Frequently Asked Questions
What is the role of celibacy in Hinduism?
In general, celibacy in Hinduism is associated with increased physical power, strength, concentration, well-being, and longevity and is also associated with the control of desire (and ultimately the control of oneself). With increased strength and concentration, and a mind and body whose desires are controlled, the celibate Hindu devotee is believed to be in an optimal state for focusing on and/or worshipping God.
Historically, celibacy has played many roles in Hinduism. In the ancient Vedic ashrama system, there are four stages or positions that one goes through in one's life; these include Brahmacarya (celibate student stage), Grihastha (householder stage), Vanaprastha (forest dwelling stage), and finally Sannyasa (renunciation stage). These stages were designed so that Hindus could use their lives to devote themselves to religious discipline, yet also enjoy and get to pursue the delights of family life. So, in the first stage (brahmacarya) the devotee was a celibate student, often residing in the home of the guru in order to gain as much religious knowledge as possible. In the second stage (grihastha), the devotee joined society and participated in married family life. Once "the hairs on the devotee's head turned grey" (i.e., about the time of retirement), the devotee entered the third stage of life (vanaprastha), during which time he/she is said to have retreated to the forest for meditation with his/her spouse. Finally, in the fourth stage, sannyasa, the devotee became a full renunciant and devoted his/her life to religious pursuits. Celibacy was central to the first and last of these four stages, the two times during which the most concentration was needed as one pursued a purely religious life.
This, however, is an ancient system and is generally neither followed sequentially/systematically by Hindus today nor is it followed by all Hindus (or even most). In fact, most Hindus never enter the first, third, or last stages but instead, worship God while they are involved in family life (which for most Hindus, is their entire life). However, while most Hindus engage in family life permanently, some devotees choose to become celibate students (brahmacarya) for the greater part of their lives (or even their entire lives) while others enter the final stage (sannyasa) at a very young age, having skipped the first three stages entirely.