Sex and Gender Issues
This topic has a lot of people talking. The concept of "gay marriage" is neither condemned nor advocated in scripture—it's not even addressed—but at the risk of saying things you already know, it may help to begin answering this question by first discussing what Krishna consciousness means, how sex influences our thinking, and what the point of marriage is from a spiritual viewpoint.
Krishna consciousness means switching our focus from trying to satisfy our senses to trying to satisfy the supreme spiritual being, Krishna . When we make that switch, we become peaceful, self-satisfied, and we start to understand the huge difference between our true self and our temporary body.
The single biggest obstacle to our peace, satisfaction, and self-knowledge is sex. It's the highest pleasure available through the body, and the more we do it, the more ignorant of our spiritual nature we get. Sexual indulgence is the number one enemy of spiritual awareness, whether we're sexually attracted to the same sex or to the opposite sex. From the spiritual point of view, it doesn't make much of a difference; the same principle applies to everyone.
Any sexual orientation based on the external body is misdirected. We're all eternal, spiritual beings. Our outward bodily dress is temporary and full of troubles. We're meant to be attracted to Krishna, the supremely attractive, eternal spiritual person, not to temporary bodies that get old and die in the material world.
Krishna is pleasure-seeking by nature, and so are we. Everything—including our sex drive—comes from Krishna, and is meant to be used in His service. He says in the Bhagavad-gita that He is kama, lust, which isn't contrary to dharma, religious principles. Marriage is the formal institution within the codes of dharma that is meant to regulate our bodily urges in a way that we can also make spiritual progress.
Within Krishna conscious marriage, sex is restricted for the sole purpose of conceiving children. There aren't auxiliary concessions given in the teachings of Krishna consciousness for directing sexual urges otherwise. For making genuine spiritual progress, it's recommended that one either observe total celibacy or accept the restrictions of a principled marriage. The natural and expected outcome is that, as one practices Krishna consciousness while carrying out worldly responsibilities in the form of maintaining a family, one becomes less and less interested in sex and gradually gives it up altogether.
Same-sex partnerships can be as helpful to spiritual life as marriages, provided both partners honor the principles of celibacy. This is certainly not easy, but neither is raising children. Whether same-sex couples get legally married won't necessarily affect their spiritual life for better or for worse.
Equally healthy for spiritual life and for human emotional development is sexual exclusivity. Tendencies for multiple or consecutive partners will undermine our spiritual aspirations, endanger our health, and hamper our ability to have mature, fulfilling relationships.
There's no official institution of gay marriage within Krishna consciousness. The bottom line is that it's our individual responsibility—whether "gay" or "straight"—to be honest with ourselves about how our actions affect our consciousness. We will experience the peace, clarity, and joy of spiritual life to the degree we're following the prescribed process for achieving it.
In this world, "male" and "female" are gender designations we assign to different body types. Spiritually, everyone is equal; the bodily and mental differences we see here don't have anything to do with the soul. Everyone has equal opportunity to make spiritual advancement. When we overly identify our self with our temporary body (thinking, "I'm a Woman!" or, "I'm a Man!"), then we're not so spiritually advanced.
Traditionally, mothers are the original gurus, providing children with their initial framework for seeing the world and acting in it. Children's first impressions of right, wrong, duty, and God generally come from their mothers.
In Vedic culture, at a certain stage of life—when children are old enough to take care of their mother—men are expected to leave home, travel alone, and seek self-realization through vows of austerity. They're the ones, therefore, who have traditionally taken on roles of formal spiritual leadership.
Traditionally men were better suited to go out and encounter the public for purposes of preaching. This doesn't mean that women were not advanced. Actually, the most advanced devotees in the Gaudiya Vaishnava teachings are the gopis, or simple village girls, of Vrindavan. Also, Jahnavi Devi, the wife of Nityananda Prabhu, took the role of an acharya, or teacher, after her husband left this world.
In the Srimad-Bhagavatam we see many great women devotees, such as Queen Kunti, Draupadi, Mother Yashoda, Devahuti, the wives of the yajnic brahmanas, the naga-patnis or wives of Kaliya, and many more. Even Pingala, who was a prostitute, was able to attain self-realization by her devotional service.
So at first glance we may see that the majority of teachers seem to be male, but when you get into the heart of the matter, you will see there are at least an equal number of exalted devotees in female bodies. Spiritually, all souls are ‘female,’ prakriti, in relation to the Lord. He is the enjoyer, purusha, and we're meant to be enjoyed by Him. Temporary, bodily distinctions are not very important. If you're in a woman's body—and you're at all inclined—by all means we encourage you to become a sadhu, guru, sage or prophet and make this world a better place.
Anyone can practice Krishna consciousness. Chanting Hare Krishna mantra, reading Srila Prabhupada's books, coming to the temple, taking prasadam are open to everyone...and spiritual advancement will certainly be the result.
Initiation is a very serious commitment however, and occurs only after a good deal of self-reflection and training. First, the candidate needs to seriously practice Krishna consciousness for six months at the very least. This involves studying Srila Prabhupada's books, demonstrating practical knowledge of the philosophy of Krishna Consciousness, associating with devotees, following the four regulative principles and chanting sixteen rounds of Hare Krishna mantra on beads daily. The four regulative principles are: No meat eating, no gambling, no intoxication and no sexual connection outside of marriage, except for the procreation of children.
Once you have been doing the above for some time—six months at the very least—you can approach a senior member of ISKCON and request to be initiated. The prospective guru and aspiring disciple then get to know each other for some time—at the very least six months more. If they are both convinced that it is a workable relationship—the disciple is able to follow the regulative principles and is willing to take serious spiritual instruction from the guru—then initiation may take place. At the time of initiation, the disciple vows to follow the four regulative principles and chant sixteen rounds of Hare Krishna
One's sexual preference does not matter. However, since there is no possibility of having sex for the procreation of children within a homosexual relationship, that would mean the two persons, as initiated disciples, would have to remain sexually inactive throughout their relationship. I hope this is helpful.
Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita that lust arises from contemplating the objects of the senses. Therefore try to avoid thinking about or seeing the opposite sex as far as possible. And the secret—according to Krishna—is to get a higher taste from spiritual activities.
Practice makes improvement. Try to engage the mind in practical service, as well as hearing and chanting about Krishna. The more we do that, our mind will have less time to contemplate the objects of the senses.
Don't purposely go places or do things that you know will agitate your mind sexually. And don't despair or become depressed; it takes time to train up the lusty mind.
Meditating on the beautiful form of Krishna, beginning with His lotus feet, helps free the mind from lust. It may seem hard to believe, but if you try it, you will see it works.
We also should eat prasadam, vegetarian food that is offered to Krishna. In these ways we can spiritualize our mind by engaging it in Krishna's service.
We shouldn't be impatient. Sex desire is something we've been involved with for many lifetimes. It's not like it will disappear suddenly. But it becomes easier to tolerate as we absorb our mind in a positive spiritual way.
We can read sections from the scripture that describe how entangling sex desire is. These include the Forest of Enjoyment chapter of the Fifth Canto, Lord Kapila's teachings about adverse fruitive activities in the Third Canto, the Aila Gita from the Eleventh Canto, etc. These convince us intellectually of the value of controlling sex desire.
There are also foods that can be avoided: Don't eat too many grains or yogurt at night. Don't eat lots of rich foods like cashew nuts. This causes nocturnal emissions. Don't talk about mundane male/female relationships or associate with people who do.
Bhakti Vikas Swami has a book on Brahmacarya, celibacy. You can find it on his web site.
(An excerpt from the book Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers—a conversation between Brahmatirtha dasa and Srila Prabhupada)
Srila Prabhupada: The Vedic principle is that one should avoid sex life altogether. The whole Vedic principle is to get liberation from material bondage. There are different attachments for material enjoyment, of which sex life is the topmost enjoyment. The Bhagavatam says that this material world...
pumsah striya mithuni-bhavam etam
[ Srimad-Bhagavatam, 5.5.8]
Man is attached to woman, and woman is attached to man. Not only in human society—in animal society also. That attachment is the basic principle of material life.
So, a woman is hankering or seeking after the association of a man, and a man is hankering or seeking for the association of a woman. All the fiction novels, dramas, cinema and even ordinary advertisements that you see simply depict the attachment between man and woman. Even in the tailor's shop you will find in the window some woman and some man.
pravrittir esha bhutanam
nivrittis tu mahaphalam
(Manu Smriti, 5.56)
So this attachment is already there.
Bob: Attachment between man and woman?
Srila Prabhupada: Man and woman. So if you want to get liberation from this material world, then that attachment should be reduced to nil. Otherwise, simply further attachment—You will have to take rebirth, either as a human being or as a demigod or as an animal, as a serpent, as a bird, as a beast. You will have to take birth.
So, this basic principle of increasing attachment is not our business, although it is the general tendency—griha, kshetra, suta [home, land, sons]—but if one can reduce and stop it, that is first class. Therefore our Vedic system is to first of all train a boy as a brahmacari—no sex life. The Vedic principle is to reduce attachment, not to increase it. Therefore the whole system is called varnashrama-dharma.
The Indian system calls for varna and ashrama—four social orders and four spiritual orders. Brahmacarya [celibate student life], grihastha [married life], vanaprastha [retired life] and sannyasa [renounced life]—these are the spiritual orders. And the social orders consist of brahmanas [intellectuals], kshatriyas [administrators], vaishyas [merchants and farmers] and shudras [ordinary workers]. So under this system, the regulative principles are so nice that even if one has the tendency to enjoy material life, he is so nicely molded that at last he achieves liberation and goes back home, back to Godhead. This is the process. So sex life is not required, but because we are attached to it, therefore there are some regulative principles under which it is maintained.
Sex is such a compelling drive that if we're not very careful, it can control us. Many become addicted to it. Fortunately, Krishna can help us overcome any obstacle, provided we're serious. We demonstrate our seriousness by doing everything within our power to succeed; success in anything depends on Krishna's mercy as well as our own honest endeavor.
The same way Krishna provides cures for every disease in the form of various plants and herbs (Bhagavad-gita 9.16), He has also arranged many strategies for becoming free from becoming controlled by our own sexual urges. According to our individual situation, we need to take practical steps. Avoiding detrimental things (nivritti) and taking positive measures (pravritti) can help us become free from situations that would jeopardize our ability to remain peaceful and control our senses.
Sexual impulses can arise in both the body and mind, so those of us trying to become free from sex addiction—or material attraction of any kind—must be especially aware of what we feed our minds and bodies.
Avoiding eating at night is recommended for anyone's overall health. Eating foods that require significant time and energy for digestion—such as grains—too close to bedtime means we'll have a quantity of undigested food in our system. This puts pressure on the sexual organs and can create sexual agitation. If you must eat anything within four or five hours of going to sleep, it's best to choose things that are light and easily digestible. It's also helpful to avoid rich foods, such as cashews, as well as fried foods and sweets. This may sound extreme, but if it helps us control our senses, it's worth it.
The pravritti, positive aspect of this is to regulate our eating schedule. The body requires to eat, and if we're accustomed to only eat balanced, nutritious meals of Krishna prasadam, and only then at optimum times of day, that can help us be satisfied in body and mind, so that we're not craving inappropriate things or hungry at inappropriate times.
Avoiding contemplating the objects of the senses—lingering looks at or thoughts about the opposite sex—is essential. Those of us who haven't had the benefit of good brahmachari training in our formative years may especially have difficulties with this. But the mind can be trained, and we can create beneficial habits by using our intelligence. We can practice not looking at the attractive features of the opposite sex, or looking away once we catch ourselves looking. We can set our Internet preferences—if we absolutely must be online—in Safe mode, which can at least spare us being bombarded with "adult" content.
The pravritti of this is to place within our vision as many images of Krishna as is practical. If we become habituated to looking at the eternal, youthful forms of Radha and Krishna, that will help satisfy our desire to see beautiful objects, so that we're not looking for satisfaction in the world of temporary, destructible matter. This is one of the benefits of Deity worship—it requires full engagement of the senses in Krishna's service.
Revealing our minds to someone we trust is a necessary part of recovery from any addiction, and of the process of Krishna consciousness. We should find someone we respect, someone more experienced than we, in whom we can confide. Isolation is a killer. If we feel we can talk to someone more advanced than us without them condemning us, who will encourage us in spiritual life, this can keep us free from discouragement and from feeling alone—both of which, if left unchecked, can make our troubles worse.
The main point is to do whatever keeps us alive in Krishna consciousness. The most important practice for elevating our consciousness is chanting the Hare Krishna mantra while trying to become free from offenses to the holy name. If we can stick to that process, resolve to do better, take all necessary steps, and pray for Krishna's help, we can know that we're doing the best we can, and that it's just a matter of time before we're finally free from all obstacles on our path back to Krishna.
Beyond these steps, we may wish to seek (or create) a group made up of those who are fighting similar battles. Many who join and regularly attend meetings—such as Twelve Step groups—find that the association of those with a common goal is greatly beneficial. In such gatherings, we get the advantage of hearing others' struggles, so we no longer feel alone. The material energy has forever been causing problems for everyone in this world. It's encouraging to know we're not the only ones with issues, and we stand a good chance of learning from others' experience facing the same issues we are.
Some helpful resources: