On 2 June 2012, during the 7th world Meeting of Families held in Milan Cathedral, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the Catholic Church’s age-old stand on celibacy: “Without a doubt, Jesus’ love is for all Christians but takes on particular significance for the celibate priest and for those who take up the vocation of a life of devotion.” The pope’s remarks gained the media spotlight in the wake of sex scandals which has rocked the Church. Though the battle raging within the catholic world—between the proponents and opponents of priestly celibacy—has been perennial, the issue now sticks out like a sore thumb.
I first read about the celibacy-struggle of the Catholic Church in an old magazine I found in my bookshelf; the article was titled ‘Celibacy—Exquisite Torture, or a “Yes to God”?’ The author Ravindra Svarupa Das, a renowned spiritualist, spoke of the precarious situation of the seminarians in a seminary he had visited:
In the course of our discussion, I finally asked one of the smokers (who was a seminarian), “Do you really find that impossible to give up? I wasn’t prepared for his answer—or for the vehemence of it.
“If I could just take a girl out on Saturday night, he exclaimed, “instead of having to sit around here, crawling up the walls, I might not have to smoke!” There were murmurs of assent. And with much bitterness and resentment, they began criticizing the celibacy rule.
I was appalled by the amount of sexual frustration these men were giving voice to. So I started to question them about their life in the seminary, and it soon became quite clear why they were having such immense difficulty. To begin with, they had large stretches of idle time on their hands. And then, they freely read novels and magazines, habitually watched television. All these activities certainly agitated their senses….They had lots of idle time, their senses were kept continuously under the bombardment of materialistic stimulation, and then—they were told to be celibate!
While propounding celibacy, I strongly feel, we also have to espouse a lifestyle that goes with it. I came across a holistic definition of celibacy in a Vedic text Daksha Smriti:
At the risk of sounding overly conservative, this definition frees a celibate from a lot of sexual frustration, by imposing a lifestyle that keeps all sexual stimulants at bay. For, refraining from sex while gorging on sex appetizers—isn’t that torturous?
Traditionally in India the norm was, a celibate student or brahmachari stayed at the guru’s ashram or monastery. There he was facilitated with a lifestyle that supported his vows. To begin with, only those serious about celibacy and convinced of the benefits of it were offered the brahmachari ashram facility, for celibacy can be joyous only when practiced willingly; the celibates were provided with a packed disciplined life of absorption in devotion, for the idle mind is devil’s workshop; the celibates were provided with time, resources and inspiration to pore over the scriptures, for philosophical conviction is necessary to overcome temptations; and most importantly, the celibates were engaged in devotional activities that provided them a higher taste of pleasure, for only a higher taste can be a lasting substitute for the lower taste of sex pleasure. Those who found continence torturous despite the protective ambience were honest about it and moved out to get married; no question of leading a frustrated life of self-deceit.
The Vedic set-up was beautiful: those who aspired to remain celibates for a dedicated life of devotion knew the monastery imposed discipline to help them grow spiritually, and the monastery facilitated for a joyous celibate life rather than merely sermon the glories of celibacy. An incident last summer filled me with hope, as it indicated that our monastery was edging closer to this ideal standard under the guidance of Radhanath Swami. At our ashram situated in south Mumbai, every morning the monks have to reach the meditation hall by 5:00 a.m. and for years their attendance was monitored. Last summer monitoring stopped. The monks protested, demanding that monitoring start again. “I can’t trust my mind. If there isn’t monitoring, I might continue sleeping and miss the morning meditation. Then, my spiritual life will be stunted!” exclaimed a monk. The leaders on the other hand urged the monks to put their hearts into the morning meditation; the joy they derived from that should drive them rather than a monitoring system. It was another step taken by the monastery to inspire the monks to go deeper into their practices and lead a joyous celibate life. Our monastery still has a long way to go, but incidents such as this show that the Vedic system isn’t unrealistic.
Ideal set-ups are getting rarer, but much can be learnt even from that which remains.
Isn’t it time that all institutions that support celibacy, both in the eastern world and western world, look beyond sectarian boundaries for ideas to adopt—and work together to keep the celibacy culture alive?