Q & A with Swami B. V. Tripurari
“Times change and with new information new opinions form, and if they are spiritually reasonable, the task for devotees is to support them with scriptural logic—sastra-yukti—or the logic that supports the essential conclusions of revelation.”
Q. Is being gay a sin?
A. I don’t think that any reasonable person would consider “being gay” sinful in as much as the distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior is understood. Sometimes people refer to biblical passages that they say condemn homosexuality but even Christian theologians have offered plausible interpretations to the contrary. For example, regarding the often-quoted verse (Romans 1:26-27) where the apostle Paul denounced homosexual behavior as unnatural, one distinguished Christian theologian comments, “No doubt Paul was unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has apparently very little choice, and sexual behavior, over which one does. He seemed to assume that those whom he condemned were heterosexuals who were acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up,” or “exchanging” their regular sexual orientation for that which was foreign to them.
Paul knew nothing of the modern psychosexual understanding of homosexuals as persons whose orientation is fixed early in life, or perhaps even genetically in some cases. For such persons, having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up,” or “exchanging” their natural sexual orientation for one that was unnatural to them.” (Rev. Dr. Walter Wink, Professor of Biblical Interpretation, Auburn Theological Seminary)
Hindu texts, on the other hand, are relatively silent on the issue, and when they do discuss homosexuality, it is in relation to heterosexual brahmanas, or priests, indulging in homosexual liaisons. The Hindu dharma sastra describes such behavior as a minor sin; however, it is hardly possible to make a determination as to the religious status of homosexuality in today’s world on the basis of a few isolated statements from the dharma sastra. Nor will mere reference to Srimad Bhagavatam’s statements concerning spiritually correct “celibate householder sexuality” or the Bhagavad-gita’s identification of divinity with dharmic sexuality, serve conclusively in condemning homosexuality.
Indeed, wholesale condemnation of homosexuality on the basis of Hindu scripture is quite difficult, and given the amount of information on the subject that we have today, which was not available even fifty years ago, such condemnation would not in my opinion be spiritually correct or compassionate.
Therefore, my conviction is that monogamous homosexual relationships are as viable a position from which to cultivate spiritual life as are monogamous heterosexual relationships, and I believe that despite what my guru said decades ago, he would hold the same opinion were he with us today. Since he was with us, a wealth of insight into the nature of homosexuality has come to light, so much that any devotee would do well to carefully consider it when forming his or her opinion on the subject.
Times change and with new information new opinions form, and if they are spiritually reasonable, the task for devotees is to support them with scriptural logic—sastra-yukti—or the logic that supports the essential conclusions of revelation.
Q. What really bothers me about today’s homosexuals is how they wave their gay flag and require everybody to approve of their sexuality. Why should the world appreciate their parade of wrongly directed lust?
A. You might think differently if you were born gay and had to undergo the kind of discrimination that homosexuals have been experiencing for centuries, what to speak of the psychological trauma of “coming out” in our largely homophobic society. The fact is that homosexuality would still be a criminal offence in the United States if it were not for the courage of gay activists. Their flag waving is a cry to be allowed to be what they are without being attacked, jailed, or discriminated against, which was the norm here in America for so long. What’s more, in some countries people are still being executed for homosexuality. Sexuality is a huge part of a person’s life. To be forced to live in a society where one is routinely mistreated because of his or her natural occurring sexuality is something I would not would wish on anyone.
Q. I am a Hindu and I believe that homosexuals should seek reformation because scripture (the Bible) states that God is not pleased with homosexual relations. The Kama sutra states that the goal of kama, or lust, is procreation. Heterosexual relations serve this purpose but homosexual relations serve only personal sense gratification. Dharma means to accept one’s duty in relation to society and God, so how could homosexuality, which has nothing to do with procreation, be considered in any way dharmic?
A. In the Hindu canon there is no condemnation of homosexuality that I am aware of. You profess to be Hindu but are unable to cite any of our scriptures to support your position, not one. Kama sutra is not scripture but it does address homosexuality without condemning it as you have done.
Ultimately everyone agrees that the sexual urge should be harnessed, and different acaryas have tried to help their students do so in different ways. In the mission of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, sexual activity was supposed to be restricted to married life, but our Srila Prabhupada tried to establish a stricter standard, one that permitted sex only for the purpose of procreation. However, the vast majority of his disciples could not follow this standard. Thus in some individual cases he sanctioned sex outside of procreation for married couples. The point is that establishing a standard that students can follow and that helps them to progressively harness this desire constitutes sex that is dharmic and is thus arguably blessed—kamo ‘smi. Realistically, whether one is gay or straight this would be limiting sexual activity to within a committed long-term relationship, doing so for the purpose of making advancement in spiritual life.
Furthermore, we are not concerned with trying to please God by following the complex rules of dharma because Krsna is not concerned with this. He says, sarva-dharman parityajya: “Forgo all concerns of dharma and take exclusive refuge in me. I will protect you from all reactions. Do not fear.” Spontaneous love brought about by devotion (bhakti) is the way to please Krsna, and homosexuality being a naturally occurring minority phenomenon is no more an obstacle to bhakti than is heterosexuality. Therefore, I encourage everyone regardless of their sexual orientation to become devotees of Krsna and follow in the footsteps of the residents of Vrindavana. This is the highest dharma—prema dharma.
Regarding your proposal that homosexuals seek reformation. As far back as 1948 sex researcher Alfred Kinsey attempted to document patients who had been converted from homosexuality to heterosexuality during therapy and could not find one whose sexual orientation had been changed. Later, in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association officially ceased classifying homosexuality as a disease, and today’s psychiatrists and psychologists almost never attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation. All this means that your notion of converting homosexuals into heterosexuals will certainly be a failure.
Finally, just try to imagine growing up and finding that when your young friends began to develop an attraction to the opposite sex you found yourself developing a sexual attraction to the same sex and had learned that you were a queer who could be justifiably beaten up and that there would be no shoulder to cry on at home. Employers (if you could get hired) would fire you if they detected your sexual attraction, which is not something that one can easily hide or that heterosexuals hide (indeed they are encouraged to celebrate it!). Then imagine that you had to pursue your sexuality in the back alley or at an illegal bar and thus ended up being the shady person that society accused you of being and gave you little opportunity of avoiding. The world is still just understanding that they did this to millions of children. Think about it.
Q. Swami, from your writing on the issue of homosexuality it appears that you want to encourage gay people to become devotees. I think that sounds broadminded but I think that the way you are doing it flies in the face of the words of your guru Srila Prabhupada, who was a great and wise man. I like to quote Prabhupada’s words on the topic verbatim, and I don’t think doing so is narrow-minded. What can possibly be wrong with just repeating what he said? And what he said does not jive with your approach?.
A. The difference between you and Srila Prabhupada is very great. You may repeat what he said (kind of) but you have no ability to change when new information is presented; information that is much more readily available to you than it was to him. What new information? That one born with a homosexual orientation has no choice in the matter, a fact that has come to light only in recent decades. Srila Prabhupada’s views on this subject were informed by the prevailing misinformation of his time. He similarly wrote that women were less intelligent because their brain size was almost half that of men which is another piece of misinformation that he attributed to Dr. Urquhart, a professor at the institution he attended in Calcutta. However, unlike you, Srila Prabhupada was able to significantly change his position when new information was presented to him. Being incorrect at times is normal, but what’s egregiously incorrect is when a person simply ignores new information and holds fast to outdated ideas despite of it.
Abraham Lincoln was also a great and wise man. He brought about the abolition of slavery in America but he also felt that black people should not be allowed to hold public office. Although once nationally accepted, this idea has in our time been internationally rejected. Still, history does not condemn Lincoln for his latter position but rather lauds him for the former—freeing the slaves. By our standards Srila Prabhupada was an even greater person; not because he held some dated views on various social issues but because he was an empowered pure devotee who was able to free sincere souls from the bondage of material existence. This is what he should and ultimately will be remembered and appreciated for, not for the few dated statements he made about homosexuality.
Q. You say that you know of no passages in the Hindu scriptures that condemn homosexuality, but in his purport to Srimad Bhagavatam verse 3.20.26 Srila Prabhupada writes: “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. 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.” How do you explain this?
A. The verse says that when Lord Brahma created the demons they approached him for sex but were ultimately lured away by the twilight, which appeared to them as a beautiful young woman. The text goes on to elaborate on the alluring qualities of youthful women and how attraction to them clouds the mind of the unintelligent. In that section of the Bhagavatam, only one verse mentions the demons’ sexual attraction to a male, while the ten following verses elaborate on their sexual attraction to a female. Overall, the demons being discussed were obviously more sexually attracted to a woman than they were to a man (Brahma) which indicates that they were not “gay” as we understand the term today.
It is also worth mentioning that Prabhupada never backed up his stance on homosexuality with any references from scripture. Even in the purport cited, he does not say that the verse he is commenting on says that homosexuality is demoniac. Instead, using the word “appears,” which indicates a degree of uncertainty, he merely offers his own opinion. Elsewhere when discussing the subject he also only cites reasoning that demonstrates that his opinion was based on misinformation. For example, in one place he says that homosexuality is not even found in the animal world; a notion that we now know is incorrect. In this case Srila Prabhupada made an inaccurate statement in support of his position, one that he must have learned from someone else. If we are to take his words as absolute in all respects, as some devotees claim that we must, then we are forced to deny the proven fact that homosexuality is found in the animal species. If not, we must face the fact that the example given by Srila Prabhupada was mistaken.
If the example used in support of one’s reasoning is proven wrong, then one’s position on the issue itself is brought into question, especially if that position is not clearly supported by scripture. So to disagree with Srila Prabhupada’s opinion on homosexuality is not to pick and choose whimsically, but to do so in the very way that he taught us to do, which is to consider the issue according to sastra. In one discussion of the subject Srila Prabhupada even said, “One should take as it is enjoined in the sastras.” This is what I have done, and as I have already stated, Hindu texts are relatively silent on the issue, so it is very difficult to condemn homosexuality on the basis of sastra.
In conclusion, you have made it clear that you feel homosexual relationships established with a view to progress in spiritual life are not to be accepted in the same way that similar heterosexual relationships are. Your arguments on the subject are basically Bible-based religious fundamentalism, as you could not present any verses from Hindu scripture in support of them. As for Srila Prabhupada, if it were possible I would welcome a discussion with him on this topic and I feel confidant that in light of present times and information available he would be willing to alter his position in agreement with mine. After all, in regards to his gay disciple Upendra he did exactly that: he sanctioned a committed homosexual relationship with a view to help his disciple progress in spiritual life.