One of the words used extensively in the Hindu religious literature is the word ‘brahmacarya.’
Etymologically speaking, the word can mean two things: ‘Movement (caryā) in Brahman.’ ‘Code of conduct (caryā) (to be observed during the period of studying the) Vedas (Brahman).’
When a Vedic student was learning the Vedas in the house of his preceptor, he had to lead a very strict life, wherein celibacy or continence was the most important discipline. Hence the word ‘brahmacarya’ is, more commonly, interpreted as celibacy.
Celibacy centres round the control and the ultimate sublimation of the sexual instinct. Sex, again, is an instinct of the body. Hence, the best solution to the problems created by the sex-instinct is transcending the body-consciousness itself and rising to the soul-consciousness. This becomes possible only when the mind dwells constantly on Brahman, the Absolute, to such an extent that the body is forgotten. Hence the very first meaning given is, perhaps, more accurate and includes the latter too.
Of the four stages of life, technically called the ‘āśramas,’ the first is known as the ‘brahmacaryāśrama’ or just ‘brahmacarya;’ and the student undergoing it is called a ‘brahmacārin’.
A brahmacārin entered the gurukula or the house of the preceptor for studying the Vedas as also other sciences, after undergoing the sacrament of upanayana. The period of this brahmacarya was usually twelve years, though it could be more.
The following are some of the rules and discipline that a brahmacārin was expected to observe: strict celibacy, speaking the truth, gentleness in speech, physical austerities like cold water bath, eating sparingly at night and service to the preceptor, devotion to study and contemplation.
He was to beg his food and could partake of it only after offering it to the preceptor.
Though brahmacarya or celibacy was obligatory for the brahmacārins and the saṁnyāsins (monks), even the householders were advised to observe it as best as they could.