6 June 2007
Dear respected members of the GBC,
Please accept my humble obeisances at your feet. All glories to ISKCON founder-acarya Srila Prabhupada.
In December of 2004, in a public statement on the devotee-run news website Dipika.org, H.H. Hridayananda Das Goswami declared that he was “not convinced that marriage is the best means in all cases, but some serious, formal, and public recognition and appreciation of gay monogamy is, in my view, in the best interest of ISKCON and its members.”
Among the devotee public, this radical statement caused an outcry—also aired at Dipika.org. The outcry was notable because most of those who objected typically do not publicly protest anything. Also noteworthy was that a nearly equal number of supporters publicly defended Maharaja’s statement although they too rarely protest anything in public. Two months later (February 2005), Maharaja took the unprecedented action of publishing a 25-page essay defending his statement on the basis of what he considered the conclusion of sastras and the acaryas. This essay was first published at Chakra, a site well known for its advocacy of “gay rights,” and soon after was published on Maharaja’s own website, www.acharyadeva.com. It was also translated into Spanish and Portuguese, and these translations can be downloaded from his website. With the publication of this essay, further protest and counter protest ensued. Eventually, the protest wound down, and little more was said or heard about the issue until January 2007, when one of Hridayananda Goswami’s own disciples published on Dandavats.com an essay challenging his guru’s thesis. Eventually, this third wave of protest and counter protest also wound down.
Throughout each of those successive waves of protest, perhaps the most remarkable feature of this controversy was that ISKCON’s institutional leadership never became publicly involved. Although some members of the GBC and other ISKCON officers made private, discrete inquiries, no official representative on behalf of ISKCON offered any public judgment or guidance on the matter.
Just picture what would happen if one of the Catholic Church’s most revered cardinals publicly made a similar statement—that the Church should give “serious, formal, and public recognition and appreciation of gay monogamy”? Now imagine a leader of one of the twelve mathas in Udipi making a similar statement. Would that too have been met with silence from the other mathas? Could Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who is rupanuga-viruddhapa-siddhanta-dvantanta harine, have silently tolerated such a public statement from any of his sannyasis or other senior disciples? Our own Srila Prabhupada’s statements on the matter of homosexuality are consistently and unequivocally opposed. In the face of such statements, spiritual organizations, religious leaders, and sadhus we recognize as having remained faithful to their historic teachings and disciplic successions are characteristically unequivocal in their opposition.
The absence of an official response to Maharaja’s proposal from ISKCON’s leadership is remarkable because it is not only uncharacteristic of our previous acaryas but is more or less uncharacteristic of the leadership of any historic, mainstream religion in the world today—in the East or West. If institutional ISKCON is factually against such a proposal, then why the silence? After all, silence is maunam samiti laksanam (silence implies consent), and a controversy among some of our leading devotees over something as non-trivial as our understanding of human sexuality surely affects the institution’s future interests. So why the silence? Here are some possible explanations:
1. The proposal for gay monogamy is so obviously wrong, so obviously against Srila Prabhupada’s teachings, that it does not deserve a public response. One member of the GBC whom I spoke with assured me that if the GBC were to vote today on any gay monogamy proposal, it would be overwhelmingly defeated. I believe him. My own 20-plus years experience within our society tells me that most of ISKCON’s rank-and-file members would also nix such a proposal. Yet attitudes can change. At one time within ISKCON, it was widely felt that women should not have equal access and opportunity to occupy leadership positions such as temple president or GBC, but today that notion is widely discredited. Ideas and attitudes that once were widespread and “obvious” can become so completely overturned and discredited that members of the new majority have great difficulty imagining how their predecessors held such “obviously wrong” views. Their predecessors also have great difficulty imagining that future consensus could ever be much different from the present.
If a notion is so “obviously wrong,” then why is history replete with innumerable examples of “obviously wrong” notions that eventually became “obviously right”— unless, of course, what is “obvious” obscures what is actually important? For example, to anyone who knows me, it is obvious that right now I am forty years old and in the prime of life. What is unobvious are the dynamic processes by which the hairs on my head gradually turn white, the skin gradually wrinkles, and the body itself eventually dies. Affirming the obviousness of my present condition (my age and good health) tends to obscure the reality that it is merely temporary. In the same way, affirming the “obviousness” that the proposal for gay monogamy is wrong obscures the active processes that could eventually overturn that consensus. Just as “living in the present” does nothing whatsoever to mitigate the processes of birth, old age, disease, and death, the GBC’s affirming their current consensus against gay monogamy does nothing to address dynamic processes now in motion that could change that consensus. Affirming the present consensus is a distraction that we can call the be-here-now policy. Following this policy—however unwittingly—has closed off serious thinking about what ISKCON could become if those in a position to preserve the existing consensus do not act.
2. Virtually no one present on the GBC would ever agree to such a proposal. Again, most probably this is true. Although tenure as a GBC member is typically for life, it is still temporary. When the elder members pass on and younger ones replace them, who will they be? Here are some devotees who stand a better chance than most of becoming members of the GBC:
A disciple of Hridayananda Goswami named Tripurari Prabhu (Travis Chilcott), who recently earned a PhD and who has been focused on religious studies, said this about gay monogamy:
As we know most of us who are conditioned souls in this world are not meant for life-long brahmacarya or sannyasa, but have relationship needs. These needs should be dovetailed in as KC a way as possible. This same principle applies to those who are gay or homosexual as much as it does to those who are heterosexual. So, my suggestion is that there needs to be something done on an institutional level to encourage those who are gay but need to go through something like the grhastha ashrama.1 Since Tripurari Prabhu is considered one of Hridayananda Goswami’s best disciples, has been unwaveringly loyal to ISKCON, and holds a PhD (nowadays considered valuable), it is more likely than not that he will eventually occupy positions of authority within ISKCON. If he becomes a member of the GBC, and “gay monogamy” is voted upon, how will he vote?
Another devotee known for his dynamic and tireless preaching is Sitapati Prabhu, who resides in Brisbane, Australia. He has been in ISKCON barely ten years yet has taken leading roles in Loft preaching, Atma Yoga instruction, and numerous core ISKCON activities such as deity worship and sankirtana. He also has been instrumental in starting and running a number of technology-oriented preaching activities, including the umbrella websites planetiskcon.com and iskconnews.net. Showcased on the websites urbanmissionary.info and atmayogi.com are his prolific writings, which include short articles and longer essays on topics as diverse as cooking, deity worship, modern leadership principles, information technology, chanting Hare Krishna, interfaith preaching, social networking, and marriage. He is an information technology professional, an outstanding husband and father, and a dynamic and dedicated Vaisnava preacher. He has “ISKCON leader” written all over him. He also believes in gay marriage.
In an essay titled “An Argument for Same-sex Marriage,” Sitapati Prabhu wrote that “homosexual marriage” could be introduced as an upadharma.2 He wrote further:
If homosexual marriage were to be introduced as a spiritually progressive path for people, it would need to be accompanied by a lot of preaching about the purpose of marriage, not just to homosexual couples, but also to heterosexual couples, many of whom seemed to have missed, along with the rest of modern Western civilization, the point. Otherwise, for a homosexual person it might be difficult to find a stable situation.3 If in the future gay monogamy—or gay marriage—came up for a vote, and Sitapati were a GBC member, how would he vote?
There are also devotees we don’t specifically know of but could be reasonably expected to favor “gay monogamy” or its older sibling, “gay marriage.” Prominently posted at GALVA’s website is a personal letter from the late Bhakti Tirtha Swami, wherein he wrote:
Quite a while back, I received a copy of your [Amara das’s] paper, Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex. I read the paper. It was very informative, but I did not really let it sink in deeply. Recently, I have been making so much more effort in trying to open up my heart to be more available in understanding and serving all Vaishnavas with greater effectiveness. After hearing of Damodara’s suicide, I read your paper over again, along with some of the writings of H.H. Bhakti Ananda Goswami, Rama Keshava dasa and Mitravinda dasi. I must say that I have seen the light, (especially after more closely reading over the story in the Bhagavatam concerning Lord Brahma’s creating the personalities from his buttocks, the account of the members of the third sex who were in attendance at Lord Caitanya’s appearance, and a closer investigation of Arjuna in his transgender form of Brihannala.)4
The essay Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja mentioned, “Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex,” argues that the sexual behavior of homosexuals was an accepted part of Vedic society. In several places the essay claims that gay men and lesbian women lived openly in Vedic society and their same-sex marriages had public and religious approval.5 GALVA’s own objectives include winning public and institutional approval of same-sex marriage within ISKCON.6 Considering that Bhakti Tirtha Swami embraced the conclusions of this essay, which is more likely: the majority of his disciples finds gay monogamy unacceptable or the majority finds it acceptable?
These are examples of devotees who agree with proposals like gay monogamy. Some of them are strong candidates for future leadership positions. Obviously, the GBC as it is now constituted would never agree to a proposal such as gay monogamy, but there are good reasons to believe that this may change.
3. Gay monogamy is meant to help a certain class of people struggling to become Krishna conscious. Why else would a devotee recommend such a thing unless he sincerely believed it would be beneficial? Even those who disagree with Hridayananda Maharaja’s proposal agree that his intentions are noble. Even though I had explicitly and prominently admitted the same in my own rebuttal, after it was published some devotees still charged me with misunderstanding Maharaja’s intentions.7 Yet there is some merit to this defense.
In ISKCON, the authority of our leaders means a lot. Hridayananda Maharaja is one of ISKCON’s greatest scholars and preachers, almost in a class by himself. If he believes that something is good and correct, and any of us disagree, chances are that he is right. It’s something like Lord Nityananada walking into a liquor store—it must be for some authorized, Krishna conscious purpose. How could it be otherwise? Since Hridayananda Goswami is so transcendentally qualified, how could we doubt his judgment?
Yet within our society, despite the best of intentions, sometimes even great devotees have been wrong. Just as a famous surgeon, despite his best intentions, can sometimes harm a patient, an advanced devotee can also make costly mistakes in spiritual matters. Those who do not make mistakes are liberated souls. The question before us is how will we treat the proposal for gay monogamy? Is it coming from a liberated soul or is it coming from an advanced devotee who is rightly situated but not quite liberated?
If the proposal is coming from a liberated soul, such as our Srila Prabhupada, then we can safely presume it is correct without further investigation. But if it is coming from someone who is not yet liberated, however advanced he may otherwise be, then despite all of his high, scholarly qualifications and best of intentions, the proposal could still be wrong. If it could be wrong, and out of sentiment we neglect to examine it on its own merits, then this is a mistake—possibly with grave consequences.
4. Monogamy is better than promiscuity—something is better than nothing. One ISKCON leader provided this defense of Hridayananda Maharaja’s argument:
I have lived in temples where there were admitted homosexuals in the congregation. These people never asked for initiation, and they rendered whatever services can be rendered by people who are unable to follow the regulative principles. A same-sex union, be it monogamous, is not acceptable in a brahminical society, but it is better than promiscuity.8
For two reasons, at least, monogamy is not necessarily better than promiscuity. On the basis of Bhagavad-gita 2.59, we know that people can be “restricted from sense enjoyment although their taste for sense objects remains.” If a lusty man takes sannyasa, how will sannyasa help him? Also, the Bhagavatam mentions that for those who are exceptionally lusty, there is some benefit to overindulgence: “Just as drops of ghee on a fire never extinguish the fire but a flood of ghee will, similarly, overindulgence in lusty desires mitigates such desires entirely.”9 If homosexuals are characteristically very lusty, then encouraging monogamy among them might in fact be a disservice.
But there is a larger point that the “something is better than nothing” argument misses: the significance of prescribed duties. In the time I have been married, my observation has been that householders who break the rules prohibiting illicit sex and treat their marriage more like a “monogamous union” struggle to make spiritual advancement. Because it is without Krishna’s sanction, monogamy has no potency. Prescribed duties work because Krishna has prescribed them—he gives them their potency. That is why chanting Hare Krishna will save one, and that is why chanting Coca-Cola won’t. Because chanting the Lord’s names is authorized, the Bhagavatam credits Ajamila’s liberation to his having chanted “Narayana” prior to and at the moment of death. Credit was not given to his monogamous union with a prostitute.
Furthermore, how could anyone empirically prove that monogamy outside of marriage helps one become more renounced and less sinful? Even fallen householders don’t have illicit sex all day—they do much more than that. On occasion, they offer food to Krishna, take prasadam, visit the temple, wash the temple pots, write a check to the temple (something’s better than nothing, right?), give daksina to sadhus, serve devotees, and—dare I say it—sometimes chant Hare Krishna. Any one of these activities canfully account for any degree of renunciation they could possibly achieve. This would also be true for homosexuals. Experience and observation are not enough to prove that gay monogamy will work.
Since gay monogamy is not recommend in the sastras and cannot be empirically demonstrated to work, then the most that can be said about it is that those who believe in it do so mainly because of their cultural predispositions.
5. Hridayananda Maharaja liberally quoted Srila Prabhupada, quoted other acaryas, and quoted sastra itself to make his case for gay monogamy.
Yes he did. At one point in his lengthy essay he explicitly offers us a guru-sadhu-shastra analysis of homosexuality in our most important Vaisnava scriptures—the Gita and the Bhagavatam. He wrote [emphasis mine]:
So in trying to understand how ISKCON should deal with homosexuality, we must
first ask this question:
Do Vaishnava Vedic scriptures give specific, explicit unambiguous rules for dealing with homosexuality, or if not, must we reason our way to a conclusion? Srila Prabhupada taught that we must understand the spiritual science through guru, sadhu, and shastra, “one’s teacher, other saintly persons, and revealed scriptures.” Srila Prabhupada also taught unceasingly that his own ultimate qualification, and indeed the qualification of any bona fide guru, is to always faithfully repeat the teachings of Krishna as they are found in revealed scriptures. Thus we must search the most important Vaishnava sciptures presented by Srila Prabhupada, the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-bhagavatam, for specific, explicit, unambiguous scriptural statements about homosexuality.
The result? There are none. Remarkably, neither the Gita nor the Bhagavatam gives a single explicit reference to mutually consensual homosexuality.10 This is an essential conclusion for his entire thesis, for it allows him to construct a consequentialist argument in support of gay monogamy [emphasis mine]:
Yet although homosexuality is said to have existed since the dawn of creation, the Bhagavatam does not explicitly describe nor proscribe it. Thus according to Krishna’s own statement [MB 8.49.49], since we do not find a specific, explicit, unambiguous set of rules for dealing with homosexuality, we must engage in spiritual reasoning about it.11
The biggest problem with this conclusion is that it depends on a misrepresentation of Srila Prabhupada’s own statements. In his guru-sadhu-shastra analysis, Maharaja quotes only the first sentence of Srila Prabhupada’s two-sentence commentary to Bhagavatam verse 3.20.26. Although Maharaja claims that his analysis demonstrates that the Bhagavatam does not “explicitly describe nor proscribe” homosexuality, the sentence from Srila Prabhupada’s purport that he does not quote both explicitly describes and explicitly proscribes homosexuality. [HDG quotes this sentence:] It appears here that the homosexual appetite of males for each other is created in this episode of the creation of the demons by Brahma. [HDG does not quote this sentence:]In other words, the homosexual appetite of a man for another man is demoniac and is not for any sane male in the ordinary course of life. Clearly, the second sentence that he does not quote both describes and proscribes homosexuality. If he were to use it, then his guru-sadhu-sastra analysis could not support the conclusion he came to. He would not be able to engage in the kind of “spiritual reasoning” he needs to justify gay monogamy.
Why did he exclude that sentence? It could have been a mistake, or it could have been his intention to exclude it. Yet whether or not his choice had been intentional, the result has been that one of ISKCON’s topmost authorities has promoted an idea about human sexuality that is based on a misrepresentation of Srila Prabhupada’s intended meaning. If this “cut-and-paste” way of misreading Srila Prabhupada stands unchallenged, then there will follow many more devotees who will have few if any qualms about arbitrarily taking what they like that Srila Prabhupada said and leaving what they don’t like. If even Srila Prabhupada’s clearest statements are not going to be taken “As It Is,” then what will logically prevent devotees who learn this new way of reading Srila Prabhupada from similarly misrepresenting any other aspect of our parampara, such as sadhu or sastra? How is this functionally any different from creating what Srila Prabhupada described as “unauthorized commentaries”?
none of them [commentaries on the Bhagavad-gita] can be strictly said to be authoritative because in almost every one of them the commentator has expressed his own opinions without touching the spirit of Bhagavad-gita as it is.12 Some will say that I am just nitpicking, or making mountains out of molehills. “So what if he got it wrong on one small purport?” Aside from that purport, the rest of Hridayananda Maharaja’s essay has similar misrepresentations that are both broad and specific. In two previous essays I have covered these misrepresentations in detail, but herein I will briefly note some of them:
Maharaja has written a 25-page essay about Vaisnava morality and homosexuality without quoting or referring to a representative sample of what Srila Prabhupada said about it. Indeed, the only statement from Srila Prabhupada about homosexuality that he used is a single sentence from the purport of SB 3.20.26, which he quoted out of context.13
Maharaja has preferred a more speculative approach to moral reasoning despite a more direct “As It Is” reading of sastra that unambiguously and comprehensively covers the class of devotees he is trying to help.14
Maharaja’s approach to understanding illicit sex conflicts with a GBC resolution passed in 2001 and generally contradicts Srila Prabhupada’s own stated views on the subject.15
The overreaching problem with Maharaja’s essay is that Srila Prabhupada is well out of the picture. It comes to conclusions that Srila Prabhupada himself repudiated, and where Srila Prabhupada is quoted on the matter of homosexuality, he is quoted out of context. The implications are also much larger than this. If this way of reading Srila Prabhupada is encouraged, either by overt endorsement or by the consent of silence, soon we will have an ISKCON that follows Srila Prabhupada in name only. Sounds far-fetched? The next section of this letter describes some of the damage that has already been done.
6. We don’t want to elevate the status of those who are complaining. This has been one of the most quiet yet significant reservations our leadership has held when dealing with such matters. Although it is true that the devotees complaining the most about Hridayananda Maharaja’s gay monogamy proposal are traditionalists, and their perspective tends to annoy some of ISKCON’s members and leaders, discounting their views and complaints has not been without consequence.
In 2000–2001, when some devotees began to openly question Srila Prabhupada’s authority in public forums, ISKCON’s leadership was petitioned to take action. However, they didn’t take action, and there were consequences. In his most recent book, Hare Krishna Transformed, ISKCON observer, well-wisher, and sociologist E. Burke Rochford, Jr., notes this calculated refusal to take action:
The doubts raised about Prabhupada’s authority resulted in a number of angry and hostile reactions that soon found their way to ISKCON’s leadership. As one ISKCON leader described it, the virulent tone of the response approached “the ancient, atavistic mob-cry., ‘Burn the witches’” (COM 2001:2). Despite the outcry from GHQ members and other devotees equally concerned about the challenge to Srila Prabhupada’s authority, ISKCON’s North American leadership made no formal effort to sanction, or otherwise stop, those responsible for defaming Srila Prabhupada. As one prominent GHQ member declared, “These GBC men did not rise to defend Srila Prabhupada, they did not rise to come to the defense of those who were trying to defend Srila Prabhupada.” (Das Ameyatma 2000:9). One GBC member hinted at the reasons why the leadership failed to respond when he declared, “I hereby confess I came to find these reactions, ‘in defense of Srila Prabhupada,’ equally—no, even more so—troubling and upsetting than that which occasioned them” (COM 2000a). As this statement implies, ISKCON’s leaders found themselves in an uncomfortable position, as pursuing a vigorous and public defense of Prabhupada meant aligning themselves with GHQ and its controversial agenda. One GBC member decided, “They are like the John Birch Society, and we didn’t want to raise their visibility and status. Plus it was politically safe just to ignore them, and we did” (interview October 2005).16
The unintended consequences of this shrewd political maneuver? Rochford further writes:
The conflict over gender equality, incited by the GHQ’s determined effort to assert traditional Vedic conceptions of dharma, opened a Pandora’s box that may forever remain open. The debate about women’s roles and place in ISKCON led to critical questioning of Prabhupada’s scriptural commentaries, as well as to his overall authority as Krishna’s pure representative. The fact that the leadership failed to act decisively on Prabhupada’s behalf was an acknowledgement that his authority no longer was absolute. Given ISKCON’s increasingly pluralistic membership, it was perhaps inevitable that Prabhupada’s teachings would be questioned, especially in light of their past misuse resulting in the abuse of women and children. As one ISKCON leader expressed it, “There is irreducible diversity within ISKCON. It is a mistake trying to find the straight line. What is important is whether a devotee fits within the boundaries of Prabhupada’s teachings.” Yet as these teachings become reframed as guides for thought and action, in place of being “absolute truths,” traditionalism will continue its march to the margins of ISKCON. As it does, the goal of creating a viable cultural alternative to mainstream American culture will cease to exist.17
If Rochford is right about Srila Prabhupada’s teachings being reframed primarily as “guides for thought and action,” then Srila Prabhupada is now further from the center of ISKCON than at any other time in its history. If Srila Prabhupada’s words are thought of more as guidelines than absolute truths, then how will faith in guru and Krishna ever rise above a tepid, deferential nod in Their general direction? Is this the outcome ISKCON’s leaders hoped to achieve by their political move? I doubt it. Yet this is what happened, and the outcome has been consistent with what our sastras say will happen if we do not defend Krishna or his pure devotee when the occasion demands it.
Furthermore, coming from a scholar looked upon favorably by ISKCON’s ruling insiders, Rochford statements, if true, are strong evidence that in the recent past the GBC has placed politics above truth. Sometimes even persons perceived as enemies can be right about important matters. However tempting the political gains that could be achieved through ignoring or contradicting such persons, it is ultimately against the best interests of ISKCON’s society and its leadership to do so. Srila Prabhupada’s status within ISKCON, along with regard for the GBC’s spiritual authority, diminished as a result of the GBC’s inaction. This is a strong indication that the GBC’s politically calculated silence was ill advised.
These consequences should remind ISKCON’s progressive members that although we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions including those we never anticipated. If the GBC will reconsider their lack of response to the “gay monogamy” controversy, then perhaps the best that we traditionalists can ask of those who will make the big decisions (and deciding not to act is also a decision) is that this time around they not let their decision-making process be hijacked by “party spirit.”
7. The GBC has more important matters to deal with.
Perhaps the GBC does have better things to do. But it is difficult to believe that the outcome of a public controversy over our understanding of human sexuality will not deeply affect our practice of Krishna consciousness and the message that we preach to the world at large. Gay monogamy is the latest challenge to the traditional understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s authority and teachings. If the GBC’s previous calculated inaction resulted in Srila Prabhupada’s teachings no longer being regarded as absolute, then what might happen if this latest push to liberalize ISKCON’s public understanding of human sexuality goes unchallenged?
As I had argued in my previous essay, the first casualty will be the GBC’s authority. Although in the future the GBC will likely still be greatly respected as ISKCON’s topmost managerial body, regard for the GBC as ISKCON’s topmost spiritual authority, however, will not be as great. On account of the GBC’s reluctance to publicly address philosophical and theological controversies, even ISKCON’s progressives, what to speak of traditionalists, will come to have little confidence in the GBC’s ability to give spiritual guidance. The likelihood of this outcome is one of the few things that ISKCON’s progressives and traditionalists agree upon.
In correspondence with a traditionalist devotee on the issue of gay monogamy, the socially progressive Sitapati Prabhu wrote:
I definitely agree with you that the dialogue [over gay monogamy] has to take place, and not in some secretive back room sessions where everybody’s fate is decided on their behalf either.18 At Dipika.org, a devotee expressed this praise for Hridayananda Maharaja’s proposal:
Also read Hridayananda Maharaj’s “Gay Monogamy” letter, and I applaud you for posting it. Of course it may ruffle some feathers, but I believe the principle is correct…. Wherever we are, we have to start somewhere.19 Also at Dipka.org, a devotee thanked Danavir Maharaja for speaking out against it:
Thank you finally—an ISKCON sannyasi for finally taking a clear stance in support of your spiritual master who is the clear founder and Acarya of ISKCON and no on else.20
Common to these for and against statements is the appreciation expressed for individual devotees taking a stand on this issue. Whether it is Hridayananda Maharaja advocating gay monogamy or Danavir Maharaja opposing it, devotees are looking up to them—not the GBC—to uphold Srila Prabhupada’s teachings. In the 2007 GBC meetings, Ravindra Svarupa Prabhu (GBC) said, “Individual GBC members are respected within ISKCON, but there is a lack of respect for the GBC body. . .”21Brahmanas are the head of society because they teach. That’s just the way the world works. If the GBC body itself does not take a lead in public debate and in providing instruction on the most serious theological controversies (other than when such a controversy is perceived as a political threat), then why would the rest of ISKCON regard the GBC as its topmost spiritual authority?
Moreover, traditionalist and progressive devotees share a disdain for philosophical and theological issues being settled in “secretive backroom sessions.” Brahmanas naturally prefer open discussion and debate, whereas silence, secrecy, and official decree are more suited to ksatriyas. Although a spiritual institution requires that all kinds of administrative work be nicely handled, even more important than administration is preaching. Preaching is not simply for the sake of the “unchurched”; devotees also need to be preached to. If devotees cannot look to the GBC for guidance on the most important issues, they will look elsewhere. They will deem others as better, more credible sources of spiritual guidance than the GBC.
One may ask what is wrong with letting senior devotees closer to our rank-and-file take the lead in dealing with these issues. After all, that is how we have always worked. Yet there are times when an authority who represents the entire society must openly address philosophical and theological issues. Although both are dedicated, learned, and venerable, neither Danavir Maharaja nor Hridayananda Maharaja speak for the entire society, nor do they have authority to do so. Only the GBC has that authority. And if the GBC body does not use it, then it will lose it. If for whatever reason the GBC declines to use its authority (and thus far, it has), then this failure to act will lay foundations for a possible future schism.
Why schism? Because the GBC as an institution will have ceased acting to keep us unified on some of the essential beliefs that define us as a society. For example, there are few differences between ISKCON and the Gaudiya Math. We read the same scriptures, recite the same prayers, embrace certain fundamental ideas such as acintya-bhedabheda-tattva, chanting Hare Krishna, and following four regulative principles, and we worship basically the same previous acaryas. But the little that we disagree on is important enough to keep us socially and institutionally far apart. One essential difference is our understanding of the spiritual position of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. On this matter alone, between the two institutions there is plenty of “bad blood” that prevents any degree of cooperation in the foreseeable future. The most important disagreement between the two institutions is the differing value they assign to the authority of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.
In the same way, the gay monogamy controversy has exposed a similar yet internal disagreement about the degree of authority we assign to Srila Prabhupada and his teachings. Some devotees have, in Rochford’s words, “reframed” Srila Prabhupada’s teachings as “guides for thought and action,” whereas others consider Srila Prabhupada’s authority and teachings absolute. This difference explains why, for example, the more “progressive” devotees are not bothered by a presentation on some particular topic that purports to be in line with Srila Prabhupada’s teachings yet practically omits what Srila Prabhupada actually said on the topic. After all, they might say, if the social context Srila Prabhupada lived and preached in is significantly different from that of today, then some things he said back then are no longer applicable, no matter how “absolute” he was about them at the time. This difference also explains why “old school” devotees find such omissions unpardonable. If Srila Prabhupada’s words are absolute, then it is an offense to exclude them—especially those words of his that are “on topic.” Indeed, as to what Srila Prabhupada actually said about homosexuality and morality, Hridayananda Das Goswami’s 25-page essay quotes only one sentence from a two-sentence purport in the Bhagavatam; but Danavir Das Goswami’s two rebuttals, “Chaste Harlots”22 and “Moral Thesis Unraveled,”23 12 and 13 pages respectively, consist mostly of Srila Prabhupada’s statements on homosexuality.
One practical outcome of these two different standards of authority assigned to Srila Prabhupada is the rise of two different notions of religiously sanctioned sexual behavior—one being more inclusive of a wider range of sexual behaviors than the other. On the one hand, the view that Srila Prabhupada’s teachings are general, not absolute, guidelines has produced a notion that Srila Prabhupada taught two forms of religiously sanctioned sex: a greater rule, which restricts sex only to procreation, and a lesser rule, which merely restricts it within marriage. As we have seen, this view can accommodate the sanctioning of some degree of homosexual behavior. On the other hand, the view that Srila Prabhupada’s teachings are absolute accepts as legitimate only sex meant for procreation, and cannot sanction any form of homosexual behavior. These two positions are incompatible, and this suggests that the differing views of Srila Prabhupada’s authority are also incompatible.
Because this controversy also hinges on Srila Prabhupada’s authority, if nothing is done to correct it, then over time we are likely to see that relations between these two internal groups will resemble the broken institutional relations between ISKCON and the Gaudiya Math. In other words, without appropriate intervention, the differing groups will not be able to coexist within the same institution. This will be seen either in the slow trickle of an exodus from ISKCON by one of the parties, or the abrupt break of a schism. The GBC’s continued lack of involvement practically guarantees one of these outcomes.
As one who has been committed to ISKCON for the last 20 years, and as a traditionalist, I am committed to Srila Prabhupada’s conception that the GBC should not only be ISKCON’s topmost managerial authority, but also its topmost spiritual authority. That is what Srila Prabhupada said he wanted, so how could any traditionalist want anything else?
If my fellow traditionalists and I were otherwise indifferent or committed to ISKCON’s decline, then we would merely not say or do anything about it. We would simply let ISKCON continue on its present trajectory without protest. The GBC’s nearly three years of silence on the gay monogamy controversy has done more damage to its credibility than almost any other individual or group that has ever made an effort to damage it. And that credibility has been tarnished among ISKCON’s progressives too.
To improve its reputation as a spiritual authority, the GBC will have to be seen as more than an administrative body. It will also have to become an educational body. Passing resolutions and collecting oaths of allegiance are not sufficient for earning respect and love from ISKCON’s members. The GBC will have to reckon how to effectively teach and a guide spiritually, not simply as a collection of individuals but also as an institution.
Moreover, the GBC should not take for granted the continued good will of its constituents and hence keep neglecting important spiritual issues. The window of opportunity to deal with the gay monogamy controversy is nearly shut. Whatever the reasons, if the GBC remains indifferent, then an exodus, if not schism, may be inevitable. Mother Vishakha Priya, who authored the proposal that became the 2001 GBC resolution reaffirming that religiously sanctioned sex is only within marriage and only for procreation, explained why she wrote it:
After that particular proposal was passed, I was told that initially nobody wanted to discuss it, because our spiritual leaders (at least some of them) couldn’t believe the devotees were not following. Somehow, by Krsna’s mercy, it became a major topic of discussion, and at least the rule is on record. In my preaching field at the time, I encountered a lot of difficulties, because although I was only explaining the rules to devotees desirous of taking initiation (NOT to new people and casual congregation members), other devotees would counteract my preaching by saying I was a “fanatical temple devotee.” As a result, some of the candidates who were following nicely fell back into the pit.
At the very end of last year in South Africa, a law was passed, sanctioning gay marriages. We cannot stop the advance of Kali-yuga and we need to encourage everyone. However, by recognizing gay marriages in ISKCON, we endorse sexual activity not meant for procreation, which encourages ordinary married initiated couples to continue with fruitless sexual activities within marriage. If purity is indeed the force, shouldn’t our leaders encourage devotees to follow better and assist them in their struggle? We don’t need to give public lectures about it, but in small bhakti-vrksa groups and counselors groups, surely these things should be discussed and devotees encouraged to follow. We’ve had so many nauseating scandals. And Krsna-kirti’s statement (approximate) that as time goes on, devotees who seriously want to progress will be forced to leave ISKCON is certainly a possibility we can’t dismiss lightly. I must confess that it is only the strong shelter of my gurudeva, His Holiness Giriraj Swami Maharaj, which prevents me from taking association outside of ISKCON. Not that wonderful devotees do not abound in ISKCON. I can think of so many. But there seems to be a lack of adequate training. Actually, Srila Prabhupada’s books are not enough. As Srila Prabhupada himself has explained, we need the guidance of a living guru. Too many devotees feel that they don’t need one. I know it’s hard to keep faith if your spiritual master falls down because I had to take initiation three times before getting proper shelter, but not everyone is so fortunate, and therefore they go where they feel they can get strong guidance. Can we really blame them?24
Of course Mother Vishakha Priya’s ending question is rhetorical. Devotees want guidance more than anything else. We want to be preached to. We want Krishna consciousness explained to us even if we have been practicing for 20, 30, or 40 years or our whole lives. If the guidance is good yet the social programs shoddy, we would be satisfied, or at least significantly more satisfied than if the guidance is poor and the social programs excellent. The GBC’s persistent silence on the issue of gay monogamy means that many devotees will necessarily seek guidance elsewhere
I cannot tell you what to do. But depending on what you do or don’t do, I have described what is likely to happen. Soon enough, the rest of us will know beyond a reasonable doubt what we must do.
Your servant, Krishna-kirti das
1 Tripurari Das (HDG), “Open Letter to the SSPT,” 13 Mar 2005, Jagganatha’s Chakra, 29 May 2007
2 Sitapati Das, “An Argument for Same-sex Marriage,” 6 Sep. 2004, Urban Missionary, 29 May 2007 < http://www.urbanmissionary.info/2004/09/05/an-argument-for-same-sex-marriage/9/>
3 Sitapati Das, “An Argument for Same-sex Marriage”.
4 Bhakti Tirtha Swami, “Personal Letter,” 2 Jul 2002, The Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association, Inc, 29 May 2007
5 For example: “Vedic society was all encompassing, and each individual was seen as an integral part of the greater whole. Thus all classes of men were accommodated and engaged according to their nature. Third-gender citizens were neither persecuted nor denied basic rights. They were allowed to keep their own societies or town quarters, live together within marriage and engage in all means of livelihood.” [Amara Das Wilhelm, “Tritiya Prakriti: People of the Third Gender,” 2004, <http://galva108.org/Tritiya_prakriti.html>]
6 Amara Das Wilhelm, “GALVA's Position On “Illicit Sex” and Renunciation,” 2006, GALVA, 29 May 2007
7 Krishna-kirti Das, “A Response to Hridayananda das Goswami’s “Vaisnava Moral Theology and Homosexuality” 22 Jan 2007, Dandavats, 30 May 2007 (See the comments section.)
8 Umapati Swami, “‘Gay Monogamy’” Why I Posted It,” 20 Dec 2004, Dipika.org, 31 May 2007
9 Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.11.33 – 34 trans.
10 Hridayananda Das Goswami, “Vaisnava Moral Theology and Homosexuality,” page 18
11 Hridayananda Das Goswami, “Vaisnava Moral Theology and Homosexuality,” page 21
12 Srila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Introduction.
13 Krishna-kirti Das 6.
14 See discussion of “Ideal versus Real” in Krishna-kirti Das, 8.
15 Krishna-kirti Das 6 – 7 and Krishna-kirti Das “Sex Life Srila Prabhupada Sanctioned,” 18.
16 E. Burke Rochford Jr, Hare Krishna Transformed (New York: New York UP, 2007) 156.
17 Rochford 159.
18 Sitapati Das, “Internet website comment,” 4 Apr 2005, Hare Krishna Cultural Journal, 1 Jun 2007
19 Private email, “We Have to Start Somewhere,” 31 Mar 2005, Dipika.org, 1 Jun 2007