What is Brahmacharya?

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

The word for celibacy in Sanskrit is brahmacharya. Charya means conduct and brahma means proper, appropriate. This appropriate conduct has to be seen in relation to an individual's passions. When there is passion and desire inside, then to maintain balance of mind at that moment is brahmacharya.

Pratipaksha bhavana

When the mind is affected by passions, the best way to maintain balance of mind is pratipaksha bhavana. Pratipaksha bhavana is a teaching of our Paramguru Swami Sivananda. It means to cultivate the opposite positive thought, and not connect with the negative thought.

If an idea comes 'I don't like this person', the pratipaksha bhavana would be 'I like this person because of this quality'. When you say 'I don't like this person', you don't really mean the person, you mean something that the person has done or expressed which you have not liked. It is a quality that you do not like.

You like the person yet you do not like the quality which he or she has displayed. So the opposite thought of that is 'Ok, I did not like this particular expression or behaviour, however I do appreciate the better behaviour that this person can have'. To change negativity into a positive thought is pratipaksha bhavana.

The same can be done with inner passions. There is passion, yet it is negative, self-oriented, selfish. It is desiring and infatuated. The pratipaksha bhavana is to convert that selfish passion into divine passion, to focus and offer it to one's ishta devata. Surdas, Mirabai, Eknath and Tukaram were able to do it. Bhaktas and people living a normal householder life have been able to do it.

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was a brahmachari and he was married. His feeling and attitude was, "My wife is devi and she is with me. My Kali is with me in form of Ma Sarada. Socially I am married to her yet my feeling is eternal and divine, for in my wife I see the cosmic mother."

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa did not see Sarada as his wife but as a manifestation of Mother Kali. That was the pratipaksha bhavana of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, where mundane awareness was converted into divine awareness. This is also brahmacharya.

The better brahmachari

In Manusmriti and other smritis of yore, it has been stated that grihasthas who engage in sexual relationships can live a brahmacharya life, provided they are able to harness and control their passion and sexual activity. Husband and wife can live brahmacharya, if they are free of passion but full of love and oneness.

Brahmacharya does not mean negation of sexual life. That becomes part of life for those people who have renounced a certain type of lifestyle. For them there are sadhanas to sublimate sexual energy. Through asanas one can control that urge. Through bandhas one can sublimate the shakti. Through meditation one can develop pratipaksha bhavana and change one's whole attitude.

There is the story of two sadhus who were wandering beside a riverbank. It was evening time. A beautiful girl was trying to cross the small river. One of the sadhus walked up to the girl and said, "Let me help you across." He picked her up in his arms, took her across the river and put her down on the ground.

The other sadhu became furious and thought, "How dare he break our discipline?" They both came to their guru. The second sadhu started to complain, "Guruji, you know what he did today? He carried a beautiful, young girl across the river." The guru asked him, "Then after that what did he do?" The sadhu replied, "Well, he left her there."The guru said, "He left her there, but you are still carrying her in your head even now."

Who is a better brahmachari? The person who helped a young girl across the river, who did his karma and was then finished with it? Or the one who was getting jealous thinking, 'He got the opportunity and I did not?' and who complained to the guru? Brahmacharya is a discipline, an attitude and a lifestyle.

Much more than celibacy

The literal meaning of the word brahmacharya is 'one who is connected with the positive, with the uplifting'. That person is a true brahmachari.

Celibacy is actually a word which has come from the western tradition. It is not a word of the Indian tradition. In the Indian tradition brahmachari has a vast definition. In the western language the idea of celibacy is associated with the Christian belief. In Christianity celibacy has a particular, specific meaning.

According to the Indian tradition a person who lives brahmacharya is connected with the positive in life and is uplifted by that positive force. This positive force has no ties that limit a person's progress, growth and evolution of the individual.

—18 September 2014, Tyagaraj Sports Stadium, Delhi, India