Pouring Ghee Into Ashes: Bodily Discrimination in ISKCON


The Bhagavad-gita advises, or warns us: “Whatever leaders do, the common men follow, and whatever exemplary acts they perform, all the world pursues.” Srila Prabhupada stressed the converse when he warned of “the blind, leading the blind, who all fall into a ditch.”

Lord Kapiladeva in the Third Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam teaches us that if we discriminate at all on bodily differences, then all our strict worship of the Deity in the temple is as useless as pouring ghee into ashes. He is Krsna, so He is saying: “I will not accept your worship.”

For the above reasons, it is alarming when we see our leaders deviating into bodily identification, for that disease can spread like wildfire in our ranks, extinguishing spiritual knowledge, realization, compassion and truth. When that happens, according to Lord Kapiladeva, we might as well forget about Deity worship; it will never bear fruit.

We don’t want to be falsely alarmed, however. Is the following an example of discriminating on bodily differences or just concern for the moral fibre of our society?

“…[E]ducators are passing on their decadent moral values to our children. For example, the New York City public school board recently introduced textbooks in the first grade that show families with two ‘mommies’ or two ‘daddies,’ to get children used to homosexuality. And schools aren’t the only place kids learn to think well of illicit sex.” — Urmila Devi dasi, “Schooling Krsna’s Children, Teens and Celibacy

Gay couples and illicit sex are not the same

Here Urmila dasi starts off talking about gay couples with families and concludes that seeing them is encouraging us to “think well of illicit sex.” It appears that her concern is to not have us think well of illicit sex, except that gay couples and illicit sex are not the same thing. One can think well of a gay couple, how fine a parenting job they are doing, how morally upright and responsible they are or how many devotional qualities they have, and not think well of illicit sex, which is another term for lust. By making the mistake of equating illicit sex with gay relationships, she is ignoring the fact that there is just as much illicit sex going on in heterosexual relationships, nor may there be any more to be found in a gay relationship.

Here is a way to test our degree of bodily identification. What about when a married, heterosexual devotee couple are not producing children? We assume they are on the platform of platonic friendship, or we assume nothing at all, simply because it is rude to do so. Actually they are in the same situation as a gay couple — staying together could lead to falldown — but we assume no illicit sex, because it is none of our business. The fact that some of us do not extend the same courtesy to gay couples when they are in the same position belies our bodily identification, with hurtful implications for our gay brethren. If we are to ban gay relationships because they could facilitate illicit sex, then to be fair, we would have to ban from living together all couples who are not having children anymore. Why be nice to one group and make nasty assumptions about the other?

Gay marriage is a commitment to love and serve

There can be platonic love in a gay relationship, just as much as in a heterosexual relationship, and it is exactly platonic love that marriage is there to encourage — to be committed to lovingly support each other in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad times, etc. It is a non-devotional, lusty and Kali-yuga interpretation of marriage that assumes it to be just about sex. Marriage should be encouraged because implicit in the contract there is a mutual commitment to love and serve. Illicit sex should be discouraged, which means sex for lust only. Licit sex is not about lust at all, but about producing Krsna-conscious kids — which, ironically, are not produced by sex but through the loving guidance which any spiritually minded couple can give.

The purpose of marriage is not sense gratification but spiritual realization, which comes about through cultivating loving relationships and ridding oneself of all traces of exploitative mentality, sexual or otherwise. Therefore, the grhastha ashrama is an ashrama. Even when it is not centred on spiritual development, the commitment to serve another person “through thick and thin,” through all types and times of difficulty, requires huge amounts of tolerance, forgiveness and empathy — all qualities necessary for attaining enlightenment.

This is not stressed in our movement, however, and Urmila prabhu’s article is a logical product of this problem. Generally, devotees see the grhastha ashrama as a step backward from brahmacarya, when it is actually a step forward, and a very large one. We are missing the point.

The point is not to extinguish lust, but to transform it into love — love for God and all that is His — which is everything animate and inanimate. When great devotees forgo the grhastha ashrama, it is not because it is a fallen status; it is because the hearts are so all-encompassing that they do not want to be limited in their loving service to only spouse and family. Most of us have to get to that point by starting small, but we are meant to expand. That is why married couples are enjoined to always open their doors and hearts to the world outside their homes, by offering hospitality to strangers, treating them as being as good as Narayan, and to always shout out into the street, “Is anyone hungry?” before taking meals themselves.

For these reasons, gay marriage should be encouraged in our society and in the wider society as well. It is not about encouraging illicit sex, which can and does take place in- or outside of marriage; it is about encouraging the sublimation of selfish lust into selfless love. As we know from our philosophy of parakiya bhava, forbidden alliances hold far greater attraction for the soul than the socially sanctioned love of married union. Generally, they are obsessional and completely unrealistic. We see the forbidden beloved through rose-tinted glasses, or, to put it in the common vernacular: “The sun shines out of their ass….”

This stops the instant we start living with them, realizing that, just like everyone else, they can be annoying, frustrating and argumentative. When we get over the disillusionment period, we come closer to truth, reality. When we forgive them for all their faults, tolerate their shortcomings, we grow within in the qualities that make us very dear to the Lord. That is the goal of marriage, in spiritual terms. In material terms, it is doomed from the start, for all the lusty reasons we are drawn to a person — their beauty, power and wealth — are taken away by time, and we are left with nothing to draw upon other than our own inner qualities of love for love’s sake — the causeless service attitude.

Don’t assume gay relationships are materialistic

To assume such an evolution to be possible only in heterosexual relationships and not in homosexual ones is a diversion from reality, as there are no facts to support such an assumption, and it is based also on the misidentification of spirit with matter, which means it an assumption based on an assumption. We assume people to be their bodies, so on that assumption, we assume that their relationships are entirely materialistic or, as Urmila puts it so artlessly: “illicit sex.” Seeing others to be their bodies, and not spiritual souls, not only wreaks havoc in our own spiritual lives and those of our readers and disciples; it does a grave injustice to all the great souls whose lives are surrendered to the Lord, even while their bodies are attracted to other bodies of the same gender. Despite the hurtful attitudes of the devotees in this movement, and despite being seen by some to be sinful, they do not give up their determination to serve the Lord. Such a fiercely loyal devotion is nothing short of admirable, and we should fall at the feet of all who serve under such debilitating conditions. To offend them by innuendo, attitude or speech only hurts our own devotional creepers.

It may be argued that Urmila prabhu is not indicting gay devotees but governments that portray gay relationships as normal. That is true, but in her indictment, she is equating illicit sex with gay relationships, which is a false equation. And why shouldn’t governments give the message to kids that it is okay to have two daddies or two mommies, given the amount of bullying and social exclusion that gays and their kids have to tolerate and which so often, tragically, ends in suicide? When kids see other kids as “not normal,” this is what happens. It is the duty of the government to protect its citizens. Children are the most vulnerable of all.

Focusing on ridding ourselves of the negatives such as illicit sex is like telling the mind not to think of ripe, juicy watermelons. The mind does not respond to “do not,” as it is an active principle. If we instead engage the mind in thoughts of Krsna, how He is dwelling in the hearts of all and waiting to receive our love, then we focus on the positive. All living beings, whether human or not human, straight or gay, are His parts and parcels. They are not “illicit sex” but divine objects of our devotional service attitude, devoid of any sense of bodily identification. Being thus situated, our worship of Krsna in the Deity form, or the chanting of His name, melts our hearts. Not being situated thus, we may chant or worship for lifetimes without any effect, for we commit offences to His dear devotees, who sometimes appear in unfamiliar bodily circumstances.