Is Brahma-Vaivarta Purana Right About Sannyasa?
Reposted December 13, 2002
(originally posted April 2002, re-posted in light of recent events, e.g. see http://www.boston.com/globe/spotlight/abuse/)
As the child abuse scandal rocks one parish after another of the Catholic Church, machine gun fire in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem last week seemed symbolic of the traumatic upheavals of faith faced by Catholics around the world. I can't help being struck by how similar the Catholics' problems with their celibate priests are to the ones we've had with sannyasis in ISKCON. I wonder if their troubles should not be a warning to us of what lies ahead if we continue a policy where our religious leaders are granted exceptional power and wealth with very little institutional responsibility or public accountability to prevent corruption from developing and spreading.
Although ISKCON is much smaller than the Catholic Church and has only maintained a celibate order for 30 years instead of 2000 years, we and the Catholics share many similarities in our problems with the celibate order. In both cases a small group of priests have committed grave offenses -- but a larger group of priests has helped unqualified men stay in office or delayed the process of their dismissal from the priestly or sannyasa order.
The irony is that in trying to protect themselves from public scandal by quietly maintaining unqualified men in the position of spiritual leaders, both the Catholic bureaucracy and the ISKCON bureaucracy have drawn the public's suspicion to priests and sannyasis who have actually remained faithful to their vows.
Just as with an accounting firm, the most crucial qualities for a religious institution to demonstrate are trustworthiness and integrity. Spiritual matters are often subtle and intangible. It is hard to judge their quality by short-term outward appearances. Therefore the first requirement is that the brahminical or priestly class be truthful and straightforward. People must be able to have conviction that their religious officials are telling them truth, or else they will go elsewhere. But when a religious institution is caught pretending to maintain standards higher than it can actually uphold -- then the reputation of the religious institution is undermined, and worshippers' faith is shaken.
Thus by trying to protect every man who has taken priestly vows -- without taking into account whether he actually maintains those vows -- a religious institution gambles its whole credibility, whether that religion is the Catholic Church or ISKCON.
So why do some religious institutions take this gamble? Is simply a matter of prestige, or is celibacy required as a central component of their faith? In the case of the Catholic Church, there are arguments on either side of the issue.
Similarly, in the case of ISKCON on one hand we have a history of maintaining a sannyasa order. But on the other hand, as Vaisnavas we also have a sastric injunction which specifically prohibits accepting a vow of lifelong celibacy in this fallen age of Kali Yuga. In the Adi-Lila, Lord Caitanya Himself cites Brahma-vaivarta Purana (Krsna-janma-khanda 185.180):
In this Age of Kali, five acts are forbidden:
the offering of a horse in sacrifice,
the offering of a cow in sacrifice,
the acceptance of the order of sannyasa,
the offering of oblations of flesh to the forefathers,
and a man's begetting children in his brother's wife.
-- CC: Adi 17.164
Maybe it's time to look closer and see how sastra applies to our current situation.
UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE OF CELIBACY IN THE CURRENT CRISIS
Modern Catholic congregations, of course, know nothing about Brahma Vaivarta's prohibitions against maintaining a (terminally) celibate order of preachers in Kali Yuga. Nevertheless, they are beginning to put forth arguments to call for an end to the requirements of celibacy for preachers. Though these Catholic congregational members come to the same conclusion that we find in our own sastra, a few of their arguments can be set aside because they do not adequately address the complexity of the connections between celibacy requirements and corruption of the religious institution:
Argument 1. If priests were married and had normal sexual relations with their wives, they would not need to have sex with boys. Fact: Pedophilia is not caused by a simple matter of lack of availability of relations with someone of the opposite sex. Many pedophiles are married. That is not in itself the problem. The problem is that the person has a psychological disease of pedophilia which needs to be addressed, not that he needs to be married.
Argument 2. If priests were married, they would not have sexual relations with other men in seminaries and other religious establishments. Fact: Again, homosexual behavior is not caused by lack of access to women. Many men even get married to cover up their attraction to members of the same sex.
Argument 3. Reduced participation in sexual activity has nothing to do with spiritual advancement. Fact: Diminishing interest in completely material pleasures is a reliable by-product of spiritual advancement. As devotees, most of us have had direct experience that attraction to sex -- as well as attraction to drugs, alchohol, meat-eating, buying lottery tickets, etc. -- fades as our spiritual life becomes stronger. Attraction to sex life -- or the diminution of such attraction -- is one of several legitimate barometers by which a person can gauge his or her spiritual advancement.
Thus, celibacy by itself does directly not cause problems like child abuse and homosexual activity, which congregations hope to end. Nevertheless, in the context of Kali Yuga -- the age of quarrel and hypocrisy -- to maintain a *rule* of celibacy as a requirement for membership in a prestigious preaching order is a powerful contributor to numerous problems for a religious institution. Partly because of the pride that the institution takes in having such "saintly" men to hold up before the public, it is willing to engage in hypocritical cover-up when these men prove unable to uphold the advertised standards. Furthermore -- although in past ages of higher spiritual qualification, a celibate order comprised a group of saintly men -- in this age of hypocrisy, it also provides a haven for materialistic and even demented individuals. This is not to deny that there are qualified spiritual leaders among the ranks of Catholic and Vaisnava renunciates. Nonetheless, the unique aspects of institutionalized renounced life provide a haven for unqualified men in the modern context:
- In cases where the emphasis of those who take a vow of renunciation is
primarily on celibacy itself, then the individual sees his identity
primarily in sexual terms, thus unintentionally strengthening his material
identity rather than decreasing it. Simultaneously, meditation on sex life
increases rather than decreases.
- The celibate order creates a haven for those who are troubled about their
own sexuality, including those who desire sex with other men and those who
desire sex with children. One reason is because there are no uncomfortable
questions about why the person is not getting married. Another attraction is
that it provides an opportunity to make friends with like-minded
- The celibate order creates a haven for those who have psychological
problems in their relationships with women. For these people, rather than
curing their mental problems, life in the celibate order can make them
worse, because their neurotic tendencies are reinforced by others with
similar problems. On the mental level, the psychological problems are
exacerbated. On the spiritual level, because women are perceived as
dangerous enemies (rather than as respected and appreciated mother figures),
the vision of sama dharsana -- seeing all spirit souls as equal -- is
blotted out by the practical policy of seeing women as threatening sex
- On the other end of the scale, by joining a so-called renounced order,
some men gain better access to women. Srila Prabhupada often pointed out
this problem in the sahajiya sannyasis of India, but he also observed it
within our own society, and it has been a problem for the Catholics as well.
This is a complex and subtle problem, but it is undeniable that renunciation
is a quality which is attractive to feminine nature -- we have only to look
to the example of Siva and Parvati. On one hand, women may lower their
defenses because they have no fear of being exploited by a man who
purportedly is not interested in sex.
On the other hand, when an esteemed sannyasi visits a temple with no wife to attend him, there is sure to be a bevy of women who can prepare his room, do his cooking and take care of his laundry. In addition, emotions and feelings of intimacy inspired by spiritual topics are strong, and can sometimes slip over the boundaries into mundane feelings. To some women a danda and saffron cloth lend a sexy "star quality" to a man, which surpasses any amount of nipple rings and dreadlocks.
An exceptionally advanced spiritual practitioner such as Srila Prabhupada can maintain the delicate balance which avoids seeing women as threatening sex objects on one hand or seeing them as objects for exploitation on the other. Many less advanced priests and sannyasis have found it simply impossible to maintain this balance.
- Due to the extra respect and authority accorded to its members, the
renounced order in Kali Yuga can provide a haven for those who desire the
power to manipulate and control the lives of others. It invites those who
desire fame, adoration and distinction. Rather than cultivating the
qualities of humility, simplicity, wisdom and truthfulness, when men with
materialistic desires for power join the celibate order they can become
reservoirs of arrogance, greed, ignorance and falsehood. They cultivate
ignorance by actively ignoring the problems going on around them, and
ignoring the actual needs of those they are supposed to serve. Srila
Prabhupada's reference to living a life of "risky irresponsibility" applies
to men like these.
- Again, as noted by Srila Prabhupada, the renounced order can provide a
haven for those who are simply too lazy to work for a living.
- The renounced order often provides a haven for those who do not want to
have to answer to others -- because without a class of qualified ksatriyas,
recent history has shown that it is very difficult to regulate the behavior
of those who join the renounced order. The maintenance of spiritual
standards takes place in a haphazard and arbitrary manner.
- Whereas on one hand, much power and wealth may be concentrated in the hands of one sannyasi or priest, on the other hand, that same person is often burdened with immense responsibility and public expectations of superhuman energy and ability. In some cases, the combined pressure becomes overwhelming and bewildering to a person who previously appeared to be making steady progress in his spiritual life.
Thus, in many ways, a person who is not exceptionally strong can be corrupted rather than elevated when he enters the renounced order in this age of hypocrisy. But, in addition to dangers to the man himself, the difficulties created by the resulting deviant religious leaders are compounded by their effect on indiscriminate and neophyte congregations:
- Many people suspend their critical judgement of a renunciate. In Vedic
terms, they do not carefully check to see that he is actually following
guru, sadhu and sastra. Rather, just by seeing the clerical vestments or
saffron robes of a renunciate, the public assumes that whatever he says is
true and accurately represents bona fide religious teachings.
- Many people assume that all renunciates are more advanced than
non-renunciates, thus they minimize the value of guidance available from
spiritually advanced married men, women, and those unmarried men who have
not entered a terminally renounced order. In the case of our Vaisnava
society, they do not contemplate approaching these devotees for spiritual
initiation. Thus a priceless spiritual resource is wasted.
- Due to the immense respect and unregulated power they possess, renunciates have a greater than average opportunity to establish a deviant cult among their followers, if that is their tendency.
Thus, although celibacy is not in itself the direct cause of problems, religious institutions that maintain a *rule* of terminal celibacy as a condition for membership in a prestigious order invite trouble because:
- The renounced order provides a haven for individuals with a range of
psychological and social problems.
- Due to the high status attached to an institution that can exhibit a body
of celibate preachers, religious institutions are ready to lie to cover up
the mistakes of deviant priests, allowing the level of misbehavior to
increase and spread. The problem is compounded by the fact that celibates
are difficult to replace. To avoid having to find replacements for
unqualified priests or sannyasis, a religious institution may factually
maintain lower and lower standards for members of its celibate order, while
maintaining a pretense that all its preachers are living up to higher than
average standards. Moreover, instead of focussing on its central preaching
mission, the funds and energy of the institution are diverted to address
problems and lawsuits resulting from attempts to maintain an impossible
standard in its preaching order. As misbehavior grows, cover-up and lies
increase. Public accountability becomes very hard to find as renunciates
maintain a clerical or "saffron wall" to protect controversial information
about their brothers from leaking out.
- The public tends to let down its guard when it comes to evaluating whether or not renounced men are following all spiritual standards or accurately representing religious teachings. It also overlooks the resource of spiritually advanced individuals who are not members of the (terminally) celibate order.
Thus, on one hand, we have a sastric injunction that forbids the acceptance of the renounced order in Kali Yuga. On the other hand, we can see both with ourselves and with the Catholics, how attempts to maintain such a perfect order of men have ironically led to self destructive activities of celibates, injury to members of the religion, and lies and cover-up in an attempt to hide growing problems. Significant financial costs for the religious institution are incurred for hush money to hide the problem, and -- when it is no longer possible to hide it -- for exorbitant legal fees for lawyers and damage awards. Instead of focusing on its preaching mission, energy and funds are increasingly diverted to respond to damage caused by misbehaving renunciates.
Viewing all these problems, one naturally asks: Is sastra right to prohibit the renounced order in Kali Yuga? Or is sastra somehow wrong, regardless of the tragic results we see?
As devotees, naturally, we turn to Srila Prabhupada in search of answers. On one hand, the first thing we think of is that Lord Caitanya took sannyasa, in spite of the fact that He quoted the sastra above. Also Bhaktivinode Thakur took sannyasa, as did Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati and so many others in our line. Srila Prabhupada himself also took sannyasa, and he initiated disciples as sannyasis, beginning with Kirtanananda in 1967 -- only one year after ISKCON was founded.
But Srila Prabhupada always advised devotees to judge a thing by its results: "Actually, we have to study, phalena pariciyate. We have to study things by the result, not by propaganda. By false propaganda, if you study something, that is not studied. You have to see the result. Phalena pariciyate." -- Lecture -- New York, April 16, 1969
According to public relations, we are led to believe that all our sannyasis are saintly and Catholics are led to believe that all their priests are saintly. But when we judge the renounced order by its results, that's not exactly what we find. On one hand, we find some spiritually advanced preachers. These represent the sweet fruits of this system. But we also find a significant number of deviants, who comprise the rotten or even poisonous fruits produced by the renounced order.
ISKCON has certainly experienced its share of shattering disappointments with members of its (terminally) celibate order. Of the 164 men still living who were at one time initiated as ISKCON sannyasis only 76 remain as ISKCON sannyasis -- less than half. When one considers the intense karmic repercussions to a man of taking sannyasa and later abandoning it, it seems like a spiritual gamble to take such a chance with the odds stacked against the initiate. And, when a sannyasi falls, it's not just the man who gets hurt, it's other members of the society, especially any disciples he may have. Disappointment can be traumatic when someone who has been held up as one of the most spiritually advanced devotees in the society suddenly falls down. ISKCON has seen sannyasis who were pedophiles, sannyasis who had active homosexual relationships, sannyasis who were womanizers, sannyasis who were women haters, and at least one sannyasi who encouraged disciples to gamble large amounts of money on the stock market. The resulting pain is compounded by the hypocrisy of other sannyasis who turn a blind eye to the faults of these men and cover up their mistakes.
Perhaps in a few cases, sannyasis who fell down never were spiritually advanced in the first place. But it seems important to keep in mind that many sannyasis who later fell down appear to have been substantially spiritually advanced at the time of sannyasa initiation. Evidentally, it was not so much their lack of qualification as the incredible pressures, expectations and temptations that sannyasa exposed them to, which led to their downfall. The main problem seems to be more with the institution of sannyasa, rather with than with the men themselves. ISKCON's Minister of Sannyasa commented recently that one important contributing factor to sannyasa falldown was taking the role of "guru" because it put sannyasis too intimately involved with women and wealth. But, as noted earlier, as long as there are men clothed in saffron and carrying dandas, the public will assume them to be the best choice for guru. The Minister also pointed out that the sannyasa drop-out rate has declined in recent years. That may be, but whether that is a hopeful sign or not is difficult to discern since at present ISKCON still maintains several sannyasis with problems of significant spiritual misbehavior.
Can ISKCON's sannyasa asrama be cleaned up? If so, can we be confident that it will stay clean in the coming decades? In less than forty years of sannyasa in ISKCON, we've already seen two deviant sannyasis who started cults, misleading their followers and damaging ISKCON's reputation. What guarantee do we have that the celibate order -- with its offer of enhanced power and prestige, combined with low accountability -- will not produce more cult leaders in the decades to come? Based on the practical experience of both Catholics and Hare Krsna devotees, where is the evidence that the celibate order can be trusted to reliably police itself? Can the "saffron wall" be torn down? Can the priestly and sannyasa order provide the public with believable accountability?
On the one hand, we know there were many times where Prabhupada endorsed the sannyasa asrama -- but what are we to make of the times when he spoke out against sannyasa? Was Prabhupada wrong when he displayed a skepticism about sannyasa?
In spite of his childhood disgust with most sannyasis, we know that Srila Prabhupada recognized Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati as a bona fide spiritual authority. One might think that from this point forward, he accepted the necessity of the sannyasa asrama. However, in 1949, about ten years after the passing of his spiritual master, and after witnessing the strife in the Gaudiya Math created by his materialistic Godbrothers, Srila Prabhupada again voiced his disapproval of the sannyasa asrama (though, significantly, not the brahminical class) as he formulated a proposal for the creation of an ideal spiritual community:
...The Gita-nagari, by its cultural propaganda and otherwise, can create any number of brahmanas, provided the candidates are available. The Gita-nagari, however, will not encourage the system of renounced order of life (Sannyasa), as in this age it is not possible to maintain such order of life under difficult circumstances.
-- Conception of Gita-nagari Part 2
It is worth noting that in the so-called "Gita-nagari Prophecy" cited above, Srila Prabhupada advocated the creation of a varnasrama society -- minus the sannyasa asrama. In an essay written several years later, Srila Prabhupada elaborated at length on the shortcomings of modern sannyasis. Who does not see reminders of ISKCON's own problematic sannyasis reflected in Srila Prabhupada's statements --
...When Sri Ramananda Raya proposed about the efficacy of sannyasa either in the order of the Mayavadis or in the order of the Vaisnavas, the same was again rejected by the Lord for He thought that in this age sannyasa is an impossible game. The so-called sannyasis dress themselves in the red garments to earn an easy livelihood but in action they are like ordinary men of filthy mind. Such filthy sannyasis of the age of Kali may be able to accumulate large sums of money by the plea of establishing temples and deities by exploiting foolish persons but they are unable to bring their followers to Godhead.
...These sannyasis generally construct some temples and install deities in them to exploit the religious feelings of different men but the main purpose of constructing such temples is to open different branches of income for comfortable material life although in the dress of a renouncer. They construct such temple most unauthorizedly and thus implore many foolish men to join to make contribution upon it. And some of them perform unauthorized yajnas and thus accumulate money. The temple builder sannyasi assures every one of the contributors to become the chief donor in such pious act but ultimately none of them is given any position but the sannyasi himself becomes all in all by accumulating a big bank balance for his personal material comfort.
...At the present moment the whole procedure is miscarried and the preaching sannyasis themselves enjoy in the highest standard of material comfort while preaching the nullity of the same.
...Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu wants us only not to become one of the mudhas and Naradhamas. There are as many mudhas and naradhamas in the midst of the sannyasis as there are in the midst of so-called householders. Similarly according to the opinion of the Lord, there are as many mahatmas in the midst of the householders as there are in the midst of the renounced order of life. He is not very eager to turn anybody into the life of sannyasi from the life of a householder neither He is anxious to pick up spiritualists from the community of a particular class, society, nation, or group of people.
Ref. VedaBase - Perfection at Home -- A Novel Contribution to the Fallen Humanity
Later Srila Prabhupada went beyond the view that sannyasa is simply an "impossible game" in Kali Yuga. He declared that in general, people should be forbidden to accept the rigid order of sannyasa in this age:
...In the present feature, the Lord is an ideal renouncer. He accepted sannyas and the principles followed by Him in that renounced order of life, are exceedingly wonderful. Nobody can be compared with Him as a sannyasi. Although in this age of Kali such acceptance of the order of Sannyas life is generally forbidden yet He accepted it because He was complete in this sense only. Others cannot imitate Him and therefore they are forbidden to accept such rigid order of life.
>>> Ref. VedaBase - Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila, Chapter 2 [Handwritten]
It is important to note that on the occasions when Srila Prabhupada criticized sannyasis or questioned the feasibility of the sannyasa asrama in Kali Yuga, he never did so with an intention of attacking his own spiritual master. And, even now, we cannot deny that there are saintly persons in the renounced order. Therefore, we have to be careful not to confuse the institution of the celibate order with the devotees who are found in it. It would not be fair to imply that all priests and sannyasis are hypocrites or deviants. There are advanced devotees in the renounced order. Nevertheless, that does not mean they depend primarily on institutionalized renunciation to manifest their spiritual potency. Instead, they depend on their spiritual master, on scripture, and on the association of other devotees. With or without an official renounced order, they would exhibit their exceptional qualities.
On the other hand, who can deny that those who do go astray would find it much harder to exhibit their deviant influence without the credibility and unregulated power that the renounced order provides for them?
The existence of a renounced order has a strong tradition, both in the Catholic Church and in ISKCON. But as Vaisnava devotees we have a scriptural injunction which specifically prohibits the renounced order in Kali Yuga. In both ISKCON and the Catholic Church, we have seen numerous examples of deviant renunciates. Spiritually, they hurt themselves. They cause severe trauma to members of their own religions. Their actions lead to dishonest behavior by their religious bureaucracies, resulting in a deterioration of public trust and respect. Their sinful activities combined with the deceitful stance of their brethren and superiors have resulted in devastating financial costs for cover-up money, legal defense and payment of damages. All these things have diverted worshippers from their real mission of obtaining love of God by devotional service, and spreading this worship to others.
After all the sin and deceit and loss caused by attempting to maintain an order which is prohibited in our fallen age, where is our guarantee that it won't happen again? After all this betrayal, can we actually trust the celibate order to provide reliable accounting for its actions in the future?
Or, is Srila Prabhupada correct when he paraphrases Lord Caitanya as saying
that "in this age sannyasa is an impossible game"? Is Brahma-vaivarta Purana
right to prohibit sannyasa in Kali Yuga?