Brahmacharya and Veganism

by Sharon Gannon |
June, 2023
brahmacarya-pratiṣṭḥāyām vīrya-lābhaḥ

When the Yogi is established in brahmacarya, continence, spiritual strength and vigor is attained.

PYS 2.38

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali gives us five recommendations, called yamas, for how we should treat others if we want to attain liberation. The fourth yama is brahmacharya, which means “to respect the creative power of sex and not abuse it by manipulating others sexually”. Brahmacharya is a way to get to God—a way to arrive at the creative essence of the universe. It has sometimes been translated as “continence” or “chastity,” which has led to a lot of misunderstanding regarding how to practice this yama. To practice brahmacharya is to understand the potential of sexual energy, which is the essence of all physical and psychological forces.

When sexual energy is directed wisely, it becomes a means to transcend separation, or otherness. When sexual energy is used to exploit, manipulate, or humiliate another, however, it propels us into deeper separation and ignorance (avidya). Human beings routinely do this to other species they confine on farms. The sexual abuse of animals is ingrained in our culture, and it expresses itself in the practice of breeding, genetic manipulation, castration, artificial insemination, and forced pregnancy of female animals and abuse of their children, all of which falls under the category of animal husbandry and is considered normal and routine in agribusiness.

Animals on factory farms are not allowed to develop normal sexual relationships with others of their own species. Most confined animals never even see a member of the opposite sex of their own kind. All of the animals born in factory farms come from mothers who were sexually violated and artificially inseminated by a human hand. Rape is business as usual on today’s farms. These mothers are forced to become repeatedly pregnant until their fertility wanes, at which point they are slaughtered and eaten. Male animals chosen to be sperm donors are sexually abused repeatedly, live in constant frustration, and in the end are slaughtered as well. Such practices are violent, crass, and degrading to animals, as well as dehumanizing for the farmworkers paid to do this work. The way these animals are routinely sexually abused reveals just how disconnected we have become from the natural world and the beauty and miracle of life.

Animal rights can be seen as a feminist issue, for if we believe in women’s rights, we cannot condone and support the way female animals are exploited by agribusiness for their milk, eggs, and babies. If we feel that women should be treated fairly, then we must extend our desire for women’s liberation to all females, regardless of race, religion, or species. Yoga teaches us that what we do to others we ultimately do to ourselves. If we do not respect the rights of females of other species, how can we expect to successfully liberate human females?

Perhaps it is true that most of us can easily embrace the idea that if we abuse others sexually it may impact our own health and ability to enjoy a satisfying sex life, but how many of us have thought to extend that consideration to other animals? To be a vegan is to contribute to a more healthy, happy, and creative world for all beings. Some may be critical of animal rights activists and ask, “How can we focus so much on animal abuse when there is so much human suffering in the world?”. I often answer such a question by pointing out that I am trying to get to the root cause of suffering. What we do to others, we eventually, but inevitably, do to ourselves. In that light, there are many correlations between the increase in rape, child abuse, divorce, and disease among human beings and the rape, child abuse, family breakups, and rampant disease among the billions of animals who are raised for food in the world today. We cannot hope to enjoy happiness for ourselves at the expense of the happiness of others.

The consumption of meat and dairy products is a symptom of the disease of low self-esteem. Both activities result from the misguided notion that to feel sexier, younger, healthier, or stronger, we must dominate, abuse, exploit, and eat other animals. In fact, the opposite is true. Long-term consumption of meat and dairy products can create any number of health problems for us, including heart disease, impotence, stroke, and cancer. Patanjali tells us clearly that health and vitality will come to one who is established in brahmacharya—to one who treats sexuality with reverence.

To embrace the practice of brahmacharya is to challenge our culture’s foundation, which is dependent upon the domestication of animals. When we talk about veganism and brahmacharya, we are definitely talking about a radical sexual revolution

Essay taken from Sharon Gannon’s Book Eternity is Happening Now


Teaching Tips

by Clare Nicholls

  • Introduce the topic through Swadhistahana chakra, working with asana sequences focusing on forward bending and hip opening. Talk about healing through letting go of fear, particularly our fear of rejection. Learning to see ourselves as whole, complete holy beings and not defining ourselves through our sexual or romantic relationships.
    Extend this thinking to all beings. If we are Holy beings, then all living beings are holy beings. Quote from Bhagavad Gita Chapter 12 verse 13, and Katha Upanishad: 2.2.9.
  • Work with Manipura chakra using twists and practices that stimulate the fire of digestion to ask for forgiveness for those beings we have hurt in our lives through our ignorance of our true nature.
    Use a simple mantra practice: Inhale silently saying, “Please forgive me for my selfishness and the pain I have caused you…”, and on the exhale silently saying, “….due to my own ignorance of who I really am and who you really are.” (Taken from Sharon Gannon FOM November 2011)
  • Familiarise yourself with animal husbandry in your country, perhaps invite animal advocates to speak about the most pressing issues local to you. Investigate and support initiatives that are promoting animal rights in your area.
  • Invite students to observe their own attitudes and intentions regarding gender and feminism.
  • Read some of the work of early feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects” (1792).
  • Discuss the work of Susan Bordo “The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture” (1987) who considers the impact of capitalist and consumerist societies on our attitudes to our physical body.
  • Explore how the binary distinctions in common usages of male, female, mind, body, spirit, matter can be hindrances to realising oneness.
  • Emphasise how asana practice can unify our fragmented perception of ourselves through working with breath, body and intention (strict vinyasa).