Brahmacharya—literally, under the tutelage of Brahma1—is the one of the Yama, or codes of Universal Conduct, found in Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutra”. As BKS Iyengar defines it, Brahmacharya “means the life of celibacy, religious study and self-restraint.”2
When examining the true meaning of Brahmacharya, it is interesting how divergent the published interpretations of this precept really are. Ultimately, the topic of sex is always a heated one that people internalize and infuse with their own feelings and viewpoints on the subject. Even Vedic scholars are susceptible to these egotistically defensive interpretations to justify their personal choices.
You can read the writings of Sri Swami Sivananda3, who adamantly maintains (quoting Yajnavalkya) that, “Brahmacharya is abstaining from all kinds of Maithuna or sexual enjoyment forever, in all places and in all conditions, physically, mentally and verbally.” Or, if you’re so inclined, study Tantra instead, which proffers that, “In tantra, it is said that sexual interaction has three different purposes. The first purpose is progeny, the second is pleasure and the third is super-consciousness. Those who consider super-consciousness to be the purpose are yogis, those who consider pleasure to be the purpose are human beings, and those who consider progeny to be the purpose are animals.”4
It is an interesting point that Vedic scholars, studying the same ancient texts, can aver on one hand that sexual intercourse is the utter antithesis of yogic discipline, and that it is the path to higher consciousness on the other. Also, of note, is the Tantric designation of sexual intercourse for the purposes of progeny as being an animalistic instinct. Most religions of the world would whole-heartedly disagree with this assessment, saying quite the opposite: that intercourse for the purposes of reproduction is holy, and that for pleasure or other ends is immoral.5
Perhaps the most commonly accepted medium is the theory that Brahmacharya does not require complete celibacy, but rather mindful and responsible action, always leading to one’s personal truth. Within this theory is the designation of four life stages: that of child, student, family man or woman, and elder.6 Within the first, second, and fourth stages, a person should be celibate; as a child, as sexual activity would be inappropriate, as a student, as sexual activity would detract from one’s studies, and after raising a family, as it is no longer necessary and the mind and energy are now free to pursue higher truths. But as a person of child-bearing age, to engage in sexual relations helps one to fulfill his or her societal roles in rearing a family.
Brahmacharya should not be seen as the repression of sexual urges or desires, as that behavior tends to lead to depravity and sexual misdeed. Rather, the goal of Brahmacharya is to engage so deeply in pranayama, meditation, asana, and study that sexual urges are eradicated and no longer need to be contended with at all.7 As explained in the Bhagavad Gita, “The objects of the senses fall away from a man practising abstinence, but not the taste for them. But even the taste falls away when the Supreme is seen….In that serenity there is an end of all sorrow; for the intelligence of the man of serene mind soon becomes steady.” 8
One thing that all of the various interpretations seem to agree upon is that the conservation and control of sexual energy is transformed into Ojas (primal vigor), Tejas (inner radiance), and overall Virya (courage). As Sri Swami Sivananda explains, semen is comprised of between 40 (scientifically) and 80 (Ayurvedically) drops of blood, and is omnipresent as the life force that circulates throughout the body. Whenever semen is discharged, so is a man’s vitality. As it is preserved, so does the man benefit with physical, mental, and spiritual strength.
Ultimately, the real goal of Brahmacharya is to turn away from the emotional responses to sensory input. It is the control of self in thought, word, and deed, stemming reactionary sensual attachments and replacing them with objective and unattached reality. The Brahmacharyi (or Brahmacharyini) expends his (or her) energy productively by working hard, minimizes dietary stimulation by eating simply, and devotes himself to the attainment of higher consciousness by a dedicated practice of sadhana and meditation.
1 “Brahmacharya.” Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahmacharya.
2 Iyengar, BKS. Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.
3 Sri Swami Sivananda. “Importance of Brahmacharya!” Available at http://www.yoga-age.com/modern/brahma.html.
4 “Sex, Brahmacharya…Myths Demystified.” Soul Curry. Available at http://soulcurrymagazine.com/sc/sex-brahmacharya-understand-it.html. 12 July 2008.
5 “Religion and Sexuality.” Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_and_sexuality.
6 Desikachar, TKV. The Heart of Yoga. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1995.
7 “Brahmacharya.” Available at http://yoga108.org/pages/show/96-brahmacharya-control-of-the-senses-or-chastity-one-of-the-ethical-precepts-of-yoga.
8 Swami Nikhilananada. The Bhagavad Gita. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1944.
9 Sivananda, “Importance of Brahmacharya!”