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The Role of Celibacy in Spiritual Life

In October, 1997, His Holiness Sri Swami Chidananda—who in 1963 succeeded His Holiness Sri Swami Sivananda Maharaj as president of the Divine Life Society—was interviewed by a leading American spiritual magazine on the question of the role of celibacy in the spiritual life. This very powerful excerpt from the entire interview is a presentation of one of the questions asked and the answer given. It provides the sincere spiritual seeker with rare insights, not only into the role of celibacy in the spiritual life, but into the goal of life itself, enlightenment.

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 realize 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 utilized, 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 brahmacharya is 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?