The ancient “sword’s edge” ritual is a practise in which the male exposes himself to sexual temptation without fully consummating the sexual act. He also maintains sensory restraint. Some claim the word asidhārāvrata signifies that the vrata is as sharp or difficult as treading on the edge of a sword. (Vrata is a Sanskrit word that means “vow, resolve, devotion”.)

Comparing the practise to walking along the edge of a sword warns would-be practitioners that it is both extremely difficult and dangerous. The Brahmayāmala text says it is challenging “even for the gods”. And according to the Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā text, “one who becomes overpowered by lust [during the ritual] goes to hell, assuredly”.

Not surprisingly, asidhārāvrata has become a Sanskrit metaphor for a task that is unusually perilous or dicey.

Expanding upon the sword metaphor

In the medieval romance, Tristan and Iseult, the lovers are presented with a sword that has magical powers. They sleep with it between them. The sword represents temptation and the potential for destruction, much like the orgasm represents temptation and the potential for losing control of one’s sexual energy.

The sword appears to have the same significance in the asidhārāvrata. In both instances the sword represents the conscious effort required to maintain control and avoid succumbing to desire. The lovers place the “sword” of will, love, understanding and self-discipline between them as a symbol of their determination to resist biology’s pull. In addition to serving as a powerful metaphor for the self-discipline required to maintain this practise, the sword reminds us of the potential for both destruction and transformation in the realm of sexuality.

Solely a meditation ritual?

According to scholars, this ritual appears in a range of orthodox Vedic, literary, Śaiva, and other texts:

The asidhārāvrata attested in tantric literature appears likely to be an inflection of a Brāhmanịcal observance of the same name: a male ascetic discipline distinguished by maintenance of chastity while lying together with a sexually available woman.

One scholar argues that the practise of maintaining sexual restraint in the face of temptation likely arose first as a facet of mantra-practise and meditation.

In his view, the asidhārāvrata was an ascetic discipline for men characterized by cultivation of dispassion in the presence of considerable temptation. Mahatma Gandhi experimented with something similar when he was fasting to protest British rule in India. More recently, in Mehta’s film Fire (1996), Ashok tests his celibacy by engaging in this practise with his wife.

In any event, some texts about the practise called for “a sharper sword” in the form of increased temptation. First, the woman partner had to be especially enticing, with “the marks of auspiciousness”. She could not have given birth, and had to be proficient in erotic arts, and obedient. Second, the practitioner had to place his liṅga (penis) upon her genitals, though apparently without penetration. (Niśvāsa 39d)

Multiple sources called for the asidhārāvrata practitioner to meditate on the mantras while in the woman’s embrace, always without ejaculation.

Asidhārāvrata with deeper intimacy

A recipe for asidhārāvrata with intercourse appears in the Brahmayāmala. It not only calls for kissing and embracing, but explicitly call for penetration (liṅgaṃ tatra viniksịpet, 10d), without orgasm (ksọbha).

The sexual practises of the Brahmayāmala’s asidhārāvrata chapter primarily appear in verses 40.8c–14b and 20–3. Excerpts:

After kissing and embracing, he should effect the external mantra-installation, [and] after mantra-installation on the consort’s vulva, he should place her on a mat (āsana). After kissing and embracing, he should insert the liṅga there. He should perform the mantra-recitation (japa) of the regular daily rites (nitya), the occasional ones (naimittika), [or] the rites with special aims (kāmya) in [a state of sexual] restraint (avagraha), abiding in the state beyond regulated conduct (nirācārapada), absorbed in the ocean of the void. If by mistake orgasm (ksọbha) should occur just spontaneously, without making it happen, the sādhaka should recite the mantra ten-thousand times, contemplating the true reality. Gazing on the supreme reality, accompanied by kisses and embraces and lusty hisses, he should not engage in orgasm.  He should prompt (prerayed) an interruption of the ritual process for the daily worship (āhnika).
. . .
Keeping silent, intent on meditation, the mantrin should observe separation from the consort. [Afterwards,] the mantrin should sleep together with her on the ground, always embracing each other, with amorous movements and so forth. [20–21b] They should always eat betel; they should engage in feeding it to each other. They should always sleep facing each other, never facing away. He should always prevent orgasm, remaining in the state beyond regulated conduct (nirācāra). [21c–22] [If the fluid] is spilled by itself, a wise one should do ten-thousand mantra-recitations. [If] he reaches orgasm intentionally, he should perform expiation ritual (prāyaścitta).

Three tantras [from Chat GPT]

Three tantras (Hindu texts) describe the practise of asidhārāvrata as a way to cultivate sexual energy and redirect it for spiritual purposes, such as achieving higher states of consciousness and realizing the divine nature of the self.

The Vamakeshvara Tantra is a medieval Hindu text and is one of the earliest known Tantras. It is also considered one of the most important texts in the Tantric tradition. The Vamakeshvara Tantra mentions the practise of asidhārāvrata in the context of sexual practises. The Tantra states that the practise of asidhārāvrata involves sexual continence, which means that practitioners must avoid ejaculation during sexual activity. The Vamakeshvara Tantra emphasizes the importance of the male practitioner mastering his own sexual energy in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. The text states that the practitioner who practises asidhārāvrata is able to conserve his energy, which leads to physical, mental, and spiritual benefits.

The Kaulajnananirnaya is another important Tantra that mentions the practise of asidhārāvrata. This text focuses on the Kaula tradition, which is a branch of the tantric tradition that emphasizes the use of sexual practises for spiritual purposes. The Kaulajnananirnaya emphasizes the importance of sexual continence in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. The text states that the practise of asidhārāvrata involves controlling sexual energy in order to achieve a state of heightened awareness. The Kaulajnananirnaya also emphasizes the importance of the female practitioner in the practise of asidhārāvrata. The text states that the female practitioner must also control her own sexual energy in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

The Gandharva Tantra is another Tantra that mentions the practise of asidhārāvrata. This text is known for its emphasis on the use of sound and music in tantric practises. The Gandharva Tantra mentions the practise of asidhārāvrata in the context of sexual practises. The text states that the practise of asidhārāvrata involves sexual continence, which means that practitioners must avoid reaching the orgasm during sexual activity. The text states that the practitioner who practises asidhārāvrata is able to conserve his energy, which leads to physical, mental, and spiritual benefits.

A long history

Descriptions of the asidhārāvrata in its various forms date back at least as far as the seventh-eighth centuries. However, a passage about celibate householders in the Vaikhānasagrḥyasūtra text suggests that the asidhārāvrata may date back at least to the fourth century.

There is also an apparent allusion to it in the very early Buddhist Laṅkāvatārasūtra. The text compares the difficulty of developing non-attachment to sensory objects with the asidhārāvrata:

Sense objects are not the cause of bondage; bondage to the sense objects is the cause. The afflictions (kleśa) must be destroyed by knowledge. This truly is a razor’s edge observance”.

In any event, the asidhārāvrata was apparently well known by the fifth century, and may have been significantly older. Here are two allusions to it in the Sanskrit literature. The first describes the emperor Harsavardhana.

Though he was pledged to chastity, he was embraced by [the goddess] royal fortune; though sworn to the vow of clinging to the edge of a sword, he was a royal sage who did not break his pledge. (Raghuvaṃśa 13.67)

[Bharata is one] who, though a young man, out of deference to me [Rāma] does not partake of the Lady Fortune who sits on his lap, handed over by father. It is as though he were, for all these years, practising the severe asidhārāvrata with her. (Raghuvaṃśa 13.6)

The power of the ritual

The tantras emphasize the importance of mastering one’s own sexual energy in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. It also called for the willing participation of one’s mate.

The practise of asidhārāvrata is considered to be one of the most important practises 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)

Here is an excerpt describing the asidhārāvrata from the Niśvāsa, which probably represents the oldest surviving tantric Śaiva scripture (as early as the fifth century):

Skilled in the enjoyment of love, full of beauty and youth – after obtaining (āsādya) a woman like this, he should kiss and embrace her with his senses restrained. Placing the liṅga upon the vagina, and becoming focused on mantra-recitation and meditation (dhyāna), he should practise the razor’s edge observance. …. One who would practise the pre-eminent observance for one year, or merely six months, obtains siddhi of the lowest, middling, or highest variety. Abiding in the observance, he attains siddhi after again reciting the mantra five-hundred-thousand times. All mantras become perfected [for him], and the desired result would come about.

That said, at least in most of the texts, the ritual seems to be performed for the exclusive benefit of the man. He uses the woman for his spiritual goals. The karmic implications of such a selfish practise cannot be auspicious.

An exception is the Brahmayāmala’s account of the asidhārāvrata. That text envisions both participants in coital rituals as initiated practitioners.

Evolved from a sexual practise?

As stated above, some scholars believe that the asidhārāvrata was merely an eccentric technique of celibate meditation. Yet there’s some evidence in the early Siddhāntatantras – the Niśvāsa and the Mataṅga – that the asidhārāvrata practise evolved directly from ritual experimentation with sexuality. For example,

A Kashmirian author, Taksạ kavarta, in fact reports the existence of a Saiddhāntika lineage having this vrata as its characteristic practise, intimating the kind of context in which ritual experimentation with eroticism might have taken place. Should this hypothesis prove correct, it suggests that the razor’s edge proved sharp indeed, the asidhārāvrata leading to the development of coital practises more “magical” or ecstatic in orientation than ascetic.

Of possible interest

[Compare with courtly love “test”] Assag (courtly love) (~12-13th centuries)