Brahmacharya (/ˌbrɑːməˈɑːrjə/; Devanagari: ब्रह्मचर्य) is a concept within Indian religions that literally means "conduct consistent with Brahma" or "on the path of Brahma".[1] In Yoga, Hinduism 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 citta through ascetic means.

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.[2] 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).[3][4]

In the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist monastic traditions, brahmacharya implies, among other things, the mandatory renunciation of sex and marriage.[5] It is considered necessary for a monk's spiritual practice.[6] Western notions of the religious life as practiced in monastic settings mirror these characteristics.


The word brahmacharya stems from two Sanskrit roots:

  1. Brahman (Devanagari: ब्रह्म) meaning one's own Self in non-dual schools or a distinct entity in dualistic schools, ultimate unchanging reality, absolute consciousness, much discussed in the Upanishads.[7]
  2. carya (चर्य), which means activity, behaviour, conduct.[8]

Hence, brahmacharya roughly means "to stay true to one's Self or one own Atma" or "on the path of Brahman".[1]

In ancient and medieval era Indian texts, the term brahmacharya is a concept with a more complex meaning, indicating a 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), intoxicants, and on sexual behavior (both sex and masturbation, in some schools of thought).[9]

One who practices brahmacarya is known as a brahmacārī or brahmacārinī. Various ashrams (आश्रम, transl. hermitage) and mathas (मठ, transl. college of ascetics) of Hinduism also call their initiates by these terms.[10][11]

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.[12] It is a form of self-restraint regarded as a virtue, and an observance recommended in a manner that depends 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.[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] while Linga Purana in chapter 1.8 states that in case of householders, indulgence in sexual intercourse with their own wives and abstention from it with other women mentally, physically and verbally should be understood as brahmacharya as well.[15][16]

Patanjali in verse 2.38[17] states that the virtue of brahmacharya leads to the profit of virya (वीर्य).[18] 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.[18] 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.[18] 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.[18][19] Tattva Vaisharadi and Yoga Sarasangraha assert that brahmacharya leads to an increase in jñana-shakti (power of knowledge) and kriya-shakti (power of action).[18]

The great epic Mahabharata describes the objective of brahmacharya as knowledge of Brahman (Book Five, Udyoga Parva, the Book of Effort).[20] 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 virtue of brahmacharya.[20] 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.[20]

In Jainism

Jain Flag Photo
Green colour in the Jain flag stands for brahmacharya[21]

Brahmacharya is one of the five major vows prescribed for the śrāvakā (layman) and for 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.[22] For lay Jains who are unmarried, chaste living requires Jains to avoid sex before marriage.[23] Uttam brahmacharya (Supreme Celibacy) is one of the ten excellencies of a Jain monk.[24] Brahmacharya is mentioned as one of the das dharma (ten virtues) in ancient Jain texts like Tattvartha Sutra, Sarvārthasiddhi and Puruşārthasiddhyupāya.[25]

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 that is 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 total abstinence from the sensual pleasure of all five senses, including the avoidance of sexual thoughts and desires.[22][26] The yogin who is firmly grounded in the virtue of brahmacharya is said to gain great vitality.[27]

As Asrama stage of life

Main article: Āśrama (stage)

Brahmacharya in Hinduism literally means "conduct consistent with Brahman" or "on the path of Brahman".[1]

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 occupies the first 20–25 years of life, roughly corresponding to adolescence.[28][29] Upon the child's upanayanam,[30] 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.[31] During this stage of life, the traditional vedic sciences and various sastras[32] are studied along with the religious texts contained within the Vedas and Upanishads.[33] This stage of life was characterized by the practice of celibacy.

During this stage of life, the chastity is for the purposes of learning from a guru (teacher), and during later stages of life, it is for the purposes of attaining spiritual liberation. (Sanskrit: moksha).[34]

Brahmacharya for girls

The Vedas and Upanishads do not restrict the student stage of life to males.[35] Atharva Veda, for example, states[35][36]

ब्रह्मचर्येण कन्या युवानं विन्दते पतिम्

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

— Atharva Veda, 11.5.18[36]
No age restrictions

Gonda[37] states that there were no age restrictions for the start of brahmacharya in ancient India. Not only young men, but older people resorted to the student stage of life, and sought teachers who were authoritative in certain subjects.[37] 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).[38]

Historical references to brahmacharya

The Vedas discuss brahmacharya, both in the context of lifestyle and as a stage of one's life. Rig Veda, for example, in Mandala 10, Sukta 136, mentions knowledge seekers as those kesin (long-haired) and with soil-colored clothes (yellow, orange, saffron) engaged in the affairs of mananat (mind, meditation).[39] Rig Veda, however, refers to these people as Muni and Vati. The Atharva Veda, completed by about 1000 BCE, has more explicit discussion of brahmacharya, in Book XI, Chapter 5.[40] 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.[40]

The concept and practice of brahmacharya is found extensively among the older strata of the Mukhya Upanishads in Hinduism. The 8th-century BCE text Chandogya Upanishad describes, in Book 8, activities and lifestyle that is brahmacharya:[41]

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[41][42]

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), samyagjñāna (correct knowledge), and brahmacarya, one attains Atman (the Self).

— Mundaka Upanishad, III.1.5[43]

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,[44] 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 the 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.[45] Similarly, in verse, the Satapatha Brahmana presents contrasting viewpoints on an eating restraint (regarding honey) for the brahmacārī student.[45]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Lochtefeld, James, ed. (13 August 2023). "Brahmacharya". The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 1: A–M. Rosen Publishing. p. 120. ISBN 9780823931798.
  2. ^ Sharma, Rajendra K. (2004). Indian Society, Institutions and Change. Atlantic Publishers & Dist. p. 28. ISBN 978-81-7156-665-5.
  3. ^ 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"
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ Carl Olson (2007), Celibacy and Religious Traditions, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195306323, page 227-233
  6. ^ DR Pattanaik (1998), The Holy Refusal, MELUS, Vol. 23, No. 2, 113–127
  7. ^
  8. ^ "चर्य". Dictionary.
  9. ^ a b Khandelwal, M. (2001). "Sexual Fluids, Emotions, Morality – Notes on the Gendering of Brahmacharya". In Sobo, Elisa Janine; Bell, Sandra (eds.). Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 157–174. ISBN 978-0-299-17164-3.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Pechilis, Karen (2004). The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States. Oxford University Press. pp. 74–101. ISBN 978-0-19-514537-3.
  12. ^ Āgāśe, K. S. (1904). Pātañjalayogasūtrāṇi. Puṇe: Ānandāśrama. p. 102. अहिंसासत्यास्तेय ब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहाः यमाः
  13. ^
    • "Brahmacharyam Pativratyam cha – Celibacy and Fidelity". Himalayan Academy. Archived from the original on 30 June 2013.
    • Taylor, Louise (2001). The Woman's Book of Yoga. Tuttle Publishing. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-8048-1829-2.
    • Long, Jeffery D. (2009). Jainism: An Introduction. I. B. Tauris. p. 109. ISBN 978-1-84511-626-2. The fourth vow – brahmacharya – 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. ^ "Sandilya-Upanishad". Thirty Minor Upanishads. Translated by Aiyar, K. Narayanasvami. Madras: V̇asanṭā Press. 1914. p. 173.
  15. ^ J.L.Shastri (1951). Linga Purana - English Translation - Part 1 of 2. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 28.
  16. ^ (25 May 2023). "Yogic zones (aṣṭāṅgayoga-nirūpaṇa) [Chapter 8]". Retrieved 29 December 2023.
  17. ^ "Yoga Sutra, verse 2.35–2.39" (in German). 24 January 2013. ब्रह्मचर्य प्रतिष्ठायां वीर्यलाभः
  18. ^ a b c d e "Appendix I". Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: With the Exposition of Vyasa, Motilal Banarsidas. Translated by Bharti, S.V. 2001. pp. 536–539. ISBN 978-8120818255.
  19. ^ "Investigation into the Nature of Brahman". The Chandogyopanishad. Translated by Jha, Ganganatha. Poona: Oriental Book Agency. 1942. pp. 434–440.
  20. ^ a b c "Udyoga Parva". The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. Translated by Ganguli, Kisari Mohan. Bharata Press. 1886. pp. 150–153.
  21. ^ Vijay K. Jain 2012, p. iv.
  22. ^ a b Shah, Pravin K. (2009). "Five Great Vows (Maha-vratas) of Jainism". Jainism Literature Center. Archived from the original on 2 June 2011.
  23. ^ "Brahmacharya", BBC Religion, BBC, 11 September 2009
  24. ^ Champat Rai Jain 1926, p. 64.
  25. ^ Vijay K. Jain 2012, pp. 145–147.
  26. ^ Kolb, Robert W., ed. (2008). Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society. SAGE. pp. 1207–1208. ISBN 978-1-4129-1652-3.[verification needed]
  27. ^ Feuerstein, Georg (2000). The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga. Shambhala. p. 61. ISBN 978-1-57062-555-8.
  28. ^ Manusmriti suggests the Brahmacarya ashrama be about 25 years, one-fourth of the normal life of a human being he estimates to be 100 years. See: Sharma, Rajendra K. (2004). Indian Society, Institutions and Change. Atlantic Publishers & Dist. p. 28. ISBN 978-81-7156-665-5.
  29. ^ Veylanswami, Bodhinatha (2007). What Is Hinduism?. Himalayan Academy Publications. p. 372. ISBN 978-1-934145-00-5.
  30. ^ Vivekjivandas, Sadhu (2011). Hinduism: An Introduction. Ahmedabad: Swaminarayan Aksharpith. p. 113. ISBN 978-81-7526-434-2.
  31. ^ Rocher, Ludo (2003). "The Dharmaśāstas". In Flood, Gavin (ed.). The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 103. ISBN 0-631-21535-2.
  32. ^ Kramrisch, Stella (July–September 1958). "Traditions of the Indian Craftsman". The Journal of American Folklore—Traditional India: Structure and Change. 71 (281): 224–230.
  33. ^
    • Parker, Samuel (1987). "Artistic practice and education in India: A historical overview". Journal of Aesthetic Education. 21 (4): 123–141. doi:10.2307/3332836. JSTOR 3332836.
    • Misra, R.N. (2011). "Silpis in Ancient India: Beyond their Ascribed Locus in Ancient Society". Social Scientist. 39 (7/8): 43–54.
  34. ^
    • Feuerstein, Georg (2011). The Encyclopedia of Yoga and Tantra. Shambhala Publications. p. 76. ISBN 978-1590308790. Brahmacharya essentially stands for the ideal of chastity
    • Johnson, W. J. (12 February 2009). "brahmacarya". A Dictionary of Hinduism. Oxford University Press. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-19-861025-0.
  35. ^ a b Jain, S. (2003). "The Right to Family Planning". In Maguire, Daniel C. (ed.). Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions. Oxford University Press on Demand. p. 134. ISBN 978-0-19-516001-7. 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...
  36. ^ a b
    • For source in Sanskrit: Atharva Veda Wikisource, Hymns 11.5[7].1 – 11.5[7].26
    • For English translation: Hay, Stephen N.; De Bary, Theodore (1988). Sources of Indian Tradition. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 18–19. ISBN 978-81-208-0467-8.
  37. ^ a b Gonda, Jan (1965). Change and continuity in Indian religion. The Hague: Mouton. pp. 284–285. OCLC 817902.
  38. ^
    • The Early Upanishads. Translated by Olivelle, Patrick. Oxford University Press. 1996. pp. 143–144. ISBN 978-0-19-512435-4.
    • "Tenth Kanda". The Satapatha-Brahmana. Vol. IV. Translated by Eggeling, Julius. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1897. pp. 393–394.
  39. ^
  40. ^ a b
    • 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 // ब्रह्मचारिणं पितरो देवजनाः पृथग् देवा अनुसंयन्ति सर्वे / गन्धर्वा एनम् अन्व् आयन् त्रयस्त्रिंशत् त्रिशताः षट्सहस्राः सर्वान्त् स देवांस् तपसा पिपर्ति // आचार्य उपनयमानो ब्रह्मचारिणं कृणुते गर्भम् अन्तः / तं रात्रीस् तिस्र उदरे बिभर्ति तं जातं द्रष्टुम् अभिसंयन्ति देवाः
    • For English translation: Sources of Indian Tradition. Translated by Hay, Stephen N.; De Bary, William Theodore. Motilal Banarsidass. 1988. pp. 18–19. ISBN 978-8120804678.
  41. ^ a b
    • Translation: Chandogya Upanishad. Translated by Swahananda, S. Vedanta Press. 2010. Book VIII, Chapter 5, verse 1–4. ISBN 978-8171203307.
    • 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 ॥
  42. ^ G. Jha (1942), The Chāndogyopaniṣad: A Treatise on Vedānta Philosophy, Oriental Book Agency, University of California Archives, OCLC 7733219
  43. ^ Pandit, Madhav Pundalik (1969). "Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.5". Gleanings from the Upanishads. Pondicherry: Dipti Publications. pp. 11–12. OCLC 81579.
  44. ^ Some recent Upanishads do see for example Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad mentioned below
  45. ^ a b Muller, F. Max, ed. (1900). The Satapatha Brahmana, Part V. The Sacred Books of the East. Vol. 44. Translated by Eggeling, Julius. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 90.


Further reading