“Upon the establishment of connection to Spirit, obtainment of vital energy.”
In Hinduism, brahmacarya refers to the time of life when a student devotes himself or herself to the study of sacred literature. This period was considered a time before marriage and household responsibilities. The term literally means “to move or walk with Brahman,” and it is important to understand that Brahman, a neuter proper noun, is not a specific god or goddess, but is the name for what is Absolute, Ultimate Reality, Cosmic Soul, what is beyond words or concepts. Brahman derives from bṛh, “to expand or increase,” and, to quote Vimala Thakar, the name suggests the “inexhaustible creativity” of the universe.
I translate brahmacarya here as connection to Spirit–this is its most powerful and essential meaning to me. Tradition, as Vimala Thakar states (see her commentary below), has defined brahmacarya more narrowly: as celibacy, or, with less absoluteness, continence or moderation, perhaps of all the appetites, but specifically in relation to sexual drive.
I was born in 1956, in a big American metropolis, New York City, and I have grown up in an era of drastically shifting norms around sexual behavior and intimate relationship. My parents were young adults during the 1960s sexual revolution, and their generation sought to throw over the proscriptive rules, the enforced silence, the sexual shaming of Puritanism. I grew up with a confusion around boundaries about sex. As I came of age, there was an Anything Goes attitude among my peers, and it was considered a feminist point of pride, at that time, to be casual about sex (as casual, say, as men).
I have come to value boundaries–and I am suspicious not only of the norms of my young adulthood but of my own diminished sense of self protection. I have been slow to recognize when I am in an unsafe situation. In my case, casualness concealed a disconnection from my body, a dissociation from harms I had experienced, an alienation from my own felt sense of self.
The larger meaning of brahmacarya, to me, is good conduct in my relation to others, generally, and nurturance of the connection inward, specifically–so that I can know who I am in relationship. This connection comes for me through physical practice, with movement, breath, feeling–my body teaches me who I am, and who I come from. It teaches me about touch and love and care. It teaches me about boundaries. It shows me the importance of my social ties but also the necessity of holding my own autonomy, of establishing my own space.
Women are often not accorded autonomy over their own bodies, and we get many subliminal messages to make ourselves available–sexually, emotionally–to let ourselves be used. (See Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne.) I am glad that with the #MeToo movement, women are calling out sexual abuse more, are recognizing and naming that, yes–this is a personal attack, and it is violent. I applaud the women in the Iyengar yoga community who have named abuse this past year. I know they were disbelieved and discredited by some for the testimony they gave. I am grateful to them for their bravery.
Our bodies are our selves. Survivors of sexual abuse often undergo a loss of vital energy, a soul death. (See The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk.) The recovery of self, and of one’s own life force, requires us to inhabit our bodies once again. It demands self-care and self-empowerment. It requires the right to choose. Indeed, brahmacarya can be understood to be self-reliance, that is, Self-reliance, a connection to and dependence on the source of one’s strength.
May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer pain,
Rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain to joy
And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in the world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.
“Brahman is a Sanskrit word, and the root meaning of the word Brahman is ‘that which contains an inexhaustible potential of creativity.’ Brahman is a name given to the Ultimate Reality by the Vedas because it is inexhaustible creativity. For millions and billions of years, Life has been manifesting, the manifestations have been merging back into formlessness, but the dance of emergence of forms and merging back of forms into the formlessness goes on. So the name Brahman was given to unnameableness of inexhaustible creativity…. The word brahmacarya has been narrowed down to mean ‘celibacy.’ The meaning of the word brahmacarya got limited to ‘celibacy, continence, refraining from a sex life.’ But this is an interpretation imposed upon the word brahmacarya by commentators that you have come across in India for thousands of years. And when the books of Indian philosophy got translated into English or French or German, the word brahmacarya was translated as celibacy. Celibacy is a very limited thing. Dedication to the awareness of Divinity, dedication to the understanding of Divinity can be possible even in married life.” –Vimala Thakar, Glimpses of Raja Yoga, p. 23
• How do you cultivate your connection within and to the source of your strength?
• Do you value time alone? Are you sometimes too much alone?
• What do you consider continence in relationships to be? Is it possible to be sexually but not emotionally continent?
• Are you respectful of the divine in others? In yourself?
neuter noun in compound
connection to Spirit (from Brahman, the name of Cosmic Soul, Ultimate Reality, Source of all, + car, “to move, to walk”)
|feminine noun, 7th case singular
establishment, resting place, ground (from prati-, “down upon,” + sthā, “to stand”)
neuter noun in compound
vigor, energy, power, valor (from vīraḥ, “hero,” + -ya, suffix that makes abstract noun)
masculine noun, 1st case singular
obtainment, gain (from labh, “to obtain”)