Vaisnava moral theology and the homosexual issue
Posted February 9, 2005
I have recently recommended that ISKCON acknowledge and appreciate the sincere efforts of all devotees who
a) sincerely strive to be Krishna conscious;
b) cannot be celibate, and thus
c) choose monogamy rather than promiscuity as a strategy for sense control and gradual renunciation.
Since my brief statement on this topic has alarmed some devotees, I will try here to more clearly explain my position on this matter. I will develop here the following thesis: The role of sexuality in a spiritual society is clearly a moral issue that must be understood within the greater context of Vaishnava moral philosophy, as we find it in authoritative Vaishnava scriptures. Lord Krishna's own pastimes, and His explicit teachings, reveal that in human life, there are certain inevitable moral tensions, such as
- the tension between justice and mercy;
- the tension between competing moral duties;
- the tension between the ideal and the real;
- the tension between acts and consequences;
1. Justice and Mercy
As in all societies, moral conflicts occur in Vedic culture, often involving a tension between the moral principles of justice and mercy. Indeed we find instances of this in Lord Krishna's own pastimes, often resulting in an attempt to strike a balance between justice and mercy.
We find a striking example of this in the first canto of the Bhagavatam when Arjuna arrests the murderous Asvatthama and brings him back to the Pandavas' camp. The sequence of events is as follows:
1.7.35 Lord Krishna orders Arjuna to kill the captured Asvatthama.
1.7.35-39 Krishna presents the case for killing Asvatthama, directly ordering Arjuna again [1.7.39] to kill him.
1.7.40-41 Arjuna decides not to kill Asvatthama, despite being twice ordered to do so by Krishna, and instead brings him back to the Pandavas' camp and delivers him to Draupadi.
1.7.42-48 Draupadi urges Asvatthama's release on the plea of compassion for his mother and respect for the brahmana caste.
1.7.49 Yudhisthira agrees with Draupadi.
1.7.50 Nakula, Sahadeva, Yuyudhana, Arjuna, Krishna and all the women agree with Draupadi.
1.7.51 Bhima urges the killing of Asvatthama.
1.7.53-54 Krishna tells Arjuna that Asvatthama should be killed and not killed, and orders Arjuna to please both Draupadi and Bhima.
1.7.55-56 Arjuna cuts off the prisoner's topknot and jewel and drives him, humiliated and socially dead, from the camp.
We may note the following about this story:
- A. The debate over Asvatthama's fate centers around dharma, which is one of the standard words for morality.
- B. There was tension between two moral positions, both positions held by great devotees.
- C. Krishna ordered severe punishment, but then changed His position upon hearing a compassionate plea from His devotee, Draupadi.
- D. Bhima urged justice, Draupadi urged mercy. Krishna finally accepted a compromise between justice and mercy.
Another Bhagavatam story, found in the tenth canto, chapter fifty-four, illustrates Lord Krishna's wish to strike a compromise between the moral principles of justice and mercy. Here is the sequence of this pastime.
10.54.31 Having kidnapped Rukmini, Lord Krishna prepares to kill the attacking Rukmi.
10.54.32-33 Alarmed, Rukmini begs Krishna not to kill her brother.
10.54.34 Rukmini arouses Krishna's compassion and He does not kill Rukmi.
10.54.35 Krishna ties up Rukmi and mocks him by cutting his hair and moustache.
10.54.36-37 Lord Balarama, being merciful, releases Rukmi and chastises Krishna, accusing Him of doing something which is "asadhu" and "terrible for us", since "disfiguring a relative is like killing him."
10.54.38-50 Balarama preaches to Krishna and Rukmini.
This story clearly parallels that of Asvatthama:
- A. Krishna first prepares to deliver justice by killing Rukmi, just as Krishna first ordered Arjuna to kill Asvatthama and bring his head to Draupadi.
- B. Compassionate Rukmini opposes this killing, just as Draupadi opposed the killing of Asvatthama.
- C. As with Asvatthama, Krishna takes a middle course, figuratively killing by humiliation.
- D. Balarama presents a fourth position, the first three being 1) Krishna's decision to kill Rukmi; 2) Rukmini's plea to spare her brother; and 3) Krishna's decision to kill Rukmi figuratively. Balarama chastises Krishna for figuratively killing a relative and then admonishes Rukmini for her excessive family sentiment.
- E. As in the previous story of Asvatthama we find Krishna resolved to administer justice, then adjusting the punishment after a plea for mercy by a devotee.
In both these stories of Asvatthama and Rukmi we find justice tempered by mercy, resulting in an act of merciful justice which does not obey the strictest letter of the law.
2. Conflicting moral duties
Kunti and Pandu
We find another example of tension between competing moral duties in the Mahabharata, in a conversation between Pandu and his wife Kunti.
Cursed to never beget a child, and thus unable to provide an heir to the Kuru throne, Pandu begs his devoted wife Kunti to beget a child with a surrogate father, a saintly brahmana. Eventually of course, Kunti will reveal that Durvasa blessed her with the power to call demigods, and she will thus beget three sons with Dharma, Vayu and Indra. But for now, Pandu is trying to convince her to obey him and beget a son with a saintly brahmana. Among his arguments Pandu states:
"O king's daughter, knowers of dharma know that a wife is to do as her husband says, whether he speaks according to dharma or even if he speaks what is not dharma." [MB 1.113.27]1
One might read this verse and conclude that a wife must always obey her husband, right or wrong, since this is what Pandu states. However in the very next chapter, after Kunti has given Pandu three sons, Pandu requests Kunti to call another god and beget another son, yet Kunti adamantly refuses her husband's request and says:
"They do not recommend a fourth child by this means, even in times of trouble. With a fourth child, I would be a loose woman, with a fifth, I would become a harlot." [MB 1.114.65]
Pandu clearly stated that a wife must obey her husband, whether he is right or wrong. But in fact when Kunti is right, Pandu accepts her argument and follows, abandoning a moral principle he has just declared.
Kunti then calls the twin Asvins for Madri, who thus begets Nakula and Sahadeva. But when Pandu requests yet another son for Madri, Kunti refuses and again Pandu accepts the wishes of his wife. We find the same dialectic pattern of moral claims and duties repeated here: a strong male seeks to act in a strong way, claiming such an act to be just. A respected lady then insists on a somewhat different course, and the male adjusts his behavior.
The brahmana family of Eka-cakra
In the Mahabharata, Adi Parva, chapters 145-7, we find another striking example of moral conflict. In the city of Ekacakra, where the Pandavas live incognito in a brahmana's house, a powerful Raksasa named Baka terrorizes the city, taking advantage of a weak, incompetent king who rules that region. In exchange for his protection, the townspeople are forced to periodically supply the demon a wagonload of food and one human, selected in turn from each of the town's families.
Kunti hears her host brahmana family engaged in a strange, tearful argument in which the husband, wife, daughter and son all insist on sacrificing themselves to save the family, for that family's turn has come to feed the demon. Eventually of course Bhima kills the demon, but this incident shows clearly that in Vedic culture, there were moral conflicts.
On the one hand a man must protect his family, yet if the father gave himself to the demon, society would prey on his unprotected family. The wife felt that her duty was to serve her husband by sacrificing herself to the demon, yet how could a husband sworn to protect his wife sacrifice her to a demon. Even the daughter wanted to save her parents and little brother by giving herself to the demon.
The key point here is that practical circumstances presented a seemingly insoluble moral conflict to a good, brahminical, Vedic family. The family's moral duty, was not at all clear to the them and they could not agree on what to do since any possible moral act seemed to violate another moral duty of equal importance.
3. Ideal vs Real
Another moral tension found in every society arises from the inevitable gap between the ideal and the real. Vedic culture teaches the highest moral and spiritual principles, but also engages practical human nature with remarkable candor and realism. The religious principles of dharma function as moral principles in Vedic culture. And when we study the application of dharma in texts such as the Bhagavatam and Mahabharata, we find that in the great majority of cases, dharma is used to regulate the two most passionate, and thus most dangerous, human activities: sex and violence.
In order to clearly understand the Vedic approach to moral issues, we must look at the way Vedic culture deals with sex and violence. As stated above, because these two activities arouse the wildest passion in human beings, it is precisely these two activities that most threaten moral and spiritual order in society, and which must therefore be regulated by dharma, morality. To illustrate the mature complexity of the Vedic approach to moral issues, let us consider examples of the Vedic approach to violence, in the form of hunting, and sex, in the form of polygamy. We shall find in each case that Vedic culture teaches ideal moral principles, yet at the same time acknowledges real human nature and creates a cultural space for sincere people who cannot practice the ideal.
The hunting of animals deeply violates one of the most grave Vedic moral principles: ahimsa, not harming the innocent. Lord Krishna mentions ahimsa four times in the Bhagavad-gita [10.5, 13.8, 16.2, 17.4].
At 13.8, Krishna declares that ahimsa, together with other qualities, is knowledge and that everything else is simply ignorance. Thus himsa, harming the innocent, is ignorance. At 18.25, Krishna states that work undertaken without considering the resultant himsa, or harm to the innocent, is work in the mode of darkness. Krishna also states at 18.27 that a worker in passion is himsatmaka, which Prabhupada translates, "always envious."
At 16.2, Lord Krishna states that ahimsa is one of the godly qualities to which Arjuna is born. And at 17.4, the Lord says that ahimsa is a necessary component of bodily austerity. The Bhagavatam similarly praises the moral quality of ahimsa:
1.18.22 declares that ahimsa is the very nature of a pure soul. 3.28.4 enjoins that one should practice ahimsa. 7.11.8 teaches that ahimsa, and other qualities, are paro dharmah, the highest religious principle.
Significantly, 11.17.21 insists that ahimsa is sarva-varnika, for all varnas. And at 11.19.33 Krishna Himself teaches ahimsa.
Similarly, the Mahabharata, 1.11.12, declares that ahimsa is the supreme dharma for all living things.
Srila Prabhupada often taught that ahimsa especially means that one must not kill animals. For example, in his purport to the Bhagavad-gita 16.2, he writes,
"Ahimsa means not arresting the progressive life of any living entity. One should not think that since the spirit spark is never killed even after the killing of the body there is no harm in killing animals for sense gratification. People are now addicted to eating animals, in spite of having an ample supply of grains, fruits and milk. There is no necessity for animal killing. This injunction is for everyone. [emphasis mine] When there is no alternative, one may kill an animal, but it should be offered in sacrifice. At any rate, when there is an ample food supply for humanity, persons who are desiring to make advancement in spiritual realization should not commit violence to animals. Real ahimsa means not checking anyone's progressive life. The animals are also making progress in their evolutionary life by transmigrating from one category of animal life to another. If a particular animal is killed, then his progress is checked...So their progress should not be checked simply to satisfy one's palate. This is called ahimsa."
Similarly, in his purport to Bhagavad-gita 17.4, he states,
"There is no justice when there is animal-killing. Lord Buddha wanted to stop it completely, and therefore his cult of ahimsa was propagated not only in India but also outside the country."
Yet despite these numerous and heavy scriptural statements enjoining ahimsa and forbidding himsa, we find that Vedic kings often hunted. Prabhupada taught that ksatriyas, warrior kings responsible to defend the people, were allowed to hunt in order to sharpen their skill with weapons. However, as Prabhupada points out in his purport to the Bhagavatam 4.22.13, even such hunting was not auspcious. Indeed it was still considered a sin. Prabhupada writes:
"Kings are ... sometimes employed to kill animals in hunting because they have to practice the killing art, otherwise it is very difficult for them to fight their enemies. Such things are not auspicious. Four kinds of sinful activities-associating with woman for illicit sex, eating meat, intoxication and gambling-are allowed for the kshatriyas. For political reasons, sometimes they have to take to these sinful activities..."
Recall that the Bhagavatam [11.17.21] directly states that ahimsa is sarva-varnika, to be practiced by all the social orders, including ksatriyas. Indeed the Bhagavatam shows that even kings are not spared the sinful reactions of killing animals. Thus at 4.25.7-8, the great Narada says to King Barhisman:
"O Prajapati! O King! See the animals, living things that you cruelly killed by the thousands in sacrifice.
"These animals are waiting for you, remembering your butchery. When you have departed this world, they will slice you up with iron horns, for you have enraged them."
Similarly, the Bhagavatam declares at 5.26.24 that even Ksatriyas who take pleasure in hunting go to the hell known as Pranarodha. Prabhupada comments on this verse as follows:
"Men of the higher classes (the brahmanas, kshatriyas and vaisyas) should cultivate knowledge of Brahman, and they should also give the sudras a chance to come to that platform. If instead they indulge in hunting, they are punished as described in this verse. Not only are they pierced with arrows by the agents of Yamaraja, but they are also put into the ocean of pus, urine and stool described in the previous verse."
How do we understand this paradox? On the one hand, Vedic scriptures could not be more clear in their teaching of ahimsa, not harming the innocent, and their condemnation of himsa, harming the innocent. On the other hand it seems that a special concession is given to warriors to hunt. However this concession is problematic for several reasons:
- Shastra teaches that even kings are punished for killing animals.
- The Bhagavatam states that all social orders, including warriors, must practice ahimsa.
- Vedic history teaches the powerful lesson that many of the greatest Vedic kings suffered tragic fates while hunting. Exalted kings such as Dasaratha, Pandu and Pariksit also encountered disaster while hunting. And the stepbrother of Dhruva, Uttama, was murdered on a hunting expedition. There can be no mistake that such historical lessons discourage hunting.
It is fair to conclude that Vedic culture strikes a balance here between the ideal and the real. The ideal is clearly ahimsa. The "real" however is that throughout recorded history all over the world, warriors hunt. And throughout history we find that warriors do not in fact strictly limit their hunting to the minimum necessary to hone their essential skills as protectors of humanity. Thus we find the following moral strategy in place:
- The ideal is enjoined.
- That which violates the ideal is prohibited.
- A concession is made to those who simply can not or will not follow the ideal.
- Those who accept these concessions are accepted within society, however...
- The dangers and repercussions of accepting this concession are clearly indicated.
I pointed out earlier that dharma, morality, focuses especially on the two most dangers human passions: sex and violence. In his puruport to the Bhagavatam 4.26.24, which describes how King Puranjana went out to hunt animals, Srila Prabhupada relates hunting to lust.
"One form of hunting is known as woman-hunting. A conditioned soul is never satisfied with one wife. Those whose senses are very much uncontrolled especially try to hunt for many women. King Puranjana's abandoning the company of his religiously married wife [represents] the conditioned soul's attempt to hunt for many women for sense gratification."
There is a clear similarity between hunting and sexual promiscuity, for both are attempts to enjoy the physical body of another soul, with little or no regard for the ultimate well-being of that other soul. Thus it is not surprising that we find a Vedic moral approach to sexual promiscuity which resembles the approach to hunting.
Let us look briefly at the Vedic practice of polygamy, which was especially practiced among warrior kings. The Sanskrit word sapatni means "co-wife." Another Sanskrit word, directly derived from it, is sapatna, "enemy." It is not by chance that from the Sanskrit word for "co-wife," we get the Sanskrit word for "rival, adversary, enemy."
Thus in the Bhagavad-gita 11.34, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, "You will conquer your enemies in battle." The word for "enemies" is sapatna, derived from sapatni, "co-wife."
Similarly in the Bhagavatam we often find the word sapatna translated as "enemy." A few examples are found at 1.14.9, 3.18.4, 5.1.18, 5.1.19, 5.11.15, 7.2.6, 8.17.10, 10.49.10, 11.1.2, and 11.16.6.
Similarly, at 5.1.17, Prabhupada translates the term shat-sapatna, "the six enemies" (the mind and senses), as "six co-wives." At 8.10.6, Prabhupada translates the term sapatna as "violent enemies."
Additionally we have historic evidence that even in the best Vedic families, polygamy could lead to serious problems. In the story of Citraketu, we find at 6.14.42 that his co-wives burned with envy of the one wife who bore him a son. Then at 6.14.43, the co-wives murder the king's only son.
Queen Kaikeyi, fearing that her co-wife's son would supress her own son, caused Lord Rama to be banished to the forest, against the wishes of her own husband and indeed the entire kingdom.
Apart from this, legions of Vedic verses teach the evils of lust and extoll the virtues of sexual restraint. It was on these grounds that Prabhupada rejected polygamy in ISKCON. Prabhupada taught that polygamy redressed the imbalance between the male and female population in human society, and kings were often polygamous, yet we find that polygamy often led to trouble. Indeed from the word "co-wife," sapatni, comes the word sapatna, which indicates bitter quarrel among enemies.
The history of the world teaches that warriors and rulers from the beginning of time have sought to enjoy many women. An absolute prohibition on hunting or multiple sexual partners among rulers would only lead to widespread hypocrisy that would seriously debilitate the force of Vedic law and scripture. To avoid this, Vedic culture teaches the ideal and, within appropriate limits, accommodate the real.
This accommodation often involves connecting an unfavorable but unavoidable activity to some social good. Hunting is bad, but it achieves a good social purpose by training kings to protect the innocent, even as they kill other innocent creatures. Sex indulgence is bad, but polygamy achieves the social good of protecting women who otherwise might not find spouses. Polygamy and hunting are clearly different moral issues, yet in some ways they are similar: Prabhupada has pointed out the general relation between hunting and lust. And in both cases, Vedic culture simultaneously teaches the moral and spiritual advantages of restraint, but also gives some space, under certain conditions, only to then tell stories that illustrate the problems found within that conceded space. Both hunting and polygamy illustrate the method by which Vedic culture attempts to deal with the inevitable tension between the ideal and the real.
We find another example of a realistic strategy for dealing with human sex desire within ISKCON itself. In the Bhagavad-gita 9.27, Lord Krishna clearly teaches that we must perform all acts as an offering to Him. Krishna also states at 7.11, that He is present in sexuality which does not oppose dharma, morality. Srila Prabhupada has repeatedly explained that devotees offer their sex life to Krishna by procreating Krishna conscious children. Thus in a strict sense, all initiated devotees must vow to give up illicit sex, ie sex that is not for procreation.
That is the ideal, however it is not the real. The real situation in ISKCON is that many, many householders follow the easier, less ideal version of the rule: no sex outside of marriage. Prabhupada himself at times taught both the ideal and, for many, the "real" version of this rule, the version they can actually follow.
There can be absolutely no doubt that ultimately a Krishna conscious devotee must give up sex not meant for procreation. And there can be absolutely no doubt that very large numbers of ISKCON householders are not able to always follow this rule. Here again, we find Vedic culture, through the medium of ISKCON, teaching the ideal and accommodating the real. The assumption in all these cases is that people who somehow or other remain with the shelter of Vedic culture will eventually rise to the ideal platform. Thus Vedic culture has always sought to retain within its shelter sincere souls who are doing their best to pursue higher values, even when those souls are fallen far beneath the ideal standard.
A final dramatic example illustrates this principle.
In Sri Caitanya Caritamrta, 2.24.230-258, Narada narrates the story of Mrgari the hunter, which clearly demonstrates the Vedic moral principle of choosing the lesser of moral evils. Here is a passage from that story:
Narada said: "I am asking only one thing from you in charity. I beg you that from this day on you will kill animals completely and not leave them half dead."
The hunter replied: "My dear sir, what are you asking of me? What is wrong with the animals' lying there half-killed? Will you please explain this to me?"
Narada replied: "If you leave the animals half-dead, you are purposefully giving them pain. Therefore you will have to suffer in retaliation. You are a hunter, you kill animals. That is a slight offense on your part. But when you consciously give them unnecessary pain by leaving them half-dead, you incur very great sins. All the animals that you have killed and given unnecessary pain will kill you one after the other in your next life and in life after life." [CC 2.24.247-251]
Narada here undeniably introduces another Vedic moral principle: the gravity of a sin is relative, and is measured in relation to the status and consciousness of the sinner. Thus Narada explicitly says,
"You are a hunter. In killing life, your sin is small. In perversely giving pain, your sin is boundless."2
We must note here the following:
- Vedic scriptures teach that killing innocent animals is indeed a sin. But because Mrgari was a hunter, his offense was alpa, "small." The sin is relative to the sinner.
- In comparison to this "small offense, unnecessarily and consciously giving pain is called an "unlimited evil."
- Narada urges upon Mrgari the lesser of evils.
- Following the above method, Narada ultimately brings Mrgari to pure Krishna consciousness.