Why do American yogis believe Brahmacarya means celibacy?

Via on May 4, 2010

yoga-for-dummies

The eightfold path of yoga, as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, includes the 10 ethical tenets of Yama and Niyama, which includes Brahmacarya.

Most interpreters translate this Sanskrit word as celibacy, or total sexual abstinence.

Why has this word been interpreted as celibacy? It does not make sense. Because, if all yogis became celibate, we’d sooner or later face extinction, just like the Shakers, whose tradition pretty much vanished, in part, because they were all celibate.

Yes, why has a word so deeply mystical and spiritually all-embracing been reduced to the avoidance of sex?  More importantly, why do American yoga students accept this meaning without question? The reason is that yoga scholars and yoga teachers in the West have a strong Vedic bias. And yoga students swallow this bias hook, line, and sinker.

The meaning of Brahmacarya is “to remain attached to Brahma”. The meaning of practicing Brahmacarya is thus to treat all objects or beings with which we come in contact as expressions of Brahma (Spirit) and not as crude, limited forms.

By means of such a spiritual habit, even though the mind wanders from one object to another, we are not detached from Spirit. We infuse everything with reverence and sacredness.

Whether we are eating breakfast or making love, if our ideation is that our food or lover is an expression of God or Spirit, we are indeed practicing Brahmacarya.

In ancient, Tantric, or Shaiva times, this meaning of Brahmacarya was apparently accepted. Later, when Indian society was dominated by Vedic priests and Vedic dogmas, fear and inferiority complexes were infused in people’s minds.

In turn, people started believing that they, by leading regular lives, had committed a serious sin, and that they indulged in activities against Brahmacarya.

The monks, who observed celibacy, were therefore thought to be far more spiritually advanced and thus could maintain their political hegemony and religious superiority.

Make no mistake about it. I am not downplaying the spiritual benefits of authentic celibacy. I am also not saying that sexual indulgence is a form of spiritual practice. It is not. But the point is, Brahmacarya has nothing to do with abstinence or celibacy. Brahmacarya is a state of being, a state of consciousness. That is the Tantric interpretation and also the literal meaning of these Sanskrit words.

Isn’t it about time American yogis start embracing yoga’s Tantric heritage?

About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes was born in Norway and lived for nearly three years in India and Nepal learning directly from the masters of tantric yoga. He has written extensively on tantra, yoga, culture and sustainability, and his articles have appeared in books and numerous magazines and newspapers in Europe and the US. His forthcoming book on Tantra will be published by Hay House India soon. He is currently contributing editor of New Renaissance and a columnist for Fredrikstad Blad, a Norwegian newspaper. He lives in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Visit his blog here: Eight Fold Path. His book Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit: A Personal Guide to the Wisdom of Yoga and Tantra can be purchased here.

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25 Responses to “Why do American yogis believe Brahmacarya means celibacy?”

  1. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for posting this. I've studied the yoga sutras for many years, but have never run across this interpretation of brahmacharya. I like it. While I have certainly read interpretations of brahmacharya as celibacy or abstinence, I've come to instead understand it as wise use of your sexual—or more broadly—your creative energy. Much like Mat above, I see there being two paths—the path of the renunciate and the path of the householder. Authentic, unforced celibacy in a renunciate can be a source of joy, just as the wise, respectful and spiritually conscious sexuality of a householder can be a source of joy. I will enjoy integrating this understanding of brahmacharya into my practice.

  2. swati jr* says:

    thank yoU! finally….maharishi makes this clear in his translation of the Gita. so much confusion out there……

  3. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Very well said, Charlotte, and especially if monks, nuns, singles and householders embrace the inner meaning of Brahmacarya, that all is Divine, that all acts can be sacred.

  4. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Thank YOU, Swati jr for mentioning Maharishi's translation….

  5. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Very well said, Kaoverii, and a beautiful and informative addition to the points others have made.

  6. guest says:

    I love this, from Osho:

    "Brahmacarya is not a discipline, it is a consequence."

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh Bjonnes says:

      I would agree if the quote applies to those who have already arrived, for those discipline is not necessary. But for those who are still on the path, the practice of Brahmacarya is necessary as a reminder that everything is Divine, that everything is Brahma, that all acts are sacred offerings to the Great Spirit. That is why in tantra there is a practice called mahuvidya, or "honey knowledge," which is the use of a mantra before one acts. This practice turns everything we do into a form of meditation… and practice requires discipline.

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh Bjonnes says:

      Great quote for and about those who have arrived at the cosmic station, for those who need no discipline, no practice, for those whose life is the way. But for those who have yet to arrive, practice, discipline is needed. Sadhana, which is often wrongly translated as meditation, means effort to reach the goal. And Brahmacarya, is practiced in yoga as madhuvidya, or honey knowledge, using mantra before our actions to flavor everything with cosmic honey. Brahmacarya is our effort to stay in touch with that inner, spiritual honey in everything we do. The sweetest of disciplines, I believe.
      (I wrote another reply to our dear guest earlier which did not get posted, and if it appears from the ether, hopefully the redundancy won't spoil the honey)

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh Bjonnes says:

      Great quote for and about those who have arrived at the cosmic station, for those who need no discipline, no practice, for those whose life is the way. But for those who have yet to arrive, practice, discipline is needed. Sadhana, which is often wrongly translated as meditation, means effort to reach the goal. And Brahmacarya, is practiced in yoga as madhuvidya, or honey knowledge, using mantra before our actions to flavor everything with cosmic honey. Brahmacarya is our effort to stay in touch with that inner, spiritual honey in everything we do. The sweetest of disciplines, I believe.
      (I wrote another reply to our dear guest earlier which did not get posted, and if it appears from the ether, hopefully the redundancy won't spoil the honey)

  7. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh Bjonnes says:

    In The Shambala Encyclopedia of Yoga, its author, Georg Feuerstein, who is perhaps the most influential yoga scholar in the West today, writes that Brahmacarya means "essentially stands for the ideal of chastity." As I mentioned in my blog above, that is essentially how this yogic ethic is translated, described and emphasized. But it ain't the tantric way, for sure.

    He does mention, however, that the Darshana Upanishad explains it as "the minds movement toward the state of the brahman." Now, here's a curious way of essentially saying what I have done, but it is not quite clear, because Feuerstein's use of "the" before brahman is confusing. Does he mean brahman as in Spirit, or brahman as in a brahmin priest? This is an important distinction, indeed. Reading further, there is no indication Feuerstein interprets this tenet other than to men chastity or celibacy. So there you have it, folks, from the pen of our most astute and influential yoga scholar. If we read this passage without the preposition, we actually come pretty close to the tantric definition: the minds movement toward the state of brahman.
    This idea that Brahmacarya has anything to do with abstinence and especially the preservation of semen (a term often used in this regard, and also by Feuerstein) does not make sense. In yoga, ayurveda and especially tantra, it is known and emphasized that sexual overindulgence weakens the nervous system and that sexual energy sublimation increases ojas, kundalini energy, vitality, intelligence, creativity, etc, for essentially that is what the sexual energy is all about, it is an expression of macrocosmic shakti, or cosmic energy, in the microcosmic, human realm, male and female. And, as with all energy, it must be handled with care. Too much stimulation or use of any form of vital energy is not yogic balance and does not create harmony. Balance is the key. So, if Brahmacarya has anything remotely to do with sex, it has to do with sexual balance, deep surrender and non-attachment, deep love and awe, the seeing of brahman as the inner heart and the cosmic vitality in all our actions. And that is, I think, what the Dharsana Upanishad means to tell us, that Brahmacarya is about leading a life in the flow of Spirit, in the flow of brahman, and not according to the dogma of the Vedic brahmin priesthood. Brahmacarya, then, is the mind's movement toward the state of bliss…. May all our actions be blissful!

  8. Viirendra says:

    As we will inevitably learn, the further we go into our spiritual practices, that the mind is more sentimental than logical.
    Since it is total bliss that we seek, we have to be careful not to overindulge in the lesser forms of bliss in the mean time.
    The more we ideate on the lower chakras and their propensities, as well as eat foods which cause heat and static conditions in the body, we are forcing the body to convert lymph into semen rather than the more vital shukra which would nourish the pituitary and pineal glands. Brahmacarya has a physical component which when understood in the context of Tantra will make the sentimental aspects much more easy to follow.

  9. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh Bjonnes says:

    I can think of no better description of Brahmacarya (to feel Spirit everywhere) and madhuvidya (honey knowledge) than the story of St. Francis embracing the leper: As he writes in his Testament: “The Lord granted to me, Br. Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was still in sin, it seemed very bitter for me to see lepers. But the Lord Himself led me among them, and I had mercy on them. And when I left them what had before seemed bitter to me was transformed into sweetness of soul and body….” This is tantric yoga, transforming adversity and fear into union and sweet love. Although St. Francis was a monk, it was not his celibacy that made him a follower of Brahmacarya, it was his state of consciousness, his ability to overcome fear with love. In spirit, he was a tantric yogi.

  10. Great post and discussion, Ramesh. I was just reading these supporting passages from the Bhagavad Gita in preparation for the next Gita Talk blog tomorrow:

    God is the offering, God
    is the offered, poured out by God;
    God is attained by all those
    who see God in every action (BG 4.24)

    (For those not familiar with the Gita, the term "God" in this case is defined simply and expansively as "the infinite, unknowable, wondrous life-force of the universe", i.e. the universe itself, which encompasses all other concepts of God in its universal sweep.)

    Bob Weisenberg
    ElephantJournal.com

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

    Bob Weisenberg

    Bob Weisenberg
    (My Elephant blog)

    Bob Weisenberg http://YogaDemystified.com

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

    Yoga in America–In the Words of Some of Yoga's Most Ardent Teachers

    Bob Weisenberg
    ElephantJournal.com

  11. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh Bjonnes says:

    Bob, this is great… I actually chant this sloka in Sanskrit after my meditation each morning and evening…. it is a beautiful practice…

    • It is beautiful, isn't it? I find the attached definition is critical what using the word "God" in conjunction with Yoga, so no one thinks we mean a personal God to whom we can pray. And yet… And yet Gita's concept of God encompassed that, too, because:

      However men try to reach me,
      I return their love with my love;
      whatever path they may travel
      it leads to me in the end. (BG 4.11)

      OMG, I'm becoming a Gita Thumper!

      Bob Weisenberg

      ElephantJournal.com

    • It is beautiful, isn't it? I find the attached definition is critical what using the word "God" in conjunction with Yoga, so no one thinks we mean a personal God to whom we can pray. And yet… And yet Gita's concept of God encompassed that, too, because:

      However men try to reach me,
      I return their love with my love;
      whatever path they may travel
      it leads to me in the end. (BG 4.11)

      OMG, I'm becoming a Gita Thumper!

      Bob Weisenberg

      ElephantJournal.com

    • Ramesh says:

      Thanks for this excellent link, Tagi, which give great insight into the traditional, swami, and thus Vedic brahmin, concept of brahmacarya. As a former celibate sanyasin for many years, I do appreciate the great wisdom and power of sexual abstinence for spiritual practice. But I also know that without the true meaning of brahmacarya, which is to see and experience brahma in all we do, think, hear, feel–being a celibate can be just another way of suppression and far from an enlightened state of being. That said, many celibate yogis and yoginis are true brahmacaries in the spiritual sense of the word.
      The main bias in this article by Shivananda is the belief that celibacy equals the highest from of spirituality and that without it enlightenment is impossible. Enlightenment is not solely based on abstinence, enlightenment is a state of being, and one can be a celibate or not to be enlightened. On the other hand, sexual indulgence is not enlightened behavior–balance and inner transformation and transmutation of desires and cravings are the key, making each act an act of spiritual transcendence.

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  14. Shubhajit says:

    Well written! It is all about experience that one can receive irrespective of the practice one performs. Well, we can deny the fact of physical being when it comes mental progress because both are subtly intertwined together. every spiritual aspirant must conserve sexual energy (I am not saying that, but experienced it) because we can't deny the power of that energy that creates as well can destroy things in a gigantic ways. Brahmacharya doesn't mean (as i feel so) suppressing your seminal fluid by some force, but it means channelize your sexual energy into more higher purpose. It is indeed tough but then spiritual practice is the ultimate work so it has to be tough when we are not tuned with reality.

  15. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Mat, That may be part of the problem, yes, but I think a larger issue is that people have not been taught this tantric interpretation of Brahmacarya and thus have been left to believe in the dogma that Brahmacarya equals celibacy, or at least continence.

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