There are curious parallels between the European Assag practice of the Middle Ages and the Hindu Asidhārāvrata practice.

Why were these tests of sexual self-control so similar?


In this ancient “sword’s edge” ritual the male subjects himself to sexual temptation without fully consummating the sexual act. The goal is to master one’s sexual energy in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

Different accounts of the asidhārāvrata call for different levels of enticement. Some speak of simply lying together with a sexually available woman while not yielding to desire. Others speak of kissing and embracing, placing the penis on the vulva, or even inserting the penis – all without climaxing. Some texts treat the woman partner as a means to an end; others insist that her self-discipline is just as essential to the ritual’s success.

The practice of asidhārāvrata is considered to be one of the most important practices in the tantric tradition. The ritual was said to have great power. Benefits for the practitioner included increased physical vitality, mental clarity, and spiritual awareness.

One who, together with his wife, practises the arduous celibacy observance would attain perfection in this world and the next; he will attain the ultimate destiny. (The Mukhāgama of the Niśvāsa 3.57c–58b)

Asidhārāvrata’s rootsSynergy Explorers go back at least as far as the 5th century. It may have descended from an even earlier Buddhist text, Laṅkāvatārasūtra (“Discourse of the Descent into Laṅka”).

Vrata is a Sanskrit word that means “vow, resolve, devotion”. Some claim the word asidhārāvrata signifies that the vrata is as sharp or difficult as treading on the edge of a sword – both difficult and, in the case of failure, perilous .


Assag was a rite of courtly love, advocated by the troubadours as a supreme test of fin’amor (true or pure love). Lovers slept together naked and enjoyed foreplay but without penetration. The assag practice was a fundamental law of the joi d’amor (“joy of love”). For example, Matfre Ermengau (late 13th or early 14th century) said, “The pleasure of this love is destroyed when the desire finds its satiation”.

The word is generally believed to have come from the Occitan assag or ensag, which means “trial”. In the 13th century this test, the assag, became a heroic test of chastity retained in bed, “naked with naked” (nudus cum nuda). If the lover yielded to the desire, it was proof that he did not love with fin’ amor.

Scholar Jean Markale explained:

The assag was a test in which the lover had to show that he was capable of loving purely, that love existed in him. He could contemplate his lady naked and he could do with her everything that passion demands. He could hold her (embrace her), kiss her, caress her; everything except the fact (lo fag).

Interestingly, in the courtly love romance Tristan and Iseult, the lovers are presented with a sword with magical powers. They sleep with it between them. Was this an echo of the asidhārāvrata? Did the sword represent the conscious effort required to maintain precarious control and avoid being swept away by desire?

Mysterious origins

Courtly love and fin’amor were practiced in what is now the south of France, but was once a region apart from French rule with its own language, the Langue D’Oc, also known as Occitan. Some historians suggest that crusaders returning to the region from the Holy Lands brought the assag practice back to the Occitan after learning it from the Muslims they had encountered. Had the Muslims in turn imported it from India?

Alternatively, did the practice arise independently of (or with the additional influence of) early Christian roots, such as those preserved in the Nag Hammadi texts discovered in Egypt in the last century? The Gospel of Philip, for example, refers to a Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber. This was a mystery that called for a “pure embrace of great power”, but which was not for procreation.

Even the worldly embrace is a mystery;
far more so the embrace that incarnates the hidden union.
It is not only a reality of the flesh,
for there is silence in this embrace.
It does not arise from impulse or desire;
it is an act of will. …

If someone experiences Trust and Consciousness in the heart of the embrace,
they become a child of light.
If someone does not receive these,
it is because they remain attached to what they know;
when they cease to be attached, they will be able to receive them.
…For them, this world has become another world ….
They are one.

No one yet knows for sure whether these tests of sexual self-control, the asidhārāvrata and the assag, had common roots. Nor, if they did arise from common roots and not independently, whether those roots arose from Buddhism, Taoism, ancient Egypt, or elsewhere. In any case, the asidhārāvrata and the assag certainly had a lot in common.

What matters most is whether they yield benefits when lovers explore them today.

Of possible interest:

Asidhāravrata: The sword’s edge observance

Assag (courtly love) (~12-13th centuries)

The Gospel of Philip (~250 CE)

De Amore (The Art of Courtly Love) by Andreas Capellanus (12th Century)

The gift of fin’amor

The heart of chivalry