Life Without Sex?
This is the very motive Mahatma Gandhi offered when he took his first vow of brahmacharya, after marrying and having four children with his wife, Kasturba. Gandhi said fathering and supporting children robbed him of precious energy during a time when he wanted to devote himself more completely to public service. However, over a period of many celibate years-admittedly struggling with the practice and even breaking his vow on several occasions-Gandhi discovered that the benefits of brahmacharya far exceeded birth control. His home life became more "peaceful, sweet, and happy," he developed a new measure of self-restraint, and he found increasing reserves of time and energy to devote to humanitarian and spiritual pursuits. "I realized that a vow, far from closing the door to real freedom, opened it," he wrote in his autobiography. "What formerly appeared to me to be extravagant praise of brahmacharya in our religious books seems now, with increasing clearness every day, to be absolutely proper and founded on experience."A Spiritual Elixir
Beyond conserving energy, yoga philosophy also describes a more esoteric benefit of celibacy: a sort of alchemical transmutation of base sexual energies into spiritual vigor. According to the ancient Indian science of Ayurveda, semen was considered to be a vital elixir that housed important subtle energies. Ejaculation was said to lead to loss of power, energy, concentration, and even spiritual merit. And conserving it through celibacy and other yoga practices was said to help develop rich stores of this subtle energy, called ojas, thereby building vitality, character, and health. Feuerstein says he's witnessed firsthand evidence of celibacy's power to transmute sex into spirit. He recalls encountering Swami Chidananda, a celibate leader of the Divine Life Society, in India in the late 1960s. "He always seemed to be wearing this beautiful perfume; he always exuded this beautiful scent, very subtle but beautiful," Feuerstein says. "One day I was curious enough about it to ask my friend who ran the center, 'What is this perfume he's wearing?' She laughed and said, 'He's not wearing any perfume! It is because he has mastery of brahmacharya and his body simply uses the hormones differently.' "
But what about women? Never fear, Feuerstein says, the same principle of energy transmutation applies-it's just that until the last century yoga practitioners were almost always male. "People often get confused about this," he says. "They always think it's the seminal discharge that's undesirable, but it's actually the firing of the nervous system during sexual stimulation. And that applies to both men and women."The Four Stages of Life
In orthodox Indian philosophy, brahmacharya means more than just celibacy. It is also the term used to denote the first of the four purusharthas (stages of life) spelled out in ancient Vedic texts. In this tradition, brahmacharya designates the period of studenthood-roughly the first 21 years of life-and during this time celibacy was to be strictly followed in order to keep one focused on study and education.