Gay Vaisnavas: Don't Ask--Don't Tell
by Brahma das
Posted April 28, 2003

Vaisnavism refers to a culture of spirituality beyond bodily designations, and the worship of Visnu is aprakrta (beyond all material qualities). This stage of bhakti, however, is sudurlabha (rarely attained) and, according to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur, takes place on the plane of advaya jnana tattva (non-dual consciousness). (See Madhya 20.152)

Those endeavoring to attain Krishna consciousness are sometimes known as aspiring Vaisnavas or devotees. About such devotees Srila Prabhupada writes:

"No one is actually qualified in this material world to approach Krsna, but if he makes the attempt through our inducing him gradually to give his energy to Krsna, by that attempt Krsna will extend his mercy and deliver the fallen soul despite his so many disqualifications. Such a person or aspiring devotee is to be considered most exalted because he has given his life to Krsna." (letter 72-12-31)

Although Vaisnavas are beyond material designation, discrimination according to material designation is common, with aspiring devotees commonly referring to one another in cultural terms such as brahmachari, grhastha, vanaprastha or sannyasa -- all material designations. Devotees also classify one another in geographic terms such as American, Russian or Bengali Vaisnavas as well as by institutional affiliation. Designations such as Black or Hispanic devotees are commonly used and the term Vaisnavi has a slight material connotation because it refers to devotees by gender.

Women (a material designation) are not allowed to take sannyasa (another material designation) and, in most Vaisnava institutions in India, women are not allowed to worship or cook for the Deity. In some institutions, the prohibition against Deity worship extends to nationality or race; many Gaudiya institutions still encourage arranged marriage in consideration of caste or varna, even though scriptures state that a Vaisnava should not be considered as belonging to any caste.

"One should not consider the Deity of the Lord worshipped in the temple to be an idol, nor should one consider the spiritual master an ordinary man. Nor should one consider a Vaisnava as belonging to a particular caste. A person who thinks in this way is certainly a resident of hell." (Padma Purana)

Classification or discrimination based on material designations is commonly accepted, and every Gaudiya institution makes adjustments to accommodate practical and socio-religious considerations. Policies considered sexist or racist in the west are still socially acceptable in India but Gaudiya institutions are being forced to confront issues of sexism and racism to make relevant adjustments for practice and preaching. ISKCON has created the Women's Ministry, and numerous articles on gender bigotry and abuse have been posted about those issues:

Although gender discrimination is often addressed, the issue of homosexual Vaisnavas has largely been ignored and the term "Gay Vaisnava", although mostly a cultural designation, is said to be a "contradiction of terms" or "serving the basic tenets of the body". This is said even though other cultural terms relating to gender, race or ethnicity are commonly used, and "Gay Vaisnava" is no more a material designation or a contradiction of terms then any of the other cultural references used in devotee society. The prevailing opinion seems to be that homosexuals can practice Vaisnavism but should remain in the closet and humbly accept a policy of "don't ask; don't tell."

Over time, all efforts to keep "Gay Vaisnavas" in the closet will fail, in the same way that attempts have failed to keep women Vaisnavas in their proverbial place. Many homosexuals are embracing Vaisnavism and love its essential precepts. These "Gay Vaisnavas", like other Vaisnavas, forsake their material identity on the theoretical platform but, in practical reality, may be as unable or unwilling to do so as Women Vaisnavas, African-American Vaisnavas or European and Indian Vaisnavas. Indeed, asking devotees to disregard their material identity while discriminating against them on the basis of race or gender could easily be viewed as a form of hypocrisy.

Bhagavad-Gita begins by presenting the theory that we are not the body; realizing the truth of that statement comes over time, with spiritual practice. The Gita recognizes cultural bias when it says: "Those who take shelter of Me (Krsna) even the lowborn, women, merchants, as well as the working class, attain the highest goal." In this verse, material designations are not done away with, but are accented to illustrate that Krsna is the shelter of all sinful and oppressed people. Bhagavad-Gita does not whisper that the sinful and oppressed can become devotees but "don't ask; don't tell"; rather, the Gita boldly declares that anyone from any section of society can become a Vaisnava.

Bhagavad-Gita As It Is defines Vaisnava as "a devotee of the Supreme Lord Visnu or Krsna." Faith in Krsna makes one a Vaisnava and cultural identification or even sinful activity does not preclude one from faith in Krsna. If it did, there would be no worldwide Krsna consciousness movement. Identification on some level with material designations remains with a devotee until his or her final release from material bondage; thus, the fact that homosexual devotees refer to themselves as "Gay Vaisnavas" is understandable, and not a plague on Vaisnavism, as some would have us believe.

"Gay Vaisnavas" are a fact of life; rather than trying to quash the term, we should accept it as a tribute to the all-embracing nature of Vaisnavism; if the nomenclature helps a section of society to identify with and practice Krsna consciousness, so much the better. Prabhupada writes in Caitanya-Caritamrita that the real principle is to spread this Krishna consciousness movement and in doing so one cannot suddenly change a community's social customs.

"Krsna is so kind, Krsna is so powerful, that anyone out of this human society can be claimed to become a Vaisnava. That is the statement of Sukadeva Goswami. . . . If such persons, such lower-grade persons even, take shelter of a pure devotee, they become purified. . . . That is the special prerogative power of Lord Visnu. He can deliver anyone in any condition of life." (Prabhupada lecture: Bombay 1971)