A History of Celibacy (I)

I have been promising for some time a review of A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbott. I did not do so primarily because I had not finished it and the book is fairly complex in the varieties of celibacy, so I have been trying to come to some conclusion about what to make of it. Indeed, I think she may even have played with the title, The Varieties of Celibate Experience before settling on A History of Celibacy.

Part of the hook used to publicize this book was the infobyte that Abbott had herself become celibate in the course of researching and writing it. This made her something of an oddity and short-lived media darling. She admits that she started the work with the idea that celibacy was aberrant or unnatural and finished with the conclusion that it is a genuine, normal human phenomenon that deserves attention on its own merits.

Her general thesis, to which she returns again and again through all the complexities of rationales and motivations given for renouncing sexual relations, is that its practice is easier and has historically been more beneficial from women than to men. Whereas women through the ages found relief from the pangs of repeated childbirth, the drudgery of raising the children and maintaining the household, the lack of freedom to travel or find intellectual stimulation through study, and the indignity of constantly being subservient to the desires of husbands who were often insensitive, inconsiderate and supercilious, men tended to be locked in a dramatic battle with the senses that demanded a herculean effort and led almost inevitably to a fear and hatred of women.

The understanding that women are many times more lusty than men can be seen as a projection of the man who cannot account or take responsibility for his own desire.

The Christian obsession with celibacy starts with the Garden of Eden. The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is seen as being representative of sex. Carnal knowledge is the forbidden fruit, and since all humans are born of sexual congress, they are contaminated by the original sin of the original sinning couple. Christ was born of a virgin and this was one of the conditions that made it possible for humans to find again the pristine purity that preceded the fall. But this purity depended on attaining virginity. After all, did Christ not suggest to his disciples that they become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God?

Early Christianity was apocalyptic, expecting that the end of the world was nigh. In order to prepare for this second coming of Christ, the best preparation was self purification, and the essence of self-purification was chastity. Married men and women took such vows—reproduction was not an issue—but the stars of the show were the desert fathers in Egypt, some of whose accounts of terrible ordeals in conquering sex desire survive to this day.

Gradually, celibacy was institutionalized in the Church and became its standard. Despite the inherent difficulties in maintaining such a standard, the Catholic hierarchy has not swerved from its position. They say that Christ himself was celibate, that he asked it of his followers, so priests who incarnate Christ’s spirit and who obey his commandments, have really no choice but to accept. The consequences are rather well known, though statistics bearing on the extent of adherence or non-adherence show wide variance.

In the Reformation, Luther and others criticized Church institutions, especially enforced celibacy for priests. In Abbott’s description, nuns were often compelled into the cloister for various unholy reasons, most frequently as a way of disposing of competing demands for inheritance, avoiding higher dowry payments (dowries were paid to the convent, but these were much less than required by a human husband) and other such reasons. The result was that many nuns resented their situation and found it undesirable to follow the vows of celibacy that had been forced on them.

The basis of Christian celibacy, like that of Hinduism, is soul-body dualism, which holds that the “flesh” holds us back from experiencing the presence of God. I won’t go too far into the theology here, as I do not know the Christian position well enough—certainly this dualism has been called into question latterly and a more Judaic vision of the human as both body and soul is popular these days. Judaism, by the way, has had little or no institutional celibacy throughout its long history.

Nevertheless, whether it was simply Abbott’s manner of describing it, or whether it was indeed the fact, one gets the impression that celibacy quickly became an end in itself. The torments of the desert fathers and their powerful temptations seem to show little relief in transcendent joy or even a spirit of devotion to Christ. They smack more of the excesses that the Buddha warned against after finding for his middle way.

Certainly it is an essential doctrine of the Vaishnava path that kricchra tapasya is not an essential part of the practice. Even the Gita speaks against it. If sexual renunciation is indeed as difficult as all that, it should be counted among the kricchra tapasyas. Tapas, in the sense of "exertion of the total personality, intense concentration with a specific goal," is of course necessary as a part of any discipline, including bhakti. But here we seem to have a case where the discipline takes primacy over and above the goal itself. And if there is anything to be gained from such rigid discipline, Krishna says that it will come from the bhakti, not from the tapasya per se.

Swami Veda Bharati writes (Philosophy of Hatha Yoga, p.24) that prior to the 19th century, extreme asceticism was the method of self-purification. Over the last two centuries, however, "extreme comfort" has become the "way" of choice. He calls hatha yoga "comfortable asceticism." How much more that could be said of bhakti-yoga!

yat karmabhir yat tapasā jñāna-vairāgyataś ca yat
yogena dāna-dharmeṇa śreyobhir itarair api
sarvaṁ mad-bhakti-yogena mad-bhakto labhate'ñjasā
svargāpavargaṁ mad-dhāma kathañcid yadi vāñchati
tasmān mad-bhakti-yuktasya yogino vai mad-ātmanaḥ
na jñānam na ca vairāgyaṁ prāyaḥ śreyo bhaved iha

Whatever can be obtained by works, by asceticism, through knowledge or renunciation, through yoga or charity or by other beneficial practices, can all be attained easily by my devotee through bhakti yoga. This includes heaven, liberation or whatever else he may happen to desire. Therefore, for the yogi who takes up my devotion, who is my very soul, neither knowledge nor renunciation are considered ultimately beneficial. (11.20.31-33)


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