Gay Marriage in the Bhagavad Gita


I have a friend who’s a rabid Baltimore Ravens fan. She’s also one of the sweetest and most spiritual people I know – so imagining her maniacally cheering when Ray Lewis crushes a quarterback or going ballistic over a blown coverage actually kind of cracks me up. But, great minds think alike: my own yogic aspirations are mixed with a formidable compulsion to lose myself in the organized chaos of gridiron mayhem.

Living in Washington DC can be rough for a New York football fan like me, though. NFC division rivalry aside, I could never root for my adopted hometown’s team just on account of its name: Redskins? Really? That’s as embarrassing as it is insulting: may they go 0-16 every season (sorry, Ram). At least the Ravens derive their name from a great moment in Baltimore’s literary history. And, although the forces of my illusory geographical identity apply in the AFC as well, I might be inclined to root for the Ravens for another reason: the attention a Ravens player has brought to the issue of gay rights.

It may be surprising to some that a straight guy playing such a macho sport would actively support gay marriage. By contrast, members of the generally progressive yoga community may take it for granted that yoga philosophy supports the rights of everyone – straight, gay, and otherwise – to be happy and free. But is that really the case? Do the traditional yoga wisdom texts actually endorse gay rights?

A few months ago I was a guest speaker at Joshua Greene’s Bhagavad Gita course at the Jivamukti Yoga School in New York. During our discussion Joshua asked me if I thought that gay marriage was supported in the Bhagavad Gita. I gave the question a moment of silent consideration and then, to the relief of my left-leaning, breath-holding audience, I answered ‘yes, it is’.

How is this so? According to the Gita, everyone has two natures: a temporary material nature and an eternal spiritual nature. To put it another way, we are eternal spiritual beings who have acquired temporary material identities. The practice of yoga builds a bridge from our temporary identity to our eternal identity. In order to cross that bridge we need to be peaceful. If we’re agitated by conflicts due to repression or oppression of our temporary nature then it will be difficult to be peaceful – to say nothing of happy – and we won’t be able to focus on the development of our spiritual life, on crossing the bridge to our eternal nature.

We can cross-reference several verses in the Gita that support this proposition. Let’s start with chapter 3, verse 33: “Even a wise person acts according to their own tendency, for everyone follows the proclivity they have acquired due to contact with the three qualities of material nature (goodness, passion, and ignorance). What will repression accomplish?”

The Sanskrit word jnana-van in this verse means “one who has acquired knowledge”. ‘Knowledge’ in the context of the Bhagavad Gita refers to the ability to distinguish between the spiritual self and the material body, the latter of which includes the mind and all of the psychology and behavioral tendencies associated with or initiating from the mind. So here Krishna is describing a person who is simultaneously acquainted with transcendental knowledge and yet is still affected by behavioral conditioning that arises due to contact with prakrti – material nature.

If our realization of our spiritual identity is incomplete, then we’ll find ourselves straddling the gap between our material and spiritual identities. Since this can be a precarious position, we need a firm foundation underfoot to stabilize us as we attempt to cross this gap. The Gita encourages us to find that stability by acting in harmony with our material identity while we work on the practical application of transcendental knowledge that can awaken us to a complete experience of our eternal, spiritual identity. In essence, we cross the bridge to transcendence while we build it with a steady yoga practice grounded in a spiritual understanding and compassionate acceptance of our current material identity. Throughout the Gita, Krishna encourages Arjuna to act according to his nature, both spiritually and materially. Since the Gita’s teachings are universal the same must apply for any eternal spiritual being who has acquired, for the time being, a gay material identity.

There’s a lot more that the Gita has to say on this subject so I’ll continue in my next post. I have to stop now because it’s getting close to kick-off time: the Ravens vs the Bengals. And for tonight, at least, I’ll root for the Ravens because, let’s face it, the Bengals uniforms are just butt-ugly; who can root for a team that dresses like that?

10 Comments

  1. Nityananda dasa
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 10:14 PM | Permalink | Reply

    So if your concept of the Bhagavad-Gita is “act according to your nature, both spiritual and materially”, then what about someone who likes to eat meat, or get intoxicated, or engage in illicit sex (such as gay sex). All of these things are detrimental to one’s spiritual life because they put one in a consciousness which is completely on the material platform and cover over one’s transcendental knowledge. And Krishna says in Bhagavad-Gita 9.34 “Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, become My devotee, offer obeisances to Me and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me.” So these distracting activities will not allow one to come to the stage of real bhakti-yoga. The most important thing to do when reading a book such as Bhagavad-Gita is to not pick and choose which verses seem to say what you would like to hear; this is called “ardha-kukkuṭī-nyāya”, or the logic of accepting half a hen. If you accept some parts of the sastra and ignore others, then you will end up with nothing. Do not interpret Bhagavad-Gita; take it as it is.

    In Bhagavad-Gita 3.9 Krishna says “Work done as a sacrifice for Viṣṇu has to be performed; otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore, O son of Kuntī, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain free from bondage.” In verse 3.16 He says “My dear Arjuna, one who does not follow in human life the cycle of sacrifice thus established by the Vedas certainly leads a life full of sin. Living only for the satisfaction of the senses, such a person lives in vain.” In verse 3.28 He says “One who is in knowledge of the Absolute Truth, O mighty-armed, does not engage himself in the senses and sense gratification, knowing well the differences between work in devotion and work for fruitive results.” Verses 3.41-43, Krishna says “Therefore, O Arjuna, best of the Bhāratas, in the very beginning curb this great symbol of sin [lust] by regulating the senses, and slay this destroyer of knowledge and self-realization. The working senses are superior to dull matter; mind is higher than the senses; intelligence is still higher than the mind; and he [the soul] is even higher than the intelligence. Thus knowing oneself to be transcendental to the material senses, mind and intelligence, O mighty-armed Arjuna, one should steady the mind by deliberate spiritual intelligence [Kṛṣṇa consciousness] and thus – by spiritual strength – conquer this insatiable enemy known as lust.” So as we can see, chapter 3 of Bhagavad-Gita clearly speaks against acting for one’s own sense gratification, and rather acting for the satisfaction of Krishna by offering one’s work to Krishna. In other words, Krishna was making the point to Arjuna that by nature, he is a warrior, and therefore although he may try to repress it, his duty and nature is to fight. So, he should therefore within the confines of the injunctions of the Vedas fight, and do it as a sacrifice to Krishna. And, Krishna made the point that one who acts for their own sense gratification wastes their human form of life and, being overcome by lust, looses their knowledge and pursuit of self-realization.

    In the fifth chapter, Krishna goes on to say “An intelligent person does not take part in the sources of misery, which are due to contact with the material senses. O son of Kuntī, such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and so the wise man does not delight in them. Before giving up this present body, if one is able to tolerate the urges of the material senses and check the force of desire and anger, he is well situated and is happy in this world. One whose happiness is within, who is active and rejoices within, and whose aim is inward is actually the perfect mystic. He is liberated in the Supreme, and ultimately he attains the Supreme. Those who are beyond the dualities that arise from doubts, whose minds are engaged within, who are always busy working for the welfare of all living beings and who are free from all sins achieve liberation in the Supreme. Those who are free from anger and all material desires, who are self-realized, self-disciplined and constantly endeavoring for perfection, are assured of liberation in the Supreme in the very near future.” (5.22-25).

    In chapter 11 verse 54 Krishna tells Arjuna “My dear Arjuna, only by undivided devotional service can I be understood as I am, standing before you, and can thus be seen directly. Only in this way can you enter into the mysteries of My understanding.” This means that only if we do everything for Krishna’s pleasure only can we understand Him. And, because we are parts and parcels of Krishna as He says throughout Bhagavad-Gita, if we do not understand Krishna, then we do not factually understand out spiritual identity. Therefore how “spiritual” can such a person be said to be?

    • Posted September 11, 2012 at 10:50 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Dear Nityananda dasa:

      Thank you for your enthusiastic comments. It appears that you have made some assumptions about my method of understanding Bhagavad Gita that are not entirely accurate so I will take this opportunity to clarify my approach. First, I wholeheartedly endorse and advocate a direct interpretation of the Gita’s verses in the context of the Gita as a whole and Krishna’s self-evident intention in speaking it. I routinely teach my students how to recognize (and why they should reject) indirect and speculative interpretations or interpretations born of selective isolation of verses from accompanying verses and their broader context. You may note that at the end of my post I have indicated that I’m not through with the subject and plan, in future posts, to introduce numerous verses that will illustrate how Krishna is far more broad-minded and compassionate than you are making him out to be.

      And I agree with you that hearing from a qualified guru is critical to understanding the Gita in theory and practice: my understanding of the Bhagavad Gita comes from the very same guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, whose translations you have so voluminously quoted, which, by the way, may be applied as equally to straight people as to gay people; there is nothing in these verses or your commentary that is specific to gay relationships. Srila Prabhupada actually had quite a few gay disciples, some of whom artificially attempted to enter the renounced order of life with predictably poor results. Prabhupada was very practical in his dealings with all of his disciples and gratefully accepted whatever service they offered irrespective of their personal situation.

      I am very happy for you that you are able to strictly control your senses without envy or anger at those who are not so firmly fixed in their observance of regulative principles. You are writing from an exceptional position of intense commitment to the highest standard of material renunciation. Most people who are approaching bhakti yoga, particularly those who are discovering bhakti by way of the kind of yoga that is practiced in contemporary ‘yoga studios’, are interested in learning how to begin from wherever they’re at. And many of them are gay. Is it your position that one cannot begin the practice of bhakti yoga – cannot offer incense to a picture of Krishna, cannot offer their food to Krishna, cannot hear about Krishna or chant Krishna’s mantra or cultivate devotion to Krishna within their heart – if one is naturally orientated toward intimate relationships with a person of the same sex? I don’t think so. Srila Prabhupada didn’t think so. Krishna doesn’t think so. So why are you so quick to be so discouraging to those who are attracted to devotional yoga and who, by the will of providence, happen to be gay?

      And why wouldn’t gay people be attracted to devotional yoga? After all, if one visits a Krishna temple early in the morning one will see a group of men wearing long skirts gently tossing flower petals toward an ornately decorated altar and then gracefully dancing together while they sing songs with sweet voices that glorify a male deity in emulation of their role models, who happen to be young girls: can you get any more gay than that?

      Please see my reply to Tulasi-priya for some additional observations that are also applicable to your comment. Thanks again. Ys, Hkd

      PS: do you happen to know Yama Niyama das Brahmacari? You two have similar moods and I think you would enjoy one another’s association.

  2. TPD
    Posted September 11, 2012 at 12:07 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I know yogis are flexible but that’s quite a stretch you’re making. The proclivity Krishna speaks of that is not to be repressed is an individual’s dharma, their occupational social duty. Krishna is telling Arjuna not to abandon his dharma as a warrior for the sake of an illusory and unsustainable peace. It was a matter of the gravest interest to all of society, not just to two people and what they might do in bed, with one caveat.

    Sexuality of any stripe is a matter of private personal expression, but heterosexual union is and has always been regulated by religion, law, and custom because of the inherent relation it bears to procreation and child-rearing, which has a direct and significant impact on society, as well as on cultural cohesion and perpetuation. But that’s just the material side of the marriage issue.

    Just as Arjuna achieved spiritual perfection by overcoming a superficial impulse toward pacification and embracing his unique calling as a warrior, so all of us can achieve perfection by following our dharma and offering the results, if not the occupation itself, to the Supreme Being. Sexual intercourse (as distinct from relationships, whether same-sex or otherwise) is an occupational duty—dharma—only as far as it does not subvert the natural outcome of the act: responsible procreation. And by “responsible procreation” is meant facilitating the spiritual progress of the soul ushered into existence via the sex act. What people consider marriage nowadays is often not really marriage at all, it’s serial monogamy (at best) with a lot of paperwork involved.

    There’s a great article about the misconceptions surrounding marriage that are at the heart of the gay marriage debate here: http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20080710_20041561theliberalcaseagainstgaymarriagesusanmshell.pdf

    • TPD
      Posted September 11, 2012 at 1:08 AM | Permalink | Reply

      *pacifism [sigh]

    • Nityananda dasa
      Posted September 11, 2012 at 2:04 AM | Permalink | Reply

      I definately appreciate your reply- marriage and sex are for the purpose of benefitting a jiva who comes about as a result of the above two processes. When Krishna said “What will repression accomplish”, He did not mean “Alright, go ahead and act like an animal and I’m all for it.” This is a classic example of why a guru is completely necessary, as Krishna also says in Bhagavad-Gita, if one wants to actually understand transcendental knowledge.

    • jrockga
      Posted September 11, 2012 at 9:59 AM | Permalink | Reply

      I think we need to distinguish between the spiritual topic and the social issue. Regarding spirituality, the question is not “will gay marriage bring us to the platform of Prema-Bhakti?” What HKd is proposing, an idea that many at the forefront of our movement today within the Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya, including Hridayananda das Gosvami and Urmila Devi dasi, is that there is the ideal, and then there is reality. The reality is that most of us devotees (i.e. almost all) are falling short of the ideal on a daily basis. Acaryadeva’s essay “Vaisnava Moral Theology and Homosexuality” argues that monogamy within marriage (whether hetero- or homosexual) should be respected as A STEP TOWARD THE IDEAL, as it is more conducive to spiritual growth than the alternative (i.e. promiscuity). Furthermore, Urmila Mataji brings up a great point in one of her lectures on sexuality that in regarding all other aspects of devotional service and regulative principles, we have a range of what is acceptable. A great example is regarding prasadam. Really, we should only be eating food that is grown by devotees, prepared by devotees, properly offered by Brahman initiated devotees to installed deities at a certain time of day, and yet sometimes we open up a bag of potato chips and say “Here, Krishna, please accept this”. The point being that we still call the people who offer the chips “devotees”. Yet somehow, when it comes down to sexuality, we have this one standard that does not permit any allowances. Again, the reality is that many devotees are not living up to this standard of sex-only-for-procreation ideal, whether straight or gay.

      Regarding the social issue, I will remind you that Krishna has given us all the autonomy to surrender to Him or not. If that is the case, then who are we to tell everyone else what they should or should not do? I agree with the sentiment of the article you shared that in our country and culture there is too much emphasis on the freedom of the individual at the expense of society as a whole. However, if we really want to look meaningfully into the issue of marriage and family in connection to the greater whole, we will recognize two things: 1. There are 7 billion people on this planet and for the past 10-15 years the Earth has not been able to produce enough food to support our world population, and 2. there are many, many children in this world without parents or stable homes. What I am proposing is that if we are true Vaisnavas, “full of compassion for the fallen conditioned souls”, then perhaps we would not be encouraging our population to continue to produce more and more children into a world that cannot support them all. We are in Kali Yuga, a different age from when Krishna spoke the Bhagavad Gita. Time, place and circumstance must be taken into account.

    • Posted September 11, 2012 at 10:53 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Dear Tulasi-priya:

      Thank you for your punny comments. As is often the case when dealing with this issue, your comments are focused on one dimension of a gay relationship: sex. Gay relationships, like straight relationships, are not one dimensional. Let’s consider the following scenario: your husband has a life threatening medical emergency and is incapacitated; he cannot speak for himself but he has had the foresight to leave behind detailed instructions that you are to be the sole decision maker with regard to his medical care should he be unable to express his wishes for himself, that you are to be the one person above all others who should have unfettered access to him in his incapacitated condition, and that you shall be the sole beneficiary of all that is his should he die. Now imagine that your husbands family, the doctors and hospital staff, and the government can and do disregard your husbands wishes – and yours – and completely shut you out in each of the above categories. How painful would that be for you? How painful would that be for him if the only person he wants to see is you and you are not allowed to see him? Would you wish that pain on anyone? Would Krishna?

      Gay couples can share most of the same kinds of devotional activities and exchanges as heterosexual couples: they can chant together, worship deities together, study devotional literature together, offer one another gifts, share confidential thoughts and feelings, prepare, offer, and take meals together, share all the symptoms of love for one another and Krishna that all bhakti yogis are inclined to share. There’s only one thing that they can’t do by natural means and that’s have a child, but for women there are ways around that and for men there is adoption. And there are a lot worse fates in life than to be adopted by a couple of gay bhakti yogis.

      I had some other points to make but it appears that Jordanna has already made them for me – thanks, Jordanna. – Ys, Hkd

  3. Posted September 11, 2012 at 12:29 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Hmmm…..it’s a pretty complicated topic. I think you’re on to something with that penultimate paragraph. Have you read the infamous and controversial essay “Vaisnava Moral Theology and Homosexuality” written by Hridayananda das Gosvami? It makes much sense to me and is very well substantiated.

  4. Thaddeus
    Posted September 11, 2012 at 9:29 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Hare Krsna to the assembled devotees.

    First off, I appreciate Hari-kirtana Prabhu’s willingness to engage this sensitive topic and by the looks of it, we got a bit of a discussion on our hands. I have a couple reflections in different forms.

    First reflection in the form of a devil’s advocate question. Granted “marriage” is not about sex, however, historically and traditionally, “marriage” arose out of a religious worldview concerning procreation and what have you. Now, it’s obvious throughout the ages that all sorts of “social” arrangements have arisen up around it. However, we are not beholden to this conception of “wedding.” Why not simply divorce the social issues from the more religious ones and advocate a “social union” for gay couples? Seems like this might be easier than trying to defend gay marriage on the basis of scripture while achieving the same ends.

    Second reflection in the form of a reflection. I have never been led astray by trying to remain humble. In the end, perhaps we would all be better off attempting to execute our own practices than formulating standards and opinions about something that is between an individual, Krsna and his/her guru.

    Final reflection, I think it behooves us to never forget that we are all here by the mercy of Srila Prabhupada. It seems peculiar that we would want to interfere in the life of anyone beyond advocating that s/he chant the holy name.

    Srila Prabhupada, as a pure devotee of Lord Chaitanya, recognized that there are absolutely no requirements or qualifications to chant the holy name. It is open and available to all, hence the very reason that any of us are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do so. If Srila Prabhupada had thought and acted in a manner similar to the comments offered Nityananda Prabhu, I dare say I doubt his name would have dasa after it to begin with. It is only by the mercy of Srila Prabhupada that any of us have any potential.

    In this light, I would like to offer my favorite quote of Srila Prabhupada from his purport on BG 3.31. He writes, “In the beginning of Krsna consciousness, one may not fully discharge the injunctions of the Lord, but because one is not resentful of this principle and works sincerely without consideration of defeat and hopelessness, he will surely be promoted to the stage of pure Krsna consciousness.” HG Ravindra Svarupa points out that this is a re-phrasing of a verse from the 11th canto of Srimad Bhagavatam (I beg your pardon that I don’t have the exact citation at hand, but I believe it is 11.20.20something). In all honesty, without this verse and purport I would have given up on KC long ago do to my utter inability to uphold all the standards and protocols. However, I have faith in Srila Prabhupada’s instructions and those of his devoted servant, HG Ravindra Svarupa Prabhu.

    And I think our rush to “outlaw” or “ban” individuals’ behaviors on account of their failing to meet the standards that so many of us struggle with everyday is an anathema to the example of Srila Prabhupada. Thus, if one is engaged in illicit sexual activity, regardless of the genders involved, we should merely encourage his/her chanting for we have all been instructed that the holy name is non-different from the Lord and thus one cannot help but be purified through this process regardless of his/her starting point. Eventually all else will fall in place as the above purport demonstrates.

    In closing, I would simply offer that perhaps a failure to appreciate this belies a lack of faith in the power and potency of holy name.

    Ys
    t

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:05 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Thad: Thanks for your comments and reflections. A brief reply to some of the issues you’ve raised:

      1. “Why not simply divorce the social issues from the more religious ones and advocate a “social union” for gay couples?” For two reasons: 1) yogic social structures are based on yoga philosophy and serve the purpose of advancing self-realization or religious experience (as opposed to advancing a specific ‘religion’), so social issues can’t be artificially disconnected from the philosophy upon which it is based. 2) Language matters. To call the union of two straight people one thing and the union of two gay people another based on procreative potential creates the perception that there is an inherent inequality, irrespective of legal guarantees, that give implicit societal consent to acts or attitudes of discrimination. A distinction is already self-evident. Everyone’s marriage is different in one way or in many ways but the emotional experience of marriage is the same for one as it is for the other so the language to describe that experience should also be the same.

      2. “perhaps we would all be better off attempting to execute our own practices than formulating standards and opinions about something that is between an individual, Krsna and his/her guru.” Decisions made in one’s personal life in consultation with their guru and with prayers for guidance and sanction from the Supreme Being, however personal they may be, play out in the social sphere. The association of like-minded yogis is essential to one’s spiritual advancement. How we are thought of and treated by our fellow yogis matters. Therefore this topic is worthy of civil and public discussion.

      – Hkd

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