Art by Devdutt Pattanaik
By Devdutt

Published on 18th December, 2021, in Times of India.

Celibacy is an unnatural act in nature. All living organisms are meant to reproduce. The sexual act is critical for the survival of the species. Thus, nature does not endorse celibacy. But human culture has endorsed it. Culture has not only endorsed celibacy, but sees it as a magical function. Something that can transform people into supernatural beings.

In ancient India, great tension existed between Brahmanas and Shramanas on the idea of celibacy. Shramans were monks like Buddhists and Jains who believed that sexual attraction to women trapped men in the material world. It made them into householders and prevented them from recognising the true nature of the world. Hence, they recommended renunciation of women and celibacy. Celibacy meant controlling all sensory organs and withdrawing into the inner, mental realm. By doing so, one could break free from all identifications with the external world. And, eventually, attain Nirvana or Kaivalya, translated variously as oblivion, isolation, omniscience. But the Brahmins believed hat marriage is essential. They believed that when humans marry they produce children, raise families and repay debt to their ancestors. Because through begetting children could people help the dead be reborn. This debt repayment led to freedom or moksha. Celibacy was permitted after finishing all household duties.

In Christianity, celibacy had a very different purpose. In the Church, celibacy was venerated as Jesus Christ was not married himself. Celibacy became a means through which people worked not for personal gain but for the people via the institution of the church. Celibacy was thus linked to social service. The energy was directed towards the larger social good. It also benefited the institution rather than individual private goals. In China, the kings did not trust the bureaucrats to remain celibate and faithful to the king. Therefore, they were castrated, so they could focus on the institution of kingship rather than on personal families.

In the 7th Century AD, we see the rise of Tantra in India. With Tantra, celibacy acquired a magical meaning in Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. Tantrik texts declared that there is a point on the head which is symbolized as the moon. This point produces a special substance that can grant us immortality. This drips from the head, down the spine, into the genital organs. It flows out as menstrual blood in case of women. In the case of men, it flows as semen, which can be withheld. This biological difference explained why women could never become as powerful yogis as men.

More importantly, through the practice of various techniques, such as pranayama, special movements of the tongue, lungs, diaphragm, and abdominal muscles, as well as various asanas, it is possible, as per Tantric gurus, to make the semen move in the reverse direction, upwards, through the spine, back up to the head. This causes various nodes along the spine, known as chakra, to bloom like flowers. Traditionally, seven chakras have been identified. When these chakras bloom, the yogi gets magical powers known as Siddha. They enable him to walk on water and fly in the air, change his size and shape, even leave his body and enter a corpse and animate it. The Nath-yogis claimed to have this power.

It is believed that Adi Shankaracharya knew these techniques, which is why his mind was able to enter the corpse of a dead king called Amaru. He could then experience sensual pleasures through the body of the king without polluting his own body. Such practices are also described in the legends of Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath. It is also part of Buddhist folklore.

In Tibetan Buddhism we learn of various Bodhisattvas who could overpower flying yoginis and dakinis who sought to steal their essence. These holy mendicants could use the power of the women’s body to propel their inner fluids up the spine to the point in the head. This point was visualized as a thousand-petalled lotus that held the pearl of wisdom. This gives rise to the famous Tantrik hymn, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. It gave the Tantrik master power over the universe.

True or not, this belief that celibacy gives you supernatural powers is the reason why holy ascetics of India are venerated by everyone from the village simpleton to the corporate CEO even today.