In a recent conversation, the age-old topic of the need or desirability of sexual abstinence came up. The exchange made me contemplate this vexed question again: there is only so much you can think through in a lifetime, and perhaps my opinions had been made in haste and needed some correction. Without having really developed a definitive viewpoint, I have to reformulate my present thinking about it.
Celibacy, pro and con
Out of politeness already, I wouldn’t want to condemn abstinence as superfluous or, as some consider it, harmful. I know too many people who have chosen celibacy as a lifestyle, either by oath or de facto, and seem to be quite satisfied with it, apparently never even giving it another thought. While stories of sex scandals (true or false) involving gurus make good newspaper headlines, I have known quite a few celibate monks who were great yogis and never seemed to have doubted their choice, e.g. the late Swami Hariharananda Giri, Swami Veda Bharati, Swami Dayananda Saraswati (of Coimbatore), or Swami Naradanada Tirth. If you have a sufficiently heady goal, most of all yoga, it can make you forget most worldly attachments, including the need of a mate. They also cite some important advantages, to be discussed below. Still, the objections to it are equally old, and were often expressed by people with long and voluntary (but as they later judged it, “misguided”) experience of it.
Vedic literature represents an old objection to celibacy and to any other form of deliberate childlessness, viz. that by virtue of being born from a billion-year-old lineage of parents and children, we show ingratitude by breaking that lineage. Instead we have a duty to procreate and continue this line. Indeed, the gift of life by our parents creates a debt in us which we can only discharge by a gift of life to children of our own. By that yardstick, celibacy or any other deliberate prevention of procreation is a form of parasitism, of willfully not discharging one’s duty. When the Buddhists in India institutionalized celibacy, or when they introduced it in China, Brahmins and Confucians objected that the Buddhist monks refused to play their part in the chain of life. While their economic parasitism could perhaps be tolerated as they had it in common with a part of the elite, their biological parasitism really stood out as contrary to nature.
And yet, celibacy has had success. The Jewish Essenes, the Christian monks (later also the Catholic priesthood), the Vedantic and Jain monks, the Daoist monks, they all took to celibacy. It would seem there is a link between the spiritual vocation and celibacy. In each of the affected religions, laymen and some religious personnel lived a normal married life, equally compatible with the spiritual life, but celibacy freed up the most motivated seekers for full-time spirituality. Out of enthusiasm for the higher life, numerous youngsters are willing to sacrifice the prospect of conjugal life. Even activists who set their standards lower than Liberation choose celibacy as the way to free them from family constraints so they can fully devote themselves to their work, e.g. the Opus Dei members or the Hindu-nationalist RSS whole-timers. Belief in the validity of the goal for which you sacrifice married life largely determines whether you will see the effort through.
On the other hand, the Protestant Reformation largely abolished religious celibacy, and one Japanese Buddhist monastic order opened itself up for “married monks”. Some religious leaders explicitly condemned celibacy, reviving the old Vedic objection to “parasitism”, notably the Sikh lineage. In my own youth, I witnessed the wave of Catholic priests leaving the priesthood because they preferred the love of a tangible woman to God’s love. It is not that they felt any less religious, just that they couldn’t tolerate the shackles of celibacy anymore. As one of my professors, who was a married ex-priest, said: “I still feel like I am a priest.” For the same reason, many clerics sworn to celibacy, in all the religions concerned, have strayed from their vows and enjoyed love on the side, all while remaining in their religious roles. The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill: among those who have experienced celibacy, second thought develop.
To prove that celibacy is not strictly necessary for the higher life, Hinduism knows of a category of married yogis, known as seers or rishi-s, who continue the tradition of the married men who became court poets and composed the Vedic hymns. The belief that Liberation can only be reached by celibate monks is in evidence in some texts, but is clearly wrong. My own principal yoga teachers have been married men.
A realistic system intermediate between lifelong marriage and lifelong celibacy was the Vedic system of the three life ages: as student, as householder, and as “forest-dweller”. (A fourth stage, of renunciate, has later been added to it, but Hindus are mistaken to understand this as a fourth stage; it is an alternative to the second and third stage in civilians’ life, viz. celibate monkhood.) The forest-dweller stage starts when a householder has married off his daughters and seen his first grandson: he withdraws from his worldly duties. Often, he also withdrew from married life. I say “often”, as distinct from “always” and “never”, because real life is more varied than the uniformity of the law books. The best-known forest-dweller was the sage Yajñavalkya, whose epoch-making explanation of the Self, the absolute cornerstone of all Indian thought, was in fact a farewell address to his co-wife Maitreyi. When the musician Ravi Shankar lost his wife and remarried in old age, some Hindus were up in arms because the married state (and in his case, producing more offspring) was not proper for his station in life.
The genesis of religiously motivated celibacy
The origin of celibate monkhood probably lies in the bands of young warriors living on the outskirts of society and spending their days putting each other to tests of courage and fortitude. Normally, for every young man this phase of life ends when he gets married. At stag parties, it is part of the ritual that the friends try to dissuade the groom from leaving their jolly good company and choosing the constraints of marriage and the householder’s life. Now, imagine that this mock dissuasion succeeds. Some young men do not want to leave this tough but free life; they want it to be their lifelong vocation, till death. Celibate monks are older men who continue the bachelor lifestyle of young men. Their asceticism is a peaceful but equally demanding form of the tests which young warriors impose on one another.
Among the first known practitioners of asceticism (the “sky-clad” Munis described in the Rg-Veda, forerunners of the Naga Sadhus, who indeed still have a martial role and train in wrestling-halls; and the proto-Jain ascetics), it seems that celibacy did not so much mean sexual abstinence. It didn’t matter if they did it with prostitutes or other willing women, what counted was that they remained free from the bonds of marriage and the endless social codes that accompany the householder’s state. This then is the first reason for celibacy, one equally known to the non-religious “confirmed bachelors” in Western society: to remain free. To be sure, “freedom” can mean a number of different things, but in every case it is deemed to be mutually exclusive with the constraints of marriage. Being free from social codes is the defining trait of the renunciates’ life, which is why they shed their civil name with its connotations of region, caste and family.
That sexual abstinence was not required from sages who stuck to an unmarried wandering lifestyle, is proven by their employment as sperm-donors. If a married man was infertile and wanted to have offspring, he used the services of a man who lived outside society. As a renunciate, he was also deemed to have the necessary disinterest and self-control not to embarrass the social father. Thus, when king Vichitravirya needed a stand-in to produce offspring, he brought in the sage Vyasa. (When the royal wives received this forest-wanderer, they were struck by his ugliness. Ambika closed her eyes, so the son born from this union was blind; Ambalika turned pale, so her son was pale and weak; but when the king’s maid and concubine was led to him, she had no such hang-ups and enjoyed their union, so her son became a royal counsel renowned for his wisdom.)
A wholly different reason for celibacy, very prominent in India but also known elsewhere, is the belief in the supreme energy content of sperm. It is a fact of life that ejaculating causes tiredness, proving that energy has been lost. After sex, men tend to fall asleep rather than playing along with their energized wives, or so the wives complain. Conversely, saving your sperm gives you spiritual power. A variation on this idea is the Freudian notion of “sublimation”: either you spend your sperm in normal sexual activity or you sublimate it into a passion for higher pursuits. Since you cannot use your natural quotum of sexual energy twice, directing this energy into spiritual matters requires saving it from its more worldly use. When Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose died at the end of WW2, it transpired that he had an Austrian wife and daughter, but millions of his followers refused to believe this because such a charismatic leader could not possibly have wasted his sperm. Also, Adolf Hitler was so popular (among Muslims because of his anti-Semitism and militarism, but also) among Hindus because of the swastika, his vegetarianism and his propagated (though untrue) reputation for celibacy.
So, both men and women could invoke, as a justification for a life without sex, the waste of time that living with a partner and possibly with children would entail for an individual devoted to higher pursuits. But only men could also invoke the waste of sexual energy: women were supposed to be more determined by nature, unable to make a serious difference by their doings or non-doings. At any rate, the choice of spurning sex life and practicing celibacy became the hallmark of the spiritual life, esp. after Shankara (8th century CE) established a monastic order at the centre of Hindu society.
The correct interpretation of Vedic texts is tricky, but usually Hindus take the story of the couple Agastya and Lopamudra as referring to this sexual abstinence for spiritual reasons. In the end, she managed to seduce him into doing his conjugal duty. This would be mankind’s oldest testimony of the belief in the spiritual value of abstinence, though the Vedic poet failed to commend it (just as the one Vedic testimony of sati, i.e. a widow’s following her husband into death, is at once a rejection of this practice). This belief is given as the prime reason for the celibacy of the monkey-god Hanuman, the secret of his immense strength; and of the historical strategist Chanakya, who transmuted his sexual energy into political and military shrewdness. It is given as the reason for the celibacy of monks, but also forms the basis of the phenomenon of married men deciding to live with their wives as “brother and sister”.
Abstinence within marriage
Famously, Mahatma Gandhi told his wife Kasturba that henceforth, after four children were born to them, their marriage would be free of sex. Some people consider this saintly, I am not so sure about that. After his wife’s death, he, already in his seventies, found it necessary to “test” his chastity by sleeping with naked young girls. Again, some consider it saintly, I think it was positively sick. So many millions of men have practiced chastity, either by lifelong celibacy or by remaining faithful in marriage, and never made a song about it. They just did it whereas this saint had to make so much drama about it.
In his Autobiography of a Yogi, Swami Yogananda testifies how his mother confided to him that she and her husband had had sex only once a year, just enough for procreation. In Hare Krishna communities, married couples are required to have just enough sex for procreation, and otherwise to abstain from it. In my observation, this results in cold marriages and a high divorce rate. I have also had several friends impose this abstinence on their wives or girlfriends, and invariably saw this end in separation. It seems the intimacy of sexual relations is good for the bonding between spouses. I doubt that people who practise this abstinence are thereby so much more spiritual than others, eventhough this sacrifice of pleasure and togetherness proves their initial spiritual commitment. In this case, I tend to forgive Saint Paul for his wrong views on matters like the illusory Resurrection, and recommend his advice that husband and wife should not refuse each other their bodies.
An alternative, now popularized in New Age circles through workshops called “Tantric” or pertaining to the “Dao of Love”, is that sperm should indeed be saved, but not at the cost of sex. This goes back to an ancient practice in Chinese elite circles of having sex without “spilling” any sperm. The man can save and maximize his life force by dipping his “stalk” into the female juices but refraining from ejaculation. The woman has no such option, but nonetheless greatly benefits: it is because of her sexual excitement that the juices flow. Feminists might object that the woman only serves as an instrument for the man’s practice, but at least her satisfaction is highly valued, which is rather preferable to, say, female genital mutilation. Of course, modern science is skeptical of the magical properties ascribed to sexual juices, but at least the practice of having sex without ejaculating is reported by many men as both feasible and beneficial. The initial hurdles to be overcome are a sense of incomplete satisfaction afterwards, which is overcome with some practice; and the female partner’s feeling of being rejected, of the man withholding himself from her. It is up to him to prove to her that this was a mistaken impression, and that in fact she stands to gain from his self-control. In this case, the spiritual benefits ascribed to this limited form of sexual abstinence are not moralistic and anti-sexual, but pertain to the tangible gain in energy. The sexual excitement and “friction” generate energy, and this energy is then channeled upwards. The self-control contributes to a yogic attitude, though yoga itself is still something else.
This glorification of sexual abstinence has a basis in reality, but is much exaggerated. Modern medicine holds that at least some sexual discharge is healthier than constant self-denial. The choice between celibacy and marriage involves far more than just the sexual aspect, but here the evidence is even stronger. It has been shown that Protestant vicars, who are married, enjoy a longer and healthier old age than Catholic priests, who are celibate. Hindus will also object that Christian abstinence differs from Hindu abstinence in that Christians effectively save up their sexual energy but don’t use it, whereas in yoga it is transmuted into spiritual power. Being familiar with both religions, I hesitate to speak out, if only because many venerated Hindu sages aren’t really yogis.
Conversely, the “Tantric” glorification of sex is equally exaggerated, or is just plain wrong. As a lady commenting on the sex scandal involving US president Bill Clinton said, pooh-poohing all the commotion: “It’s only sex.”
Sex is only of limited importance in yogic matters. The New Age slogan “f…ing towards Enlightenment” (to borrow from a cover-story in the leading Dutch New Age paper Onkruid) is obviously ridiculous: sex turns attention outwards, whereas yoga turns it inwards. More seriously, it can be observed that the attitude regarding celibacy and chastity differ between different traditions promising a path to Liberation. In some traditions they will teach you that abstinence is indispensible, whereas in others the same spiritual path is practiced and taught by married men. The main difference here is not between Western and Eastern, as both cultural spheres have known both celibacy and skepticism thereof. Some think abstinence is a precondition for serious yoga, others hardly even talk about the subject.
Now that the word Tantra has acquired such a titillating aura in the West, it deserves mention that this is all a big misunderstanding. To be sure, Tantra is a major tradition and contains a lot more than this “left-hand path” of sexual indulgence. Leaving those 99% aside, we had better realize that the explicitly sexual part (the “transgressive sacrality”, i.e. doing for religious purposes what is otherwise forbidden) is less than appealing. As a well-known researcher says: the Tantra of New Age workshops is mainly concerned with giving women better orgasms and men more staying power, but these were not at all the focus of Indian Tantra practitioners. What was more in evidence was a sacrificial ritual in which sexual fluids were offered to the gods. Not really appetizing, and nothing that a modern Westerner would deem capable of triggering anything worthwhile.
Sexual symbolism is in evidence, as in the copulating gods of Tibetan Buddhism, or in the Shiva-Shakti imagery, but its meaning is multidimensional and should not be reduced to the sexual level. Thus, the mantra “Aum mani padme hum” can be translated as “Hail the jewel in the lotus”, which Freudians (including a vocal school of American Indologists) eagerly interpret as “the penis in the vagina”. In fact, the sex organs are only the most explicit incarnation of the male and female principles which are operative at every level, like the Chinese yin/yang principles. It is heaven/earth, consciousness/nature, bright/shady, hard/soft, fire/water etc., and yes, also male/female. The reductionist interpretation as “nothing but” sexual symbolism is simply wrong and shows the limited framework of psycho-analysis. The smaller cannot contain the greater, and psycho-analytical models cannot grasp the vastness and complexity of Hindu cosmology.
Marriage may not be for everyone, but for many it is the best setting for living their lives, even for practising yoga. What should it look like?
As a principle, walking the spiritual path entails limiting your worldly needs. Buying all kinds of objects, travelling etc., it should all be kept to a minimum and subordinated to the ultimate goal. Pursuing sex for its own sake may yield colourful and interesting life-stories, but it is not yoga. Abstinence within marriage may not be as colourful, but it need not be yogic either; it is only recommended if both partners really agree to do it. However, if you get restless by sexual abstinence, or if it entails going against social norms (such as the requirement to “pay off your debts to your ancestors”), or if you simply like living with your own family, a normal sex life paradoxically frees you up more for spiritual life. In that case, as my yoga teachers taught me, it is best to create a sociologically safe situation within which togetherness can flourish. In today’s Western society this may not strictly require marriage anymore, but a stable and enduring “relationship” is at any rate most conducive to a yogic state of mind and a successful yoga practice. Love triangles, cheating and all those other little pleasures only create unrest and distract from what is really important.
Divorce may sometimes be the best solution, and it is a good thing that this is now accepted; but it should be the exception, not the rule. Indeed, many people get divorced very mindlessly (often after getting married on a whim, too), in passing also breaking up common projects and of course the protective common home of the children. Most divorces that I have witnessed, including my own, left in their wake a whole trail of material and emotional damage. All this turmoil should be minimized if at all you want to focus on getting somewhere in yoga. The yogi does not care to condemn the free sexuality of today’s society, but it is hardly a yogic lifestyle.
While I reject the Gandhian notion that husband and wife should live together as brother and sister, for all men and women not united in a marriage bond, it is the perfect model to follow. Hindus have a festival called Raksha Bandhan, the “bond of protection”, in which women tie men a thread around the right wrist. This signifies that they are united as brother and sister, that he will protect her and she will give him good advice. (After all, women are wiser than men.) Its general meaning is that men and women have a meaningful relation but without the sexual dimension. Well, I can’t guarantee that Raksha Bandhan makes a real difference in society, but at least the ideal is established.
In marriage, by contrast, the partners should be united by “love and admiration”, as one of my first yoga teachers (I remember being proud to be given his luggage to carry), Ekiralla Krishnamacharya, said. This is all the more remarkable as most marriages in India are arranged. You are expected to muster love, no less, for a partner picked by your parents. Rather than an initial lightning of “love”, meaning attraction, gradually subsiding, as in movies and in the West, your love is expected to grow gradually, as you get more common experiences. That often doesn’t work, anymore than love marriage always works. But on the whole it gives fewer failed marriages, and as yet fewer divorces, than the Western system.
One of my yoga teachers in Belgium had a kind of arranged marriage. Since he spoke about it in public, I guess it is okay to repeat the story here. When he was translating for a lady who was taking a lesson from their joint Guru, the latter surprised him with the question: “Do you like X?” And her: “Do you like Y?” Without much further ado, they started preparing their wedding. Some 35 years later, they are still together; she now has cancer and he is lovingly taking care of her. Beautiful.
Being very much a Westerner myself, I am rather attached to the joyful experience of falling in love. Sentimental! I remember, long ago, talking to ordinary Hindus in Varanasi who had to laugh at the lyrics of sentimental love-songs, saying that you can’t build a lasting marriage on something as fleeting as emotions, even an emotion melodramatically presented as “love”. But then again, I understand that the surprise of meeting the partner selected for you, and gradually discovering all her charms (as well as the rest), has a lot going for it as well. While I realize the possible drawbacks, I happen to have met many couples for whom an arranged marriage was or is successful. Loving the spouse selected for you is an extension of the love for those who did the selecting, viz. your parents. It doesn’t deprive you of the right to choose, because some decades down the line, you will choose the spouses of your children.
As for “admiration”, it means that, while there may be a downside to your spouse’s personality, you always have to focus on her good aspects. Of course we have to see the positive side in everyone and everything, and we often fail; but this is not just anyone, this is your spouse. It is really imperative that you always remain conscious of the best in her. To turn one of the most profound lines of Hindu philosophy into a piece of marriage advice: “Not because of the wife is the wife being loved, but because of the Self.” This implies an act of will. If you only go, reactively, by your emotions triggered by your partner’s behaviour, you may find fault in her. But here, you remain conscious of your own attitudes and stay on the positive side. Happy outcome guaranteed. It is like Patañjali’s enumeration of the benefits of his life-rules: the imperative of “contentment”, forcing yourself to be cheerful no matter what, yields the benefit of “always being happy”.
In divorce stories, one recurring complaint is the frequent outbursts of anger, ultimately making life together unbearable. A yogi has control over his moods. Except for saints, some anger may be inevitable, but at least you can develop the habit of treating anger as wrong, to apologize for it as soon as it dies down, to make up for it, and to stop thinking that you had a right to be angry. Modern therapists are wont to say that it is good to vent your anger, that you shouldn’t repress your emotions. Indeed, you shouldn’t repress them, you should make them die down by remaining aware. Admiration for your spouse means that you remain aware of her dignity, so that you think twice before venting your emotions on her. This is a thoughtful and respectful attitude, yogic par excellence.
Yoga is the self-realization of consciousness, which is the same in men and women. Therefore, the modalities of sex (or no sex) only pertain to the practical setting, not to yoga itself. Any guidelines are partly determined by culture, and are at any rate relative. They should not be taken too literally.
These too are only some fleeting thoughts of mine and undoubtedly fail to do full justice to the importance of the topic. But the topic must at least be recognized as important,for I have seen too many people wrestling with it or getting fixated on some related belief or other. We should be realistic in these matters, all while keeping our eyes on the ultimate goal.