There are many interpretations of BRAHMACHARYA – the fourth yama. The most prominent one for our modern times is not being controlled by our senses. Brahmacharya offers us a way to freedom by honouring and respecting our bodies and its senses, but not being ruled by them.
I believe that one of the great lessons of life is understanding that there is a difference between “happiness” and “pleasure”. Pleasure is a momentary experience – it is a sensuous enjoyment. Happiness, on the other hand, is concerned with a deeper sense of contentment, peace and fulfillment. Giving into our senses only gives us fleeting pleasure, not true happiness.
In the West we indulge our senses – we follow our pleasures – by eating too much, eating unhealthily (my weakness is chocolate!), being bombarded by too many sights, sounds and smells. Some effects of this are that plain healthy food comes to be seen as boring, and silence as unacceptable.
One interpretation of brahmacharya suggests that we should not run after pleasure; a person who runs after pleasure cannot acquire the deeper knowledge that yogis seek.
Brahmacharya is also interpreted as celibacy – but in the West, we focus on the Western understanding of celibacy (complete abstinence from the sexual act). In ancient times brahmacharya meant not marrying, and complete abstinence from sexual thoughts, speech or acts, and applied ONLY to monks or yogis who chose to follow a strict ascetical path.
The reason for this is NOT because such thoughts or acts are morally bad, but because they use energy – energy that can be used for more creative and spiritual thoughts, activity, progress. This relates to the deeper knowledge yogis seek.
Of course, most people were not – and are not – ascetics. Most people in ancient times, as now, married. So, for the majority of people brahmacharya had, and has, a different meaning: engaging in sexual activity ONLY with one’s partner, and with the focus on self-control. That is, not indulging in casual sexual activity. Again, this is not because it’s bad, but because it “squanders the body’s energy” (Feuerstein).
Sex is obviously not bad in and of itself; without sex there would be no more people.
However, the proliferation of casual sex has led to many divorces (causing upheavals and unhappiness), sex as an expected part of even a first date, a proliferation of teenage pregnancies, virginity seen as something to be got rid of as soon as possible. A particularly abhorrent result of our society’s fixation on sex is rape – people believing they have a “need” and therefore a “right” to possess and control another person, regardless of the physical, emotional and psychological damage it causes.
Yoga – and Patanjali – recognise the creative force of sexual activity but stress that when it is not conscious behaviour, it is “compulsive activity”, and that compulsiveness is “a deep sense of slavery” (Yoga Journal).
So, while sex is a part of life, an obsession with sex not only enslaves people, but lowers their energy, so that there is no vigour or commitment in life (The Art of Living).
Thus advanced yogis do not engage in sensual pleasures like sex – nor the fleeting pleasures of taste, smell, sight or hearing because they see themselves as more than the body: as Consciousness – vast and powerful.
For them, practising brahmacharya helps to achieve that ultimate happiness, which is within each of us. Thus, aiming for brahmacharya is not a chore: it offers a way to become strong, joyful and peaceful. Hinduwebsite.com says that “By preserving the energy, strength and vitality of mind and various organs, one can lead a happy, energetic and healthy life… the mind will be clear and the brain superb.”
When we look at brahmacharya in the context of the other yamas – ahimsa (non-harmfulness), satya (Truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness) – we must remember that these five yamas (as well as the five niyamas) are “not teachings on ethics and morality….(but)…tools to improve the behaviour of the mind” (Sw. Niranjanananda, p. 35).
It always comes back to the mind, and the state of happiness we are trying to cultivate.
With our society’s high levels of crime, corruption, greed, divorce and obesity it is clear that indulging our senses is not bringing peace and happiness. Yet, surely peace and happiness are ultimately what everyone is seeking.
Swami Niranjan points out that when we practise the yamas the “attraction of one’s passions, aggressions, desires, greed, ego, hatred and jealousies are reduced and the mind finds peace” (Niranjan, p.37).
Perhaps it’s time to rein in those desires and fleeting pleasures and start to cultivate brahmacharya.
Feuerstein, G., “The Lost Teachings of Yoga”
Niranjanananda, Sw. Yoga, April, 2015
The Art of Living, www.artofliving.org
Yoga Journal, www.yogajournal.com
Professor Google (www.google.com)