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Beliefs and practices
Brahmacharya (pronounced [brʌmatʃərɪə], Devanagari: ब्रह्मचर्य) whose literal meaning is under the tutelage of Brahma refers to a period of spiritual education in the traditional scheme of life in Hinduism that takes place during the teenage years. This period of time in which the student becomes inculcated in the mystical doctrine contained within the Upanishads is characterised above all else by the practice of strict celibacy. As such, in non-Hindu traditions (see nastika) Brahmacharya denotes a mode of life devoted to spiritual endeavour in which sexual continence is the guiding factor. A Brahmachari therefore is a male who observes non-ejaculation unless intentionally procreating. A Brahmacharini is a female who observes sexual abstinence when fertile unless intentionally procreating. These characteristics correspond to Western notions of the religious life as practised in monastic settings.
The word brahmacharya stems literally from two components:
- Brahma, the deity representing the creative force (as part of the trinity of Hindu deities of Brahama as creation, Vishnu as preservation and Shiva as destruction). The word Brahma needs to be distinguished from Brahman, the absolute, eternal, never-born godhead.
- charya, which means "to be followed". This is often translated as activity, mode of behaviour, a "virtuous" way of life.
So the word brahmacharya indicates a life lived in conformance with the creative aspects of ultimate reality or "god".
The term brahmacharya has a number of uses.
One common usage denotes within the Vedic ashram system the particular phase that occupies the first 20 or 25 years of life. Ancient Hindu culture divides the human lifespan into 100 years. Brahmacharya is the stage when the young child leads a student life (ideally in the Gurukula, the household of the Guru). This stage of life is preceded by the child's Upanayanam, a ceremony in which the child is considered to take a second birth. Brahmacharya is the first of the four phases of human life, namely, Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha, and finally Sannyasa, prescribed by Manusmriti for the dvija castes in the Hindu system of life. The practice of brahmacharya requires, among other codes of conduct, that one be celibate.
Traditionally, such a life involved going to live with a spiritual teacher under whom the brahmachari (celibate) or chela (student) practised strict celibacy, a life of moral restraint, dedicated to learning all aspects of "Dharma" that is learning the "Principles of Justice and Righteousness" including personal responsibilities and duties towards himself, family, society and humanity at large which included the environment/earth/nature AND devotion to meditation. In the Hindu scheme of life brahmacharya starts around the age of five, when the chela starts his/her studies. In the sramanic traditions of Buddhism and Jainism (both of which stood outside normal social convention) brahmacarya was practised generally by those who had already reached adulthood.
The word brahmacharya is also used for the vow of celibacy a Hindu sannyasi, or renunciate, may take at any age after understanding that living for material or sensual pleasures will never bring the perfect happiness the soul desires. Thus one's life becomes centered on surrender to Guru and God, with the firm hope of God realization and the perfect divine happiness.
The word brahmacharya is also understood broadly in yoga as "sexual continence," which can be understood as being applicable as appropriate in different contexts (e.g., faith in marriage, celibacy for spiritual aspirants etc.), in more extreme terms (complete celibacy) or in more specific terms in relation to preserving and sublimating male sexual energy rather than losing it through ejaculation.
In yoga, the term brahmacharya tends to take on a connotation of disciplining the use of and preserving sexual energy. 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 or vitality.
Diet and brahmacharya
Brahmacharya is also observed to contain one's sensual desires for food and taste, as well as materialism. Most brahmacharis prescribe to avoiding the consumption of meat, spices and cooked foods, which are said to cultivate the taste buds and pleasure senses of the mind. Gandhi, one of the most known brahmacharis, besides being an adherent of simple living and nonresistance, also devoted himself to creating what he believed to be a perfect diet. The diet, later named the "Gandhi-diet" meant a diet which was environmentally acceptable, based on economical (low-cost) products and healthy (allowing the body to perform at its best capabilities; thus keeping digestion in mind). The diet, on which he worked for 35 years, constantly re-evaluating and improving it for himself, consisted of:
- 1 litre of goat's or cow's milk
- 170 g cereals
- 85 g leafy vegetables
- 140 g other vegetables
- 30 g raw vegetables
- 40 g ghee
- 60 g butter
- and 40 g jaggery or sugar
- fruits according to one's taste and purse
- 2 sour limes (juice taken with vegetables or in water, cold or hot)
- salt according to taste
Gandhi also kept his weight low, with a Body Mass Index of 17.7. Today, the Gandhi diet is again becoming more popular, and experts as Dr. P.P. Bose  state the diet to be very healthy and to fit perfectly with the (USDA) food-pyramid.
Most Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain monks take the vow for life, committing themselves to work of religious service and study. Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian political and spiritual leader, had embraced the vow and lifestyle permanently at age 38.
Other interpretations of brahmacharya
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
Swami Vivekananda on Brahmacharya
- "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."
- 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)
- Stuart Sovatsky: "Eros, Consciousness and Kundalini: Tantric Celibacy and the Mysteries of Eros". Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT. (1999)
- Yuvadhan Book on Brahmcharya by Sant Shri Asaramji Bapu
- Articles on Brahmacharya by Swamis Sivananda, Chidananda, and Krishnananda
- Celibacy - Useful notes on different aspects of brahmacarya
- Brahmacarya in Hindu scriptures and tradition
- 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 http://www.dadashri.org/brahmacharya.html
- Saivite Virtue http://www.himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/virtue/VContent.html
- Eternal Youth