Ascetical practices, including limitations on sex, are quite common in the world’s major religions, and often go beyond what would be expected from a purely ethical standpoint. It’s worth examining how – and why.
In Buddhism, the attainment of a state of enlightenment is essentially connected with freedom from desires. And sexual desire is considered one of the most persistent and challenging of desires to be confronted by most persons. Celibacy, as practiced by Buddhist monks, is thought to be the ideal form of purification, most conducive to spiritual enlightenment.
In Hinduism, the rechanneling of sexual “energy,” especially through celibacy, is prescribed by gurus as the means to greater intellectual and even physical prowess. The celibate Hindu yogi, freed from sexual Kama, is held to be in an optimal state for the habitual worship of God. The famous yogi Paramahansa Yogananda taught that married couples must practice moderation, and that celibacy is almost a prerequisite to attain maximal knowledge of divine love in a union of friendship.
But Hinduism is a religion of strange contrasts, as indicated, for instance, by the Kama Sutra, which appears to many Westerners to be a pornographic sex manual, possibly composed by some previous incarnation of Hugh Hefner.
Mahatma Gandhi, who took a public vow of celibacy in his thirties, was an example of the extremes that sometimes turn up in Hinduism. Towards the end of his life, he undertook a “last yajna (ritual)” to achieve sexual purity, an “experiment,” which he admitted was “dangerous” – sleeping naked with various young women without being sexually aroused. Gandhi claimed that success in this would grant great spiritual powers, but Hindu spiritual leaders and his followers criticized him for such “spiritual extremism.”