Chakra Discussions

Vaisnava moral theology and the homosexual issue

by Hrdayananda das Goswami

Posted February 9, 2005

[ Part II | Part II | Part III ]

7. Scripture and Homosexuality

Earlier, we heard Lord Krishna's statement in the Mahabharata that

"It is difficult to grasp the highest understanding [of morality]. One ascertains it by reasoning. Now there are many people who simply claim 'morality is scripture.' Though I don't oppose that view, scriptures do not give rules for every case."12

So in trying to understand how ISKCON should deal with homosexuality, we must first ask this question:

Do Vaishnava Vedic scriptures give specific, explicit unambiguous rules for dealing with homosexuality, or if not, must we reason our way to a conclusion?

Srila Prabhupada taught that we must understand the spiritual science through guru, sadhu, and shastra, "one's teacher, other saintly persons, and revealed scriptures." Srila Prabhupada also taught unceasingly that his own ultimate qualification, and indeed the qualification of any bona fide guru, is to always faithfully repeat the teachings of Krishna as they are found in revealed scriptures. Thus we must search the most important Vaishnava sciptures presented by Srila Prabhupada, the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-bhagavatam, for specific, explicit, unambiguous scriptural statements about homosexuality.

The result? There are none. Remarkably, neither the Gita nor the Bhagavatam gives a single explicit reference to mutually consensual homosexuality. We do of course find in the Bhagatam, 3.20.23-37, the well known story wherein Brahma creates male demons who then approach him for sex. Brahma escapes these demons by casting off a body at Vishnu's command. Prabhupada comments in his purport to 3.20.26,

"It appears here that the homosexual appetite of males for each other is created in this episode of the creation of the demons by Brahma."

We may note the following points in regard to this Bhagavatam story:

  1. The story does not describe mutually consensual homosexuality, since Brahma fled the lusty demons.
  2. The story does not give any rule, injunction, or prohibition regarding homosexuality. Indeed the very word homosexuality does not appear in the Bhagavatam.
  3. It is not clear from the original Bhagavatam story that the demons were true homosexuals. I will explain this last point in greater detail.

By close study of this story, we find that in fact the demons who approached Brahma were at most bi-sexual, and that even this bi-sexuality is quite ambiguous. I shall first outline the basic story, then discuss its complexities.

This is the basic story:

  1. From his buttocks, Brahma creates very lusty "godless" beings who approach him for sex.
  2. Brahma is first amused, then angered, and at last frightened. As the shameless demons chase him, he flees.
  3. Brahma takes shelter of Vishnu and begs the Lord to protect him.
  4. Vishnu sees Brahma's wretched condition and orders him to cast off his "dreadful" body.
  5. Brahma casts off his body. The demons see it as a gorgeous woman. Completely enchanted, they approach the "female" and try to win her favor.
  6. The demons thus took twilight to be a beautiful woman, and with lust and confusion, siezed her.

It is important to keep in mind that this incident occurs within a patterned creation narration in which Brahma creates various kinds of beings, and then gives to each, one of his bodies.13 The godless demons who chased Brahma for sex were apparently attracted to the specific part of his body that manifests female beauty. Both in the Bhagavatam text itself, and in the commentaries of the great Acaryas, we find unanimous evidence that these demons were actually lusting after women:

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the godless demons created by Brahma all felt extreme lust toward women. A question arises as to whether they approached Brahma in a straighforward homosexual way, or whether they were attracted to a female aspect of Brahma's cosmic body, since Brahma gave up to them a body in the form of a beautiful female. Keep in mind that the Bhagavatam itself states at 3.20.53 that Brahma gave them a "part", amsha, of his body, and Sridhara Swami states that this part was in fact an aspect of Brahma's mental state, specifically the state of lust. Thus according to the Bhagavatam and Sridhara Swami, the demons lustfully rushed at Brahma who then seems to have given them what they wanted: a beautiful female. Therefore it is clear that the demons had a strong heterosexual appetite, as well as an ambiguous attraction to a lusty female aspect of Lord Brahma.

Thus this story does not provide an unambiguous, clear account of homosexuality, nor any rules for dealing with it.

We do find a sort of gender irregularity in the life of King Sudyumna, which is narrated in the Bhagavatam, ninth canto. Here is the basic story:

Upon entering Lord Siva's forest, King Sudyumna is at once changed into a woman, who then marries a man and begets a child with him. Sudyumna's guru, Vasistha Muni, then begs Lord Siva to change Sudyumna back into a man. Siva grants that the king will become a man and rule his kingdom every other month, but that every other month he will remain a married woman.

It is significant that the Sudyumna's citizens did not approve or welcome this arrangement. The Bhagavatam states: nabhyanandan sma tam prajah.21

The Sanskrit verb abhi-nand means "to welcome, approve, applaud, acknowledge etc." Thus the citizens did not welcome, approve, acknowledge, applaud etc their king who every other month became a woman.

Further, it seems that King Sudyumna himself was embarrassed about his monthly gender change. Sridhara Swami and Vira Raghavacarya both comment that every month, the king would conceal his situation (of changing his gender) out of shame. Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura agrees that the king would conceal his situation.22

Clearly the king was not homosexual in the modern sense. But this story does demonstrate an important fact about human psychology: people in general do not welcome or applaud gender irregularity. Yet this story, like the previous one, does not present an explicit, unambiguous description of homosexuality, nor does it offer any specific rule for dealing with it. Recall that Prabhupada states in his Bhagavatam purport to 3.20.26:

"It appears here that the homosexual appetite of males for each other is created in this episode of the creation of the demons by Brahma."

Yet although homosexuality is said to have existed since the dawn of creation, the Bhagavatam does not explicitly describe nor proscribe it. Thus according to Krishna's own statement [MB 8.49.49], since we do not find a specific, explicit, unambiguous set of rules for dealing with homosexuality, we must engage in spiritual reasoning about it.

8. Moral reasoning on homosexuality

It is a basic principle of Krishna consciousness that this material world is a perverted reflection of the eternal spiritual world. Our temporary bodies are shadows or reflections of our eternal, spiritual bodies. And Krishna Himself is the Supreme Person with a supreme eternal body. Sacred texts like Srimad-bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita reveal in detail the nature, behavior and activities of the Supreme Lord Krishna, and so we possess an absolute objective standard against which we can measure our own behavior. This is especially true because we not only have information of Krishna's activities in the spiritual world, but we also know of His activities in this material world where He descends as an avatara to demonstrate dharma, proper behavior, by His own life on earth, and through the lives of His pure devotees who assist Him.

Thus we can say that the absolute, objective and eternal standard for conjugal relationship is that such a relationship should develop between a male and a female who possess, respectively, male and female qualities both in body and mind. Further such conjugal relationships must be dedicated to transcendental devotional service and must ultimately aim at pure spiritual love, free of material lust.

In this world we find some degree of impurity in almost every conjugal relationship. Still the appropriate pairing of male and female, in body and mind, even in this imperfect world is, in one sense, a closer reflection of the eternal standard than we find in irregular sexualities which do not reflect absolute standards.

Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad-gita 7.11, that He is present in sexuality which does not oppose dharma. Srila Prabhupada teaches that sex is ultimately meant for devoted procreation in the service of God. Even if most grhastha devotees struggle with this standard and, in practice, restrict themselves to the easier version of the rule -- no sex outside of marriage -- the higher standard is still the ideal to which all serious devotees should aspire. The fact that many or even most grhasthas find it difficult to always act on the ideal platform does not at all invalidate, nor even diminish the value of the ideal.

A mundane example serves to illustrate this point: because American society, even in the face of widespread hypocrisy, preserved the ideal of social and legal equality, the American Civil Rights movement was able to appeal to this ideal in the pursuit of racial justice. Similarly, it is essential for the progress of its members that ISKCON preserve the spiritual ideal of sex for procreation between an appropriate man and woman who are bound by the sacred vows of matrimony.

But how should ISKCON deal with homosexuality? Let us consider the issue in the light of Vaishnava moral philosophy, focusing on the various moral tensions that must be balanced.

Conclusion

Justice dictates that souls surrender to God, giving up all sins. Mercy dictates patience and understanding. Ultimately we must do what is best for the individual devotee and for the society of devotees. Although to some extent there will inevitably be tension between the wishes and needs of society and those of the individual, we must ultimately find a way to encourage and inspire individual devotees with special difficulties, and at the same time maintain the sanctity of standard moral and spiritual principles. ISKCON must balance justice and mercy, the ideal and the real. ISKCON must defend the importance of moral acts, but ISKCON must also do that which will bring about beneficial consequences.

Prabhupada emphasizes that Krishna consciousness is a gradual process. He taught this, literally, hundreds of times. Here are two samples taken from hundreds of statements he made on the subject:

"Everyone has to cleanse his heart by a gradual process, not abruptly." [Bg 3.35 Purport]

"The duty of the government, therefore, is to take charge of training all the citizens in such a way that by a gradual process they will be elevated to the spiritual platform and will realize the self and his relationship with God." [Bhag 6.2.3 Purport]

Let us keep in mind what the English word gradual actually means. Here are some definitions from standard dictionaries:

Gradual: "proceeding or developing slowly by steps or degrees; proceeding in small stages; moving, changing, or developing by fine or often imperceptible degrees; changing slowly." Some people feel that to encourage gay monogamy is to encourage homosexuality. To test this argument, let us apply it to another sinful activity: drug abuse.

In fact there are many sincere Vaishnavas around the world who struggle with some form of substance abuse. If ISKCON follows the example of other religions and offers programs to help faithful members overcome such problems, and if recovering devotees are praised and encouraged when they reduce their use of drugs, does that mean that ISKCON is encouraging, condoning or justifying the use of drugs? Obviously not.

Similarly, to encourage devotees who are struggling to regulate, reduce and eliminate sinful sexuality in any form is not to praise or encourage sinful activities. The truth is the opposite: we are praising and encouraging the reduction and gradual elimination of such activities.

In the case of a devotee grhastha couple, sex within marriage but not for procreation is clearly sinful, at least in a strict sense. Yet sometimes devotees state that "no illicit sex" means "no sex outside of marriage." Indeed that is the standard that many respected grhasthas are able to follow. Why do we thus condone a sexual act which is, in the strictest sense, sinful? Surely because it is the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being sex outside of marriage. The question then arises: is the policy of choosing the lesser of evils valid only for heterosexuals, or it is also a necessary strategy for homosexuals? Keep in mind that Prabhupada emphasizes that Krishna consciousness is a gradual process, that is a process that proceeds slowly, step by step. The notion of a gradual process logically entails the further notion that gradual steps in the right direction are just that: steps in the right direction. And a spiritual society must encourage all its members to take steps in the right direction.

Finally, we must keep in mind the ultimate moral principle, found in the Padma Purana and quoted in the Sri Caitanya Caritamrta 2.22.113:

"Vishnu is always to be remembered and never to be forgotten. All injunctions and prohibitions can only be servants of these two."23

Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to this verse: There are many regulative principles in the shastras and directions given by the spiritual master. These regulative principles should act as servants of the basic principle -- that is, one should always remember Krishna and never forget Him."

Similarly, Lord Krishna Himself states at the end of the Gita, 18.66:

"Giving up all moral/religious principles and come to Me alone for shelter. I shall protect you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear!"

Thus considering Vaishnava moral philosophy, as taught by Krishna Himself and by His pure devotees, ISKCON must encourage sincere devotees who at times, in good faith, and within reasonable limits, choose the lesser of evils in order to stabilize themselves on the spiritual path. This principle applies to human sexuality among mutually consenting adults.

Footnotes

  1. I have translated this and all other Mahabharata verses from the Critical Edition of the text.
  2. vyadha tumi, jiva mara-'alpa' aparadha tomara
    kadarthana diya mara'-e papa 'apara'
  3. Sva-nigamam apahaya mat-pratijnam
    Ritam adhikartum avapluto ratha-sthah
    Bhagavatam 1.9.37
  4. Nivartasva maha-baho nanritam kartum arhasi
    Yat tvaya kathitam purvam na yotsyamiti kesava
    Mithya-vaditi lokas tvam kathayishyati madhava
    Mamaisha bharah sarvo hi hanishyami yata-vratam
    Mahabharata 6.102.66
  5. MB 7.164.68
    Asthiyatam jaye yogo dharmam utsrijya pandava
    Yatha vah samyuge sarvan na hanyad rukma-vahanah
  6. MB 7.164.99
    Sa bhavams tratu no dronat satyaj jyayo 'nritam bhavet
    Anritam jivitasyarthe vadan na sprisyate 'nritaih
  7. MB 8.49.46
    tenadharmena mahata vag-duruktena kausikah
    gatah sukashtam narakam sukshma-dharmeshv akovidah
    aprabhuta-sruto mudho dharmanam avibhagava-vit
  8. MB 8.49.48-49
    dushkaram parama-jnanam tarkenatra vyavasyati
    srutir dharma iti hy eke vadanti bahavo janah
    na tv etat pratisuyami na hi sarvam vidhiyate
  9. MB 8.49.49-50
    prabhavarthaya bhutanam dharma-pravacanam kritam
    dharanad dharmam ity ahur dharmo dharayati prajah
    yah syad dharana-samyuktah sa dharma iti niscayah
  10. MB 8.49.52
    ye 'nyayena jihirshanto jana icchanti karhicit
    akujanena cen moksho natra kujet kathamcana
    avasyam kujitavyam va sankeran vapy akujatah
    sreyas tatranritam vaktum satyad iti vicaritam
  11. [MB 12.110.1-15]

    1. yudhishthira uvaca
    katham dharme sthatum icchan naro varteta bharata
    vidvan jijnasamanaya prabruhi bharatarshabha

    2. satyam caivanritam cobhe lokan avritya tishthatah
    tayoh kim acared rajan purusho dharma-niscitah

    3. kim svit satyam kim anritam kim svid dharmyam sanatanam
    kasmin kale vadet satyam kasmin kale 'nritam vadet

    4. bhishma uvaca
    satyasya vacanam sadhu na satyad vidyate param
    yad bhuloke sudurjnatam tat te vakshyami bharata

    5. bhavet satyam na vaktavyam vaktavyam anritam bhavet
    yatranritam bhavet satyam satyam vapy anritam bhavet

    6. tadrise muhyate balo yatra satyam anishthitam
    satyanrite viniscitya tato bhavati dharmavit

    7. apy anaryo 'kritaprajnah purusho 'pi sudarunah
    sumahat prapnuyat punyam balako 'ndhavadhad iva

    8. kim ascaryam ca yan mudho dharmakamo 'py adharmavit
    sumahat prapnuyat papam gangayam iva kausikah

    9. tadriso 'yam anuprasno yatra dharmah sudurvacah
    dushkarah pratisamkhyatum tarkenatra vyavasyati

    10. prabhavarthaya bhutanam dharmapravacanam kritam
    yat syad ahimsasamyuktam sa dharma iti niscayah

    11. dharanad dharma ity ahur dharmena vidhritah prajah
    yat syad dharanasamyuktam sa dharma iti niscayah

    12. srutidharma iti hy eke nety ahur apare janah
    na tu tat pratyasuyamo na hi sarvam vidhiyate

    13. ye 'nyayena jihirshanto dhanam icchanti karhi cit
    tebhyas tan na tad akhyeyam sa dharma iti niscayah

    14. akujanena cen moksho natra kujet katham cana
    avasyam kujitavyam va sankeran vapy akujanat

    15. sreyas tatranritam vaktum satyad iti vicaritam
    yah papaih saha sambandhan mucyate sapathad iti

    [MB 12.110.1-15]

  12. MB 8.49.48-49
    dushkaram parama-jnanam tarkenatra vyavasyati
    srutir dharma iti hy eke vadanti bahavo janah
    na tv etat pratisuyami na hi sarvam vidhiyate
  13. Here is the sequence:
    1) 3.20.18-19 From his shadow, Brahma creates the "coverings of ignorance of the conditioned souls." This creation somehow becomes a body of Brahma. Brahma doesn't like this ignorant body and casts it off. Yaksas and Raksasas arise and sieze this body, which becomes the night.
    2) 3.20.21 From light, Brahma creates the demigods who take possession of his "effulgent form of daytime" which he "dropped before them."
    3) 3.20.23-37 From his buttocks, Brahma creates the godless demons. He casts off a female form of twilight and the demons possess it.
    4) 3.20.38-39 From his "loveliness," Brahma creates Gandharvas and Apsaras, who take the moonlight body that Brahma gives up to them.
    5) 3.20.40-41 From his sloth, Brahma creates the ghosts and fiends and gives up to them his yawning body.
    6) 3.20.42-43 By his invisible form, Brahma creates the Sadhyas and Pitas, and the Pitas take possession of that invisible form.
    7) 3.20.44-45 By his own reflection, Brahma creates the Kimpurushas and Kinnaras who sieze that form.
    8) From his mind, Brahma creates Manu and gives up to him his human form.
    9) 3.20.53 Thus to each of his sons Brahma "gave a part of his own body."
  14. Bhag 3.20.23
    Devo 'devan jaghanatah srijati smatilolupan
    Ta enam lolupataya maithunayabhipedire
  15. SS: atilolupan stri-lampatan
  16. Bhag 3.20.28
    So 'vadharya karpanyam viviktadhyatma-darsanah
    Vimuncatma-tanum ghoram ity ukto vimumoca ha
  17. SS: ghoram kama-kasmalam sva-tanum vimunceti uktavan iti seshah.
  18. VR: ghoram atilaulupya-rupam atma-tanum atmano bhavam vimuncety aheti seshah.
  19. Sarvatra tanu-tyago nama tat-tan-mano-bhava-tyago vivakshitah. Grahanam ca tat-tad-bhavapacittir iti drashtavyam.
  20. 3.20.31
    upalabhyasura dharma sarve sammumuhuh striyam
  21. Bhag 9.1.40
    Acaryanugrahat kamam labdhva pumstvam vyavasthaya
    Palayam asa jagatim nabhyanandan sma tam prajah
  22. SS: nabhyanandad stritve lajjaya masam masam niliyavasthanat. Niliya: concealing, hiding.
    VR: masam masam stritvena lajjaya samliyavasthanad iti bhavah. Samli: lie down, hide, cower, lurk, be concealed.
    VC: nabhyanandan stritve sati masam niliyavasthanat
  23. CC Madhya 22.113, quoting Padma Purana
    Smartavyah satatam vishnuh vismartavyo na jatucit
    Sarve vidhi-nishedhah syuh etayor eva kinkarah

[ Part II | Part II | Part III ]