BRAHMACARYA The Brahmacārin student "doing (religious) formulation" in the older Vedic literature denoted men who devoted their lives exclusively to religious duties. Later, this Sanskrit term came to refer to young Indians of the three higher social orders during their time of study, which typically began at the age of eight and ended at age sixteen. The young men stayed with their teacher's family, trained to follow a strict discipline that included sleeping on the ground, simple food and dress, and obedience. Another disciplinary feature was absolute celibacy. Graduation from this period of study was immediately followed by marriage and the setting up of a household, with ensuing economic and sexual obligations. Much later, as an old man, the higher caste Hindu would, according to standard doctrine, retire with his wife to a celibate life in the forest, eventually renouncing the world as an ascetic. Celibacy was seen as such a prominent feature of a man's life in his student years that brahmacarya (life of a Veda student) acquired the secondary meaning of "celibacy."
Indian society, on the one hand, placed a high priority on the production of offspring, especially sons, both for religious and economic reasons: only sons could make the offerings to ancestors, and sons were required to work the fields and to defend and support the family as well as the community. At the same time, there was admiration for those who resisted the temptations of worldly life and lived a life of religious devotion in poverty and celibacy. In some instances, the inability to get married and function sexually due to physical defects may have been a factor, but mostly the decision was based on religious fervor, a belief that restrictions and mortifications helped to destroy bad karma, and a conviction that the retention of semen increased a man's potency. The ascetic is often called ūrdhva-retas (whose semen is up), which in tantric texts is explained as retaining it in the head; tantric rituals included intercourse without orgasm. Male orgasm was often seen as the effluence of power, weakening the man. The celibate ascetic was credited with great powers that he could unleash in terrible curses or could use to bestow blessings. God Shiva is typically seen in a yoga pose as an ascetic or as a virile dancer. He is described alternatively as the ultimate celibate ascetic and as the passionate lover of his wife Pārvatī. In modern times there are reports how, in his old age, Mahatma Gandhi extolled the virtues of celibacy and imposed on himself exercises to test and strengthen his powers of restraint.
Hartmut E. Scharfe
Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśāstra. 2nd ed., vol. II. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1974.