Gay Marriage in the Bhagavad Gita, Part 2


In my last post I began to make a case for the idea that the Bhavagad Gita supports gay marriage, a proposition that, not surprisingly, has been applauded by progressive yogis and challenged by orthodox yogis. Being pre-disposed towards personal civil liberties (no, I am not a Ron Paul supporter!), I wrote the first installment on this topic thinking primarily about the rights and obligations that marriage bestows on the parties involved. Early in the Gita, Krishna confirms our spiritual status as eternally unique individuals (chapter 2, verse 12) and, at the end of the Gita, Krishna encourages Arjuna to make up his own mind about what he should do (chapter 18, verse 63). Hence, an essential lesson from the Gita is that we are endowed with free will; the right and responsibility to decide for ourselves how we should each respond to our own destiny.

When a government, secular or theocratic, imposes unreasonable restrictions on how we may respond to our destiny – such as restricting our right to choose who can visit us in the hospital when we’re sick, who is permitted to make critical decisions on our behalf when we are unable to make them for ourselves, who is qualified to inherit our assets, dispose of our liabilities, or take over legal guardianship of our children when we die, etc. – then that constitutes an unreasonable imposition of state will on our spiritually inherent free will; an injustice. Arjuna’s dharma – his social obligation – is to fight in defense of justice. The Gita presents Arjuna as a role model for aspiring yogis. One can therefore reasonably argue that depriving gay couples of the rights enjoyed by straight couples is an injustice that ought to be opposed by anyone who aspires to follow in Arjuna’s footsteps.

There are, of course, some obvious problems with my argument. For one thing, it’s incomplete: It doesn’t take into account the function of marriage in the sense of being a state of ‘Holy Matrimony’, a model for intimate union supported by the kind of spiritual culture that the Gita advocates. For another, my argument can be used to justify a person’s right to do any number of things that they ought not be permitted to do such as, for example, slaughtering cows (yup, you heard me right: it should be illegal). I have yet to address the challenge of transposing ancient Vedic values across time and geography in a way that retains the essence of the intention while adjusting to modern circumstances. And, in my last paragraph, I have changed the definition of dharma to mean ‘social obligation’ rather than ‘action according to ones nature’, as I defined it in my previous post. I clearly have some more work to do in order to make my argument sound and complete.

Of course, there is no verse in the Gita where Krishna specifically says “I support gay marriage” so it should be understood that I’m speaking in terms of ascertaining the proper contemporary application of the Gita’s timeless teachings relative to its universally applicable philosophical conclusion, namely, that all relative dharmas are subordinate to an absolute dharma: complete and fearless surrender, motivated by love, to the will of the Supreme Person. The issue is important because love of the Supreme person is inclusive by definition: to love the Supreme Being is to love everyone because everyone is part of the Supreme Being. Understanding how that love manifests in terms of social relationships is part of the work of instigating global social changes that will support spiritual advancement for everyone. The relevance of the Bhagavad Gita to the contemporary yogi is that it’s a handbook for social activism in pursuit of the non-sectarian spiritualization of modern society.

Most of the critical comments I received, both on and off the record, were rooted in a reasonable concern that I might be playing fast and loose with the Gita’s teachings. Two recurring issues that came up were the correct understanding of dharma in the context of the verse I referenced and the sanctity of marriage or, in other words, the assumption that homosexual sex as inherently irreligious. Being pre-occupied with the virtues of personal liberty I used the word ‘marriage’ in a secular sense so, in the interest of completeness, I will proceed to address such unions in a spiritual sense. And, with the help of some constructive input from authoritative sources, I will try to make my argument sound by addressing the various relevant applications of the word ‘dharma’.

For readers who may be concerned that I am conflating yoga with religion and couldn’t care less what ‘religion’ has to say about gay marriage, the Latin root of the word  ‘religion’ is ‘re-ligio’, meaning ‘again, to connect’, as in reassembling a ligature or binding. In other words, the original intention of religion is to reconnect us with the source of our being. In this sense the words ‘religion’ and ‘yoga’ – union – are virtually synonymous and I am using the word ‘religion’ accordingly.

Which brings us to “Holy Matrimony (, Batman!)”. ‘Holy’, as an adjective in this case, means ‘devoted to the service of God; morally or spiritually perfect and of a devoutly religious character; dedicated to religious purposes’. The word ‘matrimony’ has its roots in the French word matremoine, which appears around 1300 CE and is derived from the Latin word matrem – meaningmother’ – monium – indicating an action, state, or condition. The clear assumption here is that motherhood follows marriage so “Holy Matrimony” is a condition entered into for the sake of sanctifying our sexual propensity by making a commitment with a partner of the opposite sex to take responsibility for the natural outcome of sexual intercourse by offering material support and spiritual guidance to one another and to the children born of their union.

This traditional understanding finds support in both the Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as controlled and constructive engagement of one’s sexual energy and devotional service to the Supreme Being. In the spiritual culture that forms the backdrop for both texts, marriage is a very formal and ritualized stage of life lived as a sacred commitment. Krishna does not repudiate or change this conception of marriage anywhere in the Bhagavad Gita.

Which brings us to the question of dharma, which I will address in my next post. Meanwhile, can gay couples engage in “Holy Matrimony” according to the Bhagavad Gita? Feel free to offer an opinion, especially if you’re gay: I’m a straight guy instigating a discussion about something that’s all theoretical for me: hearing from someone who can offer an experiential point of view would be most welcome.

4 Comments

  1. TPD
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:35 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I don’t see how we can proceed with a discussion of who can marry until we determine what marriage is. Evident to our empirical vision is the spiritual aspect, and the material aspect, of which the civil rights and obligations are a subset. Both the material and spiritual aspects (but not necessarily the civil aspects) are intertwined, since even “holy” marriage is an institution with rules meant to regulate souls in bodies acting in time and space for specific functions. Many of the functions can be and are performed by individuals without marriage, so what is it that makes the married state different from the unmarried state, irrespective of an individual’s “feelings” about it? Just what is marriage, apart from all our ideas about it? Does it exist in some purely spiritual platonic state? Did God create it for us? Or did we create it for ourselves? Why? These are all questions that need to be understood, because I think the answers have been forgotten or transformed beyond recognition.

    That said, the problem of who gets to visit whom in the hospital, make decisions on behalf of the other person, etc., are only tangentially related to the marriage bond and don’t address either its spiritual or material purposes. Parents make decisions for children. Women previously couldn’t make any decisions at all of consequence, yet they were just as married as women are today. Maybe even more so. Is that really what marriage is about?

    One more thing. Why is it that sastra has injunctions for the respective duties of men and women in marriage, but to my knowledge, there are no specific injunctions for same-sex couples? If there’s nothing wrong with it, if it’s actually helpful, if it’s a samskara, one would think sastra would have something to say about it, because same-sex marriage most certainly presents a different set of circumstances than traditional marriage. The injunctions for traditional marriage are founded on an ancient understanding of the basic natures of male and female, and the rights and duties that lead to the greatest harmony in the interaction between them. There is a sense of balancing the opposites, a synthesis of differences in a very elemental way. Personally, I think this harmonizing of opposites is a key factor in determining the future body of a person on his or her spiritual evolutionary journey. Since the gross differences are not present in a same-sex marriage, how do these teachings apply?

    • Posted October 5, 2012 at 6:30 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for your very comprehensive comment, Tulasi-Priya. You’ve added so many conceptual elements to the discussion that I will have to reply in a few parts while I give some of your questions the time and thought that they merit. For now, at least, I need to ask you for some clarifications: what do you mean by the “material aspect” of marriage if not the civil rights and obligations that you have characterized as merely a subset and, more to the point, tangential? Since the public debate centers on the conflict between the liberal idea of universally applicable civil rights and the conservative conception of the sanctity of marriage, I don’t see the problem of who gets to visit whom in the hospital, make decisions on behalf of the other person, etc. as tangential at all; I see it as central to the discussion if we are to talk about the issue in real rather than theoretical terms. After all, this is heart-breaking stuff for folks who experience these situations. The question is ‘does granting the same civil rights to gay couples that straight couples enjoy constitute an intrusion on the sanctity of marriage?’ If so, how do you grant those rights without intruding on the traditional model of ‘Holy Matrimony’? And, more to the point, do you see a passage from or traditional commentary on the Bhagavad Gita that says such rights should not be granted to gay couples? If there isn’t one then that wouldn’t prove that the Gita supports gay marriage, but it would indicate an absence of opposition and, in the absence of opposition, one would have to reason out how to practically apply the Gita in the context of it’s overarching philosophical conclusion to this situation. The practical application rather than the theoretical ideal is what I’m searching for in this discussion. So, with all that in mind, how do you conclude that the issue of civil rights, such as hospital visitation, etc., is tangential rather than central to the discussion?

  2. TPD
    Posted October 5, 2012 at 10:25 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Your confusing an advantage and a convenience with a sacred obligation. In terms of yoga and dharma, social obligation, we marry to increase our service to God, family, and society, not to get advantages and conveniences. Those advantages and conveniences are the natural reciprocation for the austerities inherent in the natural function of the marriage act: procreation. When the Bible says, the two become one flesh, it is not just metaphorically. People who produce a child together are married, deeply (even if they don’t recognize or acknowledge it) in a way that no other two human beings can ever be. The whole social and legal institution developed concomitantly with that fact. It wasn’t just something cobbled together as an excuse to wear a nice dress, get stinking drunk a bachelor party, and collecting lots of presents. Did you ever read that link I posted, “The Liberal Case Against Gay Marriage”? (http://www.nationalaffairs.com/public_interest/detail/the-liberal-case-against-gay-marriage ) It pretty much lays it out, but I’ll answer in my own words.

    The material aspect of marriage, apart from civil rights, is the domestic and economic sphere. Married people are known as householders, and not just in the Vedic sense. Married couples (especially with children) are the engine of the economy and the pillar of community. There are, of course, questions of civil rights that arise from that domestic obligation (joint payment of taxes, for example), but there are many important functions fulfilled by married couples that have nothing to do with civil rights.

    You keep bringing up hospital visitation as if that were the pivotal reason to get hitched. The problem of hospital visitation and responsibility of one person for the other is easily dealt with through other arrangements: medical directives, powers of attorney, that sort of thing. It’s been going on forever. We visit our parents and siblings and we don’t have to marry them to do it. Aging parents designate their children as representatives for financial decisions without having to marry them. Wealthy nutcases leave everything to the beloved Pekingese, without a walk down the aisle. And the issue of hospital visitation seems to have been dealt with legislatively already:

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/01/18/hospital-visitation-regulations-go-effect-today

    The issues of civil rights can be satisfactorily dealt with through civil unions or domestic partnership, which in my opinion are even more conducive to equality than “gay marriage.” If a brother and sister want to have a domestic partnership, they can. If two best friends want to provide mutual aid and comfort and get the social benefits thereof, great. But you can see how this might become a legal quagmire as such partnerships are dissolved and reformed with new parties, as the landscape of human relationships shifts like the dunes of the Sahara.

    If it is equality for gay couples to marry, if marriage is not rooted in the biological fact of procreation (whatever individuals may decide for themselves otherwise), then how can we limit the institution only to those who are “in love,” or paired off (as opposed to polyamorous unions), or whatever superficial characteristics we use to recognize marriage already? If we don’t choose to honor and maintain tradition (which GK Chesterton calls “the democracy of the dead”)*, why should any one (extra) demographic be allowed to achieve the status known as “married” and all the benefits accruing thereto, to the exclusion of others who would benefit just as much if not more, merely because that demographic demanded it? After all, the potential heartbreak in such situations as you describe is the same for people who are not romantically involved as it is for those who are. Love knows know boundaries. But if you think marriage is about love, then Houston, we have a problem.

    *http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Gilbert_K_Chesterton/Orthodoxy/The_Ethics_of_Elfland_p2.html

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 12:10 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Okay, TP – back atcha: you wrote:

      “In terms of yoga and dharma, social obligation, we marry to increase our service to God, family, and society, not to get advantages and conveniences.”

      That may play well in the tribal regions of Pakistan but it’s not the kind of honey that will attract any bees in a contemporary society. What you are describing is an unrealistic and incomplete scenario for 99.9% of people who practice yoga, including those who consider themselves 24/7 devotional yogis. Realistically, a marriage that doesn’t spring from an initial material attraction and subsequently blossoms into genuine affection will not result in a long-term relationship filled with loving exchanges that make an intimate relationship work on a spiritual or material level. In such cases it is far more likely that a marriage based solely on a sense of obligation will become stale and neither party will feel positively motivated to pursue the perfection of yoga. I know of only one instance where a failed marriage, arranged and agreed to as a matter of sacred and social duty, resulted in one partner moving on to a life of positive renunciation and exponentially increased service to God and his example cannot be imitated however much we may consider it one to be aspired to. This does not mean that arranged marriages are doomed by definition. But in the vast majority of cases, denial of the emotional aspect of marriage is a refutation of reality: a denial of emotional needs in a marriage is most likely to lead to a hardening of the heart, a search for something that will meet those needs outside of the marriage, or both. Marriage, whether it is about two people helping each other develop their love for God or their love for one another or both, is definitely about love:



      If the issue of hospital visitation had been effectively dealt with by means of the legislation you referred to then we wouldn’t see this sort of thing happening 18 months after the legislation had passed:

      http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2012/08/20/713251/nevada-same-sex-couple-denied-hospital-visitation-despite-domestic-partnership/

      In the real world, as this story illustrates, it is not so easily dealt with. And the reason I keep bringing it up is made clear by President Obama’s rational for the legislation:

      “There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital. In these hours of need and moments of pain and anxiety, all of us would hope to have a hand to hold, a shoulder on which to lean – a loved one to be there for us, as we would be there for them.”

      I have no reason to worry about whether or not the person who loves me the most will be permitted to help me out if I can’t shout and I can’t do nuthin’ no more: she’ll be there to, loud and clear, right in my right ear, call out the name of the Lord. I see no reason why anyone should have to worry about that. So, let’s just say for the sake of argument that such rights are better guaranteed by civil unions than marriage: Thirty-one states in the United States of America have constitutional amendments banning legal recognition of same-sex unions. Think back to the civil rights movement: do you think anything short of federal legislation will give gay couples the rights that you think are so easily acquired by legal paperwork? And why should these extra steps be necessary? And, more to the point of this conversation, are you suggesting that the Bhagavad Gita supports the right of gay people to enter into civil unions but not ‘marriage’?

      Let me make sure I understand you correctly: the material aspect of marriage includes religiosity – requiring procreative sex in order to meet this criterion – and economic development in pursuit of material enjoyment. The spiritual aspect is one of mutual support on the path of yoga. If any of these elements are missing then the relationship cannot be called “marriage”. Is this a correct understanding of your position? Is interpersonal affection a non-factor in defining a marriage? What can be said for couples that follow the regulative principles of yoga and choose not to have children? Is their union not considered a marriage?

      For me, your arguments sound too much like a dogmatic, fundamentalist approach to personal relationships in general and marriage in particular from the ‘smoking pot leads to heroin addiction and allowing gays to marry leads to people marrying sheep’ school of thought that denies the reality of varieties of human psychology, the importance of interpersonal affection in intimate relationships, and keeps intelligent, truthful, broad-minded and soft-hearted yogis from approaching the intersection of yoga and religion for fear that, as is so often the case, it’s scriptural foundations are all about narrow rules and regulations. But this is not the case with the Bhagavad Gita: even if we stipulate that gay couples can’t, by definition, follow the strict conception (pun intended) of ‘Holy Matrimony’, Krishna’s instructions regarding devotional yoga are very inclusive:

      “If you cannot practice the regulations of bhakti-yoga, then just try to work for Me, because by working for Me you will come to the perfect stage.” (Bg 12.10)

      And yes, I read “The Liberal Case Against Gay Marriage”: thanks for the link.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: