Brahmacharya is a Sanskrit word (Devanagari: ब्रह्मचर्य) composed from:

  • Brahma: The Sanskrit name of the Creative Force, or God.
  • Charya: "to be followed" - observance or restraint

Someone who is observing brahmacharya is called a brahmachari.

"Brahmacharya literally means Achara or conduct that leads to the realization of Brahman or one’s own Self. It means the control of semen [the sexual seed, which is in men and women], the study of the Vedas (scriptures) and contemplation on God. The technical meaning of Brahmacharya is self-restraint, particularly mastery of perfect control over the sexual organ or freedom from lust in thought, word and deed." - Swami Sivananda

Brahamcharya is Chastity: sexual purity, meaning that the orgasm is avoided, forbidden. One renounces the low, animal pleasure of the orgasm in order to gain the higher, spiritual bliss of the soul:

"Ejaculation of semen [orgasm] brings death, preserving it within brings life. Therefore, one should make sure to retain the semen within. One is born and dies through semen; in this there is no doubt. Knowing this, the Yogi must always preserve his semen. When the precious jewel of semen is mastered, anything on earth can be mastered. Through the grace of its preservation, one becomes as great as me [Shiva]. The use of semen determines the happiness or pain of all beings living in the world, who are deluded [by desire] and are subject to death and decay." —Siva Samhita

Someone who is observing brahmacharya is called a brahmachari. Brahmacharya is not merely a physical restraint: it is also mental.

"Brahmacharya literally means Achara or conduct that leads to the realization of Brahman or one’s own Self. It means the control of semen, the study of the Vedas and contemplation on God. The technical meaning of Brahmacharya is self-restraint, particularly mastery of perfect control over the sexual organ or freedom from lust in thought, word and deed. Strict abstinence is not merely from sexual intercourse, but also from auto-erotic manifestations, from homosexual acts and from all perverse sexual practices. It must further involve a permanent abstention from indulgence in erotic imagination and voluptuous reverie. All sorts of sex anomalies and evil habits of various sorts like masturbation and sodomy must be completely eradicated. They bring about a total breakdown of the nervous system and immense misery.

"Brahmacharya is purity in thought, word and deed. It is celibacy and continence. Brahmacharya is the vow of celibacy. The term ‘celibacy’ is from the Latin ‘caelebs’, meaning unmarried or single, and signifies the state of living unmarried. But Brahmacharya is not mere bachelorhood. It includes the control, not only of the sex or reproductive Indriya, but also of all other Indriyas in thought, word and deed. This is the definition of Brahmacharya in a broad sense of the term. The door to Nirvana or perfection is complete Brahmacharya. Complete celibacy is the master-key to open the realms of Elysian bliss. The avenue to the abode of supreme peace begins from Brahmacharya or purity.

"Brahmacharya is absolute freedom from sexual desires and thoughts. A real Brahmachari will not feel any difference in touching a woman, a piece of paper or a block of wood. Brahmacharya is meant for both men and women. Bhishma, Hanuman, Lakshman, Mira Bai, Sulabha and Gargi were all established in Brahmacharya.

"Mere control of the animal passion will not constitute Brahmacharya. This is incomplete Brahmacharya. You must control all the organs—the ears that want to hear lustful stories, the lustful eye that wants to see objects that excite passion, the tongue that wants to taste exciting things and the skin that wants to touch exciting objects.

"To look lustfully is Adultery of the eyes; to hear anything that excites passion is Adultery of the ears; to speak anything that excites passion is Adultery of the tongue." - Swami Sivananda

Many great teachers of Yoga and Hinduism maintined a public image of celibacy but privately taught and practiced Tantra. Notable examples include Swami Sivananda and Ramakrishna.

Some great teachers renounced the higher path of Tantra, such as Paramahansa Yogananda. His teachers were married. See What is Celibacy? for more information.

As such, there are two primary modes of Brahamacharya:

  1. Lunar: celibacy and sexual repression, in which the sexual impulse is merely denied, not transformed.
  2. Solar: celibacy with transmutation. Such a stage can occur before or after marriage (such as after the death of a spouse), or if the work of matrimony is already complete (such as St. Paul)

Brahmacharya in Married Life

In traditional, public-level Hinduism, Brahmacharya is the name of the first stage of life:

  1. Brahmacharya (youth)
  2. Grihastha (marriage, householder)
  3. Vanaprastha (retirement, retreat from worldly life)
  4. Sannyasa (renunciation and spiritual practice)

In traditional Hindu culture, young people are expected to observe brahmacharya, strict sexual abstinence (including avoiding masturbation), as preparation to enter the second phase: marriage. Married couples traditionally continue their observance of brahmacharya by restraining lust, and performing the sexual act only for reproduction. This is an inferior mirror of the superior stages required in Tantra"As above, so below." In spiritual life, brahmacharya as a single is preparation for the higher spiritual practice of Tantra: brahmacharya as a couple. That is, when married one restrains the sexual energy while performing the sexual act. Married couples who are educated in Tantra continue to observe brahmacharya while married: they regularly have the sexual act but for spiritual purposes, and restrain the sexual energy in order to transform it. 

While in traditional culture, householders practicing brahmacharya are "allowed" the occasional orgasm for the purpose of procreation, it is still a downfall, and the wise avoid it. In fact, it is possible to have children without having the orgasm

"Lead a well-regulated, moderate married life. Even as a householder you can be a Brahmachari, by sticking to the principles of Grihastha Dharma, by moderation and regular worship of God. Marriage should not in any way lead you downwards in your spiritual path. You should keep the spiritual fire ever blazing...

"If you want to practice Brahmacharya, think and feel that your wife is your sister. Destroy the idea of husband and wife and develop the idea of brother and sister. You both will develop pure and strong love, because the impurity of lust will be removed." - Swami Sivananda

"A good wife, a worthy jewel, is the materialisation of the Lord’s infinite grace for one who treads the Pravritti Marga. Harmony in every walk of life is a rare gift of the Lord to a couple. Each partner should be to the other a true companion in every sense of the term. Grihastha Ashrama is a safe rung in the ladder of evolution to Godhead. Follow the scriptural laws and enjoy infinite bliss. True union can be established on the spiritual basis. Both of you should aspire to realize the common goal of life—God-realization. When the couples who live around you vie with one another in materialism, and in their individual capacity, to drag each other down, both of you should compete with each other in advancing rapidly in spiritual Sadhana. What a novel competition! What a blessing it is to have such a competitor as the life-partner!" - Swami Sivananda

Quotes about Brahmacharya

"Death is hastened by letting out semen from the body; life is saved and prolonged by preserving it. There is no doubt that people die prematurely by letting the semen out of the body; knowing this, the Yogi should always preserve semen and lead a life of strict Chastity." —Siva Samhita

"Brahmacharya or spotless Chastity is the best of all penances; a celibate of such spotless Chastity is not a human being, but a God indeed. To the celibate who conserves the semen with great efforts, what is there unattainable in this world? By the power of the composure of the semen, one will become just like myself." —Lord Sankara

"The chaste brain has tremendous energy and gigantic will power. Without Chastity there can be no spiritual strength. Continence [avoidance of orgasm] gives wonderful control over mankind. The spiritual leaders of men have been very continent and this is what gave them power." - Swami Vivekananda

"Just as the oil comes up in a wick and burns with glowing light, so also, the Veerya or semen flows up by the practice of Yoga Sadhana and is converted into Tejas or Ojas. The Brahmachari shines with Brahmic aura in his face. Brahmacharya is the bright light that shines in the house of the human body." - Swami Sivananda

"Every boy should be trained to practice absolute Brahmacharya and then, and then alone faith and Shraddha will come. Chastity in thought, word and deed always and in all conditions is what is called Brahmacharya. Unchaste imagination is as bad as unchaste action. The Brahmacharin must be pure in thought, word and deed." - Swami Vivekananda

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