Question: Are there particular stages in the spiritual life when celibacy becomes especially important or even essential?
Swamiji: Yes and no. From one point of view, celibacy forms the very foundation, and the foundation is not any later stage of a constructive process. It is the very first stage, the ABC stage. So we may say that it is not at some stage that it becomes important or indispensable, but that it is essential right from the very beginning.
Question: If you wanted to call it a stage, then it means you’d call it the stage where you start taking the spiritual life seriously.
Swamiji: Yes, seriously—when you say it and you mean what you say. If your aspiration is to be authentic and genuine, and if the aspiration is to take the form of an all-out commitment towards the spiritual experience and an all-out effort to move in that direction, then you must keep moving only in that direction. You cannot run after two things. Because then it will be taking one step forward and one step backwards, and you will never really progress.
The spiritual life starts with your recognition that as long as you keep going headlong in the pursuit of sense satisfaction and pleasure, you are not going to move one step. So all will be academic and theoretical. Our aspiration, our wanting spiritual life will only be in theory—a fancy and a feeling. You have not started. So the beginning stage itself of the spiritual life is a turning away from sense experience and sense indulgence and starting to move in the opposite direction.
It is perhaps precisely for this reason that Maharshi Patanjali put brahmacharya right at the very commencement of his eight-stage Raja Yoga and not at any later stage. It is one of the five vows that constitute the first stage. If he had thought that it was only important or essential at a later stage, he would have brought it in at the third or fourth stage. But no, he did it at the very beginning.
Swami Sivananda used to say: "Brahmacharya is the basis of immortality." And in many places in the Upanishads it says: "Wisdom experience cannot come to one who has not his senses under restraint and who has not controlled the vagaries of his wandering mind."
So I believe that it is not at some stage, but it is the all of the life spiritual. Because spiritual life is a transcendence of your human nature, human consciousness. And if it is a transcendence, you have to leave behind all that constitutes your human nature, your physicality. You will have to commence with it and keep on with it. You view celibacy in a positive manner, not as something anti-nature. You do not at all feel that you are doing any violence to yourself.
Finally, from a purely scientific and technical point of view, one of the yogas where celibacy is absolutely essential and indispensable is kundalini yoga. There is no compromise with that. Right from the beginning it is absolutely essential and indispensable. Otherwise it is dangerous to go into kundalini yoga which is based upon pranayama and many mudras, bandhas and asanas.
That’s the "no" part of the answer.
The "yes" part is to state that in the total context of spiritual life in India, there are certain stages and states where one can be highly spiritual and yet at the same time be leading a normal sex life. That is true especially in the bhakti path—people who are following the path of love of God, devotion, prayer and worship, chanting the Divine Name, singing His glories. This path does not make any distinction between a celibate brahmachari, a married householder, and a retired couple living a spiritually oriented life after they have finished their duties as householders.
So the path of devotion seems to be a dimension of spiritual life in India where total celibacy in its sense of absolute abstinence is not insisted upon. It is not looked upon with disfavour, but it is not insisted upon either. But because the sexual act consumes a great amount of pranic energy, naturally self-restraint is also important. And promiscuous sex was never countenanced, never looked upon with favour. So a sort of celibacy in the form of self-control and fidelity in your sexual relationship with your recognised legal partner can also be regarded as brahmacharya. Here, the husband looks upon all other women as mothers. He has only one woman and that is his lawfully wedded wife. He is what is called an eka-patni-vrata husband, one who has taken the vow of a single wife. There is no question of having a mistress or of even thinking of another woman. And the wife bases her life on the vow of pati-vrata. In a total sense, she has only one partner in life. All other men are like her children; she has the feeling of motherhood in her heart towards all other men except her husband. So here the sex life does not in any way go contrary to spiritual life.
And this has been the case with ever so many devotees, lovers of God, and spiritual India lacks no example of them. Throughout India we have seen the phenomenon of large communities of ecstatic devotees of God, many or most of whom have been married people, living a normal sex life, but nevertheless absorbed in divine love of God. So, this is the "yes" portion. In this stage sexuality seems not in any way forbidden or incompatible with spiritual life.
Question: I presume that Vedantic enquiry, the more intellectual approach to the spiritual life, would also not be incompatible with normal married life.
Swamiji: Yes, yes. But in the Vedantic type of life, gradually, unconsciously, without even intending it on purpose, in the course of time the person would graduate to that level of consciousness where sex would begin to seem superfluous. Because it contradicts the very basic thesis of Vedanta: "I am not this body. I am not the five elements. I am not the limiting adjuncts. I am something quite distinct and different." And for that different, distinct Thing, sex has no meaning. For, It is not within the realm of physical consciousness and physical functioning.
Question: Celibacy is often seen in the modern West as an outmoded, old-fashioned practice. It is often viewed as repressive, life-denying—even antithetical to what spiritual practice is ultimately all about. Many spiritual authorities in the West are now teaching that to realise our full potential as human beings, we must embrace, rather than in any way avoid or repress, our sexuality. These views stand in stark contrast to what the great traditions have always taught. What do you think about this?
Swamiji: I don’t agree with the general attitude that has just been expressed. They have failed to grasp the place of brahmacharya in the spiritual life.
It is not outmoded; it is not at all old-fashioned, and it is not repressive or life-denying. On the contrary, it is used as a plank for everlasting life, endless life. Their view of life seems to be a very, very limited and narrow view of life. This is not the only life there is. When you come to have a little glimpse or idea of what real life is, then you will just stand amazed. This present life as such is meaningless. It is a petty trifle, a nothing, if not understood in terms of its being a take-off runway for catapulting into that greater life.
This life is a means to that great, glorious, grand end and aim of human existence which is to enter into a life that is the life of God, that is one with God’s life, the Kingdom of Heaven. That is the whole purpose of human existence. Human life has been given to us as a passageway to Divinity, as a passageway to everlasting life.
No person with a little religious knowledge and awareness or a spiritual view will ever deny the validity of brahmacharya. It is something scientific and a scientific thing never gets outmoded or old-fashioned. Brahmacharya is neither avoiding sexuality nor repressing sexuality. It is giving the go-by to sexuality so that the potential and the power of the sexual process can now be used for something so wonderful that sex pales into insignificance in contrast.
So brahmacharya is neither repressing sexuality nor avoiding sexuality. It is just bypassing sexuality—making use of this sexual potential for something ten times, a hundred times greater. Therefore, the question of repression and suppression is a misnomer. It is due to a lack of proper understanding of what the real spiritual quest is. If it is understood, then these terms will not be used. We are not just human beings; we are more than human beings. Our human status is only a pale reflection of what we really are. The only reason our human status acquires some meaning and significance is because if it is properly utilised, it can raise us up and take us into that which is our own, bring us into the Kingdom—to which we have a birthright.
If you want to understand the practice of celibacy through an analogy that is within the thought forms of today, consider an athlete whose great ambition is to win a gold medal at the Olympics. He will willingly put himself into the hands of a trainer, and if the trainer says, "No more late night revelry, no more sex, no more junk food, no more alcohol," the athlete readily agrees. He says: "I’ll agree to this and more also if you want it." Why? Because he wants the gold medal. And no one raises an eyebrow, no one is outraged. Why? Because the gold medal justifies all these so-called "inhibitions." You cannot say that he’ s doing violence to or repressing himself, because he is not looking at it that way. He is willing to do anything that the trainer demands of him. It is not imposed upon him by other people. We understand why he is doing it and we accept it.
However, in one way the idea in the West that brahmacharyais suppression is not entirely off the mark. If one represses or suppresses some inherent natural force or faculty, it can bring about undesirable changes in the personality. If brahmacharya is forced upon an individual against the individual’s inclination and will, abnormal conditions naturally may result, because the person is being compelled to do something that deep within himself or herself the person does not want to do—compelled by others, by social restraint or by taking up vows that he or she ought not to have taken before having well considered exactly what it implied.
But if an intelligent person, having deeply pondered the whole basis of life, says: "When I want to achieve something great, something mighty, I cannot afford to deplete the energies that I have. The more I conserve, the more I can divert into that achievement and the greater the chance of succeeding." So thinking and having understood the rationale of it and fully appreciating the ultimate achievement it would lead to, if he or she voluntarily, willingly and with great enthusiasm undertakes celibacy, where comes the question of suppression?
On the contrary, what appears to be a sort of denial is actually giving full self-expression to a higher dimension of your being into which you have now placed yourself. So, far from denying self-expression, it is giving full expression to yourself because you are no longer identified with the lesser aspect of your total personality. You are identified with the higher aspect. It is a sort of a liberation and evolution to a higher level. It is something positive, creative, and not anything negative. It is not a denial but an actual expression of yourself in the form of a keen aspiration and a noble ambition.
When it constitutes such a process, then Freud and the others are off the mark. They have never visualised such a situation, such a possibility. But it is not only a possibility, it is a tradition of centuries, of millennia—someone being prepared to do anything, give anything, pay any price for the attainment of the Highest.