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VEDANTA KESARIWhy Celibacy? - A Hindu Perspective | Swami Tyagananda  

 

 

 

 

          Why Celibacy? - A Hindu Perspective

 

 


          Swami Tyagananda

 


     Whenever 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.

 

     My 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.

 

     I 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 ceremonies.

 

     Hindu 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.

 

     In 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.

 

     This 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.

 

 

 


     Brahmacharya: "Dwelling in Brahman"

 

 

 


     Hindu 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.

 

     In 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.

 

     The 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.     

 

 

 


     Atman, the "Real Me"

 

 

 

 

     Our 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 in writing.

 

     The 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.

 

     The 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.

 

     The 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 in Brahman.

 

     The 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.

 

 

 


     The Value of Celibacy

 

 


     Hurdles 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".

 

     The 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 or both.

 

     Hunger 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.

 

     Sex 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.

 

     This 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.

 

     Marriage 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).

 

     In 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 Absolute.

 

     The 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.

 

     Second, 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.

 

 

 


     Benefits of Celibacy


 

 

     What 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 moral strength.

 

     According 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.

 

     For 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.

 

 

 


     Aids to Celibacy

 

 

 

     It 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:

 

     1. 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.

 

     2. 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.

 

     3. 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 existence.

 

     4. 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.

 

     5. 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.

 

     I 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 of brahmacharya.

 

     There 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.

 

 

     

                                                  *           *           *

 

 


     I 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.

 

 

     Prabuddha Bharata

     Vedanta Kesari

     Vedanta Mass Media










International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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