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Brahmacharya (/ˌbrɑːməˈʌrjə/; Sanskrit: ब्रह्मचर्य lit. 'pure conduct')[1] is a concept within Indian religions that literally means to stay in conduct within one's own Self. In Yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism it generally refers to a lifestyle characterized by sexual continence or complete abstinence.

Brahmacharya is somewhat different from the English term "celibacy," which merely means non-indulgence in sexual activity. Brahmacharya is when a person completely controls his body and mind (chitta) through ascetic means.

In the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist monastic traditions, brahmacharya implies, among other things, the mandatory renunciation of sex and marriage.[2] It is considered necessary for a monk's spiritual practice.[3] Western notions of the religious life as practiced in monastic settings mirror these characteristics.


The word brahmacharya stems from two Sanskrit roots:

  1. Brahma (Devanagari: ब्रह्म) meaning one's own Self, ultimate unchanging reality, absolute consciousness, much discussed in the Upanishads.[4][5][6] Brahma is also the Vedic God of creation, no different from the Self or Atman. (Ayam Ātmā Brahma (अयम् आत्मा ब्रह्म) The Self of mine is that Brahma)
  2. charya (चर्य), which means "occupation with, engaging, proceeding, behaviour, conduct, to follow, moving in, going after".[7] This is often translated as activity, conduct, or mode of behaviour.

Hence, brahmacharya roughly means "to stay true to one's Self or ones own Atma" or "on the path of Brahma".[8]

In ancient and medieval era Indian texts, the term brahmacharya is a concept with a more complex meaning indicating an overall lifestyle conducive to the pursuit of sacred knowledge and spiritual liberation.[9] Brahmacharya is a means, not an end. It usually includes cleanliness, ahimsa, simple living, studies, meditation, and voluntary restraints on certain foods (eating only Sattvic food), on intoxicants, and on sexual behavior (both sex and masturbation, in some schools of thought).[9][10]

As a virtue

Brahmacharya is traditionally regarded as one of the five yamas in Yoga, as declared in verse 2.30 of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.[11] It is a form of self-restraint regarded as a virtue, and an observance recommended depending on an individual's context. For a married practitioner it means marital fidelity (not cheating on one's spouse); for a single person it means celibacy.[12][13] Shandilya Upanishad includes brahmacharya as one of ten yamas in Chapter 1, defining it as "refraining from sexual intercourse in all places and in all states in mind, speech or body".[14]

Patanjali in verse 2.38[15] states that the virtue of brahmacharya leads to the profit of virya (वीर्य).[16] This Sanskrit word, virya, has been variously translated as virility and, by Vyasa, as strength and capacity. Vyasa explains that this virtue promotes other good qualities.[16] Other ancient and medieval era texts of Hinduism describe the fruits of this virtue differently. For example, Pada Chandrika, Raja Marttanda, Sutrartha Bodhini, Mani Prabha and Yoga Sudhakara each state that brahmacharya must be understood as the voluntary restraint of power.[16] Chandogya Upanishad in verses of chapter 8.5 extols brahmacharya as a sacrament and sacrifice which, once perfected, leads to realization of the Self (Atman), and thereafter becomes the habit of experiencing the Self in others and everything.[16][17] Tattva Vaisharadi and Yoga Sarasangraha assert that brahmacharya leads to an increase in jñana-shakti (power of knowledge) and kriya-shakti (power of action).[16]

The great epic Mahabharata describes the objective of brahmacharya as knowledge of Brahman (Book Five, Udyoga Parva, the Book of Effort).[18] Brahmacharya leads one to union with the Supreme Self (Chapter 43). By subduing desire, the practice of self-restraint enables the student to learn, pay attention in thought, word and deed to the guru (teacher), and discover the truth embodied in the Vedas and Upanishads. According to the epic, the practice of studying and learning requires the "aid of time," as well as personal effort, ability, discussion, and practice, all of which are helped by the virtue of brahmacharya.[18] A brahmachāri should do useful work, and the earnings he obtains should be given away as dakshina ("fee," "gift of thanks") to the guru. The epic declares that brahmacharya is one of twelve virtues, an essential part of angas in yoga and the path of perfecting perseverance and the pursuit of knowledge.[18]

In Jainism

Jain Flag Photo
Green colour in the Jain flag stands for brahmacharya[19]

Brahmacharya is one of the five major vows prescribed for the śrāvakā (layman) and ascetics in Jainism. For those Jains who adopt the path of monks, celibacy in action, words and thoughts is expected. For lay Jains who are married, the virtue of brahmacharya requires remaining sexually faithful to one's chosen partner.[20] For lay Jains who are unmarried, chaste living requires Jains to avoid sex before marriage.[21] Uttam brahmacharya (Supreme Celibacy) is one of the ten excellencies of a Jain monk.[22] Brahmacharya is mentioned as one of the das dharma (ten virtues) in ancient Jain texts like Tattvartha Sutra, Sarvārthasiddhi and Puruşārthasiddhyupāya.[23]

Among Sramanic traditions

Among the Sramanic traditions (Buddhism, Jainism, Ājīvika, and Charvaka schools[citation needed]), brahmacharya is the term used for a self-imposed practice of celibacy generally considered a prerequisite for spiritual practice. The fourth of the five great vows of Jain monks, for example, is the vow of celibacy, which in this case means a total abstinence from the sensual pleasure of all five senses, including the avoidance of sexual thoughts and desires.[20][24] The yogin who is firmly grounded in the virtue of brahmacharya is said to gain great vitality.[25]

As Asrama stage of life

Brahmacharya in Hinduism literally means "conduct consistent with Brahman" or "on the path of Brahman".[8] Historically brahmacharya 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. Brahamacarya asrama occupied the first 20–25 years of life roughly corresponding to adolescence.[26][27] Upon the child's Upanayanam,[28] 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 of 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 until the age of 14 to 20 years.[29] During this stage of life, the traditional vedic sciences and various sastras[30] were studied along with the religious texts contained within the Vedas and Upanishads.[31][32] This stage of life was characterized by the practice of celibacy.

In one context, brahmacharya is the first of four ashrama (age-based stages) of a human life, with grihastha (householder), vanaprastha (forest dweller), and sannyasa (renunciation) being the other three asramas. The brahmacharya (bachelor student) stage of life – from childhood up to twenty-five years of age – was focused on education and included the practice of celibacy.[33] In this context, it connotes chastity during the student stage of life for the purposes of learning from a guru (teacher), and during later stages of life for the purposes of attaining spiritual liberation (Sanskrit: moksha).[34][35]

Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad suggests that the brahmacharya (student) stage of life should extend from the age a child is ready to receive teachings from a guru, and continue for a period of twelve years.[36]

Graduation from the brahmacharya stage of life was marked by the Samavartanam ceremony.[37] The graduate was then ready to either start Grihastha (householder) stage of life, or wait, or pursue a life of Sannyasa and solitude like Rishis in forest.[33] Vyasa in Chapter 234 of Shanti Parva in the Mahabharata praises brahmacharya as an important stage of life necessary for learning, then adds Grihastha stage as the root of society and important to an individual's success.[38]

Brahmacharya for girls

The Vedas and Upanishads do not restrict the student stage of life to males.[39] Atharva Veda, for example, states[39][40]

ब्रह्मचर्येण कन्या युवानं विन्दते पतिम् |

A youthful Kanya (कन्या, girl) who graduates from Brahmacarya, obtains a suitable husband.

— Atharva Veda, 11.5.18[40]
No age restrictions

Gonda[41] states that there were no age restrictions for the start of brahmacharya in ancient India. Not only young men, but older people resorted to student stage of life, and sought teachers who were authoritative in certain subjects.[41] The Chandogya Upanishad, in Section 5.11, describes "wealthy and learned householders" becoming brahmacārīs (students) with Rishi Kaikeya, to gain knowledge about Atman (inner Self) and Brahman (Ultimate Reality).[42][43]

Historical references to brahmacharya

The Vedas discuss brahmacharya, both in the context of lifestyle and stage of one's life. Rig Veda, for example, in Book 10 Chapter 136, mentions knowledge seekers as those with Kesin (long haired) and soil-colored clothes (yellow, orange, saffron) engaged in the affairs of Mananat (mind, meditation).[44] Rigveda, however, refers to these people as Muni and Vati. The Atharva Veda, completed by about 1000 BC, has more explicit discussion of Brahmacharya, in Book XI Chapter 5.[45] This Chapter of Atharva Veda describes brahmacharya as that which leads to one's second birth (mind, Self-awareness), with Hymn 11.5.3 painting a symbolic picture that when a teacher accepts a brahmacārī, the student becomes his embryo.[45]

The concept and practice of brahmacharya is extensively found among the older strata of the Mukhya Upanishads in Hinduism. The 8th-century BC text Chandogya Upanishad describes in Book 8, activities and lifestyle that is brahmacharya:[46]

Now what people call yajña (sacrifice) is really Brahmacharya, for only by means of Brahmacharya does the knower attain that world (of Brahman). And what people call Ishta (worship) is really Brahmacharya, for only worshipping by means of Brahmacharya does one attain the Atman (the liberated Self). Now, what people call the Sattrayana (sacrificial session) is really Brahmacharya, for only by means of Brahmacharya does one obtain one's salvation from Sat (Being). And what people call the Mauna (vow of silence) is really Brahmacharya for only through Brahmacharya does one understand the Atman and then meditate. Now, what people call a Anasakayana (vow of fasting) is really Brahmacharya, for this Atman never perishes which one attains by means of Brahmacharya. And what people call the Aranyayana (life of a hermit) is really Brahmacharya, for the world of Brahman belongs to those who by means of Brahmacharya attain the seas Ara and Nya in the world of Brahman. For them there is freedom in all the worlds.

— Chandogya Upanishad, VIII.5.1 – VIII.5.4[46][47]

A hymn in another early Upanishad, the Mundaka Upanishad in Book 3, Chapter 1 similarly states,

सत्येन लभ्यस्तपसा ह्येष आत्मा सम्यग्ज्ञानेन ब्रह्मचर्येण नित्यम् ।

Through continuous pursuit of Satya (truthfulness), Tapas (perseverance, austerity), Samyajñāna (correct knowledge), and Brahmacarya, one attains Atman (the Self).

— Mundaka Upanishad, III.1.5[48]

The Vedas and early Upanishadic texts of Hinduism in their discussion of brahmacharya, make no mention of the age of the student at the start of brahmacharya,[49] nor any restraint on sexual activity. However, there is a clear general consensus in both specific and various Upanishads (such as the Shandilya Upanishad) as well as Hindu smritis (such as the Manusmriti) that the male "student", referred to as the "Brahmachari[n]" should abstain from the "release of semen." This rule may or may not apply to the guru. The verses and of the Satpatha Brahamana present two different viewpoints on sexual activity, of the guru during the Brahmacharya ashrama, i.e., the teacher of the "student Brahmachari[n]", one against and one as a choice.[50] Similarly, in verse, the Satapatha Brahamana presents contrasting viewpoints on an eating restraint (regarding honey) for the brahmacārī student.[50]

Among religious movements

In Indian traditions, a brahmacārī is a male and brahmacārinī a female.[51][52]

Ashrams and Mathas

Various Ashrams (आश्रम, hermitage) and Matha (मठ, college of ascetics) of various schools of Hinduism call their male and female initiates as brahmacārī and brahmacārinī.[53]

See also


  1. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Brahmacharya." Encyclopedia Britannica,
  2. Carl Olson (2007), Celibacy and Religious Traditions, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195306323, page 227-233
  3. DR Pattanaik (1998), The Holy Refusal, MELUS, Vol. 23, No. 2, 113–127
  4. Helen K. Bond; Seth D. Kunin; Francesca Murphy (2003). Religious Studies and Theology: An Introduction. New York University Press. p. 231. ISBN 978-0-8147-9914-7.
  5. William Sweet (2006). Approaches to Metaphysics. Springer. pp. 145–147. ISBN 978-1-4020-2182-4.
  6. H. James Birx (2005). Encyclopedia of Anthropology. SAGE Publications. p. 1279. ISBN 978-1-4522-6536-0.
  7. carya Monier Williams Sanskrit Dictionary, Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon, Germany
  8. 8.0 8.1 James Lochtefeld, "Brahmacharya" in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Vol. 1: A–M, pp. 120, Rosen Publishing. ISBN 9780823931798
  9. 9.0 9.1 M Khandelwal (2001), Sexual Fluids, Emotions, Morality – Notes on the Gendering of Brahmacharya, in Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence (Editors: Elisa Sobo and Sandra Bell), University of Wisconsin Press, ISBN 978-0299171643, pages 157–174
  10. Joseph Alter (2012), Moral Materialism, Penguin, ISBN 978-0143417415, pages 65–67
  11. Original:अहिंसासत्यास्तेय ब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहाः यमाः |
    Source:Āgāśe, K. S. (1904). Pātañjalayogasūtrāṇi. Puṇe: Ānandāśrama. p. 102.
  12. Brahmacharyam Pativratyam cha – Celibacy and Fidelity Archived 30 June 2013 at the Wayback Machine Himalayan Academy, Gutenberg Archives (2006)
  13. [a] Louise Taylor (2001), A Woman's Book of Yoga, Tuttle, ISBN 978-0804818292, page 3;
    [b]Jeffrey Long (2009), Jainism: An Introduction, IB Tauris, ISBN 978-1845116262, page 109; Quote: The fourth vow – brahmacarya – means for laypersons, marital fidelity and pre-marital celibacy; for ascetics, it means absolute celibacy; John Cort explains, "Brahmacharya involves having sex only with one's spouse, as well as the avoidance of ardent gazing or lewd gestures (...) — Quoted by Long, ibid, page 101
  14. KN Aiyar (Translator), Sandilya Upanishad, Thirty Minor Upanishads, University of Toronto Archives, page 173
  15. Original: ब्रह्मचर्य प्रतिष्ठायां वीर्यलाभः |
    Source: Yogasutra 2.35–2.39 (in German)
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 SV Bharti (2001), Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: With the Exposition of Vyasa, Motilal Banarsidas, ISBN 978-8120818255, Appendix I, pages 536–539
  17. Chandogya Upanishad Book 8, Chapter 5, Jha (Translator), pages 434–440
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 KM Ganguli (Translator), The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, p. 150, at Google Books, Udyoga Parva, Chapter 43, pages 150–153
  19. Vijay K. Jain 2012, p. iv.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Pravin Shah, Five Great Vows (Maha-vratas) of Jainism Jainism Literature Center, Harvard University Archives (2009)
  21. Brahmacharya, BBC
  22. Champat Rai Jain 1926, p. 64.
  23. Vijay K. Jain 2012, p. 145-147.
  24. Robert Kolb (2007), Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society, SAGE Publications, ISBN 978-1412916523, page 1207-1208
  25. Georg Feuerstein (2000). Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga. p. 61. ISBN 9781570625558.
  26. Manusmriti suggests the Brahmacarya ashrama be about 25 years, one fourth of the normal life of human being he estimates to be 100 years. See: RK Sharma (1999), Indian Society, Institutions and Change, ISBN 978-8171566655, page 28
  27. Bodhinatha Veylanswami (2007), What Is Hinduism?, Editors of Hinduism Today, Himalayan Academy Publishers, ISBN 978-1934145005, page 372
  28. Vivekjivandas, Sadhu. Hinduism: An Introduction – Part 2. (Swaminarayan Aksharpith: Ahmedabad, 2010) p. 113. ISBN 978-81-7526-434-2
  29. Rocher, Ludo. "The Dharmaśāstas". The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism.(Ed.Gavin Flood) (Blackwell Publishing Ltd.: Oxford, 2003) p. 103. ISBN 0-631-21535-2
  30. Stella Kramrisch (1958), Traditions of the Indian Craftsman, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 71, No. 281, Traditional India: Structure and Change (Jul. – Sep., 1958), pp. 224–230
  31. Samuel Parker (1987), Artistic practice and education in India: A historical overview, Journal of Aesthetic Education, pp 123–141
  32. Misra, R. N. (2011), Silpis in Ancient India: Beyond their Ascribed Locus in Ancient Society, Social Scientist, Vol. 39, No. 7/8, pp 43–54
  33. 33.0 33.1 RK Sharma (1999), Indian Society, Institutions and Change, ISBN 978-8171566655, page 28
  34. Georg Feuerstein, The Encyclopedia of Yoga and Tantra, Shambhala Publications, ISBN 978-1590308790, 2011, pg 76, Quote – "Brahmacharya essentially stands for the ideal of chastity"
  35. W.J. Johnson (2009), "The chaste and celibate state of a student of the Veda", Oxford Dictionary of Hinduism, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-2713223273, pg 62
  36. KN Aiyar (Translator), Narada Parivrajaka Upanishad, Thirty Minor Upanishads, University of Toronto Archives, page 135
  37. R Pandey (1969), Hindu Saṁskāras: Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments (2nd Ed.), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 81-208-0434-1
  38. KM Ganguli, Moksha dharma parva Shanti Parva, The Mahabharata, pages 248–261
  39. 39.0 39.1 S Jain (2003), The Right to Family Planning, in Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions (Editor: Daniel C. Maguire), Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195160017, page 134, Quote – "The Atharva Veda confirms... a brahmacārinī has better prospects of marriage than a girl who is uneducated"; "The Vedic period.... girls, like boys, are also expected to go through the brahmacharya..."
  40. 40.0 40.1 For source in Sanskrit: Atharva Veda Wikisource, Hymns 11.5[7].1 – 11.5[7].26;
    For English translation: Stephen N Hay and William Theodore De Bary (1988), Sources of Indian Tradition, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120804678, pages 18–19
  41. 41.0 41.1 Jan Gonda (1965), Change and Continuity in Indian Religion, Mouton & Co, The Hague, pages 284–285, 1965 print: OCLC 817902, Reprinted in 1997: ISBN 978-8121500142 (page number may be different)
  42. Patrick Olivelle (1996) (Translator), Upanishads, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195124354, pages 143–144
  43. Max Muller, The Sacred Books of the East at Google Books, Volume 43, Clarendon Press, Oxford University, pages 393–394
  44. GS Ghurye (1952), Ascetic Origins, Sociological Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 2, pages 162–184;
    For original: Rigveda Wikisource
  45. 45.0 45.1 For source in Sanskrit: Atharva Veda Wikisource, Hymns 11.5[7].1 – 11.5[7].26; (ब्रह्मचारीष्णंश् चरति रोदसी उभे तस्मिन् देवाः संमनसो भवन्ति | स दाधार पृथिवीं दिवं च स आचार्यं तपसा पिपर्ति ||1|| ब्रह्मचारिणं पितरो देवजनाः पृथग् देवा अनुसंयन्ति सर्वे | गन्धर्वा एनम् अन्व् आयन् त्रयस्त्रिंशत् त्रिशताः षट्सहस्राः सर्वान्त् स देवांस् तपसा पिपर्ति ||2|| आचार्य उपनयमानो ब्रह्मचारिणं कृणुते गर्भम् अन्तः | तं रात्रीस् तिस्र उदरे बिभर्ति तं जातं द्रष्टुम् अभिसंयन्ति देवाः ||3|| (...))
    For English translation: Stephen N Hay and William Theodore De Bary (1988), Sources of Indian Tradition, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120804678, pages 18–19
  46. 46.0 46.1 Translation: S Swahananda (2010), Chandogya Upanishad, Vedanta Press, ISBN 978-8171203307, Book VIII, Chapter 5, verse 1–4
    Original: अथ यद्यज्ञ इत्याचक्षते ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तद्ब्रह्मचर्येण | ह्येव यो ज्ञाता तं विन्दतेऽथ यदिष्टमित्याचक्षते | ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तद्ब्रह्मचर्येण ह्येवेष्ट्वात्मानमनुविन्दते ॥ १ ॥ अथ यत्सत्त्रायणमित्याचक्षते ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तद्ब्रह्मचर्येण | ह्येव सत आत्मनस्त्राणं विन्दतेऽथ यन्मौनमित्याचक्षते | ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तब्ब्रह्मचर्येण ह्येवात्मानमनुविद्य मनुते ' ॥ २ ॥ अथ यदनाशकायनमित्याचक्षते ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तदेष | ह्यात्मा न नश्यति यं ब्रह्मचर्येणानुविन्दतेऽथ | यदरण्यायनमित्याचक्षते ब्रह्मचर्यमेव तदरश्च ह वै | ण्यश्चार्णवौ ब्रह्मलोके तृतीयस्यामितो दिवि तदैरं | मदीयँ सरस्तदश्वत्थः सोमसवनस्तदपराजिता | पूर्ब्रह्मणः प्रभुविमितँ हिरण्मयम् ॥ ३ ॥ तद्य एवैतवरं च ण्यं चार्णवौ ब्रह्मलोके | ब्रह्मचर्येणानुविन्दन्ति तेषामेवैष ब्रह्मलोकस्तेषाँ | सर्वेषु लोकेषु कामचारो भवति ॥ ४ ॥
  47. G. Jha (1942), The Chāndogyopaniṣad: A Treatise on Vedānta Philosophy, Oritental Book Agency, University of California Archives, OCLC 7733219
  48. MP Pandit (1969), Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.5, Gleanings from the Upanishads, OCLC 81579, University of Virginia Archives, pages 11–12
  49. Some recent Upanishads do, see for example Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad mentioned below
  50. 50.0 50.1 Julius Eggeling, Satapatha Brahmana Madhyandina School version, Clarendon Press, Oxford, page 90
  51. George Chryssides (2006), The A to Z of New Religious Movements, ISBN 978-0810855885, page 56
  52. Gopal, Madan (1990). K.S. Gautam (ed.). India through the ages. Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. p. 79.
  53. Karen Pechilis (2004), The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195145373, pages 74–101


Further reading

  • Carl Olson, Celibacy and Religious Traditions, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195306323
  • Elisabeth Haich, Sexual Energy and Yoga. Aurora Press, ISBN 978-0943358031 (1982)
  • Stuart Sovatsky: "Eros, Consciousness and Kundalini: Tantric Celibacy and the Mysteries of Eros". Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT. (1999)
  • Swami Narayanananda: The Way to Peace, Power and Long Life. N.U. Yoga Trust, Denmark, 2001 (1st ed. 1945)
  • Swami Narayanananda: Brahmacharya, Its Necessity and Practice for Boys and Girls. N.U. Yoga Trust, Denmark, 2001 (1st ed. 1960)

External links