Looking at Brahmacarya from a Different Perspective
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | January 27, 2023
Apparently, when yoga started to become popular in the west in the 60s and the hippies were doing their thang, Indian teachers scrambled to come up with a translation for brahmacarya that felt a little more, uh… copasetic…than “celibacy.”
There were plenty of acrobatics used to get around equating brahmacarya with celibacy including “continence”, “controlling your sexual energy”, and (with a little Buddhist spin) “right use of energy.”
Of course, these are useful translations and ideas – particularly in today’s free-for-all sex culture (all puritanism aside and regardless of social trends, unbridled action upon sexual impulses may not be optimal physically in terms of microbiome (and whatever else) swapping, for creating trusting, lasting relationships, or energetically and karmically, who knows what kind of reactions get set in place? That second season of The White Lotus…oh my!)
In addition to being one of the 5 yama-s or principles of interpersonal behavior, brahmacarya is the name of one of the four aśramas or stages of life laid out in the Vedic traditions. In this context brahmacarya means the young person who is living the life of a student and is celibate because they are devoting their time and energy to studying, learning, and paying their dues.
Of course celibacy was common in many traditional cultures pre-marriage in order to protect (and of course control) women and the family. All this to say that defining brahmacarya as celibacy is entirely accurate and in accordance with Indian tradition.
Additionally, those following the monastic yoga path, rather than family life, were (and still are) expected to maintain celibacy.
But brahmacarya as celibacy in the context of the yama-s of the Yoga Sutra, is problematic for the simple reason that the yama-s are moral principles about relating to others – non-harming, being truthful, non-stealing, non-greediness. Whereas the niyamas are moral principles about relating with yourself – being clean, finding contentment, taking on some penance or sacrifice, taking the initiative to study, and surrendering to or regularly connecting with your higher self through spiritual practice.
So my question is, if brahmacarya is strictly about celibacy or even continence, wouldn’t it fit better in the niyama category? As a personal choice or self-discipline?
For that reason (and because it’s confusing to people who want to practice yoga who are not renunciates) I prefer a more etymological definition of brahmacarya – Brahma meaning “oneness” + “carya” to drive – in bumper sticker language, “God is my co-pilot.” (as an aside, “Brahma” is the creator god, but “Brahma” and “Brahman”, particularly in the Vaisnavite tradition are often conflated and mean the ocean of Oneness from which all emanates and that’s how I’m using the root here).
We could interpret brahmacarya as meaning striving to see Brahman in everything as I move through the world – which ultimately is what the spiritual Brahmacarya student stage is supposed to be about – a deep study of spirituality that elicits the experience of continually returning to the reality of oneness inherent in this world of form so that you can go on out there afterwards and be a good person.
Patanjali says: “To those established in brahmacarya, boundless energy (vigor) is freely available” – Brahmacaryapratiṣṭhāyāṁ vīryalābhaḥ (2.38).
Growing up, I knew many Catholic priests and nuns – and I can attest that they were not particularly bouncing off the walls with energy (of course some were not celibate). I’ve also known many yogic renunciates, I wouldn’t say they all have tons of energy either. On the other hand, I’ve met some pretty randy people with a lot of energy.
When I studied Chinese medicine there was the idea that hyper-sexual behavior burns out your jing or innate life force. Ayurveda says similar things about ojas. It makes sense because having sex require some energy.
But isn’t this a rather reductive equation for getting energy?
What if we use the more etymological definition – “driving (or moving through life) experiencing Oneness?”
What if brahmacarya is actually guiding us to spend our lives:
- seeing the oneness in all things
- experiencing the deep undercurrents of oneness flowing everywhere
- noticing the interconnectedness and interdependency of all things
- and gaping in awe at the unfathomable power of the love that drives all of it
If we lived like that, then perhaps we would be living in a flow of boundless, cosmic energy. Perhaps we’d learn how to plug our little adrenal glands into something limitless.
Perhaps Patanjali was not talking exclusively about sexual abstinence. Perhaps he was talking about the possibility for sourcing our energy from a grid that lies beyond the physical. Perhaps he wasn’t talking about sperm or epinephrine. Perhaps he was talking about a way to live our lives with vigor by tapping into an endless wellspring of cosmic energy, the boundless energy of love.
I think there’s a correlation between brahmacarya as “Moving through life seeking Oneness” and Īśvarapraṇidhāna as “Dedicating my life to seeking or surrendering to the Oneness within.” In this way brahmacarya becomes the nucleus of the yama universe. Because if my primary action is to seek the experience of the interconnectedness and interdependency of all things, then why would I want to harm, lie, steal from, or hoard? It sort of umbrellas the other 4 principles.
As for the niyama-s, if they are about my ethical relationship to myself, Īśvarapraṇidhāna is the driving force of that side of the yama and niyama universe. In other words, my primary action on the niyama-s side is to experience that Oneness within. Then all the other niyama-s, like satellites, orbit around that reality. I seek purity, contentment, study, and sacrifice in order to experience the Oneness within.
Perhaps the principle of brahmacarya guides towards Oneness without and Īśvarapraṇidhāna guides towards the Oneness within. Perhaps when we walk through life keeping brahmacarya and Īśvarapraṇidhāna alive in our hearts, they orbit around each other, spiraling closer, each with their own satellites pulling us with their force of love towards Oneness.