"Thinking of it, praising it, playing at it, looking at it, secretly speaking of it, intending it, pursuing it, and delighting in its activities – these are the eight aspects of copulation according to the prudent. Any of these eight indicates the opposite of brahmacarya."

2 Brahmacarya as...

2.1 A religious practice for all

Narada, instructing Yudhisthira on religious practices for all human beings, notes in the Bhāgavata-purāṇa:

satyaṁ dayā tapaḥ śaucaṁ titikṣekṣā śamo damaḥ | ahiṁsā brahmacaryaṁ ca tyāgaḥ svādhyāya ārjavam || 7.11.8
nṛṇām ayaṁ paro dharmaḥ sarveṣāṁ samudāhṛtaḥ | triṁśal-lakṣaṇavān rājan sarvātmā yena tuṣyati || 7.11.12

"Truthfulness, compassion, austerity, purity, tolerance, equanimity, sense-control, non-violence, sexual abstinence, renunciation, study of the scripture, honest conduct ... This is declared to be the greatest religion for all mankind; O king, one with these thirty qualities can satisfy the soul of all souls."

2.2 A common virtue

There are numerous lists of virtues in the scriptures, and brahmacarya is almost invariably included. An example is found in the Uddhava-gita of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa, in Krishna's words to Uddhava (BhP 11.19.33-35):

ahiṁsā satyam asteyam asaṅgo hrīr asañcayaḥ | āstikyaṁ brahmacaryaṁ ca maunaṁ sthairyaṁ kṣamābhayam ||
śaucaṁ japas tapo homaḥ śraddhātithyaṁ mad-arcanam | tīrthāṭanaṁ parārthehā tuṣṭir ācārya-sevanam ||
ete yamāḥ sa-niyamā ubhayor dvādaśa smṛtāḥ | puṁsām upāsitās tāta yathā-kāmaṁ duhanti hi ||

"Non-violence, truthfulness, honesty, detachment, modesty, non-possessiveness, piety, celibacy, silence, steadiness, forgiveness, and fearlessness; purity (external and internal), chanting of mantras, austerity, fire sacrifice, faith, hospitality, worship of me, pilgrimage to the holy places, endeavor for spiritual gain, satisfaction, and service of the ācārya; If a person cultivates these major and minor injunctions, both known as twelve in number, they yield anything desired."

2.3 A means for liberation

Brahmacarya is one of the traditional and powerful means of cutting asunder one's worldly bondage. This is reflected throughout the scriptures.

2.3.1 In Ṛṣabha's instructions

Describing the path of deliverance from the pangs of the world, Ṛṣabha instructs his sons as follows:

adhyātma-yogena vivikta-sevayā prāṇendriyātmābhijayena sadhryak | sac-chraddhayā brahmacaryeṇa śaśvad asampramādena yamena vācām || BhP 5.5.12

"In connection with the Supreme spirit, serving in solitude, fully conquering the life-airs, the senses and the mind, with faith in the holy, with continuous celibacy, without bewilderment, while controlling one's speech..."

2.3.2 In Sukadeva's words

Sukadeva was the exemplary brahmacārī, whom the ladies were not shy of due to his purity of vision.

Narrating the path of factual liberation from sins, Sukadeva instructs Pariksit on acts that accompany progress:

tapasā brahmacaryeṇa śamena ca damena ca | tyāgena satya-śaucābhyāṁ yamena niyamena vā || BhP 6.1.13

"By austerity, celibacy, and equanimity, and by self-control, and by renunciation, truthfulness and purity, and major and minor rules..."

2.3.3 Lack as a cause of bondage

The Bhāgavata-purāṇa (2.6.20) designates the material world specifically as a place for those, who do not observe celibacy:

pādās trayo bahiś cāsann aprajānāṁ ya āśramāḥ | antas tri-lokyās tv aparo gṛha-medho ’bṛhad-vrataḥ ||

"Three-fourths of existence is beyond this world, a dwelling for those without progeny (or those who shall not become progeny); others are within the three worlds, those whose minds are in household duties and who do not follow the great vow of celibacy."

2.4 An austerity

Bhagavad-gita (17.14) mentions brahmacarya as one of the austerities of the body in the mode of goodness (sattva):

deva-dvija-guru-prājña-pūjanaṁ śaucam ārjavam | brahmacaryam ahiṁsā ca śārīraṁ tapa ucyate ||

"Worship of the gods, the twice-born, the gurus and the learned, purity, honest conduct, celibacy and non-violence are called the austerities of the body."

Ramanuja comments: brahmacaryaṁ yoṣitsu bhogyatā-buddhi-yuktekṣaṇādi-rahitatvam – "Brahmacarya means the absence of a frame of mind in which women are seen as objects of enjoyment."

2.5 An aspect of yoga

In Bhagavad-gita (6.14), Krishna mentions that the yogī, who strives to focus his attention toward him, should be brahmacāri-vrate sthitaḥ, or established in the vow of abstinence, among other regulations to be observed. Brahmacarya is the third of the five yamas (restraints) mentioned in Patanjali's Yoga-sutra.

2.6 An aspect of devotional practice

2.6.1 In Kapila's instructions

In his teachings on bhakti-yoga in the Bhāgavata-purāṇa, Kapila notes the following as necessary aspects of practice:

sarva-bhūta-samatvena nirvaireṇāprasaṅgataḥ | brahmacaryeṇa maunena sva-dharmeṇa balīyasā || BhP 3.27.7

"Equality to all living beings, freedom from enmity and close connections, celibacy, silence and very diligently performing one's prescribed religious duties."

Kapila returns to this theme in a list of virtuous acts in the following chapter:

ahiṁsā satyam asteyaṁ yāvad-artha-parigrahaḥ | brahmacaryaṁ tapaḥ śaucaṁ svādhyāyaḥ puruṣārcanam || BhP 3.28.4

"Non-violence, truthfulness, possessing only that which is necessary, celibacy, austerity, purity, studying the scripture and worshiping the Lord."

2.6.2 A doorway to bhakti

Rupa Gosvami encourages the control of the sexual urge in the first verse of his Upadesamrita:

vāco vegaṁ manasaḥ krodha-vegaṁ jihvā-vegam udaropastha-vegam | etān vegān yo viṣaheta dhīraḥ sarvām apīmāṁ pṛthivīṁ sa śiṣyāt ||

"The urges of speech and the mind, and the urge of anger, the urge of the tongue and the urges of the belly and the genitals; the sober person who withstands these urges can teach even this whole world.”

In his commentary, Radha-ramana Gosvami notes:

tat-tad-vega-sahanasya bhakti-praveśopayogitvam eva na tu sādhanatvam |

"Through subduing all these urges, aptness for entering into devotion is there, but not perfection."

Control of the sexual urge is thus seen as a prerequisite for successful engagement in bhakti-sādhana, although other things besides conquering the urges are necessary for its success.

2.6.3 Requirement for the worship of some śālagrāma-śīlās

Hari-bhakti-vilasa (5.322-323), discussing the worship of some śālagrāma-śīlās, cites the following verses:

kapilo narasiṁho'tha pṛthu-cakre ca śobhane | brahmacaryādhikārī syān nānyathā pūjanaṁ bhavet ||
narasiṁhas tri-binduḥ syāt kapilaḥ pañca-bindukaḥ | brahmacaryeṇa pūjyaḥ syād anyathā sarva-vighnadaḥ ||

"The Kapila and Narasimha silas are decorated with wide cakras; one must have the qualification of brahmacarya, otherwise they cannot be worshiped. The Narasimha has three dots, and the Kapila has five dots; they must be worshiped with celibacy, for otherwise all obstacles shall befall."

2.6.4 A qualification for rāgānugā-bhakti

Radha-Krishna Das Gosvami, an early mahātmā of Vrindavana, has addressed the eligibility for rāgānugā-bhakti, the esoteric mode of worship practiced in Gaudiya Vaisnavism, as follows in his Sadhana-dipika:

viśeṣato rāgānugādhikāri-lakṣaṇaṁ darśayati (BRS 1.4.7) –

na patiṁ kāmayet kaṁcid brahmacarya-sthitā sadā | tam-eva mūrtiṁ dhyāyantī candrakāntir-varānanā ||

The specific characteristics of the one who is eligible for rāgānugā are given as follows (BRS 1.4.7):
"The beautiful-faced Candrakanti did not desire any husband and always remained fixed in celibacy, meditating on Krishna's form."

Some [2] have objected to this passage, suggesting that the citation is out of place since it is taken from the fourth chapter of the first division of Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu discussing the topic of prema, and that therefore brahmacarya would be for those on the stage of prema, not on the stage of sādhana.

This objection fails to note that Rupa Gosvami presents Candrakanti as an example of a person who attained prema originating from bhāva due to rāgānugā-bhakti (rāgānugīya-bhāvottho yathā...), and the fact that she remained celibate all the time must mean she practiced brahmacarya even during the stage of sādhana.

Specifying the meaning of brahmacarya, Radha-Krishna Das Gosvami cites the aforementioned definition of eight kinds of sexual activity mentioned in Vairāgya-martānda. Sexual indulgence in its various forms is seen as a powerful conditioner of the consciousness into the confines of a material identity, which is the very antithesis of what rāgānugā-bhakti-sādhana aims for, namely the development of an other-worldly identity of a gopī in Vraja.

3 Sex and begetting progeny

The desirability of restricting sex for the purpose of progeny is mentioned in numerous scriptures, and is often praised as the equivalent of brahmacarya.

3.1 In Bhakti-sandarbha

As one in his list of definitions of what a Vaisnava is, Jiva Gosvami in his Bhakti-sandarbha (202) cites the Skanda-purana's instructions of Markandeya to Bhagiratha:

yathā skānde mārkaṇḍeya-bhagīratha-saṁvāde -
dharmārthaṁ jīvitaṁ yeṣāṁ santānārthaṁ ca maithunam | pacanaṁ vipramukhyārthaṁ jñeyās te vaiṣṇavā narāḥ ||

atra śrī-viṣṇor ājñā-buddhyaiva tat tat kriyata iti vaiṣṇava-padena gamyate ||

"Those people for whom the purpose of life is religion, for whom the purpose of sexual intercourse are children, and for whom the purpose of cooking is to serve the brahmanas, go by the name of 'Vaiṣṇava'."

Thus those, who act in awareness of the orders of Viṣṇu, are understood as Vaiṣṇavas.

The essence of the thought here is that a Vaiṣṇava would not do something that wouldn't be pleasing to Viṣṇu, and since sexual intercourse for mere enjoyment isn't something that can be offered, a Vaiṣṇava would not unnecessarily engage in it.

3.2 In the Bhāgavata-purāṇa

Bhāgavata-purāṇa repeats the concept in three locations, describing the suitable period for sexual union:

gṛhasthasya ṛtu-gāminaḥ || BhP 7.12.11

"The householder should have sexual intercourse only in the fertile season."

gṛhasthasyāpy ṛtau gantuḥ || BhP 11.18.43

"However [though brahmacarya was described], the householder may approach his wife for intercourse in the fertile season."

evaṁ vyavāyaḥ prajayā na ratyā imaṁ viśuddhaṁ na viduḥ sva-dharmam || BhP 11.5.13

"In the same way [3], sexual intercourse should not be for the sake of lust, but for the sake of progeny. Regardless, people do not understand such pure sva-dharmas."

In this way, Bhāgavata-purāṇa has defined the pure sva-dharma, or the religious duty, of the householders.

3.3 In the Bhagavad-gītā

The theme is brought up in Bhagavad-gita (7.11):

dharmāviruddho bhūteṣu kāmo ’smi bharatarṣabha ||

"I am that lust, O greatest of the Bharatas, that is not contrary to dharma."

There are diverse commentaries on this passage, some more and some less strict over the religious application of sex. The commentaries prominent in the Gaudiya line of thought, namely those by Sridhara Svami, Visvanatha Cakravarti and Baladeva Vidyabhusana, read as follows:

śrīdharaḥ -- dharmeṇāviruddhaḥ sva-dāreṣu putrotpādana-mātropayogī kāmo’ham iti ||
viśvanāthaḥ -- dharmāviruddhaḥ sva-bhāryāyāṁ putrotpatti-mātropayogī ||
baladevaḥ -- dharmāviruddhaḥ svapatnyāṁ putrotpatti-mātra-hetuḥ ||

Sridhara: "I am lust that is not contrary to dharma, suitable only for bestowal of progeny in one's wife."
Visvanatha: "Not contrary to dharma means suitable only for the birth of progeny in one's wife."
Baladeva: "Not contrary to dharma means for the sole cause of the birth of progeny in one's wife."

Hence, begetting children with one's duly wedded wife is the desired application for sexual desire.

3.4 In Hari-bhakti-vilasa

Hari-bhakti-vilasa, citing Padma-purana (5.9.44-47), praises a householder's abstinence except for the sake of begetting progeny as the equivalent of brahmacarya:

ṛtu-kālābhigāmī yaḥ sva-dāra-nirataś ca yaḥ | sarvadā brahmacārīha vijñeyaḥ sa gṛhāśramī || 11.156

"One who is devoted to his own wife and approaches her for intercourse in the period suitable for fertilization is known always as a brahmacārī even though he may be in the householder āśrama."

iti matvā sva-dāreṣu ṛtumatsu budho vrajet | yathokta-doṣa-hīneṣu sakāmeṣv anṛtāv api || 11.173

"Thinking this way, even if his wife is willing during unseasonable times, the intelligent person will approach her only in her fertile period. when she is free of detrimental effect, as has been explained before."

4 Cultivation of brahmacarya

4.1 Bhakti is the root cause of sense control

Brahmacarya and other virtues of restraint arise naturally in one who has turned his attention toward Krishna:

kṛṣṇonmukhaṁ svayaṁ yānti yamāḥ śaucādayas tathā || BRS 1.2.261

"Various restraints, purity, and so forth arise of their own accord in one who has turned his attention toward Krishna."

In his commentary, Jiva Gosvami cites a verse from the Bhāgavata-purāṇa (11.19.33, cited earlier) to illustrate different yamas, one among which is brahmacarya. Freedom from sexual vāsanas (latent impressions) is attained through the practice of bhakti by the grace of the Lord, the indwelling witness of the heart.

4.2 Favorable practices

There are a number of practices that are favorable for a balanced maintenance of brahmacarya. The following sections are drawn from common knowledge and Swami Sivananda's work called "Practice of Brahmacharya".

4.2.1 Environment

4.2.2 Food

The body is generated from the food we ingest; eating foodstuffs in the modes of passion and ignorance incites the sexual impulse and makes the body restless. Therefore:

An agitated body and the powerful pulling of the senses can generally be traced back to improper eating. Such a condition may often be countered by fasting; in general, fasting is beneficial for brahmacarya.

4.2.3 Internal state

4.2.4 Spiritual strength

4.2.5 Miscellaneous

4.3 Sublimation of sexual energy

The mere suppression of sexual desire does not merit the term brahmacarya, for it is temporary by nature and lacks the benefits that characterize proper brahmacarya; indeed, if the sexual desire is not properly sublimated, it yields nothing but irritability and restlessness in the aspiring celibate. The mind must be reformed, not restrained.

The transmutation of vīrya, representing the sum total of sexual restraint, into ojas or tejas, the great subtle energy that aids the sādhaka in concentration and fortitude in practice, is effected by committed sādhana, spiritual practice. Such an engagement must be wholesome, encompassing the body, the mind, and the emotions; for this, the path of bhakti is most suitable among the varieties of spiritual paths.

A devotional regime of saṅkīrtana (congregational chanting and dancing), parikramā (circumambulation of holy places), arcana (ritual worship), śāstrādhyāyana (study of scripture) and smaraṇa (remembrance) accompanied with japa (chanting a mantra), when regularly practiced, will purify and transform the entire being of the sādhaka. When engaged in japa and smaraṇa, one should sit still in a quiet environment on a sanctified seat, seated in a firm posture [4] for extended periods of time, breathing calmly through the nose; this practice will let a devotional, meditational equilibrium permeate one's entire being.

4.4 Lapses in observance

Should one have lapses in observing the desired standard of abstinence, it is imperative that one identify the cause and learn to avoid it in the future. The general pattern of the evolution of sexual desire is described in Bhagavad-gita (2.62) as follows:

dhyāyato viṣayān puṁsaḥ saṅgas teṣūpajāyate | saṅgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ kāmāt krodho ’bhijāyate ||

"By contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment to them arises; from attachment comes desire, and desire gives rise to anger."

One should, therefore, withhold the mind from "dancing with the devil" and curtail its wanderings at the root. In particular, one should avoid bad company for it is such company that gives rise to sexual desires: tamo-dvāraṁ yoṣitāṁ saṅgi-saṅgam (BhP 5.5.2) – "Women and womanizers are the gateway to darkness."

For one fallen from brahmacarya, the following words of advice on a befitting attitude are offered in the Bhāgavata-purāṇa:

jāta-śraddho mat-kathāsu nirviṇṇaḥ sarva-karmasu | veda duḥkhātmakān kāmān parityāge ’py anīśvaraḥ ||
tato bhajeta māṁ prītaḥ śraddhālur dṛḍha-niścayaḥ | juṣamāṇaś ca tān kāmān duḥkhodarkāṁś ca garhayan || BhP 11.20.27-28

"One whose faith for narrations of me has awakened, and who is disgusted with all works, knowing all varieties of kāma as imbued with grief, yet is still unable to renounce them, should therefore worship me, engaged with love, faithfully and with firm conviction, being satisfied with that and repenting of the desires that lead to misery."

Thus, one is encouraged not to let go of the ideal, but rather to strive again and again toward it with all devotional sincerity.

4.5 Times of particular attention

Those who do not always observe brahmacarya should practice abstinence at least during events with specific religious significance, such as:

5 Traditional medical wisdom

There is a wealth of knowledge on the practice of celibacy in traditional sources, such as scriptures on yoga and ayurveda. The following summarizes some points of interest.

6 Famous brahmacārīs

6.1 Bhīṣma

Grandfather Bhīṣma, one of the legendary figures of the Mahābhārata, is famous for having taken a vow of llifelong celibacy in his youth to resolve a crisis concerning a possible future conflict over the throne if he ever had any children. His earlier name was Devavrata; he became known as Bhīṣma, "the terrible", as the word of his vigor of spirit became known.

Mahābhārata narrates a story in which Paraśurāma, Bhīṣma's teacher in the arts of war, requested him to marry Ambā, one of the three ladies he had captured on the behest of his brother, Vicitra-vīrya. Bhīṣma refused, on the plea of his vow of life-long brahmacarya; hearing this, Paraśurāma challenged Bhīṣma to a duel to enforce his request, only to be defeated by his disciple – to his satisfaction.

6.2 Catuḥ-sana

Catuḥ-sana or the four Kumāras, namely Sanaka, Sananda, Sanātana and Sanat, were the first beings created by Brahmā for the sake of bringing forth progeny. The four brothers, however, found the proposal objectionable to Brahmā's dismay:

tān babhāṣe svabhūḥ putrān prajāḥ sṛjata putrakāḥ | tan naicchan mokṣa-dharmāṇo vāsudeva-parāyaṇāḥ || BhP 3.12.5

"The self-born Brahmā addressed the sons, 'O sons, go now and create progeny!'. That they did not desire, committed to the path of salvation as they were, surrendered to Vāsudeva."

Discarding the desire to attain sexual maturity and to create progeny, the brothers then became naiṣṭhika-brahmacārīs, fixed in the vow of brahmacarya, and effectively ceased from aging; consequently, they are featured in the form of young boys in various Purānic narrations.

6.3 Lakṣmaṇa

Lakṣmaṇa, the brother of Rāma, discarded his all and accompanied Rāma and his wife, Sītā, to the forest when the two were exiled for fourteen years. After Sītā was kidnapped by Rāvaṇa, and when Sugrīva brought the ornaments she had dropped on the way, Rāma inquired whether Lakṣmaṇa recognized them. Lakṣmaṇa then replied,

nāhaṁ jānāmi keyūre nāhaṁ jānāmi kaṅkane | nūpura eva jānāmi nityaṁ pādābhivandanāt ||

"I do not know the bracelets, nor do I know the earrings; I know only the ankle bells, for I always worshiped her feet alone."

With the power of his full restraint and purity, he conquered the evil Meghanāda, Rāvaṇa's son, who was invincible before all but those who had abandoned all enjoyment for fourteen years.

6.4 Sukadeva

Sukadeva, the speaker of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa (described in BhP 1.4 and 1.19), is said to have taken birth as a youngster after spending 16 years in his mother's womb in fear of the Lord's illusion. Having taken birth in a perfect state of spiritual realization, he left to the forest without a delay – roaming about without a thread of cloth. A famous incident involving his father, Vyāsa, and some ladies who were bathing, is narrated:

dṛṣṭvānuyāntam ṛṣim ātmajam apy anagnaṁ devyo hriyā paridadhur na sutasya citram tad vīkṣya pṛcchati munau jagadus tavāsti strī-pum-bhidā na tu sutasya vivikta-dṛṣṭeḥ

"Seeing the sage following his son, although not naked, the ladies covered their bodies in shyness, but they did not do so in his son's presence. Astonished upon seeing this, he inquired and they replied to the sage, For you, there is a difference between female and male, but not in your son, whose vision is spotless."

The accomplished brahmacārī is, then, not a person abstaining from sexuality with great endeavor; it is the one who has risen beyond sexuality, becoming indifferent and unaffected.

7 Further resources

  1. This verse is cited in A.C. Bhaktivedanta Svami's commentary on Bhagavad-gita 6.13-14, where it is attributed to Yajnavalkya; the verse is not, however, found in the edition of Yajnavalkya-smriti found in the GRETIL archives. The relevant section of the text, section 1.10 onwards, is called brahmacāri-prakaraṇam.
  2. Nitai Dās in the fifth issue of his E-zine.
  3. As with other injunctions giving room for sensual indulgence.
  4. Yogāsanas such as padmāsana, siddhāsana, vajrāsana and gomukhāsana are time-proven postures that aid in calming the mind and also yield health benefits and contribute physically to the sustenance of brahmacarya.
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