Introduction of Brahmacharya
Brahmacharya literally means “going after Brahman (Supreme Reality, Self or God)”. 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 Ashramas.
The Brahmacharya (bachelor) stage of one’s life, up to 25 years of age, was focused on education and included the practice of celibacy. 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 Moksha (spiritual liberation).
In another context, Brahmacharya is the virtue of celibacy when unmarried and fidelity when married. It represents a virtuous lifestyle that also includes simple living, meditation and other behaviors. In the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist monastic traditions, Brahmacharya implies, among other things, the mandatory renunciation of sex and marriage. It is considered necessary for a monk’s spiritual practice. Western notions of the religious life as practiced in monastic settings mirror these characteristics.
Brahmacharya as a Virtue
Brahmacharya is a form of self-restraint which is regarded as a virtue. For a married practitioner it means marital fidelity (not cheating on one’s spouse). For a single person it means celibacy.
It is known that the virtue of Brahmacharya leads to the profit of Virya. 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. Other ancient and medieval era texts of Hinduism describe the fruits of this virtue differently. Many great sages explained that Brahmacharya must be understood as the voluntary restraint of power.
Within the Upanishad’s verses there are mentions of Brahmacharya as a sacrament and sacrifice which, once perfected, leads to realization of the soul or Self (Atman), and thereafter becomes the habit of experiencing the soul in others. It is believed that Brahmacharya leads to the increase in Jnana-Shakti (power of knowledge) and Kriya-Shakti (power of action).
The great epic Mahabharata describes the objective of Brahmacharya as knowledge of Brahman. Brahmacharya leads one to union with the Supreme Soul or Self. 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. A Brahmacharya 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 an essential part of the path in perfecting perseverance and the pursuit of knowledge.