Vaisnava moral theology and the homosexual issue
Posted February 9, 2005
4. Acts and Consequences
Apart from the inevitable moral tensions between justice and mercy, and between the ideal and the real, we can further observe in Vedic scriptures two distinct moral philosophies, one primarily morality in the act itself, the other seeking morality primarily in the consequences of acts. Both views are well known to Western philosophy by the names deontological ethics and consequentialism.
The first, deontological ethics, roughly argues that moral behavior depends on the act itself, regardless of the consequences. The second, consequentialism, argues that moral behavior must produce good consequences.
We find examples of both moral philosophies in the life of the great soul Bhishma, who in his youth professed a primary concern that the act itself be moral, but who in his mature old age, clearly realized the moral importance of consequences.
In the Mahabharata, the death of the young and childless king, Vicitravirya, son of Satyavati and Santanu, left the Kuru dynasty without a ruler. In this precarious situation, the Kurus' political enemies began stealing their lands.
In desperation, the Queen Mother Satyavati urged Bhishma to marry Vicitravirya's widows and rule the kingdom. Bhishma adamantly refused with these words:
"Without doubt, mother, you have declared the highest dharma. [But] you also know my highest vow in regard to offspring. And you are aware of what took place when your bride-price was to be paid.
"Again, Satyavati, I make the same vow to you. I can give up sovereignity over the three worlds, or yet among the gods, or whatever is greater than that, but in no way can I give up my vow.
"The earth may give up fragrance, and water its own flavor. Thus light may give up form, air may give up the quality of touch, the sun its light, and smoke-bannered fire its heat, ether may give up sound, the moon may give up the coolness of its rays, Indra, slayer of Vritra, may renounce his courage, the king of dharma may give up dharma, but I shall never resolve in any way to abandon the truth." [MB 1.97.13-18]
This speech is admirable, but it also reveals a lack of concern with consequences. In a sense, Bhishma declares here that even if the universe should collapse, he will not give up his vow. Consequences don't matter. All that does matter is the integrity of an act itself, in this case the act of keeping one's vow.
Bhishma's speech illustrates one distinct approach to morality: the act itself must be moral, regardless of the consequences. Although Bhishma will eventually suggest to Satyavati, as Pandu suggested to Kunti, that a qualified brahmana be asked to beget sons in the widowed queens, Bhishma has already made it clear that regardless of any possible consequences, he will not break his vow. After all, if he had accepted Satyavati's proposal, married and ruled the kingdom, then he would have spoken falsely to the Satyavati's father who gave her to Bhishma's father as a bride only on the condition that Bhishma never marry.
There is, however, another approach to morality in which one's primary concern is with the consequences of an act. The most famous proponent of this pragmatic approach is of course Krishna Himself. Indeed Krishna teaches pragmatic moral philosophy to Bhishma himself at the Battle of Kurukshetra. We then find, in Bhishma's deathbed teachings, that the Kuru grandsire has learned well Lord Krishna's lesson on moral philosophy.
Bhishma at Kuruksetra
Both the Mahabharata and the Bhagavatam reveal that on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra, Lord Krishna gave up his vow not to fight in order to protect his devotee Arjuna. In the Bhagavatam 1.9.37, the dying Bhishma recalls,
"Giving up His sacred word, He [Krishna] got down from the chariot to make my promise a greater truth."3
In the Mahabharata 6.102.66, in a famous scene, Arjuna grabs the legs of Krishna, who is running to kill Bhishma, and pleads with Krishna as follows,
"Stop O mighty-armed! O Keshava, previously you said 'I shall not fight,' and you should not make your words untrue. O Madhava, the world will say you spoke falsely, and this whole burden will certainly be on me. I shall slay Bhishma of fixed vow."4
Though Krishna relents, He was clearly prepared to break His vow to bring about necessary consequences.
Similarly, in the Drona Parva of the Mahabharata [7.164.68], Krishna tells Yudhisthira,
"O Pandava, casting aside dharma, do what is practical for victory so that Drona of the golden car does not kill you all in battle."5
Later in this same scene, Krishna tells Yudhisthira,
"You yourself save us from Drona. Untruth [in this case] is better than truth. Lies do not pollute one who is speaking them when life is at stake."6
5. Appearance and Intention
In the Karna-parva of Mahabharata, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna two stories to dramatically illustrate that true piety cannot always be judged by external acts, but rather at times by the consequences of those acts. The first story describes an apparently sinful man who went to heaven, the second narrates the opposite: a "religious" sage who went to hell. In both stories, what matters most is not the act itself, but rather the consequences of the act. Here are the stories:
Krishna said: "There was a an animal hunter named Balaka who killed animals to maintain his children and wife, not for his own desire. He also maintained his blind mother and father and other dependents. Ever dedicated to his duty, he spoke the truth and did not envy.
"One day, though seeking prey with much effort, he did not find any. Then he saw a wild beast drinking water and using its nose for eyes. Though he had never seen a creature like that before, he slew it at once. Just after that a shower of flowers fell from the sky. And from heaven came an enchanting airplane resounding with the songs of Apsaras and musical instruments, and desiring to take away [to heaven] that animal hunter.
"The [slain] creature had performed austerities and obtained a boon, Arjuna, to destroy all creatures and therefore Svayambhu had blinded him. Having slain him, who was sure to destroy all creatures, Balaka then went to heaven. Thus dharma is very hard to understand.
"Now there was a brahmana named Kaushika, not very learned in scripture, who dwelled [in the forest] at the confluence of several rivers, not far from a village.
"'I must always speak the truth!' This became his vow. O Dhananjaya, he then grew famous as a speaker of truth. Then some people entered that forest out of fear of robbers. Indeed the cruel robbers followed, searching hard for them. Knowing Kaushika to speak the truth, the robbers approached him and said, 'By which path, sir, did all those people go? We ask in truth. Speak out if you know where they are. Tell us!'
'Thus questioned, Kaushika told them the truth: 'They are hiding in that grove full of trees, creepers and bushes.' Then the robbers found them and cruelly killed them. Thus it is heard from authorities.
"Because of that great adharma of injurious speech, Kaushika went to a very painful hell, for he did not grasp the subtle principles of morality. His studies were insufficient, he was foolish, and he didn't know the divisons of dharma." [MB 8.49.34-46, Ganguli 8.9.70]7
Krishna Himself then explains to Arjuna the purport of these two stories:
"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."8
This statement is most significant. Precisely because of the complexities of life --- the tensions between justice and mercy, the ideal and the real, the act and its consequence, individual needs and the needs of society --- morality, dharma, can never be reduced to a list of rules. Lord does not oppose the notion that the rules of scripture govern morality, however the rules by themselves are not sufficient. One must rationally analyze individual cases, and one must grasp the subtleties of real life. Kaushika's moral failure, which drove him to a very painful hell, was his failure to grasp the "subtle principles of morality." One cannot grasp the subtleties of morality, unless one understands the purpose of morality. In this same passage from Mahabharata, Lord Krishna explains this purpose:
"Morality is taught for the progress of living beings. Morality [dharma] derives from the act of sustaining [dharana]. Thus authorities say that morality [dharma] is that which sustains living beings. The conclusion is that whatever sustains is actually dharma." [MB 8.49.48-50]9
Thus although Balaka was a hunter, his intention was to maintain his family. He was not ultimately a bad person, but he found himself in an undesirable situation. Similarly, Narada told Mrgari, "Because you are a hunter, for you killing animals is a slight offense." Balaka's acts were abominable, but his intention was not.
In contrast, Kaushika's act was superficially moral: he told the truth. Yet in doing so, he harmed other people. He placed a "morality" above the actual good of others, not realizing that morality is only such when it benefits others. We have already seen in the case of Mrgari and Balaka that morality is relative to a person's situation. In the case of Kaushika, Lord Krishna establishes another mitigating principle: morality is relative to circumstances. Thus Lord Krishna states:
"Whenever people seek to unjustly rob someone, if that person can get free by not uttering a sound, then no sound should be uttered. Or, one should necessarily utter a sound if the robbers will be suspicious of silence. In that situation, it is considered better to speak a lie than to speak the truth." [MB 8.49.51-52]10
In Bhishma's teachings spoken from a bed of arrows (Mahabharata, Shanti-parva), we find that Krishna's powerful moral lesson - that consequences do in fact matter, at times more than the act itself - has not been lost on Bhishma. The dying Bhishma speaks about satyam, truth, in a far more complex, nuanced way than he did in his youth. He is now extremely concerned with consequences, more than with the act itself. And he understands that in moral matters, appearences can be deceiving, a lesson he has gleaned from Krishna's two stories of the hunter Balaka and the brahmana Kausika. We shall even see Bhishma, at the end of his life, repeat and paraphrase Krishna's explicit language on this topic.
As Bhishma lay on the bed of arrows, Yudhisthira inquired about morality (dharma). Significantly, the truth of morality was not obvious even to the king of morality, Yudhisthira. Here is their conversation:
Yudhisthira said, "How should a person, who wants to stand on moral principles, behave? I seek to understand this, O wise one, so kindly explain, O best of Bharatas.
"Both truth and falsity exist, covering the worlds. Of the two, O king, which should a person dedicated to morality practice? What is actually truth, what is falsity and what is really the eternal moral principle?"
Bhishma said, "Speaking truth is righteous. Nothing is higher than truth. O Bharata, I shall speak to you that which is very hard to understand on Bhuloka. Truth is not to be spoken and falsity is to be spoken in a case where falsity becomes truth and truth becomes falsity. An immature person is bewildered in such a case where truth is not firmly established. Determining truth and falsity, one then knows morality.
"Even a non-Aryan, lacking wisdom, indeed a very violent man, can achieve very great piety as Balaka did by killing the blind beast. And what is astonishing when a fool, desiring morality but not recognizing it, achieves a very great sin, like Kausika on the Ganges?
"Such a question as this regarding where morality is to be found, is very difficult to answer. It is difficult to calculate, so in this matter, one must resolve the issue by reasoning. Morality is that which prevents injury to living beings. That is the conclusion.
"Morality (dharma) comes from the act of sustaining (dharana). Thus authorities say that morality sustains living beings. So that which provides such sustenance is dharma. That is the conclusion.
"Certainly some people say, 'Morality is scripture,' while other people deny this. I do not deny it, but in fact scriptures do not give rules for every case. Whenever people seek unjustly to rob one's property, it should not be divulged to them. That is actually dharma. If a person can get free by not uttering a sound, then no sound should be uttered. Or, one should necessarily utter a sound if the robbers will be suspicious of silence. In that situation, it is considered better to speak a lie than to speak the truth. One who does so is freed from the sins of taking a false oath."11
Here Bhishma repeats basic points of Vedic moral philosophy taught by Krishna Himself:
- To understand what is moral behavior, we cannot, in every case, simply cite the moral rules of scripture.
- One must also reason about morality.
- In so reasoning, one must keep in mind that the whole purpose of moral principles is to benefit people.
- At times, good people, externally, perform bad deeds.
- At times, bad people, externally, perform good deeds.
- In such cases one must look beyond appearances to see what actually produces good consequences.
6. Tension between society and the individual
In calculating the good and evil consequences of an act, one must consider both the individual and society as well. There is a natural tension, and balance, in human life between individual freedom and social responsibility. Srila Prabhupada urged all of us to work cooperatively within ISKCON, and at the same time he fought against centralization and bureaucratization precisely because they stifle individual freedom, inspiration and creativity, all of which are essential in spiritual life. Prabhupada thus writes in his purport to the Bhagavatam 1.6.37,
"Every living being is anxious for full freedom because that is his transcendental nature. ...A full-fledged free soul like Narada, always engaged in chanting the Lord's glory, is free to move not only on earth but also in any part of the universe, as well as in any part of the spiritual sky. ...Similarly, ... in all spheres of devotional service, freedom is the main pivot. Without freedom there is no execution of devotional service. The freedom surrendered to the Lord does not mean that the devotee becomes dependent in every respect. To surrender unto the Lord through the transparent medium of the spiritual master is to attain complete freedom of life."
Yet we have unavoidable duties to society, especially to the spiritual society created by Srila Prabhupada. In general, when one decides not to live alone but rather to live within society and to thus enjoy the benefits that society offers, one enters into a kind of social contract and one pays a price for social benefits one receives. To live within society, and to enjoy its opportunities and benefits, one sacrifices the unrestricted freedom of life outside society. The individual within society learns that all that is natural for an individual may not be natural for society. And what is unnatural for an individual may not be unnatural for society. Because we must depend on society, even while we yearn for freedom, there will always be some degree of tension between individual desires and hopes and the desires and needs of the society in which the individual lives. A Krishna conscious society should seek a healthy balance between social and individual needs so that both the individual and society may achieve their goals without significantly harming the other.
At this point, let us return to our discussion of the tension between the ideal and the real, within the context of the individual and society. On the one hand, a Krishna conscious society must preserve eternal spiritual ideals: the goal of every life is to approach Krishna, the Supreme Lord. Every human body belongs to Krishna and should be used exclusively in His service, according to sanatana dharma, eternal spiritual principles established by the Lord Himself. A Krishna conscious society thus praises and criticizes, rewards and punishes, encourages and discourages its members' behavior to the extent that such behavior supports or violates the society's ideals.
On the other hand, every functional society must create cultural and social space for sincere members who, inevitably, struggle with the very imperfect reality of conditioned life. Society must realize that good, sincere people often fall short of society's ideals and that society ultimately exists to encourage and facilitate the soul's struggle for Krishna consciousness. To be practical, society must further distinguish between public and private behavior, enforcing higher standards for the former, while responding to the latter as well whenever such a response is appropriate, relevant and necessary. A Krishna conscious society must also keep in mind that conditioned souls follow spiritual ideals only partially and imperfectly. Thus for those not far advanced in spiritual life, progress toward the ideal often involves calculated compromises with irrepressible urges and needs of the material body.
The individual also must not hold society to impossible, ideal standards. As much as the individual will usually fall short of society's ideals, so must the society often fall short of the individual's expectations for it. Thus an intolerant society must ultimately itself fall a victim to its members' intolerance of that society's own inevitable flaws.