Brahmacharya (pronounced /ˌbrɑːməˈtʃɑrjə/; Devanagari: ब्रह्मचर्यunder the tutelage of Brahman) refers to an approximate period of 14–20 years of formal education in the traditional sciences, astronomy and religious texts contained within the Vedas andUpanishads, is also characterised by the practice of strictcelibacy. Alternatively, Brahmacharya also denotes life long celibacy coupled preferably with devotion to spiritual endeavours. A Brahmachari is a male and brahmacharini a female. These characteristics correspond to Western notions of the religious life as practised in monastic settings.
The word brahmacharya stems literally from two components:
- Brahma, the absolute, eternal, supreme God-head. (As opposed to Brahmā, the deity in the Hindu triad responsible for creation).
- charya, which means "to follow". This is often translated as activity, mode of behaviour, a "virtuous" way of life.
So the word brahmacharya indicates a lifestyle adopted to enable one to attain the ultimate reality.
The term brahmacharya has a number of uses.
One common usage denotes the practice of brahmacharya, which indicates the practice of sexual continence or celibacy. At it's most basic level, brahmacharya means abstinence from sexual intercourse, or other types of sexual contact. At more subtle levels, brahmacharya includes greater physical and mental sexual discipline, until ultimately the practitioner experiences complete absence of sexual desire despite the most alluring stimuli. Hindu scriptures state that the practice ofbrahmacharya promotes mental and spiritual purity, and it is encouraged for anyone wishing to attain spiritual realization. Thus, Hindu scriptures prescribe such practice for householders prior to important religious rites, such as yagnas, or observances, such as vrats. However, the practice ofbrahmacharya is more sustained for most sadhus, or renunciates, who often take a life-long vow of brahmacharya, or celibacy, so that their life becomes centered on surrender to Guru and God, with the firm hope of God realization and the perfect divine happiness.
Another common usage denotes the life-stage ofbrahmacharya, within the Vedic ashram system. Brahmacharya ashram is the life-stage that occupies the first 20 or 25 years of life. Ancient Hindu culture divides the human lifespan into 100 years. Brahmacharya is the stage when the young child leads a student life (ideally in the Gurukula, the household of the Guru). This stage of life is preceded by the child's Upanayanam, a ceremony in which the child is considered to take a second birth. Brahmacharya is the first of the four phases of human life, namely, Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha, and finally Sannyasa, prescribed by Manusmriti for the dvija castes in the Hindu system of life.
Traditionally, in this life-stage, the brahmachāri (celibate) student went to live, often in the forests, with a spiritual teacher under whom he practiced a life of strict celibacy, morality and continence dedicated to learning all aspects of "dharma" that is the "principles righteous living". Dharma comprised personal responsibilities towards himself, family, society, humanity and God which included the environment, earth, nature and devotion to God. In the Hindu scheme of life, the brahmacharya life-stage starts between the ages of five and eight, when the chela starts his/her studies.
The word brahmacharya is also understood broadly in yoga as "sexual continence," which can be understood as being applicable as appropriate in different contexts (e.g., marital fidelity, celibacy for spiritual aspirants etc.), in more extreme terms (complete celibacy) or in more specific terms in relation to preserving and sublimating male sexual energy rather than losing it through ejaculation.
In yoga, the term brahmacharya tends to take on a connotation of disciplining the use of and preserving sexual energy. Brahmacharya is discussed in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras as one of the 5 Yamas, the foundational commitments for the practice of yoga. According to the Yoga Sutras, the end-result or fruit of Brahmacharya practised to perfection is unbounded energy or vitality.