‘That asceticism which is not stained by (desire and other) faults is said to be capable of procuring emancipation, and is, therefore, successful, while the asceticism that is stained by vanity and want of true devotion is regarded as unsuccessful.'
-- Udyoga Parva (Chapter 43), Mahabharata
What makes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s professed celibacy such a coveted and lauded virtue among certain sections of Hindu men and women in India? There are several cultural foundations for the claims and practices associated with celibacy across the world. Several leaders have practised politics by detaching themselves from family and the desire for worldly interests and concerns. It may not be celibacy per se but it’s a kind of self-control on the same spectrum. But in the Indian cultural context, there is a certain kind of spirituality and quasi-divine authority vested in the ideal of celibacy which manifests in the philosophy of Yoga and asceticism.
In the broadest sense, the claim to practice celibacy is a claim to exercise a kind of self-control. This, in the political context, explains anthropologist Joseph Alter, can translate into the idea that one who is absolutely celibate is therefore completely dedicated to the achievement of goals that are not self-interested but are in the public interest or that reflect greater ideals or higher values. So it’s exercising self-control in order to become powerful in a way that is not self-interested.
But do leaders who claim to pursue celibacy really act in the public good?
In its modern political context, the celebration of celibacy brings up the point about how celibacy claims to certain kind of self-control in relation to sexuality produces masculinity. And so, masculinity is very much the projection of self through these kinds of claims and through the practices themselves. In politics, it comes down to a question of sincerity—whether or not one is actually dedicated to the practice of self-control for the public good or is to strategise about particular ways of becoming powerful in an environment where politics provides you access to resources and power in general.
The political expression of celibacy is distinct from but grounded in a sort of superhuman ideal, which produces this notion that someone who can be or claims to be celibate is somehow divine as they have a supernatural ability, which makes it fertile ground for parties or movements seeking legitimacy from divine sources.
Alter explains that in India, the idea of brahmacharya fits into the conception of the “life cycle” and the notion that one moves through the training as a brahmacharya to one’s commitment to the family and then to higher ideals beyond the family. So, organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and extension of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that are based on a religious ideology are able to reference brahmacharya as a kind of commitment to the development of nationalist principles and citizenship based on those principles. Celibacy becomes a kind of metaphor for dedicated civic responsibility through the practice of self-control.
The prime minister’s persona engenders a brand of masculinity that is directly linked to a kind of assertive masculinity associated with brahmacharya within the context of dedication to the achievement of ideals. “Obviously, there are strong differences of opinion about whether that’s going in the right or wrong direction. But there is no question that masculinity is anchored in this notion of celibacy which has a commitment to the ideals of a group that idealises and follows this kind of masculinity,” Alter states.
Incidentally, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru persona as a politician was one who was reconciling the civilisation of India with a kind of alternative modernity that he reflected in the sort of socialism he tried to adopt. His self-projection was very much that of a “modern political academic philosopher”, Alter points out. He was attuned to the kind of ideals associated with celibacy and brahmacharya but clearly didn’t attempt to embody those in practice but to reflect on them as kind of a scholarly political philosopher.
Virtuous Power Play
In the present context, strong claims to a kind of assertive masculinity based on brahmacharya can often appear deeply misogynistic. For example, the demonisation of women as a threat to celibacy is very apparent in subtle and explicit forms throughout history. An extension to that is the kind of dismissiveness of women’s public presence as a consequence of that—if it’s not demonisation, it marginalisation, including ignoring, bracketing or disregarding them, says Delhi-based political theorist and feminist poet Savita Singh.
Scratching the surface of the modern-day idealism of celibacy in male-dominated socio-political structures can also, from a psychological standpoint, reveal that the kind of virile masculinity engendered through self-control sometimes masks a profound sense of fear of emptiness within an “emasculation”. This, in turn, generates this hyper-masculinity based on an exaggerated ideal of self-control.
Such culturally wrapped fears can translate into extremely dangerous situations for sexual minorities in society or those in subordinate power positions within a congregational order, religious, social, or political. Contradictions between the empowerment of self through celibate self-control and abuse of power can be seen in several instances across the world.
“Mahatma Gandhi was a strong advocate for absolute celibacy,” reminds Alter. His reasoning was that by being celibate, one could, in effect, achieve a kind of politics that would go beyond violence and self-interest and overcome the kinds of conflict that are based on self-interest.
However, his “experiments” with sexuality and celibacy involving younger women who were related to him or his political movement have been a source of embarrassment to his followers and an open secret that has not aged well vis a vis the changing discourse around sexual harassment and power dynamics.
“The bottom line is that regardless of how pure and sort of, idealistic Gandhi’s goals were, the practice of bringing other people into the sphere of your experimentations with self is fundamentally problematic because it subjects other people to your idealism. By doing so in a world where power is not equally distributed, one puts individuals who are relatively subordinate in vulnerable positions in their own quest for some fantastic idealism,” Alter states.
Women Who Never Marry
Apart from posing the threat of institutionalised misogyny, Singh adds that idealising male celibacy can also lead to sexual powerplay by chastising and controlling women’s sexuality. Therein lies the contradiction in gender roles. “Within a patriarchal system, celibacy is only a virtue when practised by men. Women, on the other hand, are seen as sexually active creatures who need to bear children in order to carry the progeny forward. That is the domesticated gender role associated with them,” Singh feels.
She adds that vis à vis women, male celibacy works by indirectly controlling women’s bodies through direct denial of pleasure to one’s own self. “So, within a patriarchy, perhaps women who are celibate would be viewed as rebels,” Singh adds.
This owning of celibacy as a feminist act has layers of historical gender discourse. Women throughout history and from across various walks of life have been celibate for a variety of reasons. It has enabled many of them to live as intellectuals, to be creative, to have a wide range of friendships with humans and with animals, and to construct an alternative family.
Academic and author Ruth Vanita states that looking at celibacy as just a patriarchal or “male” concept is diminutive to women and the true philosophy behind it. She adds that over history, women have practised celibacy as a form of empowerment and a means to break out of gender roles and constructs.
“The idea that sex is the most important thing in life is a silly post-Freudian idea. To different people, other things are often more important – love, friendship, art, music, literature, work, the divine,” Vanita states.
For women of younger, more gender-aware generations, for instance, celibacy can mean something new—an act of self-love. International TikTokers, for instance, like Taylor Powell or @Billlieemaali, have accrued a following by talking about their journey in celibacy as way of rejecting toxic masculinity.
In one of her photo captions, Billlieemaali writes, “Me after choosing celibacy and not allowing a man to invade my peace and body for 8+ months … so, so good.” The statement she makes is bold and her narrative rejects unwanted sexual advances garbed as intimacy in a world where women are often not in control of their own bodies or sexuality.
“I had many teachers and later colleagues at Miranda House who were single women. Several of them were non-English speaking. I knew many very happy, celibate, single women,” she states. Mahadevi Varma is a good modern example, and there were many women like her, Vanita recalls.
She adds that though it’s common to misunderstand celibacy as a concept that demonises women, the conception of it, at least within the ancient Hindu worldview, provides women inclusivity and space.
Celibacy is not a practice in a vacuum; it goes along with other ascetic practices, such as limiting food, drink, and sleep. Eating and sleeping are not vices, and neither is sex, but one chooses to eschew them in order to focus on other things. “For a celibate homosexual man, other men would be symbols of sexuality. In a famous life-legend, the bhakta Rahim, who was in love with a young man, was advised to focus instead on the beauty of Sri Krishna,” Vanita adds.
For heterosexual ascetic women or sadhvis, likewise, men would be symbols of sexuality. This does not mean that in themselves, women or men are bad. It just means that one redirects one’s attention elsewhere,” she adds.
In a patriarchal system, celibacy can even help women gain power and move up the socio-political ladder on the basis of legitimacy that celibacy engenders. This could be in the form of respect for a guru or a mystic. It could be political power.
The most noted examples include Queen Elizabeth I. Vanita points out that even today, and in India, whether it is Mamata Banerjee or Jayalalithaa or any of the sadhvis in politics, their being unmarried and presumably celibate gains them admiration because they are not under any man’s power.
Singh, nevertheless, adds that for women, celibacy isn’t enough. “All these leaders have had tough individual battles and have had to endure several questions on their character and personal lives that male leaders are barely into. While for male leaders, celibacy can be a fetish, for women, it is perhaps a necessity subjected to,” she states. While for male leaders, celibacy can be a fetish, for women, it is perhaps a necessity.