Sanatana dharma has always brought about a perfect synthesis between the idealistic pursuit of goals and the reality of material and physical life. While every tenet of sanatana dharma is intended towards pushing an individual further on the path of moksha – liberation – at the same time it fully recognizes that the pursuit has to take place within the limitations of what the physical body – the sadhana shareera – permits. This acceptance has meant that almost all of our customs, traditions and rituals are rooted in practical experience and science.
One such unique facet of sanatana dharma is the classification of a human being’s life into ‘ashramas’. The lifelong pursuit of spiritual liberation has to be in synthesis with the various stages of life a human being undergoes, in which his physical and mental conditions, and the physiological, emotional and material needs and goals and ideals evolve. The ashramas therefore offer an excellent framework using which a dharmic person can pursue his goals without any conflict with the realities of life.
The ashramas are four in number – brahmacharya, gruhastha, vanaprastha and sanyasa. Some scriptures refer to sanyasa as bhaikshya. There are also some classifications in which only three ashramas are mentioned but those view vanaprastha and sanyasa as being similar. Brahmacharya is the first stage of one’s life where one leads a life of celibacy – one that is dedicated to studies and acquisition of knowledge and skills. Gruhastha is the next stage where one becomes a householder and engages in family and social life. Vanaprastha is the third stage of life where one has overcome the attachment of material pursuits and goes after spiritual realization. Sanyasa is the final ashrama in which nothing but the pursuit of the supreme truth remains important.
The word brahmacharya means one whose activity facilitates going after the knowledge of brahman. Chara in sanskrit means ‘engaging’ or ‘going after’. So the first stage of an individual’s life – the first 25 years – should be spent as a brahmachari (one who lives a life of brahmacharya) in which one is constantly engaged in learning and acquisition of knowledge.
There is an amazing stream of consistency in various works of sanatana dharma when it comes to recognition of brahmacharya as an important ashrama.
The rig veda, in 10.109.5 talks about brahmacharya
ब्रह्मचारी चरति वेविषद्विषः स देवानां भवत्येकमङ्गं |
He (Brihaspati) leads the life of a brahmachari, adoring all the Gods.
Brahmacharya has been given an exalted position in the chandogya upanishad which has declared that the realization of brahman is only possible through the practice of brahmacharya.
तद्य एवैतं ब्रह्मलोकं ब्रह्मचर्येणानुविन्दन्ति तेषामेवैष ब्रह्मलोकः | 8.4.1 |
Only those who pursue the knowing of brahman through the practice of brahmacharya attain the brahmaloka
Similarly all the major smritis unanimously declare brahmacharya as an important stage of life.
Yajnavalkya says the following
प्रतिवेदं ब्रह्मचर्यं द्वादशाब्दानि पञ्च वा |
ग्रहाणान्तिकमित्येके केशान्तश्चैव षोडशे || 1. 36 ||
Brahmacharya of 16 years is required for studying each veda; Or at least 5 years; Some say that is lasts till the end of one’s education; At the age of 16 years, one’s keshanta samskara should take place
In the Mahabharata, the four modes of ashramas are narrated by bhishma to yudhisthira in the shanti parva.
वानप्रस्थं भैक्षचर्यं गार्हस्थं च महाश्रमम् |
ब्रह्मचर्याश्रमं प्राहुश्चतुर्थं ब्रह्मणेरितम् || Shanti. 60. 2 ||
The four modes are Vanaprastha, Bhaikshya, Garhasthya of great merit, and Brahmacharya which is adopted by Brahmanas.
Thus we see an unbroken tradition of ashrama based life that has been part of sanatana dharma, with the stage of brahmacharya being a vitally important one.
The practice of brahmacharya has some key attributes to it:
- Complete dedication to studies. Constant pursuit of knowledge, especially spiritual.
- Leading a life full of discipline, with adherence to numerous vidhi and nishedhas – dos and donts.
- Strong emphasis on the control of senses, and avoidance of indulgence in material and sexual pleasures.
Before we proceed to look, in detail, on the ‘brahmachari dharma’ or the code of conduct for anyone engaging in brahmacharya, it is important to understand why brahmacharya is important when one is after knowledge and spiritual realization.
The need for brahmacharya
To understand the real reasons behind the need for such a strict lifestyle during brahmacharya, it is necessary to resort to the divine science of Ayurveda. Our body consists of 7 main dhatus – tissues. According to ashtanga hrudayam, an ancient ayurvedic text, the 7 dhatus are
रसासृङ्मांसमेदोस्थिमज्जशुक्राणि धातवः | Sutrasthana. Chap1.13 |
Rasa, sruk, mamsa, medas, asthi, majja and shukra are the seven basic tissues
The 7 dhatus are plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, marrow and reproductive-fluid correspondingly. These dhatus are created, nourished and replenished from the food and water we consume, from the air we breathe and the quality of lifestyle we maintain.
Ashtanga hrudaya further states that each subsequent dhatu (from the order given above) comes from the previous one.
रसाद्रक्तं ततो मांसं मांसान्मेदस्ततोsस्थि च |
अस्थ्नो मज्जा ततः शुक्रं शुक्राद्गर्भः प्रजायते || Sharirasthana. Chap3. 62-63 ||
Blood is formed from (the essence of) plasma; Muscles from (the essence of) blood; Fat from muscles; Bone from fat; marrow from bones and reproductive fluid from marrow; From the semen/fluid, embryo gets formed.
It is important to note that the first dhatu – rasa – is actually the essence of the food and water we consume. Thus, the essence of food, through metabolism, transforms into rasa.
Essence of food -> Rasa
Essence of Rasa -> Rakta
Essence of Rakta -> Mamsa
Essence of Mamsa -> Meda
Essence of Meda -> Asthi
Essence of Asthi -> Majja
Essence of Majja -> Shukra
Charaka Samhita (Sutrasthana – chapter 28) gives a very important clue on the need for maintaining all of these dhatus in very good condition.
The basic compositions of the five sense organs are the essence of the dhatus
Thus, for the five sense organs of eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue to function well, the dhatus have to be in excellent condition.
While it is necessary and good to have the sense organs in good shape to facilitate the pursuit of knowledge, it is even more important that the manas – the mind – orients itself towards studies and knowledge. This is especially so in the pursuit of spiritual knowledge. An additional factor comes into picture when trying to ensure that the manas remains focused – that of Ojas.
Ojas is the essence of shukra, the seventh dhatu. It is in effect the essence of all the dhatus. Ojas is derived from the sustained processing of shukra in the body. It resides normally in the hrudaya – the heart – but flows throughout the body.
If a person has good Ojas, he or she develops excellent mental and physical strength. The sense organs become extremely sharp and active. On the other hand, if a person constantly loses Ojas, he or she becomes subject to anger, worry, gets debilitated and develops a bad mentality.
ओजः क्षीयेत कोपक्षुद्ध्यानशोकश्रमादिभिः |
बिभेति दुर्बलोsभीक्ष्णं ध्यायति व्यथितेन्द्रियः |
ओजोवृद्धौ हि देहस्य तुष्टिपुष्टिबलोदयः || Ashtanga Hrudaya. Sutrasthana. Chap 9. 40-41 ||
A sustained increase of Ojas leads to increase in Tejas – the spiritual essence of a person – which leads to acquisition of spiritual knowledge.
It is important to note here that the only way to increase Ojas in the body is to make a sustained effort to
- Ensure retention of the 7th dhatu – shukra
- Ensure the quality of the shukra is satvik in nature.
Every dhatu, being a product of natural elements, is composed of three gunas – satvik, rajasic and tamasic. The type of food consumed and the conditioning of the body determines which type of guna becomes predominant in the dhatus. However, for anyone pursuing increase of Ojas in the body, it is essential to increase the satvik guna in the shukra dhatu.
On the one hand while ensuring the healthy conversion of the 6 dhatus into the 7th one is important, it is equally if not more important to ensure that the shukra is retained in the body for the conversion to take place. For this to happen, one must develop extreme control over the sense organs and in turn the manas.
The whole purpose of prescribing elaborate lifestyle guidelines for brahmacharya revolves around ensuring the generation and nourishment of Ojas to facilitate learning and spiritual upliftment!
With the above background, we can now look at what our scriptures prescribe as dharma (conduct) for a brahmachari. One will quickly notice that the prescription aims at achieving three goals
- Good physical health
- Good mental health
- Facilitating spiritual nourishment of the soul
Duration of brahmacharya ashrama
Different smritikaras give slightly different durations for brahmacharya ashrama. However, the differences can be reconciled considering the extent of studies prescribed. As noted above, Yajnavalkya says that a brahmacharya of 12 years is required for each veda that one studies. That makes it a total of 36 years for anyone studying three vedas.
Manu, on the other hand, elaborates further. He says that one can remain a brahmachari for 36 years, or for 18 years or for 9 years only.
षट्त्रिंशदाब्धिकं चर्यं गुरौ त्रैवेदिकं व्रतम् |
तदर्धिकं पादिकं वा ग्रहणान्तिकमेव वा || Manu. 3. 1 ||
Note: The duration of brahmacharya is counted from the performance of the upanayana samskara – the initiation into studies. For a brahmana, this is typically performed during the eighth year since conception (garbhashtama). For a kshatriya, it is during the 11th year and for a vaishya it is during the 12th year.
Religious duties of a brahmachari
Once the upanayana samskara is performed, a number of mandatory rituals are to be performed by the brahmachari on a daily basis. These are the nitya karmas.
Samvarta smriti says
ततः संध्यामुपासीत यथोक्रविधिना व्रती |
अग्निकार्यं च कुर्वीत मेधां च तदनन्तरं |
ततोsधीयीत वेदं तु वीक्षमाणो गुरोर्मुखम् ||
After the upanayana, a brahmachari must perform the sandhyavandana as given in the scriptures; He should also perform the agnikarya, medhajanana and medhahoma; After that he should concentrate on the face of the guru and learn the Vedas.
Manu gives four basic categories of duties for a brahmachari
अग्नीन्धनं भैक्षचर्यामधश्यय्यां गुरोर्हितम् |
आ समावर्तनात् कुर्यात् कृतोपनयनो द्विजः || Manu. Chap 2. 108 ||
One who has undergone the upanayana, till his samavartana (convocation) should always perform the homas using samit, seek bhiksha, sleep on the floor and always tend to the teacher.
Dress and diet of a brahmachari
A brahmachari has a strict dress code which needs to be followed at all times. The focus is on simplicity and avoidance of comforts that can distract the student from studies. The food necessarily has to be sourced through bhiksha.
Yama smriti says the following
मेखलामजिनं दण्डमुपवीतं च नित्यशः |
कौपीनं कटिसूत्रं च ब्रह्मचारी तु धारयेत् ||
दण्डं कमण्डलुं वेदं मौञ्जीं च रशनां तथा |
धारयेद् ब्रह्मचारी च भिक्षन्नाशी गुरौ वसन् ||
A brahmachari should always wear the mekhala (thread made of darbha grass), the skin of the deer, the yajnopaveeta; He should wear the loin cloth and put on a thread around his waist; He should always hold his staff and wear a thread made from the mounja grass; He should reside permanently in the guru’s house and source his food through bhiksha.
Service of the teacher
Great emphasis was laid on the brahmachari doing the seva of his guru. This was to ensure the student obtained the grace of the guru and thereby the knowledge that the guru had in store. Shastras declare that the mantras that a person receives give their results only if the guru is in a pleasant state of mind during the upadesha – the teaching. The same holds true for all knowledge. Hence the extreme importance to guru seva.
Vyasa smriti lays down the following guidelines
जघन्यशायी पूर्वं स्यादुत्थाय गुरुवेश्मनि |
यच्च शिष्येण कर्तव्यं कार्यं दासेन वा पुनः |
कृत्यमित्येव तत् सर्वं कृत्वा तिष्टेत्तु पार्श्वतः ||
A brahmachari should sleep only after his guru sleeps and wake up before the guru does so; Whatever is the duty of a servant in the house, the student also should do the same; He should always say (be in a position to say) ‘I have done the work’ and stand next to the guru.
Harita smriti gives even more details on the student’s duties
अथोदकुम्भकुशपुष्प समिन्मूलाहरण संमार्जनानुलेपनाङ्गशुश्रूषा |
प्रभृतिभिर्गच्छन्तं तिष्टन्तं शयानमासीनं भक्त्यानुवर्तेत ||
(A brahmachari) should everyday bring water for the guru’s house; He should bring the darbha grass and flowers and samit as needed; He should fetch roots and vegetables for the household; He should clean and wipe the guru’s house daily; He should massage the guru’s feet; He should always go behind the guru and stand next to him; He should always conduct himself devotedly.
Manu mandates that a student should never sit at the same level as the guru, except when traveling in a vehicle or while relaxing on a stone or slab (most likely during travel). Further, a brahmachari should never accept anyone speaking ill of his preceptor. He should move away from such a place.
A brahmachari should never call the following people by name – teacher, teacher’s son, teacher’s wife, soldier, parents, elders in the family, maternal uncles, scholars, father-in-law, sanyasis and maternal aunts.
Restrictions on brahmachari
Due to the reasons discussed at the beginning of this article, a number of restrictions on food and behavior are to be complied by a brahmachari.
Yajnavalkya smriti imposes the following restrictions
मधुमांसान्जनोच्छिष्टशुक्तं स्त्रीपाणिहिंसनम् |
भास्करालोकनाश्लीलपरिवादादिवर्जयेत् || Acharadhyaya. 33 ||
(A brahmachari) must not consume honey or meat; He should not put on ghee or any oil on himself; He should not anoint himself with collyrium; He should never eat the leftover of anyone else; He should completely give up speaking unpleasant language; He should stay away from the pleasure of women and from harming animals; He should also give up abusive language and talking ill about others.
Gautama imposes the following restrictions
वर्जयेन्मधुमांसगन्धमाल्य दिवा स्वप्नान्जनाभ्यन्जनयानोषा |
नट् छत्र कामक्रोधलोभमोहमदवाद्यवादनस्नानदन्तधावन हर्ष नृत्यगीतपरिवादभयानीति ||
(A brahmachari) must not consume honey or meat; He should not apply any scents nor put on collyrium; He should not have oil bath; He should not climb steep places; He should not wear sandals nor use an umbrella; He should give up desire, anger, greed, attachment and ego; He should neither play any musical instruments nor bathe multiple times in a day (for pleasure); He should neither celebrate excessively nor should he condemn others; He should not scare anyone.
The word brahmacharya, over time, came to be synonymous with sexual abstinence. Our scriptures recognized the importance of celibacy and consequent nourishment of Ojas with increased spiritual knowledge. It is no surprise therefore that the smritikaras and sutrakaras laid down detailed guidelines on how a brahmachari was supposed to act with regard to the opposite gender.
Manu lays down the following conditions
द्यूतं च जनवादं परिवादं तथानृतम् |
स्त्रीणां च प्रेक्षणालम्भमुपघातं परस्य च || Chap2. 179 ||
(A brahmachari) should never gamble; He should not speculate about others nor should be complain about anyone; He should not speak the untruth; He should avoid looking at women lustfully; He should not touch them (unnecessarily); He should never injure or hurt anyone.
Apastamba, in the sutras, says the following
स्त्रीभिर्यावदर्थसंभाषि मृदुः शान्तो दान्तो ह्रीमान् दृढधृतिरिति ….
(A brahmachari) should always talk only as much as necessary with women; He should always be soft with them; He should be calm and always meditate on God; He should always keep his senses under control; He should be resolute in completing his goals; He should never lose confidence.
The scriptures were also strict about ensuring that a brahmachari preserves his shukra. Voluntary ejaculation of semen was strictly disallowed. Even if the discharge was involuntary, elaborate cleansing rules were prescribed.
एक शयीत सर्वत्र न रेतः स्कन्दयेत् क्वचित् |
कामाद्धि स्कन्दयन रेतो हिनस्ति व्रतमात्मनः || Manu. Chap2. 180 ||
(A brahmachari) should always sleep alone; He should never voluntarily lose his veerya; If he does so, he destroys his vrata of brahmacharya.
स्वप्ने सिक्त्वा ब्रह्मचारी द्विजः शुक्रमकामतः |
स्नात्वार्कमर्चयित्वा त्रिः पुनर्मामेतृचम् जपेत् || Manu. Chap2. 181 ||
A brahmachari should take bath if he loses his veerya in his dreams; He should (then) worship the Sun; He should chant the mantra ‘punarmaamaitvindriyam…’ thrice to regain his veerya.
There are a number of other restrictions imposed by the rishis in order to ensure a brahmachari never deviates from his fixed path of knowledge acquisition. Some of them are as below.
- No riding of animals such as horses, elephants.
- No travel in chariots
- No climbing of tall trees
- No crossing of wide rivers
- No engaging in any risky adventures
- Always keeping a shikha
- No shaving
At the end of the studies, a brahmachari underwent a ritual bath known as the samavartana after which he became known as the snataka – the one who has undergone the (ritual) bath. After this, a brahmachari had two options.
- Becoming a gruhastha: A brahmachari who chose this option was known as the upakurvana brahmachari. He enters into the next ashrama of a householder. He could get married and lead a pious life with his wife while being of help to people in the other ashramas (brahmachari, vanaprasthi and sanyasi).
- Remaining a brahmachari till the end of life: Such a brahmachari stayed back at the house of his preceptor and undertook an extremely strict vrata of maintaining his brahmacharya and pursuing spiritual knowledge. Such a person was known as a naishtika brahmachari.
Brahmacharya as a virtue
As we have noticed from the above discussion, the practice of brahmacharya has great benefits for spiritual growth. Since the pursuit of upliftment does not end with student-hood, a natural question arises at this stage – “Is brahmacharya only for students?”
Our scriptures have answered this clearly and have defined brahmacharya as a virtue that can be practiced even by gruhasthas. There are two situations under this category.
- Brahmacharya throughout gruhastha ashrama
- Brahmacharya as a precursor to some great religious/spiritual activity
For a gruhastha, it was mandatory that he enjoyed his/her sexual life only with the spouse. A person who did not commit any adultery (even with his thoughts and words) was termed to be a brahmachari. Such a person continues to acquire Ojas and can pursue spiritual knowledge even while remaining a householder.
In the Mahabharata, at the end of the war, when Ashwathama releases the brahmastra to kill all the pandavas, Arjuna counters him with his own brahmastra. At this stage, Vyasa, Narada and other rishis appear and ask both of them to take back their astras to prevent a global disaster. Arjuna immediately complies and is easily able to take back the astra. Ashwathama replies that he is unable to take it back.
Sri Madhwacharya, in his tatparya nirnaya on the Mahabharata, has explained that Ashwathama’s inability to take back the astra was because of his loss of brahmacharya. Even though he was unmarried throughout his life, Ashwathama assures Duryodhana that he will obtain sons through Duryodhana’s wife in order to further the Kaurava dynasty. This was completely against the shastras and therefore Ashwathama loses a lot of his brahmacharya.
न शक्यमावर्तयितुं ब्रह्मचारिव्रताद्रुते | MBH. Sauptika parva. 15/6 |
On the other hand, even though Arjuna was a gruhastha, he had extra ordinary sense control. He had even rejected the advances of Urvashi, the most beautiful apsara, when he was in Swarga. Thus, he had immense brahmacharya due to which he was able to withdraw his weapon.
सत्यव्रतधरः शूरो ब्रह्मचारी च पाण्डवः |
गुरुवर्ती च तेनास्त्रं संजहारार्जुनः पुनः || MBH. Sauptika parva. 15/10 ||
Thus, sticking to the rules of the particular ashrama and performing one’s dharma also constitutes the practice of brahmacharya.
Brahmacharya as a vrata
Due to the enormous benefits brahmacharya brings in spiritual pursuits, it has been mandated as a requirement before any great religious or spiritual activity. So if one wants to engage in a yajna, yaga, maha-daana, teertha yaatra or jnana-karya, a vrata of brahmacharya for at least 3 days is mandatory.
Rigvidhana, an ancient work that details the benefits of worship with various mantras of the rig veda, lays down the requirements of brahmacharya before undertaking any religious activity.
शुद्धात्मा कर्म कुर्वीत सत्यवादी जितेन्द्रियः |
एवं शुद्धस्य कर्माणि मन्त्रैवक्ष्यामि तद्यथा ||
त्रिरात्रमेवोपवसे दादितः सर्वकर्मणां |
त्रीणि नक्तानि वा कुर्यात् ततः कर्म समारभेत् || Rigvidhana. 1. 51-52 ||
One should perform (any) karma having a clean conscience, and by remaining truthful and having full control over senses (sexual abstinence); He should fast for at least 3 days, or at least 3 nights, before undertaking any karma; Only then should be begin the ritual.
Thus we see how brahmacharya is an extremely important aspect of the pursuit of spiritual knowledge in sanatana dharma. Brahmacharya is not just celibacy but also consists of severe austerities and an intense focus on the study of scriptures. It aids immensely in sharpening our senses, cleansing our manas and thereby facilitating quick acquisition of jnana.
- Smriti Muktavali – Sri Krishnacharya
- Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya – Sri Madhwacharya
- Mahabharata – Shanti and Sauptika Parvas
- Chandogya Upanishad
- Manu Smriti
- Yajnavalkya Smriti
- A History of Dharmasutras – P V Kane
- Charaka Samhita
- Ashtanga Hrudaya
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