Celibacy? - A Hindu Perspective
I am invited to present a Hindu view on anything, I often
find it convenient to begin by explaining what my own name
means. It is an unusual name in the West, difficult to pronounce
and unintelligible to most people. "Swami" is the
epithet used for Hindu monks and the word means "master".
It points to the ideal of being a master of oneself or being
in control of oneself. The second part of my name is my actual:
name, given to me when I received my final vows of sannyasa,
or monastic life. Tyagananda is a combination of two words,
"tyaga" and "ananda": "tyaga"
means detachment or letting go; "ananda" means joy.
Taken together, the word means "the joy of detachment".
Again, it points to the ideal of letting go of all the non-essentials
in order to focus on and hold on to the essentials.
name thus serves me as a reminder of two ideals: self-mastery
and letting go. Both these are involved in the practice of
celibacy as j understood in the Hindu way of life.
am a Hindu monk and, as all monks do, I have taken a formal
vow of celibacy. I should make it clear that I am a monk,
not a priest. In the Hindu tradition, monastic duties and
priestly duties are different and distinct. Monks are always
celibate. Priests don't have to be. Indeed, most Hindu ceremonies
need a married priest. An unmarried or a divorced priest or
a widower priest is not eligible to perform certain religious
monks are exempt from most rituals and ceremonies connected
with the social aspects of religion. Their primary duty is
towards the spiritual aspects of religion: transforming the
inner life through prayer, meditation and study, and sharing
their insights with other spiritual seekers. In ancient times
Hindu monks lived outside the social structure. Their contact
with society was minimal: those interested in spiritual life
sought instruction from the monks, and others just left them
alone. Monks lived on alms and led austere lives.
the last hundred years or so, Hindu monasticism has undergone
a change. While a significant number of monks and nuns still
follow the traditional pattern, many nowadays function within
the social structure. They don't go out begging for food anymore
but engage themselves in activities designed to serve the
needy sections of society. They look upon their work not as
social service but as part of their spiritual practice, and
they don't hold salaried jobs. If God is present in the hearts
of all beings, then serving others should be no different
from worshipping the Divine present in them.
is the philosophy that guides the programmes of the Ramakrishna
Order, to which I belong. The Order is named after the Hindu
mystic Rnmakrishna, who lived in India in the nineteenth century.
It was his disciple Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who came
to this country exactly 110 years ago and started the Vedanta
Societies. The Ramakrishna Order currently has about 1500
monks staying in many countries around the world.
"Dwelling in Brahman"
monks take the vow of poverty and celibacy. The Sanskrit word
for celibacy is brahmacharya, "dwelling in Brahman".
What do I mean by Brahman? What does "dwelling in"
mean and how is it to be practised? In order to answer these
questions, it is necessary to understand the Hindu world view.
Let us begin with a few key concepts.
Hinduism, the ultimate Reality is called Brahman. Brahman
is not the name of a person. It is not a state to be attained.
It is not a place to be reached. Literally the word simply
means that which is vast. It is used to denote pure consciousness.
Why 'pure' consciousness? By that is meant not the consciousness
'of something but 'consciousness-itself. Understood thus,
Brahman - or consciousness-itself - is undivided, all-pervading,
birthless and deathless.
characteristics of Brahman are best described by the word
sat-cit-ananda, "Being-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute".
Brahman is not merely consciousness-itself but also being-itseif
and bliss-itself. To be "dwelling in Brahman" is
the same as being one with being, consciousness and bliss.
Oneness with being removes the threat of being reduced to
non-being or "nothingness" (which is what death
looks like); oneness with consciousness removes the threat
of being reduced to dust (the eventual fate of the body);
and oneness with bliss removes the threat of sorrow and suffering
in this life and the afterlife. Sat-cit-ananda, or Being-Consciousness-Bliss
Absolute, is not just the "ultimate" reality, it
is also the "present" reality of you and me.
the "Real Me"
current experience of who we are doesn't, of course, correspond
to what I just said. We don't see ourselves as Being-Consciousness-Bliss
Absolute. We see ourselves as just ordinary human beings -
weak, imperfect, and vulnerable to forces outside of ourselves.
According to Hindu teachers, this happens because something
is obstructing us from getting in touch with our true reality.
My true reality is my real Self, the "real me",
which is different from the ego. The Hindus see the ego as
a function of the mind. They don't see the mind as the "real
me". According to them, the mind is still outside - or
is a kind of covering over - the "real me", which
is sometimes called the true Self (to distinguish it from
the ego) or the divine Self (to distinguish it from our frail
human identity) - usually the "S" is capitalized
Sanskrit word for the true Self or divine Self is Atman. That
is the only spiritual part of the human personality. By spiritual
I mean non-material. Both the body and the mind are material
parts. That the body is made up of material particles is perhaps
easy to understand, but it may sound strange that even the
mind is material. According to the Hindu tradition, the mind
is not visible the way the body is because it is made of subtle
matter. Our sense organs have their limitations and so we
cannot see the mind the way I we can see the body.
mind is similar to the body in many ways: both undergo changes
for better or worse; both are subject to illness and both
have doctors; both get tired and need rest; both can produce
joy and sorrow. The most obvious difference between the two
is that one can be seen while the other can only be felt.
Hindu thinkers attribute this not to a difference in kind
but in degree: they say that both body and mind are material,
one made of gross matter and the other of subtle, or fine,
matter. Both body and mind cover - or, at least, seem to cover
- the Atman, our spiritual Self, which is why our true identity
remains hidden from us.
Hindus say that the goal of life - or the supreme consummation
of life - is reached when we have a direct experience of our
true nature as divine beings, and when we dwell continually
in that blessed experience. Those who attain this state are
called enlightened: these are the people who are truly in
the state of brahmacharya, because they are truly dwelling
body and the mind limit the full manifestation of our divine
nature. It's a big climbdown really: imagine being reduced
to a miserable, bound, imperfect and mortal human being from
our original status as the blissful, free, perfect and immortal
divine being. This is the Hindu version of the biblical myth
of the fall - and the consequent expulsion - of Adam and Eve
from the Garden of Eden. For Hindus, spiritual life is a conscious
and voluntary effort to go back to our original state of joy
and freedom, pristine purity and perfection. For this spiritual
journey to be successful, every hurdle on the way needs to
be overcome and transcended.
Value of Celibacy
and obstacles there will be plenty (as every spiritual seeker
can testify), but the root problem is the chronic forgetfulness
of our joyful spiritual identity and the amazing attachment
to our frail, sorrow-ridden human identity. What make us human
are, of course, the human body and the human mind (which includes
the intellect and the ego). My human identity is inseparably
connected with perceiving my body and mind as "me".
Every demand of the body and mind is considered "my"
demand - and in the process, the spiritual Self within is
forgotten; my body-mind complex becomes my de facto "self".
practice of brahmacharya, "dwelling in Brahman",
involves moving away from the body-mind complex, which is
the false self, and going towards the Atman, our true Self.
What makes the "moving away" process difficult is
the strong claim the body and the mind exert over me, the
constant demands they make of me. Indeed, it's difficult for
most of us to even conceive of our existence apart from our
body-mind experience. Our actions and thoughts throughout
the day keep us preoccupied with either the body or the mind
and thirst, rest and work, joy and sorrow, ambition and frustration,
likes and dislikes - who has been free from the demands and
pressures of these? The body and the mind make their presence
felt through all these and more. But the intensity of sexual
desire is often more powerful and more persistent than that
of our other needs, so the meaning of brahmacharya often gets
narrowed down to sexual abstinence.
plays an important part in human life and it often absorbs
much of our thinking, feeling and willing. In Hinduism it
is customary to view most things at three levels: physical,
mental and verbal. Brahmacharya, or celibacy, includes sexual
abstinence at all these levels. Celibacy thus is not limited
to merely physical abstinence from sex but also non-indulgence
in sexual fantasy and sexual talk. Body, mind and speech are
interconnected and they tend to influence one another. When
these three become compartmentalized and disconnected, the
result is disharmony, which often leads to mental stress and
anxiety, physical illness and unhealthy interpersonal relations.
description of brahmacharya may be all right for monks and
nuns, but what about those who are not monks and who choose
to get married? Does this ideal not apply to them? The Hindu
tradition believes that the ideal of brahmacharya is relevant
to all, but its "application" to monastic life is
different from its application to married life.
is not a licence to do away with all restraints. Chastity
and fidelity are the foundation on which a strong and happy
marital relationship can be built. The Bhagavata, a tenth-century
Hindu text, has this message for the married: "Among
the duties of a married person are the practice of brahmacharya
except for the purpose of procreation, austerity, purity,
contentment and friendliness toward all" (11.18. 43).
a world full of temptations, if a married person can fulfil
these duties, he or she can get the same benefits that a monk
does through a sincere practice of celibacy. Since brahmacharya
is about self-restraint, it doesn't really matter to whom
one feels sexually attracted or with whom one has a committed
long-term relationship. Sex is sex, whether heterosexual,
homosexual or unisexual. For spiritual seekers of every persuasion,
the ideal is still brahmacharya. This ideal is not about sex
per se. It means "dwelling in Brahman", or dwelling
in the experience of our identity as sat-cit-ananda, Being-Consciousness-Bliss
troubled times in which we live today may lead us to imagine
that the brahmacharya ideal is unattainable. It seems out
of reach for non-monastics and one may question whether it
is attainable even for those who have chosen to be monks or
nuns. The Hindu tradition addresses this legitimate doubt
by pointing out that the ideal of brahmacharya is no more
difficult today than it was any time in the past. It has always
been difficult and probably it will always be. But there are
in every generation people who have lived up to this ideal
and that gives hope to the rest of us.
the ideal of brahmacharya, although relevant for all, is not
mandatory for all. Not everyone feels the call to practise
brahmacharya, and those who do, have options and a graded
system of employing it in their own lives. For those who choose
a monastic life, the rules are most stringent and uncompromising.
If one finds that these are too difficult to follow - as some
do sooner or later - one has the freedom to choose a different
lifestyle, where the rules are somewhat relaxed. In marriage,
the emphasis is on fidelity - remaining faithful to one's
spouse. Indeed, the glory of chastity in married life and
the spiritual power it can generate have been described in
great detail in Hindu history as well as mythology.
are the benefits of celibacy? What exactly happens when a
person practises brahmacharya? The yoga traditions of Hinduism
have made a deep study of this. According to them, the sexual
impulse and the human energy that fuels it, when checked and
controlled, become converted into a refined, subtle power
called ojas. A yogi tries to transform all of the sexual
energy into ojas through the practice of celibacy.
It is only celibacy - or chastity in the case of the married
- that causes the ojas to rise and be stored in the
brain. Lack of chastity produces loss of mental vigour and
to the Hindu tradition, if one practises brahmacharya for
twelve years, a special nerve, called medha nadi in
Sanskrit, is developed. This produces spiritual intuition,
a strong memory and a remarkable capacity to grasp the subtle
realities of life. It may not make a person an intellectual
prodigy or a wrestler but it definitely makes him healthy,
both physically and mentally.
the sustained practice of contemplation our brain needs to
be strong and calm - and this becomes possible through brahmacharya
because it provides nourishment and vigour to the brain. It
also nourishes our creative energy and makes it flow on a
higher plane. The validity of these claims is borne out by
the actual experience of people who have practised brahmacharya.
is needless to say that like any other ideal the ideal of
celibacy has its own challenges and pitfalls. These challenges
have to be faced head-on and the pitfalls avoided. This has
to be done by both individuals as well as institutions. Among
the things important to keep the ideal of celibacy untarnished
are the following:
Motivation: There is a saying in Sanskrit: "Prayojanam
anuddisya na mando'pi pravartate, Even a stupid person
does not do anything unless there is a motive." Practising
celibacy is not simply a matter of keeping one's vow or abiding
by the rules of an institution. lt is not a question of what
one "should do". The question is: Do I really want
to do it? The impulse has to come from within. For that to
happen, the practitioner has to be clear about why he is practising
celibacy. In the Hindu tradition, the practice of celibacy
is considered a must - even if it is practised in a graded
manner - to transcend our human limitations and to regain
our divine identity.
Spiritual Longing: Motivation and hunger go together.
I cannot be motivated to eat unless I am hungry for food.
I cannot be motivated to study unless I am hungry for knowledge.
Similarly, I cannot be motivated to practise celibacy unless
I am hungry for the spiritual ideal or, in theistic language,
I long to commune with God. Burning love for God is the greatest
aid in the practice of celibacy. With love of God in the heart,
no challenge is too difficult. Without it, every step becomes
potentially slippery. Armed with God's grace, we can attain
any ideal. Without his grace, we cannot be certain about anything
- not even the next moment or the next breath.
Detachment: Allurements can come in many guises
and from many directions. Unless we look deeply and analyse
what is "essential" and what is "non-essential"
to our lives, we won't know what we must keep and what we
need to trash. Wealth and fame, power and possessions, may
have their utility but a spiritual seeker learns to deal with
them with detachment. Monks in the Hindu tradition take a
vow - and remind themselves about it daily - to renounce the
desire for wealth (vittaisana), fame (lokaisnna)
and sensual enjoyment (cittaisana). This obviously
does not apply to non-monastics. What does apply to all is
the necessity to arrange our priorities in life or importance
depending on what we perceive as the goal and purpose of our
Self-restraint: Daily reminders of one's vows would
be meaningless unless these are backed up by a lifestyle that
is in harmony with one's spiritual ideal. Swami Brahmananda,
the first spiritual head of the Order to which I belong, gave
this advice to those who wished to practise brahmacharya:
"Avoid exciting food, oversleep, over-exercise, laziness,
bad company and useless conversation". Hindus have given
much thought to the effect food has on the body and mind,
even going to the extent of experimenting which food I has
what effect on us. Accordingly, they have classified certain
foods as "exciting food": meaning that too much
of their intake stimulates passions and restlessness. They
also found that overdoing of anything - be it physical exercise
or sleep - is injurious to spiritual life; hence the advice
to practise moderation in everything.
Higher Creativity: Every one of us is endowed with
creative energy and we have the freedom to decide how to express
that creativity. In most people, at least a portion of the
creative energy gets expressed through sex at the physiological
level. But it is possible to express it through other channels
such as art, music and scholarly pursuits. One who wishes
to practise brahmacharya must learn to give a higher turn
to one's creative energies. This helps to keep the mind on
a higher plane.
have mentioned five factors which are helpful in the practice
of celibacy: motivation, spiritual longing, detachment, self-restraint
and higher creativity. The rules and tradition of Hindu monastic
life in particular - and spiritual life in general - have
incorporated all of these factors to facilitate the practice
are times when some of those who embraced monastic life, mostly
novices, find it difficult to continue for one reason or another.
Many of those who return to secular life start families and
become responsible and respected citizens, and contribute
positively to community life. This has confirmed my belief
that monastic celibacy is a great ideal but it is not for
all. When people are unable to maintain celibacy, it's because
they're trying to fit into a situation where they cannot fit.
Problems arise only when people find themselves in a wrong
place or with a wrong vocation. Every problem needs to be
addressed appropriately and there is no problem that doesn't
have a solution.
have shared with you some of the salient points connected
with the ideal of celibacy in the Hindu tradition. We have
seen what that ideal means from the Hindu viewpoint, what
its implications are, and how it benefits those who embrace
the ideal. I also listed factors that are helpful in the practice
of celibacy. It's a great ideal and it is a rewarding experience
to know how this ideal is defined and practised in other faith
traditions. We have much to learn from one another. The more
we do that, the better our understanding will be of the ideals
that we hold dear in our own lives.