Brahmacharya = abstinence?

In very many discussions today especially related to social issues such as rapes, many tend to blame the unnatural curbing of human sexual curiosity on Dharma (rather Hindu culture). The emphasis on “Brahmacharya” in Shastra is provided as the proof of artificial suppression of human sexual curiosity and instinct. It is assumed that Brahmacharya promotes abstinence and dissuades sex, further implying that Dharmik thought is backward in the matters of sex. Now for a culture that gave Kamasutra to the world, such an allegation does seem a little out of place! So below I try to explain my understanding of Brahmacharya.

To understand Brahmacharya as abstinence and concealment is at best simplistic. Per Santana dharma, there are four Purusharthas (goals/pursuits) that every individual has to aspire for – Dharma (righteous way of living doing one’s duties), Artha (material prosperity), Kam (desire, including sex) and Moksha (eventual salvation – though salvation again is not an apt translation as salvation is from sin, more appropriate would be saying “freedom from the cycle of birth and death”). However, over the lifecycle of a man, the pursuits and duties rearrange their priorities. For a student (Kaumarya – until 16-18 years of age) also called Brahmachari (Brahmacharya ashram), his/her priority is sheeksha (education and understanding of Dharma), for a Grihastha/Householder (post education phase when a child becomes Yuvan/Youth), his/her priority is pursuit of Artha and Kam. Only post that, when one has fulfilled his/her role as a householder – has had a family, provided for the family and contributed to the society, the individual is ready to move into Vanprasth Ashram followed by Sanyaas (usually post 50 years of age), it would be the age of retirement to put it in contemporary terms. It is in these phases that the goal for the person is stated to be striving for moksha and letting go of material desires.

But for resources/material wealth and desire to achieve such wealth, as well as desire to propagate lineage, a household and eventually the human species will never sustain. No kids can be possible without sex (virgin birth is only possible in fables right?). For a householder having kids is considered a virtue and also a duty. In the Shikshavalli of Taitirriya Upanishad, of the many advices that the teacher gives his graduating students, one is”प्रजा तन्तुं मा व्यवच्छेत्सि” -> Do not cut the thread of progeny”; which essentially means, do have kids.

Thus, it is not that there is stress on abstinence wholesale, or sex is considered sin, just that there is very clear guidance of what should matter when. If anything Sex was considered an art and a skill to learn, as is evident from Kamasutra and the carvings on various temples. The stress is on not letting impulses run amok but enjoying all that life has to offer in moderation – enjoyment without over-indulgence. As Krishna explains in Gita

ध्यायतो विषयान्पुंसः संगस्तेषूपजायते ।
संगात्संजायते कामः कामात्क्रोधोऽभिजायते ॥
क्रोधाद्‍भवति सम्मोहः सम्मोहात्स्मृतिविभ्रमः ।
स्मृतिभ्रंशाद् बुद्धिनाशो बुद्धिनाशात्प्रणश्यति ॥ (Bhagvad Gita 2.62)

Over-attachment to pleasure of senses leads to lust. Uncontrolled (and unfulfilled) lust leads to anger. Too much anger leads to delusions and corruption of memory which ultimately results into downfall of intellect and Vivek buddhi (discretion). Hence, a smart man or woman will ensure it is their intellect that drives their senses and not the other way round.  Another beautiful allegory from Katha Upanishad comes to mind, wherein the body is compared to a Chariot. The sense organs (indriyas) are denoted as the horses of the chariot, the mind as the bridle/harness and the intellect (buddhi) as the saarthi, the charioteer. For a balanced and firm ride, the saarthi (charioteer) has to be in command of both the mind and the horses. If the horses are left to their discretion, chariot itself will come apart.

आत्मानँ रथितं विद्धि शरीरँ रथमेव तु ।
बुद्धिं तु सारथिं विद्धि मनः प्रग्रहमेव च ॥
इन्द्रियाणि हयानाहुर्विषयाँ स्तेषु गोचरान् ।
आत्मेन्द्रियमनोयुक्तं भोक्तेत्याहुर्मनीषिणः ॥ (Kathopanishad 1.3.3)

Furthermore, this control of senses extends to all aspects – eating, drinking, sleeping, any kinds of addiction etc. etc. and is not limited to sex alone. We say अति सर्वत्र वर्जयेत् (excess of everything is bad). What more, even too much of virtue is bad, rather stupid, as we learn from the story of Karna and Indra in Mahabharata, or the snake (from the parables of Sri Ram Krishna) who in his attempt to become peaceful and friendly gave up hissing and biting all together and became a laughing stock of the town.

The virtue in abstinence without nuance is an Abrahamic concept, where sex itself is a sin and all those born thereof are sinners, and yes Victorian (Abrahamic) notion of ethics has indeed impacted social psyche across the globe including Indian society.  The issues caused due to such convoluted morality concepts cannot be rectified by over/unrestraint indulgence though, but only by understanding the role sex plays in our life and giving it the respect and stature it deserves, while bearing in mind that like any other “pleasure”, it too has downsides if unrestraint desire is allowed to cloud the brain.

ॐ शान्तिः ||

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