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Brahmacharya

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Brahmacharya (/ˌbrɑːməˈtʃɑːrjə/; Devanagari: ब्रह्मचर्य) literally means “going after Brahman (Supreme Reality, Self, God)”. In Indian religions, it is also a concept with various context-driven meanings.

In one context, Brahmacharya is the first of four Ashrama (age-based stages) of a human life, with Grihastha (householder),Vanaprastha (forest dweller) and Sannyasa (renunciation) being the other three Asramas.

The Brahmacharya (bachelor student) stage of one’s life, up to 25 years of age, was focused on education and included the practice of celibacy. In Indian traditions, it connotes chastity during the student stage of life for the purposes of learning from a guru (teacher), and during later stages of life for the purposes of attaining spiritual liberation (moksha).

In another context, Brahmacharya is a virtue, where it means celibacy when unmarried, and fidelity when married. It represents a virtuous lifestyle that also includes simple living, meditation and other behaviors.

Among the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist monastic traditions, Brahmacharya implies, among other things, mandatory renouncing of sex and marriage It is considered necessary for a monk’s spiritual practice. Western notions of the religious life as practiced in monastic settings mirror these characteristics.

The word brahmacharya stems from two Sanskrit roots:

  1. Brahma(ब्रह्म, shortened from Brahman), means “the one self-existent Spirit, the Absolute Reality, Universal Self, Personal God, the sacred knowledge”.
  2. charya(चर्य), which means “occupation with, engaging, proceeding, behaviour, conduct, to follow, going after”. This is often translated as activity, mode of behaviour, a “virtuous” way of life.

So the word Brahmacharya literally means a lifestyle adopted to seek and understand Brahman – the Ultimate Reality. Gonda states, in historic literature of Hinduism, it means “devoting oneself to Brahman”. In modern literature, it is commonly translated to mean celibacy for those unmarried, and fidelity to one’s partner when married.

In ancient and medieval era Indian texts, the term brahmacharya is a concept with more complex meaning. Brahmacharya embodies in its meaning an overall lifestyle that helps the pursuit of sacred knowledge and spiritual liberation. It is a means, not an end, and usually includes cleanliness, ahimsa, simple living, studies, meditation, voluntary restraints on certain diet, intoxicants and behaviors (including sexual behavior).

History

The Vedas discuss Brahmacharya, both in the context of lifestyle and stage of one’s life. Rig Veda, for example, in Book 10 Chapter 136, mentions knowledge seekers as those with Kesin (long haired) and soil-colored clothes (yellow, orange, saffron) engaged in the affairs of Mananat (mind, meditation). Rigveda, however, refers to these people as Muni and Vati. The Atharva Veda, completed by about 1000 BC, has more explicit discussion of Brahmacharya, in Book XI Chapter 5. This Chapter of Atharva Veda describes Brahmacharya as that which leads to one’s second birth (mind, Self-awareness), with Hymn 11.5.3 painting a symbolic picture that when a teacher accepts a Brahmachari, the student becomes his embryo.

The concept and practice of Brahmacarya is extensively found among the older strata of the Mukhya Upanishads in Hinduism. The 8th century BC text Chandogya Upanishad describes in Book 8, activities and lifestyle that is Brahmacharya:

Now what people call yajña (sacrifice) is really Brahmacharya, for only by means of Brahmacharya does the knower attain that world (of Brahman). And what people call Ishta (worship) is really Brahmacharya, for only worshipping by means of Brahmacarya does one attain the Atman (the liberated Self). Now, what people call the Sattrayana (sacrificial session) is really Brahmacharya, for only by means of Brahmacharya does one obtain one’s salvation from Sat (Being). And what people call the Mauna (vow of silence) is really Brahmacharya for only through Brahmacharya does one understand the Atman and then meditate. Now, what people call a Anasakayana (vow of fasting) is really Brahmacharya, for this Atman never perishes which one attains by means of Brahmacharya. And what people call theAranyayana (life of a hermit) is really Brahmacharya, for the world of Brahman belongs to those who by means of Brahmacharya attain the seas Ara and Nya in the world of Brahman. For them there is freedom in all the worlds.

— Chandogya Upanishad, VIII.5.1 – VIII.5.4[

A hymn in another early Upanishad, the Mundaka Upanishad in Book 3, Chapter 1 similarly states,

सत्येन लभ्यस्तपसा ह्येष आत्मा सम्यग्ज्ञानेन ब्रह्मचर्येण नित्यम् । Through continuous pursuit of Satya (truthfulness), Tapas (perseverance, austerity), Samyajñāna (correct knowledge), and Brahmacharya, one attains Atman (Inner Self, Soul).

— Mundaka Upanishad, III.1.5

The Vedas and early Upanishadic texts of Hinduism in their discussion of Brahmacharya, make no mention of the age of the student at the start of Brahmacharya, nor any restraint on sexual activity. One of the earliest discussion and contrasting viewpoints on sexual intercourse during Brahmacharya is in section 11.5.4 of Satpatha Brahamana. The verses 11.5.4.16 and 11.5.4.17 present two different viewpoints on sexual activity, one against and one as a choice. Similarly, in verse 11.5.4.18, the Satapatha Brahamana presents contrasting viewpoints on an eating restraint for the Brahmachari.

Brahmacharya as Asrama stage of life

Historically brahmacarya referred to a stage of life (asrama) within the Vedic ashram system. Ancient Hindu culture divided the human lifespan into four stages: Brahmacharya,GrihasthaVanaprastha and SannyasaBrahamacharya asrama occupied the first 20–25 years of life roughly corresponding to adolescence. Upon the child’sUpanayanam, the young person would begin a life of study in the Gurukula (the household of the Guru) dedicated to learning all aspects of dharma that is the “principles of righteous living”. Dharma comprised personal responsibilities towards himself, family, society, humanity and God which included the environment, earth and nature. This educational period started when the child was five to eight years old and lasted until the age of 14 to 20 years. During this stage of life, the traditional vedic sciences and various sastras were studied along with the religious texts contained within the Vedas and Upanishads. This stage of life was characterized by the practice of celibacy.

Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad suggests that Brahmacharya (student) stage of life should extend from the age a child is ready to receive teachings from a guru, and continue for a period of twelve years.

The graduation from Brahmacharya stage of life was marked by the Samavartanam ceremony. The graduate was then ready to either start Grihastha (householder) stage of life, or wait, or pursue a life of Sannyasa and solitude like Rishis in forest. Vyasa in Chapter 234 of Shanti Parva in the Mahabharata praises Brahmacharya as an important stage of life necessary for learning, then adds Grihastha stage as the root of society and important to an individual’s success.

Brahmacharya for girls

The Vedas and Upanishads do not restrict the student stage of life to males. Atharva Veda, for example, states

ब्रह्मचर्येण कन्या युवानं विन्दते पतिम् | A youthful Kanya (कन्या, girl) who graduates from Brahmacharya, obtains a suitable husband.

— Atharva Veda, 11.5.18

No age restrictions

Gonda states that there were no age restrictions for the start of Brahmacharya in ancient India. Not only young men, but older people resorted to student stage of life, and sought teachers who were authoritative in certain subjects. The Chandogya Upanishad, in Section 5.11, describes “wealthy and learned householders” becoming Brahmacharis (students) with Rishi Kaikeya, to gain knowledge about Atman (Soul, inner Self) and Brahman (Ultimate Reality).

Brahmacharya as a virtue

Brahmacharya is one of five Yamas in Yoga, for example as declared in verse 2.30 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is a form of self-restraint virtue and recommended observance depending on an individual’s context. For a married practitioner it means marital fidelity (not cheating on one’s spouse); for a single person it means celibacy. SandilyaUpanishad includes Brahmacharya as one of ten Yamas in Chapter 1, then defines it as “refraining from sexual intercourse in all places and in all states in mind, speech or body”.

Patanjali in verse 2.38 states the virtue of Brahmacharya leads to the profit of Virya (वीर्य). This Sanskrit word, Virya, has been variously translated as virility, and by Vyasa as strength and capacity. Vyasa explains that this virtue advances other good qualities. Other ancient and medieval era texts of Hinduism describe the fruits of this virtue differently. For example, Pada Chandrika, Raja Marttanda, Sutrartha Bodhini, Mani Prabha and Yoga Sudhakara each state that Brahmacharya must be understood as the voluntary restraint of power. Chandogya Upanishad in verses of chapter 8.5 extols Brahmacharya as a sacrament and sacrifice, that once perfected, leads to realization of Self, and thereafter becomes the habit of experiencing the soul in others and everything. Tattva Vaisharadi and Yoga Sarasangraha state Brahmacharya leads to increase in jñana-shakti (power of knowledge) and kriya-shakti (power of action).

The Epic Mahabharata, in Book Five Udyoga Parva (the Book of Effort), describes the objective of Brahmacharya as the knowledge of Brahman. The virtue of Brahmacharya leads one to union with the Supreme Soul, asserts the Epic in Chapter 43. It embodies the practice of self-restraint, the ability to overcome desire in order to learn, discover truths (in Vedas and Upanishads), understand reality, pay attention in thought, word and deed to the guru (teacher). The practice of studying and learning skills, states the Epic, requires the “aid of time”, personal effort and abilities, as well as discussion and practice, all of which the virtue of Brahmacharya helps. A Brahmacharya, states the Mahabharata, should do useful work, and the earnings he so obtained be given away as the dakshina (fee, gift of thanks) to the guru. The Epic declares that Brahmacharya is one of twelve virtues, an essential part of Angas in Yoga, and is the path of perfecting perseverance and pursuit of Knowledge.

Brahmacharya in Jainism

Brahmacharya is one of the five major vows prescribed for the layman (śrāvakā) and ascetics in Jainism. For those Jains who adopt the path of monks, celibacy in action, words and thoughts is expected. For Lay Jains who are married, the virtue of Brahmacharya requires remaining sexually faithful to one’s chosen partner. For Lay Jains who are unmarried, chaste living requires Jains to avoid sex before marriage. It is one of the ten excellencies of a Digambara monk. It is mentioned as one of the ten virtues (das dharma) in ancient Jain texts like Tattvartha SutraSarvārthasiddhi and Puruşārthasiddhyupāya.

Brahmacharya among religious movements

In Indian traditions, a Brahmachari is a male and Brahmacharini a female.

Brahma Kumaris

Among Brahma Kumaris and Prajapita Brahma Kumaris, Brahmacarya is practised by married couples and householders too, as a way of formalizing sexual behavior into a conscious, co-creative practice rather than merely an unconscious habit.

International Society for Krishna Consciousness

Among ISKCON, a devotional movement that follows the Bhakti school of Hinduism, a male devotee is called Brahmachari and female devotee Brahmacharini. The unmarried male Brahmacharis wear saffron robes, while married male householders wear white robes. Brahmacharinis wear Saris of any color. The term Brahmachari and Brahmacharini is reserved for those practicing celibacy. Married devotees, in contrast, are called grihastha (householders).

Ashrams and Mathas

Various Ashrams (आश्रम, hermitage) and Matha (मठ, college of ascetics) of various schools of Hinduism call their male and female initiates as Brahmachari and Brahmacharinis.

Brahmacharya among Sramanic traditions

Among the sramanic traditions (Buddhism, Jainism, Ājīvika and Carvaka schools of Hinduism), Brahmacharya is the term used for the practice of self-imposed celibacy that is generally considered a prerequisite for spiritual practice. The fourth of five great vows of Jain monks, for example, is a promise of celibacy, which means total abstinence from sensual pleasure of all five senses, including avoidance of sexual thoughts and desires. Western notions of the religious life as practised in monastic settings correspond to these characteristics. The Yogin who is firmly grounded in Brahmacharya virtue is stated to gain great vitality.

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