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Brahmacharya (//; Devanagari: ब्रह्मचर्य behavior that leads to Brahman) is one of the four stages of life in an age-based social system as laid out in the Manu Smrti and later Classical Sanskrit texts in Hinduism. It refers to an educational period of 14–20 years which starts before the age of puberty. During this time, the traditional Vedic Sciences are studied, along with the religious texts contained within the Vedas and Upanishads. This stage of life was characterized by the practice of strict celibacy.
Among the Hindu monastic as well as sramanic traditions, Brahmacharya is the term used for the practice of self-imposed celibacy that is generally considered an essential prerequisite for spiritual practice. These characteristics correspond to Western notions of the religious life as practiced in monastic settings.
The word brahmacharya stems literally from two components:
- Brahma, (shortened from brahman), the absolute, eternal, supreme God-head. (As opposed to Brahmā, the deity in the Hindu triad responsible for creation).
- charya, which means "to follow". This is often translated as activity, mode of behaviour, a "virtuous" way of life.
So the word brahmacharya indicates a lifestyle adopted to enable one to attain the ultimate reality.
The term brahmacharya has two principal uses:
In its most common usage today brahmacharya denotes the practice of sexual abstinence or celibacy adopted by those following a spiritual path (sadhana). Abstaining from sexual activity is highly praised in Buddhism, Hindu monasticism and Jainism. At its most basic level, brahmacharya means abstinence from sexual intercourse, by eight types of sexual contact. For a male practitioner of Buddhist, Jain or Hindu monasticism, it refers more specifically to refraining from voluntary loss of semen. At more subtle levels, brahmacharya includes greater physical and mental sexual discipline, until ultimately the practitioner experiences complete absence of sexual desire despite the most alluring stimuli. Hindu scriptures state that the practice of brahmacharya promotes mental and spiritual purity, and it is encouraged for anyone wishing to attain spiritual realization. Thus, Hindu scriptures prescribe such practice for householders prior to important religious rites, such as yagnas, or observances, such as vrats. However, the practice of brahmacharya is more sustained for most sadhus, or renunciates, who often take a lifelong vow of brahmacharya, or celibacy, so that their life becomes centered on surrender to Guru and God, with the firm hope of God realization and the perfect divine happiness. This is called Akhanda Brahmacharya (unbroken Brahmacharya).
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, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa, a system prescribed for the dvija castes in Manusmriti. Brahamacharya asrama occupied the first 20-25 years of life roughly corresponding to adolescence. Upon the child's Upanayanam (a ceremony in which the child is considered to take a second birth) 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 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 14–20 years. During this period the traditional vedic sciences were studied along with the religious texts contained within the Vedas and Upanishads. This stage of life was characterised by the practice of strict celibacy.
The word brahmacharya is also understood broadly in yoga as "sexual continence," which is understood differently depending on the appropriateness of the given situation. For a married practitioner it means marital fidelity; for a single person it means celibacy. For single male yogis it means being committed to the self-disciplined practice of preserving and sublimating male sexual energy rather than losing it through ejaculation. Brahmacharya is discussed in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras as one of the 5 Yamas, the foundational commitments for the practice of yoga. According to the Yoga Sutras, the end-result or fruit of Brahmacharya practised to perfection is unbounded energy and vitality.
In Hindu as well as pre-vedic traditions, the spiritual aspirant is directed to emulate the transcendent absolute reality and obtain self-mastery of sexual energy in deed, mind, and speech so as to avoid causing any harm to self or others, on the level of body, mind, or spirit. A Brahmachari is a male and brahmacharini a female.
This embodiment discipline transcends gender and cultivaties the great power inherent in the sexual essence, channeling it upwards to enhance meditative capacity rather than dispersing it outwards. According to Patanjali's Yoga-Sutra, the yogin (practitioner of yoga) who is firmly grounded in this virtue gains great vitality. Among the sramanic traditions, Brahmacharya is the term used for the practice of self-imposed celibacy that is generally considered an essential prerequisite for spiritual practice.These characteristics correspond to Western notions of the religious life as practised in monastic settings but in the Brahma Kumaris and Prajapita Brahma Kumaris religion, it 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.
Brahmacharya is observed to contain one's sensual desires for food and taste, as well as materialism. Most brahmacharis avoid the consumption of meat, spices and cooked foods, which are said to cultivate the taste buds and pleasure centers of the mind.
The effect of certain food components in stimulating sexual desire may be attributed to their role in sex hormone synthesis. According to tradition, certain foods such as garlic and onion are said to induce sexual desire. Whole milk and milk products derived from cream (butter, ghee and cheese) are also said to stimulate sexual desire.
Role of attitude in Brahmacharya
Hindus believes that to maintain proper brahmacharya one should constantly engage his mind in constructive activities. His attitude should be very peaceful, calm and nonviolent. He should recite Gods name in free time and engage in learning shastras and other sciences to convert that sexual energy in a positive way towards constructive activities, which will lead to the betterment of society. Mental attitude is an important component in sexual excitement. Believing something is sexually exciting makes it exciting. For example, a man never gets sexually excited by his mother as he would be by another woman. This shows the role of attitude in sexual excitement. Regarding all women other than one's wife as mothers and sisters will help purify one's mind. Sri Ramakrishna's says "I regard the breasts of any woman as those of my own mother".
Brahmacharya can also be interpreted more generally in a variety of ways, such as:
- generally striving for excellence in all domains of activity and relationship
- pursuing 'virtue' however defined. Brahmacharya understood in this sense is similar to the classical Greek concept of arete (excellence)
- clearing underlying personality conflicts and centering oneself and ones spiritual journey in clear, well conceived and sustainable values (that is, thinking of Brahmacharya as an ongoing practice of 'clearing' analogous to resolving personality complexes and conflicts in psychotherapy)
- refining one's 'energies' (prana/chi/aura etc.) in relation to other people generally, to become aware of more subtle energies and to take one's energies or 'vibration' higher
- "That power comes to him who observes unbroken Brahmacharya for a period of twelve years, with the sole object of realising God I have practiced that kind of Brahmacharya myself, and so a screen has been removed, as it were, from my brain."
- "The chaste brain has tremendous energy and gigantic will power. Without chastity there can be no spiritual strength. Continence gives wonderful control over mankind. The spiritual leaders of men have been very continent and this is what gave them power."
- "Every boy should be trained to practice absolute Brahmacharya and then, and then alone faith and Shraddha will come. Chastity in thought, word and deed always and in all conditions is what is called Brahmacharya. Unchaste imagination is as bad as unchaste action. The Brahmacharin must be pure in thought, word and deed."
- "In order to attain to ideal Brahmacharya one has in the beginning to observe strict rules regarding chastity. For minimum 12 years, one should keep oneself strictly aloof from the least association with the opposite sex as far as possible. When spiritual aspirants are established in the ideal of Sannyasa and brahmacharya, they will be able to mix on an equal footing with worldly men without any harm. But in the beginning 12 years, if they do not keep themself within the barriers of strict rules, they will all go wrong."
- "Brahmacharya should be like a burning fire within the veins!"
- "Obedience to the Guru without questioning, and strict observance of Brahmacharya — this is the secret of success."
- "To be able to realize God, one must practise absolute continence. Sages like Sukadeva are examples of an urdhvareta. (A man of unbroken and complete continence.) Their chastity was absolutely unbroken. There is another class, who previously have had discharges of semen but who later on have controlled them. A man controlling the seminal fluid for twelve years develops a special power. He grows a new inner nerve called the nerve of memory. Through that nerve he remembers all, he understands all"."
Brahmacharya in Jainism
Chastity for lay Jains
Lay Jains may have sexual relationships and have children; the lay version of chaste living simply means remaining true and faithful to one's chosen partner. Some Jain writers suggest that even married people should not over-indulge in sexual activities, and have argued that the principle of chaste living will help in population control. Chaste living also requires Jains to avoid sex before marriage, and to avoid sexual thoughts. They should not look at pornography or sexually stimulating material, so that they can retain a clear mind, unclouded by desire.
Chastity in monks and nuns
Jain monks and nuns are expected to remain completely celibate in body and mind. They do not think about sex and avoid remembering sexual incidents before they became monks.
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- Brahmacharya: Celibacy With Understanding - Brahamcharya: Celibacy With Understanding by Dada Bhagwan
- Yuvadhan Book on Brahmacharya by Sant Shri Asaramji Bapu
- Celibacy - Useful notes on different aspects of brahmacharya
- Interviews with Swami Chidananda: The Role of Celibacy in the Spiritual Life
- Practice of Brahmacharya by Swami Sivananda - html,pdf
- BRAHMACHARYA - Celibacy Attained With Understanding
- Saivite Virtue