ISKCON’s openly Gay Vaishnavas…and how they are changing one of the world’s largest Hindu spiritual orders.
Raghav sounded ecstatic as I talked to him on the phone. He’d just got a new job as a software professional in his hometown Ahmedabad. It meant a new independence for him. For his life has been quite an uphill battle with prejudices and harassment till now.
When Raghav first came out to his family at age 17, he was promptly taken to Dr. Mrugesh Vaishnav, a prominent psychiatrist in Mumbai. There he was given shock therapy to his genitals and treated for schizophrenia. He was repeatedly given injections of Pentothal, an anaesthetic, which ultimately left him in severe depression. “It was all so painful”, he says as he recalls those days of horror.
Things changed for the better once he moved to Nasik to study engineering. Here he heard about the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON. Being a religious Hindu since childhood, Raghav was soon attracted by the society’s devotion to Krishna and service to mankind. However, his being openly gay soon became a bone of contention within the community. Though he had accepted brahmacharya or celibacy, he felt like an outcast. That’s when he decided to leave Nasik and move to Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna, and one of the holiest places for Vaishnavas.
There he became a part of Gaudya Vaishnavas, headed by Narayan Maharaj, a sect different from ISKCON, which has always shown relatively more acceptance for the marginalized sections of society. Here Raghav finally found what he was looking for- a free environment as a Krishna devotee, where his sexual orientation didn’t matter. His being gay was never frowned upon here.
However, he soon had to move back to Ahmedabad due to family compulsions. He joined the ISKCON temple in Ahmedabad, where his being gay is deliberately ignored, and never talked about. He became a member of GALVA (Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association), an informal online group of gay devotees at ISKCON started by Amara Das Wilhem, a devotee from the US. Through that he got in touch with his partner who’ll soon be moving over to Ahmedabad. Raghav admits that they’ll have to keep their relationship a secret from the temple, if they hope to continue being a part of the community. Gay marriage is a very contentious issue at ISKCON and rarely talked about, especially in India.
Amara Das has been an inspirational figure to many gay Vaishnavas like Jayesh. He has authored a book called “Tritiya Prakriti” that is one of its kind book on alternative sexuality and how it’s viewed by Hinduism. Hindu scriptures lack the virulent homophobia of the Bible or Koran, but at the same time give an ambiguous reference to homosexuality and trassexuality. On the one hand, all forms of sexuality are equally celebrated or shunned, on the other hand, there seems to be deliberate omission of LGBTs from the Vedic family structure. Amara Das enthusiastically discussed with me his life and his book-
Tell us something about yourself – your early days, how you came to be associated with ISKCON, and your coming out.
I joined ISKCON (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a Gaudiya Vaishnava religious organization) in 1974 while attending college at the University of Maryland, USA. I was only seventeen at the time but remarkably drawn to the group’s Vedic teachings and culture. I was already vegetarian and a deeply spiritual person. The entire process of Krishna consciousness fit like a glove; it was just as if I were continuing it from a previous lifetime. I came out to the devotees as gay a few months later. By that time I had established good relationships with everyone in the ashrama and no one seemed to mind. Factually speaking, all were friendly and supportive. In those days, it was well understood that anyone could join Krishna consciousness regardless of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, or whatever. I lived very happily in the ashrama and received both first and second initiation in 1976 from my guru, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada had just established ISKCON ten years prior so the organization was still quite new and growing rapidly in both India and the West.
How was your coming out taken at ISKCON? Have you faced any harassment/discrimination within the community?
I experienced no overt discrimination as a young gay member in ISKCON and lived for many years as a well-behaved and serious monk. Discrimination did eventually manifest, however, in the form of exclusion from marriage and subsequent social alienation. In ISKCON, heterosexual members that can no longer maintain celibacy are typically given all support to find a suitable partner and marry. Gay devotees, on the other hand, are forced to continue celibacy beyond their means, establish an unnatural marriage with someone of the opposite sex, or leave the community altogether. In hindsight, such exclusion from marriage and the order of householder life (the grhastha-asrama) was an unnecessarily painful experience that kept me in celibacy way beyond anything I now consider healthy or even spiritually correct.
When and how did you come up with the idea of GALVA and writing the book “Tritiya Prakriti”?
In 1997 at the age of forty, after being appalled by some of the ignorant writings of my peers on the topic of homosexuality, I decided to research the topic fully and present my findings to other Vaishnavas and Hindus. The endeavor grew rapidly from my initial article in 2001 (the book’s first chapter) to a website, support e-group, the formation of GALVA (The Gay And Lesbian Vaishnava Association) and ultimately the Tritiya-Prakriti book, which was first published in 2003. I was genuinely surprised by all the positive feedback and support I quickly received from many of my fellow devotees—both gay and straight. The hateful backlashes I feared never materialized. Only a few rare and clearly uneducated comments were voiced against my new outreach program to the gay community. Silence and approval were the most common reactions, and I received countless “thank you” letters.
Your book talks about an extensive vocabulary regarding LGBTs, which is missing in any modern Indian language. How do you explain that?
While I am by no means expert in modern Indian language, there is certainly a vast difference between India’s ancient knowledge of gender variation and that of the present day. Most modern Indians are extremely ignorant in their understanding of homosexual orientation, transgender identity and intersex conditions so I suppose India’s contemporary language reflects that.
From your research, it seems like LGBT people in ancient India were treated as separate but equal. They were treated with indifference as long as they didn’t interfere with the more ‘routine’ heterosexual society.
In general, I try to avoid pinning any one particular view on ancient India regarding LGBT people. Most likely, as in all societies, different views were held according to realization, locale and time. Vatsyayana alludes to this in the Kama Sutra, wherein he mentions how various sexualities were condoned in some regions yet scorned in others. It is safe to say that ancient Indians understood LGBT conditions as inborn, natural and non-punitive but at the same time treated LGBT people favorably, indifferently, or unfavorably according to their own various realizations and tastes. The great Vaishnava king, Virata, for example, was kindly disposed toward the crossdresser Brihannala and valued her presence in his kingdom whereas a ritualistic priest may have looked down upon and sent her away. The former approach is considered ideal within civilized Vedic culture whereas the latter, although mundane, was also present to some degree. In my book I try to stress the positive examples as far as possible.
It also seems like LGBTs were actually considered lower to heterosexuals in the spiritual plane- such as Brahmins could not engage in homosexuality, they were barred from family inheritance, could not perform several religious rites and had to live in separate quarters in the cities. Also being born as a third gendered person was considered atonement for sexual sins in past lives.
The references you mention refer to the smriti-sastra or regulative codes followed by strict smarta-brahmanas (ritualistic priests). On the spiritual plane, however, people are viewed equally as spirit-soul and judged not by caste, birth, body-type, etc. but according to their individual character and behavior. Thus, in ideal Vedic culture any gay person of good character would be considered higher than a heterosexual of bad character. While it is true the smriti scriptures treat gays as ‘lower’ or ‘less favored’ in a few sparse codes, such regulative standards are easily discarded by Vaishnavas and Hindus with a higher spiritual outlook. The modern reformation of Hinduism is therefore an ongoing process fuelled by progressive spiritual vision. In regard to gays living in separate parts of the city, this was not a forced situation but rather a mostly natural one—just as we find today in modern metropolitan areas and among other ethnic/cultural subgroups. Concerning third-gender (LGBT) births as atonement for past sins (vikarma), this is true in some cases but not all. The majority of lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons take birth as third-gender according to their own particular kama or desire.
Why are the major scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita or the Vedas silent on homosexuals?
Scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita, Upanisads, Vedas, etc. rarely mention gay people specifically (and other minority groups for that matter) because the topic at hand is purely spiritual and bodily differences are of little or no significance to these texts. Their truths and processes apply equally to all. In the Gita, for instance, Lord Krishna clearly states that He is equal to everyone (9.29) and that all people may take shelter of Him (9.32).
Vedic ‘marriage’ rites are very well defined between men and women. Even if one assumes that in a same-sex relationship one person can take the role of a man, and the other of a woman- it is not true for all gay couples, plus there’s too much labelling involved, and ultimately even gays are having to ‘fit in’ to heteronormative roles. So there seems to be no scope for a Vedic gay marriage.
Gay marriage is mentioned in the Kama Sutra (2.9.36) as follows: “There are also third-gender citizens, sometimes greatly attached to each other and with complete faith in one another, who get married together.” Eight different types of marriage are recognized in Vedic texts and even if there is a question regarding religious marriage, surely the gandharva or celestial type can be applied to gay couples. Indeed, the Baudhayana Dharmasutra (1.20.16) states: “Some commend the gandharva form of marriage for all, because it flows from love.” Vaishnava saint Bhaktivinoda Thakura similarly declares that all people have the right to practice Krishna consciousness and live as householders, even if they are outcastes. While same-sex marriage is currently controversial within ISKCON and Hinduism in general, some priests already accept the practice as a reasonable exception for people with homosexual orientation. Again, on the spiritual platform, it is the qualification of character that counts more than a person’s physical sex or body-type. Furthermore, same-sex couples need not mirror the traditional feminine bride and masculine groom scenario you mention (although some transgender couples may do this). Vedic marriage procedures are easily adaptable and can accommodate any type of couple. In most cases, the foremost challenge is finding a qualified and agreeable priest.
The topic of intimate relations between Hindu deities is very confidential and not readily divulged. Such topics are for perfected devotees—those who have completely surrendered themselves heart and soul to one deity in particular. While it may sometimes be suggested that a certain deity is entirely heterosexual, bisexual, or even homosexual, this can never be known for sure. The gods themselves are not bound by ordinary rules nor limited to one expression or manifestation alone. What we can know for certain is that God is unlimitedly diverse and the material world reflects the spiritual—nothing exists in this world without some real counterpart in spiritual existence. Furthermore, it is likely that greater information about the gods was available in ancient days but lost over time or phased out due to India’s growing hostility toward LGBT people. Such a possibility is entirely plausible when we consider how the Kama Shastric writings about homosexual behavior were similarly almost lost and continue to be overlooked and omitted, even today.
What do you make of Sri Prabhupada’s statements on gay people?
Srila Prabhupada’s statements on homosexuality are typical for someone of his generation and reflect exactly the attitudes and beliefs held during the British Victorian Era. Personally, I prefer to focus on his higher spiritual teachings such as transcending bodily designations altogether and viewing everyone equally as spirit-soul. After all, I didn’t join Krishna consciousness to learn old-fashioned, non-Vedic ideas about homosexuality! Srila Prabhupada’s loving dealings with openly gay people such as Allen Ginsberg and his disciple Upendra dasa far exceed in lesson any admitted shortcomings in regard to his knowledge about the third sex (“I do not know exactly…”).
Why do you think modern day ISKCON is so homophobic? How is GALVA trying to change that? It took a lot of activism from within the Church of England to make it accepting of gay people. Is GALVA ready for that sort of pro-activeness within ISKCON?
After Srila Prabhupada’s passing in 1977 I’ve noticed within ISKCON a trend toward excessive conservatism and homophobia, at least within many circles. This trend is mostly due to the loss of Prabhupada’s pure-hearted guidance and Vaishnava example. Rather than seeing gay people as spirit-souls, many current leaders overfocus on sex and misuse Srila Prabhupada’s statements in a counterproductive fashion. Further troubling is the number of leaders that remain silent and allow such mistakes to occur. At the same time I must also say there have been positive examples of leadership and gay outreach from ISKCON authorities such as Bhakti Tirtha Swami, Hridayananda Goswami and other Gaudiya Vaishnava groups like those under the auspices of Tripurari Swami and Srila Narayana Maharaja. Such good examples give LGBT devotees refuge and hope for the future.
Is GALVA ready to help ISKCON become more accepting of gay people?
Yes, certainly, and we have been doing this one person at a time. But acceptance is not something you can force upon any organization. That must come through each person’s heart, one after the other, through education, sharing, friendship and love. Sometimes people foolishly assume that GALVA’s purpose is to promote sex but that is not true at all. Our purpose is to neither eliminate nor change essential spiritual principles but rather to make them equally available for everyone. The days of creating outcastes are over and the long, golden arms of Lord Gauranga have come to embrace the world!
In closing, I would like to encourage all your readers to pursue their spiritual interests to the fullest. Do not become disillusioned or discouraged by anti-gay religious leaders and priests…such mean-spirited people would only be all too happy with that outcome. There are many gay-friendly devotees and spiritual guides to help you in your quest, so please seek them out and reclaim your spiritual heritage. LGBT involvement in the religious and spiritual spheres will play a very important role in promoting the favorable, permanent change we need to see in both India and Hinduism itself.
Men like Raghav and Amara Das are slowly, but definitely changing one of the most influential Hindu movements of all times. How their battle turns out will have a bearing on the lives of all those who’re struggling to reconcile their faith with their sexuality, and more importantly, test the inclusiveness and tolerance of the world’s most ancient religion.