Primary Source

The Student Stage of Life: Brahmacharya [Text]


According to Vedic philosophy, the life span of each person is divided into four stages, or ashrams. The word ashram means "shelter," referring to the protective nature of these phases against the turmoil of life. These stages are Brahmacharya, Grahasta, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa, each of which has a specific purpose and guidelines defined in the Vedas, and are intended to order the lives of male members of the highest three castes.

The ashram called Brahmacharya is the stage of the celibate student. Entry into this phase involved initiation, which was prescribed for Brahmins (priestly caste) between age 5 and 16, for the Kshatriyas (warrior caste) between age 6 and 22, and for the Vaisyas (merchant caste) between age 8 and 24. Failing to undergo initiation during these age spans would mean loss of caste, or social status.

The Brahmacharya stage was a rigorous time of learning, when the high-caste boy was expected to acquire both religious knowledge and a craft or trade. A boy would wear the sacred cord around his chest to signify that he had entered Brahmacharya, and he would live in the teacher's house, serving him and treating him with utmost respect. In return, the boy's development was the responsibility of the guru. The student was to remain celibate so as not to be distracted from study. Among the goals of learning during this stage, memorization of Vedic texts was a priority, but archery, astrology, music, martial arts, and music were included. This selection is from a text that may date to the 5th century B.C.E. that prescribes proper behavior during each life stage.


Apastamba Dharma Sutra, I:1, 2, 3, and 6, passim, in Sacred Books of the East, II, 7–8, 10–11. Cited in Embree, Ainslie Thomas, and Dr. Sam di Bonaventura collection, The Hindu Tradition, New York: Modern Library, 1966, 84–86. Annotated by Susan Douglass.

Primary Source Text

He who has been initiated shall dwell as a religious student in the house of his teacher. . .
Twelve years [should be] the shortest time [for his residence with his teacher].
A student who studies the sacred science shall not dwell with anybody else than his teacher.
Now [follow] the rules for the studentship.
He shall obey his teacher, except when ordered to commit crimes which cause loss of caste.
He shall do what is serviceable to his teacher, he shall not contradict him.
He shall always occupy a couch or seat lower than that of his teacher.
He shall not eat food offered at a sacrifice to the gods or the Manes,
Nor pungent condiments, salt, honey, or meat.
He shall not sleep in the day-time.
He shall not use perfumes.
He shall preserve chastity.
He shall not embellish himself by using ointments and the like.
He shall not wash his body with hot water for pleasure.
But, if it is soiled with unclean things, he shall clean it with earth or water, in a place where he is not seen by a Guru.
Let him not sport in the water whilst bathing; let him swim motionless like a stick. . .
Let him not look at dancing.
Let him not go to assemblies for gambling &c., nor to crowds assembled at festivals.
Let him not be addicted to gossiping.
Let him be discrete.
Let him not do anything for his own pleasure in places which his teacher frequents.
Let him talk with women so much only as his purpose requires.
Let him be forgiving.
Let him restrain his organs from seeking illicit objects.
Let him be untired in fulfilling his duties;
Possessed of self-command;
Free from anger;
And free from envy.
Bringing all he obtains to his teacher, he shall go begging with a vessel in the morning and the evening,
and he may beg from everybody except low-caste people unfit for association with Aryas.

How to Cite This Source

"The Student Stage of Life: Brahmacharya [Text]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #325, (accessed January 25, 2015). Annotated by Susan Douglass