Friday, September 21, 2007

We Need a New Sexual Revolution

On the Guardian's "Comment is Free" page today, there is a short article by Theo Hobson, We need a new sexual revolution, which echoes something that I have been thinking for a long time.

It has been my feeling that sex is underdiscussed in Gaudiya Vaishnavism and that whatever discourse there is lacks subtlety. Thus, anyone who even mentions the possibility that sexuality has a more complex human function than procreation on the one hand or is of an unambiguous materialistic darkness on the other, is immediately accused of immorality, as indeed has happened to me. The discourse surrounding Sahajiyaism is thus so clouded by reactionary thinking that all rational discussion is clamped down on before anything really meaningful can be accomplished.

Hobson's article does not say much, I admit, but at least he points out that the so-called "sexual revolution" has trivialized sexuality to a level of complete irresponsiblity, seemingly confounding sexual freedom with spiritual liberation:

Discussion of sex that thinks itself serious and responsible tends to be complicit in the basic myth of liberation: we just need to get over our hang-ups and relax into the innocent fun of sex. It is wrong to present sex as harmless, healthy fun. In truth sex is no more harmless, healthy or fun than human life itself. It's as serious as life, and as morally mixed.

Hobson's point not just that "sex is as important as life itself," but that it is morally mixed. We may all agree that this so-called innocent sexuality has serious limits in terms of its comprehension of human nature, but a discourse that simply negates sexuality and says that it is something that, in all its forms, has harmful effects on one's spirituality is equally ignorant about human nature. And, in my feeling, completely ignorant about the meaning of Radha Krishna tattva. So, Hobson's comment that the our modern culture of sexuality is "deeply dishonest" also applies to the orthodox Krishna conscious culture as well, as it does to all absolutist puritanisms.

Therefore, I have to reiterate that it is necessary to first of all recognize the all-pervading nature of sexuality, and indeed the intimate connection of sexuality to life itself.

Management of the sexual instinct is the key not just to spiritual life, but to human progress itself: that is seemingly agreed upon by both psychologists and theologians. Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents discusses the payoffs and costs of repression. Clearly, not even the most libertine of human beings can indulge unlimitedly in sexual pleasures. The human body itself will not permit it. But societies and their religious manifestations have always considered it necessary to regulate sexual behavior in certain ways in order to maintain social order and to sublimate and redirect psychic energies to socially productive activities.

Freud's contribution to the sexual revolution was in his descriptions of the psychological price of repression. This sent the pendulum swinging in the other direction and, when coupled with technological advances in birth control, resulted in the sexual revolution Hobson talks about. But, he is right in saying that it has gone too far in its reduction of sexuality to mere sensual pleasure and the glorification of sensuality. The negotiation between the two extremes of libertarianism and repression can only be achieved in spiritualization.

I have tried to introduce a little subtlety into the discourse about sexuality by beginning with what has unfortunately been omitted from the Bhagavad-Gita and the Uddhava-gita: namely the application of the three-gunas taxonomy to sexuality. There is a huge difference between the sexuality of someone in the mode of ignorance and one in the mode of goodness. But the mode of goodness does not necessarily mean celibacy, though self-control is certainly an essential part of sattvika culture.

Nevertheless, to say that abolute separation of the sexes is the only option for those seeking the higher realms of spirituality is something that can only be attributed to a misunderstanding of God's variegated creation. Celibacy is NOT an aṅga of bhakti.

What is needed is a method of comprehending and transforming the sexual energy that does not have the negative consequences of either repression or open-ended sensuality. Here is a hint from the Bhagavatam:



āmayo yaś ca bhūtānām jāyate yena suvrata
tad eva hy āmayaṁ dravyaṁ na punāti cikitsitam

"O good soul, does not a thing, applied therapeutically, cure a disease which was caused by that very same thing?" (1.5.33)

An expert physician treats his patient with a therapeutic diet. For example, milk preparations sometimes cause disorder of the bowels, but the very same milk converted into curd and mixed with some other remedial ingredients cures such disorders. Similarly, the threefold miseries of material existence cannot be mitigated simply by material activities. Such activities have to be spiritualized, just as by fire iron is made red-hot, and thereby the action of fire begins.

Similarly, the material conception of a thing is at once changed as soon as it is put into the service of the Lord. That is the secret of spiritual success. We should not try to lord it over the material nature, nor should we reject material things. The best way to make the best use of a bad bargain is to use everything in relation with the supreme spiritual being.

Everything is an emanation from the Supreme Spirit, and by His inconceivable power He can convert spirit into matter and matter into spirit. Therefore a material thing (so-called) is at once turned into a spiritual force by the great will of the Lord. The necessary condition for such a change is to employ so-called matter in the service of the spirit. That is the way to treat our material diseases and elevate ourselves to the spiritual plane where there is no misery, no lamentation and no fear. When everything is thus employed in the service of the Lord, we can experience that there is nothing except the Supreme Brahman. The Vedic mantra that “everything is Brahman” is thus realized by us. [A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami's translation and purport]

By excluding sexuality from this principle, and by failing to see the relationship of Radha and Krishna's madhura rasa to this principle of transformation or therapeutic treatment, we leave a huge hole in the rationality of our doctrines.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well said, Jagat. Of course, many orthodox practitioners will shake their heads and conclude that you've gone off the deep end by proposing that any kind of sex except that which is sanctioned, for procreation and in the missionary position, can possibly be spiritualized. To them I proffer this quote from Prabodhananda Saraswati that seems to indicate that even, so-called "sinful" things can be seen in a diffent light by one who has Vraja Prema as his goal.

"If someone tells me 'leave Vrndavana,' I will cut out his tongue. If someone forcibly takes me out of Vrndavana, I will certainly kill him. I would rather go to a prostitute than leave Vrndavana with a desire to get married. I would rather steal to accumulate wealth yet alas, my feet won't leave Vrndavana. (Vrndavana Mahimamrta 2.15)
-Rad

Malati dasi said...

Firstly, about the comment of anonymous. By making the argument that GV devotees see sex, except for procreation and missionary position, as something unspiritual, he/she shows how limited his/her understanding of how many mainstream GV devotees see sexuality and God consciousness. I put it to her/him that he/she makes it appear that sahajiyaism is a pocket book for “Lovemaking made easy”. Having had 3 children I don’t even know what the missionary position is. More importantly, I do not see the comments of Prabodhananda Sarasvati the way anonymous sees it.

Having grown up in the Asian culture and for more than 15 years living in a western society, I have straddled both cultures with Gvism at the back of my identity. I agree that most devotees equate no sex with spiritual liberation which is not necessarily so, in my opinion.

Though I do not take away Bhaktivedanta Swami’s rightful place in the history of the advancement of GVism in the west, I would also put that it was his conservative (he's a product of his own time , I guess)and Indiacentric attitude that encouraged an environment within Iskcon of the social segregation between man and woman. Was it not that the line about women being fire and men being butter got brainwashed into our brains?

So we see Tamal Krishna Goswami then, stomping in the Philippines declaring “women should be spat on”. Just imagine that he was saying that to people who mostly will have only one relation in their lifetimes. And the flipside to this reactionary attitude to the most natural function of a human being is that everyone in ISKCON wants to be chaste. So now everyone wants to be “chaste”. I think the word “chaste” has been bandied about by western born devotees as a badge of their honour. And so you see, people who were once girlfriend/boyfriends of the whole city, as “saints” overnight. A forced “saints”. As an American Gaur Govinda Maharaj sanyassi disciple said in Govardhan last year, devotees from the West just had too many impressions from their past lives in the west to obliterate. This is not to demean western society, afterall my own children are half Caucasians. I myself have no false belief that even if I chant million of times I will not become a saint. I believe in honesty depends our spiritual growth. I think the line in CC about how a person who chants the Holy Names even once as saints has been taken in the wrong context.


The whole dynamics gave negative consequences because they were not given a turnover transfer time to develop from being a person who grew up in the culture of the permissive west to a potential spiritual person. The rapid shift resulted in a pent-up sexuality or repression and unbridled sensuality as if to make up for lost time. And I’m thinking of statistics here.

Having said that though, I do not believe that we need a new sexual revolution. The western society with its pills and right to a legal abortion for women give women the sexual freedom they want. Though , I personally, do not believe in abortion. Even conservative societies like Singapore, where “unnatural sex”whatever that means was previously illegal, has recently laxed its laws. Even the most outspoken feminists who stood in the street with the “ban the bra” placards have turned the tide on their sisters. Germaine Greer, an Australian author who is a longtime resident in Briatain revels in her celibacy. Susan Sontag, now deceased, the outspoken US author who outraged Americans with her thoughts on the aftermath of the 9/11 was tempered with her long term lesbian partnership. Naomi Wolf, a US author enjoys her career side by side with domesticity with her children and husband. I guess commitment is still valued than overnight affair and promiscuity.

The GV philosophy of the rasa lila in the context of the parakiya relationship is a very sensitive and sometimes dangerous subject. So in a way we can understand Bhaktisiddhanta Swami and the whole GM machinery’s attitude to it.

Just as we have different ways of understanding things like lateral thinking, parallel thinking, thinking in terms of Koan., the parakiya lila will strike a chord in our hearts and being in more ways than one—depending on which Guru we follow. You definitely have your own realizations and I respect you for that. And I agree that we should differ.

I see sweetness in the parakiya lila in the context of Radha Krishna lila because I believe the lila is just a language of God to express his transcendental nature so we can understand it by our limited intelligence. But I definitely do see bitter complications of that relationships when put in the context of enhancing our practical spiritual side. Social order, familial breakdown, economic complications and devaluing of common values held dear by societies are for me the reasons why I do not see Sahajiyism as a very promising force by which to advance our Krishna prema.

NB. I have said this before, the trad devotees need you; I hope you go back to the fold.

Kind regards

Radhe Radhe

Malati dasi

Jagat said...

Thank you Malati for your heartfelt comments. First of all, I would like to repeat that I made my choice to use the word Sahajiyaism for several reasons, even knowing that many devotees have come to associate the word with all manner of evil and debauchery.

There are many reasons I made this choice, not least being Bhaktivinoda Thakur's own original usage of the word sahaja-samadhi to refer to the innate intuitive understanding present in the soul. I admit that I also decided to use the term precisely for its shock value, to make my point that sexuality not only can, but needs to be, used in the development of Krishna consciousness.

If you read the article after which I named my post, you would see that the author is talking about returning to some balance after the trivialization of sexuality in our culture.

I agree wholeheartedly with this. And I wish to present the Sahajiya concept in a light different from the way that it is generally understood. The spiritual path is a razor's edge for everyone, Sahajiya or not, so I am not going to argue that your view of possible dangers wrought by Sahajiyaism is wrong. However, just as people eat, they have sex. The tendency needs to be transformed and harnessed for its spiritual potential.

If one succumbs to the various pitfalls that are involved, then certainly the spiritual aspects of it will be lost and the exercise will be useless.

Anonymous said...

I have said this before, the trad devotees need you; I hope you go back to the fold.

Jagat was never exclusively a trad and is not about to become one now. However, the trads are going to come to him though, for his ideas are pretty darn good and so much liked by all. Keep on reading Malati dasi dear.

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to speak for Jagat I certainly don't know of his personal plans as far as whether to become a trad or whatever else he may want to become. I was speaking on the fact that Jagat is the only member of the devotee community consistently and sensibly advocating a solution to the problem of human sexuality vis a vis spirituality.

If weren't Jagat taking such position, someone else would. Such development in religion in general and Gaudiya Vaisnavism in particular was inevitable. In this, its more honest of the devotee community to admit the need for such discussion than try to dismiss it as the isolated deviation of one individual who therefore needs to come back to the fold. Keeping sight of the essence, progress is in unfolding.

Jagat said...

With regards to "trads," maybe you don't understand my position. My idea is that the tradition is, or should be, the very dialogue that goes on and develops and evolves on the basis of a historical revelation.

I would not say, for instance, that someone who takes one or the other side of the Chaitanya mantra debate, or of the Radha-Krishna milita tanu debate about Mahaprabhu's svarupa, or of the Janma Sthan debate about which side of the Bhagirathi it is on, or of the various diksha and parampara debates, etc., is somehow outside the sampradaya.

Of course, a lot of people DO say that. I once wrote that perhaps Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati's original intention in promoting the idea of the siksha parampara was exactly what I am saying above. Perhaps he was trying to make a tent big enough for all Vaishnavas to live in. Of course, it did not become that, but just another narrow tent, with its own orthodoxy, and its own exclusions and anathemas. In Iskcon too, you often hear that Prabhupada built a house big enough for the whole world to live in, but in practical terms, it so often seems that they find any excuse to exclude anyone who says anything that even sounds suspiciously different from what passes for "Prabhupada said."

I still happen to think that things like mantra initiation and diksha paramparas are important, but I still consider on their own merit any worthwhile contributions made to the growth and evolution, to the continued understanding of the meaning of Mahaprabhu's revelation. And I measure those contributions according to my own common sense, or "natural intuition", or sahaja-samadhi if you like, rather than on the basis of purely received knowledge or rote learning.

There are a number of things involved here, but the most important one is love. The only qualification really for membership in the tradition is LOVE for Mahaprabhu. If you love Mahaprabhu, then you will want that his sampradaya should be beautiful and full of love. You will use your creativity (which is also the product of that love) to further that goal. You will thank the people who brought you that love as your gurus; you will avoid those who try to put that love into jars and then hoard it, or monopolize it, or somehow misuse it.

If outsiders criticize the sampradaya with legitimate complaints, you don't say, "Well, you are a bunch of idiot heathens. What do you know about it?" You take the criticism on their own merit and you think, "How can I make my sanga better, for the greater glory of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu?"

And if someone has a bad idea, like building a Disneyland theme park in Vrindavan, then you defend your idea. And if someone has a good idea, like helping to keep Vrindavan clean, or stopping rich Delhi businessmen from doing Radha Kund parikrama in their SUV's (to give two examples of gross stuff), then you defend your position, because you believe it is better for Mahaprabhu's glories. So how can we condemn anyone who has simply followed as sincerely as possible the directions of the Lord in the Heart out of a sentiment of love for Mahaprabhu?

I personally happen to think that the issue of sexuality is most important, indeed central. That is why I harp on it again and again. I don't fully understand why, yet. But it is mainly because that is what my meditation on Radha and Krishna keeps bringing me back to, again and again. And because all the contrary arguments strike me as weak and superficial. And because human love is such an important part of life itself and so many problems arise because of contorted conceptions surrounding human love. Somehow, I believe in my heart that a solution for it all has been revealed in the form of Radha and Krishna, whose love is the source of all other love, and in whose love we are all meant to share.

It's a dreadfully romantic and magical idea, I know. I don't say abandon chanting or deity worship or any of the other things that we love about Krishna consciousness. But I especially don't say, "Give up Manjari bhava or Sakhi bhava or Radha dasya." I say, "Get your business into Radha dasya as soon as possible. Get initiated into a Manjari bhava sampradaya as soon as possible, and get fixed up in manjari bhava. Don't be afraid of madhura rasa or of thinking of Radha and Krishna in the 'wrong way.' Let Radha and Krishna speak to you. If you want to be Radha's dasi, then why wait? The very fact that this is a living possibility for you, that it seems worthwhile, is an indication that you have come far enough to begin."

Jai Sri Radhe!

anuradha said...

"And because all the contrary arguments strike me as weak and superficial."

"Perhaps he was trying to make a tent big enough for all Vaishnavas to live in."

Two quotes I like to comment on. The second phrase, relating to SBSST's Mission, implies a tent for devotees of different adhikara and also different plumage (room for difference of opinion amongst the broader Gaudiya school).
I think it is fair to say that a tent like this, since it is supposed to be huge, will consist of mainly kanisthas and "friends of Krishna", well-wishers who do not follow strictly and have some doubts here and there.

I have experienced repeatedly that educated people go along with me when talking about the soul, love, Bhagavad-Gita, etcetera, but back-off as soon as they come across or link it with a kangra image of Krishna in a tree with saris stolen from the gopis.
WE (!!) think it is funny and it fits our concept of how God can be. But many get confused or downright disappointed. The muslim rulers didn't take our sidddhanta very seriously, just as the Britisch colonists, since according to them it all climaxed into a "joke". They also worried it might harm general moral (we luckily passed that station now).

But it is a very sensative issue still and the whole master plan of SBSST is to lead the common people to this type of intimate understanding in a gradual way. It succeeded (for example in your own case).

Fact is that most people are not yet THOROUGHLY convinced that The Divine Couple represents the highest goal, deepest love and most valuable experience of the soul. The ones that do are a minority within a minority.

You also state that a prerequisit is that you must really want it. Then if you really want it, try to get initiated in it. Soon.

We all want love, but we haven't made up our minds about what it is supposed to mean in practice. All of us here are captured by the beauty of The Divine Couple but we disagree about how to integrate that into our very own lives. The differences arise from adhikar / level of understanding, how and by whom we have been taught and how much we are still under the influence of maya.

Carefulness is, I think, the strongest argument in reaction to your proposition. I take notice of all the opinions out there and hold The Feet of The Divine Couple on my head, as I have been taught.

Nonetheless I think there should be plenty room for open discussion about sexuality and your propositions concerning the matter.
I agree that the sexuality topic isn't finished and shouldn't be for time to come.

Criticism I have for now is that you propose a rather revolutionary viewpoint about sexuality in relation to our Divine Couple without giving much attention to what it means in practice and the possible consequences. Although you hit a sensative point, it is also still rather vague. A lot of grey. Or is that on purpose ?

Sometimes I see it as nuclear energy. Although it definitely can be used for the good of humanity, we were still better off on this planet if it wasn't invented at all. I do not accuse you of being an irresponsible scientist since you mean well and sex is not to be compared with a nuclear bomb. I only want to point out that there is consequences if people would try to put your propositions into practice on a wider scale. The practice might turn out different then the ideal you propose. So for now I haven't given up on celibacy since I fear the Bonobo in me. (Ps that is a joke, a hahaha-moment)

Jagat said...

I just wanted to thank Anuradhaji for his comments. I thought that there were some points that needed to be covered separately, so I will make another posting as a reply.

On the whole, though, I would like to thank all the respondants to this blog, for giving me the benefit of the doubt for raising serious questions, and neither sensationalizing nor demonizing, nor belittling them.

Jagat said...

I haven't seen where the British thought that it all climaxed into a "joke." I would rather like to see a reference, as I find that interesting.

Vaishnava Lovin said...

Am I missing something?

I've been a part of a Vaishnava sanga for years and never had I heard that a married or committed couple should not engage in a healthy intimate life.

In fact, it is assumed that if you have a committed partner, that the two of you are enjoying a normal, healthy, loving intimate life.

Radical Religion said...

Two things to take into consideration;

1. The clitorous.

Every other organ or apparatus on the human body has a functional purpose other than pleasure. The clitorous has no other function THAN pleasure. Why did Vidhata create one? An apparatus with several thousand more never endings than the most sensitve part of the penis. Think about it. If sexual activity were for procreation only, why create a clitorous on the human female? Surely one can become pregnant without one, and a woman can become pregnant without any pleasure in the sex act also, so why create a clitorous? Does Vidhata not know what he is doing? Does mother nature not know?

2. That being said I find the caliber of bhakti being expounded in the Gaudiya fold to be one that is so completely transcendental to material concerns that it is almost non-human, almost supernatural, even in the beginning stages. Other types of dharma, indeed, other types of bhakti even, seek to reconcile the material with the spiritual, to achieve some sort of "balance" so that the jeev can exist with some sense of normalcy even while practicing sadhana in the material realm. Gaudiya style bhakti, particulary manjari bhav sadhana is radical in the sense that even ordinary, balanced "dharma" is thrown to the wind (read anything by Sripad Prabhodananda Saraswati). Manjari bhav sadhana is so sweet and so profound that it indeed makes even it's novice aspirants a little bit "mad" with the intoxication of it's promises. There is a ruchi in such a practice, even in it' theoretical stage, that puts to shame the ruchi in anything previously experienced.

I find this path THE MOST DIFFICULT one for maintaining any sort of sane balance in this world. Even Sufism is less transcendent and allows for more human sanity.

But alas!
Such radicalness is the beauty of it all.