Mar 27, 2017

Brahmacharya and Continence in Yoga. The Story of Confusion

Deconstruction (from lat. de – ‘top to bottom, backward’, and constructio – “erection”, “putting together”)- a concept in modern philosophy and art that represents understanding by means of breaking the stereotype or introduction into new context. It is underlain by the assumption that meaning is constructed in the process of reading while traditional ideas either lack due depth (are trivial) or are attributed with author’s repressive instance. Thus there’s a need for provocative act that initiates an idea and liberates the text undertones that author does not control. Developed by Jacques Derrida, it has its roots in Martin Heideggers’ concept of ‘Destruktion’ – repudiation of construing tradition for the purpose of hidden meaning revelation.

I shall once again and for a while withdraw from text linearity for the sake of brahmacharya – one of the most argued and controversial issues in Yoga. Brahmacharya is known to have been listed by Patanjali as one of Yoga yamas. Most of popular books on Yoga promote the concept of brahmacharya to be sexual abstinence, celibate and singlehood. But the absurdity and controversial character of this idea can be judged at least by the fact of Tantric sexual practices existence. 

Yet even in case extremely fervent advocates of “yoga celibacy” refuse to recognize Tantra to be a part of Yoga, they shall have to bear with descriptions of sexual practices contained in classical yogic texts. For instance, the following piece that one can find in Dattatreya Yoga Shastra (a primary text of Hatha Yoga): 

kṣīramāṅgirasaṃ ceti dvayorādyaṃ tu labhate ।
dvitīyaṃ durlabhaṃ puṃsāṃ strībhyaḥ sādhyamupāyataḥ ।
yogābhyāsaratā strī ca puṃsā yatnena sādhayet ॥ (140)
Kshira (milk) and angirasa are the two (substances) that emerge. The second that is hard to get a man must procure with the help of a woman using proper methods, while a woman devoted to the practice of yoga should get by means of a man.

Or the lines that are a direct reference to ejaculation control techniques, for instance:

calito yadi binduḥ tamurdhvamākṛṣya rakṣayet ।
evaṃ ca rakṣito binduḥ mṛtuṃ jayati tattvataḥ ॥ (142)
If the semen moves then it should be preserved by drawing upwards. 

Semen preserved in this way truly overcomes death. 

Obviously these techniques are more relevant for the process of sex rather than tea drinking.
And finally here is a quote from Jnananarva: 

94-95. The unity of man and woman is pure yoga! (During it) moaning is a form of mantra, talks are praying, embracement are offering of musk, kisses are offering of camphor, the marks of nails and teeth are flowers, the coition (per se) is satisfaction…, ejaculation is visarjana…

The narratives describing lives of rishis and ancient yogis replete with sexual stories. And speaking in general, India in its classical period was not at all puritan. Just take a look at works of art that are imbued with sensuality.
For the purpose of these contradictions elimination they coined a number of doubtful and even hypocritical explanations. Like the one that sex in married life is not actually sex (I’m sorry for a person who arrived at this sad conclusion), that ritual Tantric sex also “does not count” and so on. That brahmacharya (i.e. celibacy) is not violated if the only purpose of sex was conception of children… But all of the said is not convincing. It rather comes as a lame excuse of hang ups developed in authors of these concepts.

Another problem is actually the name. The word “brahmacharya” verbatim means “way of brahman” or “way to brahman”. Initially brachmacharya denoted a stage of apprenticeship that every twice-born was to complete. It is in this context that the word can be found in all early Upanishads. Nothing that can be referred to sex is implied there, except just one amusing piece contained in Prashna Upanishad.

But late yogic texts already represent the idea of brahmacharya to be sexual abstinence. Where had this strange idea emerge from? How come they distorted Yoga by trying to block one of chakras?

In this article I shall try to share my findings of the given issue investigation. I apologize in advance for my excessive meticulousness and even prolixity. But since it is a topical theme for many people interested in Yoga and as far as it has been imbued with traditional (though incorrect) interpretation I’ve made up my mind to make my text as well-reasoned as possible.

Now, Patanjali uses the word “brahmacharya” two times. In the line that recites the types of yama:

अहिंसासत्यास्तेयब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहा यमाः ॥ ३०॥
ahiṃsā-satya-asteya-brahmacarya-aparigrahā yamāḥ ॥ 30॥

And one more time in his comment on brahmacharya results

ब्रह्मचर्यप्रतिष्ठायां वीर्यलाभः ॥ ३८॥
brahmacarya-pratiṣṭhāyāṃ vīrya-lābhaḥ ॥ 38॥

When practicing brahmacharya one acquires virya (vigor, heroism).

Unfortunately, Patanjali does not define the term. The first definition appears in Vyasa’s Yoga Bhashya. Vyasa gives the following explanation:

brahmacaryaṃ guptendiyasyopasthasya saṃyamaḥ
Brahmacharya is control (samyama) of concealed senses (gupta indriya) and of [that] staying near (upa-stha). 

This direct translation of the verse fits into the idea of brahmacharya to be apprenticeship. Indeed, a student must control what he is usually not aware of, and things around him. The last can be correlated with precision. But this line can be also read in allegoric sense. One of the meanings implied by the word upastha is a generative organ, or, figuratively speaking, sexual desire. That is, “brahmacharya” means “control over one’s penis”… Ok, joke it is. “Brahmacharya” is “control of sexual desire”. But here things are not that obvious as well. Although one can find such meaning of the word “upastha” in a dictionary, in early Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita it was used exclusively in its direct meaning. And here comes a question: wasn’t it a reverse operation of the meaning coming to dictionaries from later sources in that these words had already been subject to modification? 

BUT! Even in case it is still an authentic meaning, this is not about “ban” or “rejection”, but “control” proper. That is, the original opinion drawn by Vyasa coincides with our idea that a yogi must be able to control his sexual energy. Actually, just like any other type of energy.

He was Vacaspati Misra who for the first time (among yogic commentators) introduced direct sexual connotation of the word “brahmacharya”. This outstanding Indian scholar set himself a task of writing commentaries on all darshanas’ major texts. His commentary on Vyasa’s Yoga Bhashya has been already referred to in our discussion of siddhis. 

brahmacaryasvarūpam āha --- gupteti। saṃyatopastho'pi hi strī-prekṣaṇa-tad-ālāpa-kandarp-āyatanatadaṅga-sparśana-sakto na brahmacaryavān iti tannirāsāyoktaṃ guptendriyasyeti। indriyāntarāṇy api tatra lolupāni rakṣaṇīyānīti। aparigrahasvarūpam āha
the one attached (sakta) to contemplation of women, talking to them (about them), touching their private parts (verbatim – the parts where Kandarpa – god of love – sits (maybe they are erogenous zones implied here??)) lacks brahmacharya.

Here the key word is “attached” – sakta that derives out of the root sañj (सञ्ज् – to fasten, to adhere). We see the concept of Vacaspati Misra to resemble the one of Vyasa, though with a minor “narrowing” of thesis and its further shift. The skill of staying “unattached” to things and control are very close to each other, yet control is still a more broad category because control of one’s energy (sexual energy in this case) can be also related to ability to enhance and intensify sensational experience, induce it onto other people, while non-attachment does not imply the same. On the other hand, non-attachment can be preconditioned by one’s sexual weakness, and in this case there’s no sense talking about control. But even in consideration of everything mentioned non-attachment does not equal to complete rejection.

Curiously, but Vacaspati himself (as the legend has it) was indeed unattached to the things mentioned above. There is a showcase, an illustrative story that in the course of time has become a part of folklore. Vacaspati was married to his Teacher’s daughter whose name was Bhamati. Short before the Teacher’s death he asked Vacaspati to write a comment on Vedanta Sutra. Vacaspati started working on it and soon became totally engrossed in writing. Time was passing by. Days became months, years, decades… all this time he was busy with his work and never paid attention to things around him. Finally he finished this treatise. The only thing left was give it a title. That moment he looked up a saw a woman lighting a lamp next to him. Vacaspati was so surprised he asked her: “Who are you, woman? And why are you here?” The woman answered: “Pay no mind. Proceed with your work”. He said: “My work is over. But who are you?” “I’m your wife!”- the woman replied. Vacaspati was dumbfounded by becoming aware that all those 30 years his wife was servicing him we was not even noticing her. As a sign of gratitude he gave her name – Bhamati – to his just-finished work.

This story (if true, of course) is a perfect illustration of Vacaspati’s attitude to sexual sphere and it makes us see why the mentioned thesis shift actually occurred.

In that regard it is indicative that a later commentator of Yoga Sutras, Bhoja (11th cent.) in his Rajamartanda not only refrained from further development of this idea, but made Vyasa’s definition of brahmacharya two times shorter 

Brahmacaryam upastha-saṃyamaḥ

And this should come as no surprise considering the fact that Bhoja was not only a practicing yogi but also a raja. And he probably had a good number of wives, concubines and ladies of pleasure.

Another commentator, Sankara, avoided discussing the subject in an amusing way:

ब्रह्मचर्यं गुप्तेन्द्रियस्य गुप्तान्येन्द्रियस्य पुरुषस्य अब्रह्मचर्यार्थवाङ्मनसादिवृत्तिशून्यस्य उपस्थेन्द्रियसंयम इति॥
brahmacaryaṃ guptendriyasya guptānyendriyasya puruṣasyaabrahmacaryārthavāṅmanasādivṛttiśūnyasyaupasthendriyasaṃyama iti॥

His concept comes down to the idea of brahmacharya to be keeping “manas etc.” away from what is not-brachmacharya. Of course from the point of logic grounding oneself on this type of definition is impossible. Seems like it was already at those times that this subject was stressful. 

The next thesis shift happened in the 16th century in the commentary of Vijnyanabhikshu, an ascetic philosopher. In general, he wrote almost the same things his predecessors had:

ब्रह्मचर्यं लक्षयति-गुप्तेति। गुप्तेन्द्रियस्येति स्वोक्तस्य विवरणमुपस्थस्येति। संयम इत्यत्रोपसर्गेणान्येन्द्रियसाहित्यमुपस्थस्य ग्रह्यम्। तेनोपस्थस्य विषये सर्वेन्द्रियव्यापारोपरम इति लक्षणम्। तथा चोक्त दक्षसहितायाम् 
brahmacaryaṃ lakṣayati-gupteti। guptendriyasyeti svoktasya vivaraṇamupasthasyeti। saṃyama ityatropasargeṇānyendriyasāhityamupasthasya grahyam। tenopasthasya viṣaye sarvendriyavyāpāroparama iti lakṣaṇam। tathā cokta dakṣasahitāyām 

But he completed his commentary with a verse from Dakshina Samhita, a relatively late text of religious type: 

ब्रह्मचर्यं सदा रक्षेदष्टधालक्षण पृथक्।
स्मरणं कीर्त्तनं केलि: प्रेक्षण गुह्यभाषणम्॥
संकल्पोऽध्यवसायश्च क्रियानिर्वृत्तिरेव च।
एतन्मैथनमष्टाड्गम् प्रवदन्ति मनीषिणः॥ इति।
brahmacaryaṃ sadā rakṣedaṣṭadhālakṣaṇa pṛthak।
smaraṇaṃ kīrttanaṃ keli prekṣaṇa guhyabhāṣaṇam॥
saṃkalpo 'dhyavasāyaśca kriyānirvṛttireva ca।
etanmaithanamaṣṭāḍgam pravadanti manīṣiṇaḥ॥ iti।

The main point of the verse is as follows: brahmacharya implies keeping oneself away (verb. separate from – pṛthak) from 8 manifestations of sensuality that were well known in Indian erotic lyrics. Namely: 
1. Sexual intercourse proper (kriya nivritti) 
2. Desire (ādhāvasaya) 
3. Thinking about the beloved person (sankalpa) 
4. Talk, quiet ‘cooing’ in some hidden place (guhyabhāsana) 
5. Praising of his (her) features to friends (kirtana) 
6. Playing, flirting (keli) 
7. Touching (sparśana) 
8. Admiring him (her) (darśana) 

As we can see, the idea of control was once again modified and now developed into the concept of abandonment.

Finally, in the 18 century in the work of Sadasivendra Saraswati, one of YS’s late renowned commentators, the idea of total restriction riches the apogee. He writes his definition:

Brahmacaryam aṣṭa-vidha-maithuna-tyāgaḥ

That is, “brahmacharya is abandonment (tyagah) of eight types of maithuna”. Those eight I have mentioned above. Let me remind maithuna to be sexual relations. But Sadasivendra lived in the period when India was being actively colonized, and was already subjected to cultural pressure of European civilization, not to mention the already established Islam. So that his point of view can be considered predetermined.

In Yoga Sutra’s first translation into English (made by J. R. Ballantyne) brachmacharya was translated as continence. It was the dawn of Victoria era with its puritanism. And in this form, as rendered by Vivekananda, it entered the Russian-speaking community. And alas – was assimilated. Moreover, some particularly ardent persons enhanced the idea by interpreting the word as chastity or celibacy.
In this way, step by step, a sound concept of control was gradually transformed into the idea of celibacy, a controversial, non-authentic and alien to the concept of harmonious personal evolvement. 

One may wonder how things are represented in other, non-yogi texts. Yoga, like the rest of esoteric systems, was not merely existing “up in the air” but dwelt within its parental culture evolving (or, unfortunately, degrading) along with it. In another fundamental text, Laws of Manu (Manu Smriti), the term “brahmacharya” is used 25 times, in most cases meaning “apprenticeship” proper. And only in a case or two it can be interpreted in the way that is somehow related to sex. The interpreters of Russian version have in some cases translated “brachmacharya” as “chastity”, though they could have easily preserved its meaning of “apprenticeship”.

The most significant part of the text explicating the code of brachmachari (a student) is drawn in the second section. 

175. But a student who resides with his teacher must observe the following restrictive rules, duly controlling all his organs, in order to increase his spiritual merit.
177. Let him abstain from honey, meat, perfumes, garlands, substances (used for) avouring (food), women, all substances turned acid, and from doing injury to living creatures. 
178. From anointing (his body), applying collyrium to his eyes, from the use of shoes and of an umbrella (or parasol), from (sensual) desire, anger, covetousness, dancing, singing, and playing (musical instruments), 
179. From gambling, idle disputes, backbiting, and lying, from looking at and touching women, and from hurting others.
190. This duty is prescribed by the wise for a Brahmana only; but no such duty is ordained for a Kshatriya and a Vaisya. 

As we can see, this text contains instruction on abstaining from women. But the text also has a lot of reservations. First, this requirement applies to a brahmachari who “resides with his teacher”, which seems logical, since student’s bringing women to a small dwelling place would cause discomfort. The more so the fact that apprenticeship started at the age of 6-8 years. Second, these requirements are not absolute but are just an instrument of enhancing one’s tapas. And finally the line 2.190 represents all these to be prescribed to a Brahman only.

I shall not proceed with investigation of later texts. It is obvious that in religious texts the meaning of brahmacharya as refusal from sex shall be intensified. Because they are religions, they restrict ) [1] But I shall once again highlight that the original meaning of this word in Yoga is still different.

[1] To learn the difference between esoteric system and religion refer to my monograph Psychological Practices in Mystic Traditions: From Archaic to Our Days.

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