Illicit sex outside of marriage is illicit sex with a capital ‘I’ and illicit sex within marriage is the small ‘i’

Sex within marriage is acceptable vow for taking initiation in ISKCON. Sex outside marriage is far worse than sex with husband or wife.

Question: If a devotees is seeking initiation but is not being able to follow the regulative principle of no illicit sex fully – meaning, no sex apart from procreation within marriage – should such a devotee take initiation or avoid initiation?

This is a personal question that has to be analyzed and applied on individual level with guidance from one’s own personal counselor or guide and based on one’s own understanding of one’s personal situation. So I cannot give a specific answer in terms of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but I can explain broad principles.

The principle of no illicit sex especially when Srila Prabhupada talked about it in the context of initiation, whether it was initiation lectures or letters which he sent at the time of initiating devotees, he primarily talked about in terms of no sex outside marriage, and that is the primary trust of the vow of initiation. Of course Srila Prabhupada has written about in his books that even sex within marriage which is not for procreation is also considered illicit. But at the same time there is a substantial amount of difference between the two. For example, we could say illicit sex outside of marriage is illicit sex with a capital ‘I’ and illicit sex within marriage is the small ‘i.’ The capital ‘I’ indicates that it’s a very serious violation and it’s a violation not just devotional vows; it is also a violation of moral principles and legal principles and it can disrupt many many lives, many families by that. So it has far graver implications.

When Srila Prabhupada was personally questioned about this Srila Prabhupada was on one level uncompromising but on another level he was understanding. At one time there was a devotee who came to Mayapur and then in Mayapur that devotee went to some local society girl over there, and the news spread among the devotee community and then they told Prabhupada. And then Prabhupada called the devotee and Prabhupada asked him, “Why did you do that?” He said, “I couldn’t control myself. I was too much tormented by lust.” And Prabhupada said, “But you are married! Why did you have to go to a prostitute!?” He said, “No Prabhupada, my wife wanted to follow the principle of no illicit sex so she refused and I didn’t want to force her.” So Prabhupada said that actually the violation within marriage is extremely minor as compared to what is outside of marriage. So Srila Prabhupada was actually very clear about this.

And if you look at the broad Vedic principles, if you look at Prabhupada’s broad context, Prabhupada is harping within every other purport that there shouldn’t be illicit sex within marriage apart from procreation. And Srila Prabhupada is talking about various standards. Prabhupada sometimes quotes standards from Manu Samhita  where one can have sex once a moth during the time when a woman is likely to bear a child so that one can get a child. So there are various things that Srila Prabhupada is talking about; there is not one absolute standard for within marriage. And if you look in the 6th canto of Srimad Bhagavatam it is described there that because a woman took part of the karma of Indra – one thing that happened is that a woman can enjoy sex life even while pregnant as long as it’s not injurious to the embryo. So that is a facility that is given; but it is not something that is recommended or glorified. Certainly that is discouraged, but that was something that was given to them – not as a blessing but because they took up part of the karma.

So if you look at the broad Vedic context, the emphasis of Srila Prabhupada, if you look at his purports – was that actually in the traditional Indian culture, and not just Indian culture in all cultures – the act of copulation, sexual union, what was naturally connected with procreation, with begetting new children, it is the artificial separation of the two. That is what Srila Prabhupada is condemning. So actually speaking, when there is artificial separation of the two there is contraception or abortion and abortion is nothing but cold blooded murder of the child which has serious karmic complications. So actually if you look at Srila Prabhupada’s statements, he condemns animal slaughter and abortion far far strongly and far far more repeatedly in his purports than this principle of no illicit sex in marriage. So it is not that the principle of no illicit sex in marriage is meant to make married life perpetual torture for a person where a person has to live with the spouse and still restrain ones desires.

Actually in a traditional Indian society it is not that woman and man will be living together and sleeping on the same bed and room constantly. Generally the woman would have the anta-pura and the woman would be associating with other women in the family. There would be joined families. And the men would be working with other men and living with the men, and it would not happen that the man and woman would sleep together every day. So in such a situation the man and woman, even when they are married it is not that they would come together regularly. And when they would come together there would be bodily union and then there would be the begetting of children. So in a traditional Indian society there would not be such thing as a question of abortion.

The important point over here is that at one level if one becomes unrestrained in sexual life then one can have the consequences of aborting the child which is very unfortunate and massively sinful. And of course another level is that if one gets very caught up in sex cannot focus on Krishna and that will certainly be a major distraction in the practice of one’s spiritual life. But at the same time when we are committed to the practice of devotional service and we are seriously wanting to advance in devotional life and we are striving towards the standard, so we should make a serious attempt and a serious commitment to attaining the standard but it is not absolutely essential or mandatory that one be able to follow the principle of no illicit sex within marriage to be able to take initiation.

Certainly one should not reject the principle as impractical and become completely unrestrained and not even trying for any kind of restraint, saying that it’s just impractical. If that is one’s attitude and one has no intention of developing restraint and one is not trying for restraint then certainly one should not take initiation. But if one is seriously determined and is trying one’s best even if one has not come to that level of self-control but at least one is surely confident and completely determined to not break the principle by seeking illicit sex outside of marriage or before marriage then that is the primary trust of the vow of initiation.

In our consciousness, lust is like the constant background noise but occasionally there are peaks of that lust when the desires increase very strongly. But a devotee who is seeking initiation should be able to restrain  the peaks within certain limits. That means as one practices Krishna consciousness more and more the general level of lust in consciousness goes down. But even as it’s going down by purification, sometimes peaks will come which will suddenly make us feel agitated and at that time also one has to remember one will not go beyond certain limits. So if one is confident that one will not break the regulative principle beyond the bounds of marriage then that is the essential trust of qualification for initiation.

In general one has to observe sudden peaks of lust, how frequently they come and how often they force one to engage in illicit sex, even within marriage. And if that is too frequent; if it is too irresistible then one may have to wait for adequate purification. But in general this may not be taken as an absolute prerequisite for the practice of commitment to initiation. So in a broad sense the basic emphasis of principle is that there should not be sex outside of marriage and sex within marriage should not lead to heavy karmic complications like abortion. So for that purpose the best way to do is it to avoid sex that is not meant for procreation and one should at least be strongly determined to go towards that; and if one is not determined and is not able to move towards that goal then certainly one may have to think again about initiation. But if one is seriously trying for that one is gradually progressing towards that goal but one may not be fully confident to sticking to that level, but one is fully confident that they will not allow the peaks of lust make one go into illicit sex outside of marriage then one can also go for initiation.

The ultimate decision should be taken by considering and discussing with one’s spiritual guides and looking at one’s consciousness. This answer is a broad guideline and is not a specific answer to this question. Thank you.