What is Brahmacarya in Hinduism?

Hinduism Concepts

by Jayaram V

Brahmacarya in a very general sense means the pursuit of the knowledge of Brahman, the Supreme Self or the study of the Vedas. Both meanings are the same because the Vedas are considered personification of Brahman and contain the knowledge of Brahman only. In a very specific sense brahmacarya means the practice of celibacy by students who pursue Vedic studies.

According to the Vedic traditions, students who pursued the study and recitation of the Vedas under an experienced teacher by staying in his household, or even under one's own father, who was an adept in Vedic rituals and Vedas, had to undertake a vow and maintain strict celibacy until the end of their studies. In ancient times, a student had to spend nearly 25-30 years to gain proficiency in the Vedic knowledge and recitation of the Vedic hymns.

According to Apastamba sutras, 12 years was the shortest time and 48 years was the maximum prescribed time for the complete study of the Vedas. Only after they completed their formal education, they were allowed to take up household duties and lead a married life. In other words, a student spent his whole life in celibacy, avoiding all possible contact with the opposite sex.

Rules of celibacy for the students

Strict rules were prescribed for them during their stay in the Gurukulas. The following are some excerpts reproduced from the Apastamba sutras:

  • Let him wear a skin only as his upper garment.
  • Let him not go to assemblies (for gambling, &c.), nor to crowds (assembled at festivals).
  • Let him not be addicted to gossiping.
  • Let him be discreet.
  • Let him not do anything for his own pleasure in places which his teacher frequents.
  • Let him talk with women so much (only) as his purpose requires.
  • (Let him be) forgiving.
  • Let him restrain his organs from seeking illicit objects.
  • He shall not sleep in the day-time.
  • He shall not use perfumes.
  • He shall preserve chastity.
  • He shall not embellish himself (by using ointments and the like).
  • He shall not wash his body (with hot water for pleasure).
  • But, if it is soiled by unclean things, he shall clean it (with earth or water), in a place where he is not seen by a Guru.
  • Let him not sport in the water whilst bathing; let him swim (motionless) like a stick.
  • He shall not look at a naked woman.
  • He shall not cut the (leaves or flowers) of herbs or trees, in order to smell at them.
  • He shall avoid (the use of) shoes, of an umbrella a chariot, and the like (luxuries)
  • He shall not smile.
  • If he smiles, he shall smile covering (the mouth with his hand); thus says a Brahmana.
  • He shall not touch a woman with his face, in order to inhale the fragrance of her body.
  • Nor shall he desire her in his heart.
  • Nor shall he touch (a woman at all) without a particular reason.

These are just a few sample rules. The law books prescribe many such stringent laws to enforce strict discipline among students including what needs to be done if there was an emission during sleep. The laws were meant to keep the students under check and put them to the task of studying without distractions to which the young minds were vulnerable.

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