In classical Hinduism, the origins of ascetic practices such as celibacy are highly debated. Chastity is defined as the abstinence of all sexual intercourse and celibacy was used to describe the single relationship status of an individual, but now more recent descriptions are approaching the definition of chastity (Olivelle 151). In Hinduism, the Sanskrit word Brahmacarya is used interchangeably to describe celibacy and chastity even though it is not the direct application of the use of the word. The word Brahmacarya more precisely refers to the first of four “religiously sanctioned modes of life” (Olivelle 158) called Asramas. These Asramas are prescribed phases of life originating from laws written in the first century CE. These were treatises written on the moral duty, and the nature of righteousness, called Dharma Sastras. Dharma is the proper actions, rituals, social and personal behaviors that are supported by the cosmic order (Rta), the natural rightness of things. One example would be The Laws of Manu containing several rules of proper social and personal conduct which include the four phases of life (Asramas). The Laws of Manu was written in the first century CE therefor “reflect the social norms of the time” and were “seldom followed strictly”. While in the Asrama known as the student stage, or Brahmacarya, it is the “student’s Dharma not to work for a living and to remain celibate” and in the second stage “a householder’s Dharma to be employed and lead a conjugal life with his partner” (Narayana 50).
The Laws of Manu go into great detail of many restricting rules and systems such as the caste and class system that are supported by even older highly regarded Vedic texts such as the Rg Vedas. The laws state, that only certain classes are permitted to commence the once highly regarded religious journey of studying the Vedas through the four Asramas. Studying the Vedas is a privilege only granted to the religious classes belonging in the greater classification group named the Twice-Born. The story of creation entitled ‘Hymn of the supreme person’ from the Rg Vedas can accommodate the origin of various elements of the universe such as the class system. It is the Purusa Sukta, Purusa is believed to be the original being of the universe from which the ultimate sacrifice was made to create man. The dismemberment of Purusa is the origin of the class system. “From his mouth came the priestly class, from his arms, the rulers. The producers came from his legs; from his feet came the servant class” (Narayanan 27). The Brahmin (priestly) class, Ksatriya (ruler) class, and Vaisya (producer) class make up the twice born, but do not include the Sudras (servant) class. The Twice Born have the privilege of following the prescribed Asramas to pursue the ultimate goal of complete liberation (Moksa) following a spiritual re-birth.
A ceremony must be performed to mark the second birth of a Twice-Born male into the studies of the Vedas. The sacred threat ritual (Upanayana) is the first ritual marking the rite of passage into the first Asrama (Brahmacarya). The Upanayana and marriage are examples of Samskara; a ritual that marks the rite of passage into the next Asrama. A different stage marks the pursuit of different goals and the attainment of a different set of knowledge or values. This can be better understood with the apprehension of Dharma. The first goal is to abide by the dharmic principles of sexual asceticism while studying the Vedas, but in the second Asrama (Grhastha), the focus shifts to the pursuit of sensory pleasure (Kama) and self-empowerment (Artha). In the third Asrama (Vanaprastha) one begins to practice various methods of gaining transformative insight, and in the last Asrama (Samnyasin) the goal is to attain the highest level of complete liberation.
If an individual were to attain moksha, through devoting one’s life to following the Asramas or other practices, the individual is then liberated from Samsara. In most Hindu philosophies (Darasanas) it is believed that every action has Karmic consequences, and after death in this world the Karmic seeds will bear fruit, and be the ultimate deciding factor of the realm of rebirth. Samsara is the cycle of endless rebirth in another realm unless the cycle can be broken by attaining Moksa (Olivelle 156). Liberation from endless cycles of Karmic rebirth is attained by dispelling illusion, and gaining transformative insight on the self (Atman) or knowledge about ultimate reality (Brahman) (Narayanan 52). Those that practice sexual asceticism tend to have as a goal the pursuit of liberation (Moksa). Since detaching from the sensual world is the first step toward renunciation, “the sexual impulse was viewed as the greatest source of attachment and the greatest impediment to progress on the spiritual path” (Olivelle 160). The biggest obstacle to ascetic detachment is the natural attraction towards the opposite sex, and the sexual nature of the body which is seen as impure (Olivelle 160). One of the five preliminary restraints (Yama) that need to be practiced is abstinence as highlighted in Yoga Sutra for the pursuit of liberation. Time and time again we see that sexual asceticism is clearly favored as one of the key practices in the bigger goal of attaining liberation, nonetheless during the householder (Grhastha) Asrama stage the practice of celibacy and chastity is disregarded.
It is the dharma of a married householder to raise children, therefor there are no negative karmic consequences. Offspring and marriage are undesirable to a renounced individual seeking liberation because they cannot help nor hinder the present Karmic state of the individual. Choosing not to practice celibacy, or believing in the institution of marriage and the action of procreation, is closely tied to the rejection of ritual activity, and is seen as harmful to spiritual progress. This can explain why the acceptance of householder ideals such as procreation bears no fruit in the search for Moksa but one can also argue that it is indeed necessary for some Hindu religious practices. The Vedas talk about a great spiritual and physical debt that is owed to the gods since birth. Two of them are “offering sacrifices and procreating sons” (Olivelle 154). Vedic religion used sons for death rituals and thus, the birth of a son is “viewed as ensuring immortality of the father” (Olivelle 153). Some Vedic theology promotes the married householder way of life as being the ideal, while other Vedic theology also supports ascetic and celibate ideologies. These contrasting principles warrant different outcomes, but are supported and followed equally.
An unbalanced ratio of renouncers who neglect the benefits of the householder stage would be devastating for the continuity of the population and would require adjustments to the Asrama system over time to promote healthy proliferation. The four Asramas were originally meant for an individual wanting to pursue a sacred ascetic life; free of unnecessary ties with the artificial world. In the old Asrama system, after graduating from Vedic studies, the individual was able to choose between four modes of life to pursue permanently for this persons entire lifetime. There was the option to continue the Asrama of a student through adulthood and devote one’s life to the study of the Vedas while remaining celibate (Olivelle 159). Another Asrama was the forest-hermit, where the individual could roam the forest, and most texts mention the ability to have a wife or family while other texts order celibacy. And the last Asrama from the old system was the world renouncer, marked by celibacy and no familial ties (Olivelle 159). Years after the Common Era, the reformed version of the four Asramas were known to be temporary stages of life. Nonetheless, celibacy and chastity played a major role in all four Asramas. In the second Asrama, the Householder (Grhastha) stage, the pursuit of sensory pleasure (Kama) and self-empowerment (Artha) is permitted. The aims of each Asrama can be pursued in moderation and in the order prescribed (Narayanan 50). If one chooses, Brahmacarya is also practiced during the householder stage, as the term is adapted to justify the Dharmic duty to create offspring. Throughout time, The Laws of Manu closely guarded by the Brhamin class needed to change in order to more accurately parallel other popular Vedic beliefs. To further promote the highly reputed concept of Brahmacarya in the context of sexual asceticism, Brahmanical adaptations were made to integrate sexual asceticism in all Asramas including Grhastha. The householder equivalent to sexual asceticism is sexual intercourse with one’s wife at night if the sole purpose is procreation (Olivelle 162). Domesticating the practice of Asceticism during the householder stage would be justified with Dharma. The Third Asrama is the Forest-Dweller (Vanaprastha) and the last is the renouncer (Samnyasin) Asrama, where death rituals are performed to shed the bonds of family, marriage, kids or sexual activities to facilitate the detachment from the world in the pursuit of Moksa (Olivelle 159).
Mental and Physical powers such as the ability to fly, the ability to see into the future and read minds are said to be related to the retention of semen, while the opposite effect of physical and mental impotence is related to sexual relations (Olson 165). “The celibate body is extremely fit, and as such evokes a divine and heroic mystique of epic proportion” (Alter 46). The internal, unnatural heat (Tapas) found in a celibate renouncer can lead to the acquisition of powers. Comparing the celibate renouncer to the sexually active householder, who generates a different kind of natural heat with no control over the excessive indulgence of sexual behavior, reveals a theme. The heating of the renouncer and cooling of the householder is the tension visible throughout the history of devotional Hinduism (Olson 167).
Brahmacarya is used to describe the model example of celibacy in Hinduism, referring to the stage of ascetic study of the Vedas, but not directly meaning chastity or celibacy (Olivelle 152). Brahmacarya comes prior to the accepted but unstable sensual release in the householder Asrama. This is followed by the necessary condition of sexual continence for the pursuit of liberation while renouncing the world. Celibacy, chastity, marriage, and procreation are all supported by the Hindu tradition, but at specific times throughout life and also within moderation.
Alter, Joseph (1994) “Sexuality and the Transformation of Gender Into Nationalism in North India.” The Journal of Asian studies 53:45-66.Accessed 07/01/2009.
Buswell. R, Lopez. D (2014) The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Narayanan, Vasudha (2002) “Chapter One: The Hindu Tradition.” In World Religions, Eastern Religions, edited by Willard G. Oxtoby, 12-125. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Olivelle, Patrick (2008) “Celibacy in Classical Hinduism.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 151-164. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Olson, Carl (2008) “Hindu Devotionalism, Tantra, and Celibacy.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 165-180. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Article written by: Uriel Karerwa (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.