Sex and Bhakti Yoga (Part I)

Just as I finished writing about my renewed sense of purpose about teaching about the role of sexuality on the bhakti path, I came across an article posted by Abhaya Mudra Dasi on the Sampradaya Sun. Abhaya Mudra is a Bulgarian disciple of Suhotra Swami who has a jyotish website with Prabhupada disciple Patita Pavan Das. At first view, her article, Sex and Spirituality, is a defense of standard ISKCON teaching on sexuality, though it adds a few interesting twists.

I have personally come to the conclusion that even though mainstream Western devotees still following ISKCON and the Gaudiya Math start out deeply committed to a doctrine that marginalizes sexuality, as the years go by, a great number of them become frustrated by double standards and hypocrisy that seem endemic in the movement. The Western Krishna consciousness movement has no bigger "shadow" than sexuality. Though child abuse scandals have rocked ISKCON and repeated "falldowns" or sexual peccadilloes of gurus proclaiming to have transcended mundane sexuality (of whom Suhotra Swami himself was, sadly, one) is a constantly recurring theme of the Hindu and Vaishnava worlds, there has been little serious analysis or effort to understand sexuality either in scripture or by modern devotees attempting to get a grasp of its place in their lives or sādhanā.

Although Abhaya Mudra Devi is an apologist accepting the standard ISKCON dogmas about sex, at least she has made an attempt to open discussion on the subject, for which she deserves praise. However, as I disagree fundamentally with the entire approach that reduces the problem to one that sees sexuality as a curse rather than a blessing, I intend to present the Sahaja Vaishnava point of view by way of contrast. Abhaya Mudra correctly recognizes the problems in a purely negative or renunciation-oriented approach, her solution (prayer) does seems not only inadequate, impracticable and unrealistic, but is a proven failure. Not only has it been destructive to social relationships in the Vaishnava world, causing its slow and inexorable disintegration, but is philosophically inconsistent with the goal of Krishna consciousness, which is prema.

What is yoga?

The primary thrust of Abhaya Mudra Devi's article is theological, related to the problems of individual pleasure and impersonalism, the relationship of the Brahmajyoti or Krishna's effulgence to sex desire and material bondage. But before dealing with these arguments, I think it is necessary to simply deal with the question by which she begins and concludes her article: Does sex have any role in yoga.

Her answer is, of course, an "explicit no." But she has not really touched on the question of "What is yoga?" Since a clarification of this point may itself be sufficient to elucidate the entire theme of sex and spirituality, I would like to discuss it by reference to the Bhagavad-gita and the Yoga-sutra of Patanjali. Then later we can examine some of the other issues Abhaya Mudra has raised.

There are many definitions for yoga, but in the very beginning of the Gita, when Krishna starts talking about intelligence (buddhi), he makes it clear that yoga is a particular approach to action. This means, basically, that all actions are meant to be used as sādhanā for attaining "the supreme destination." This is natural, as the human proclivity is to evolve, to find ways of extracting the greatest benefit out of life and the human faculties.

Krishna's general definition is twofold: samatvaṁ yoga ucyate ("Equilibrium is called yoga") and yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam ("Yoga is expertise in actions.") Since the word yoga appears in this passage (2.48-53) several times, both as practice itself and as the goal of the practice, I think it is worth going through it with a bit of commentary. [Both translation and commentary are my own.]

yoga-sthaḥ kuru karmāṇi
sangaṁ tyaktvā dhanaṁjaya |
siddhy-asiddhyoḥ samo bhūtvā
samatvaṁ yoga ucyate ||
Situated in yoga, engage in activities
without attachment, O Dhananjaya.
Remain the same in success of failure
for yoga means equilibrium [of mind]. (48)
dūreṇa hy avaraṁ karma
buddhi-yogād dhanaṁjaya |
buddhau śaraṇam anviccha
kṛpaṇāḥ phala-hetavaḥ ||
Through the yoga of intelligence,
O Dhananjaya, keep inferior acts away
Seek shelter in such intelligence
for only the miserly seek the fruits. (49)
Here, the commentaries are instructive. In particular, the words avaraṁ, “most inferior, lowly” etc., and kṛpaṇāḥ, “miserly” are deliberated on. Buddhi here means proper understanding of your spiritual nature; thus any activity not examined from the vantage point of its benefit to the cultivation of one’s spiritual nature is to be avoided, or kept at a distance. Such activity is defined as that which is engaged in for the purpose of enjoying the results and not for attaining spiritual beatitude, or in our case, prema.

Though one may argue that sex cannot be a practice or sādhanā, it is my contention not only that it can, but that it is the most powerful sādhanā for the attainment of prema. It is also natural, sahaja. Only a miserly person weighs actions on the external scale of piety and impiety, calculating the fruits that will be gained in this world or the next. In other words, he is not capable of risking the conventionally received wisdom about right and wrong. This is indeed our problem here also.

In Arjuna’s case it is matters of killing and war and the fear of sin there. In the case of the gopis, it is somewhat different because the gopis are engaged in what is commonly thought of as "material sense gratification," i.e., following their sexual attraction to a man who is not their husband. In both cases, they have to judge the activity not purely in terms of right and wrong from the customary social or religious point of view, but as a sādhanā for attaining divine beatitude, in whatever terms we define it.

Our upāsanā in the Gaudiya tradition, which is ramyā, delightful, is vraja-vadhū-vargeṇa yā kalpitā, that process which was devised by the wives of Braja. And that is what I am trying to explain here on this blog to all those who are bewildered about what this "delightful" or "beautiful" process is.

buddhi-yukto jahātīha ubhe sukṛta-duṣkṛte |
tasmād yogāya yujyasva yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam ||
One who possesses intelligence
gives up both pious and impious works.
Therefore engage yourself for yoga,
Yoga means expertise in action. (50)
Here is another definition of yoga. Some commentators say expertise means the same equanimity spoken of above. And this is partly true. But there is more to it than that. If you are equal to success and failure and free from attachment to the results, it means that you adhere to the sādhanā without giving it up. So basically, when a particular action has been established as a sādhanā, after giving up thinking of it in terms of sin or merit, then one has to approach it with an attitude of mastery.

Siddhi means mastery. It means learning to do the action expertly in such a way that it is done well. Arjuna is an expert warrior and archer. It is his service to Krishna, so he does it well. The gopis are Krishna's lovers and so they love him expertly. The yogis who are following the breathing and meditative practices to control the mind become expert in those skills, mastering them. Those who are engaged in sādhanā of the madhura-rasa also become expert in their chosen practice. Then they achieve prema-siddhi, or success in their practice, which is prema.

So expertise means doing something in the right way, so it is efficacious and produces the desired result. Sex is not in itself yoga, but when done in the right way it can become yoga or an element of yoga, just like Arjuna's fighting is not yoga in itself, but when the various ingredients that make up expertise are included it becomes an element of yoga. There are degrees of expertise, meaning that different results are obtained, and that is why there are karma, jnana and bhakti yogas and their various subdivisions. We are interested in the type of expertise that yields the result of prema.

Of course, in most cases sādhanās will not present a great ethical challenge, but the reason that the Gita was spoken on a battlefield in this particular situation, and why we are reusing it again in the context of sexuality and spirituality is because general conventional "religious" wisdom is being challenged. One sometimes has to disobey orders and the gopis are usually held as the greatest example of such disregard. sudustyam āryapathaṁ svajanaṁ ca hitvā.

karmajaṁ buddhi-yuktā hi
phalaṁ tyaktvā manīṣiṇaḥ |
padaṁ gacchanty anāmayam ||
Those fixed in intelligence who abandon
the fruits born of action alone are wise.
Liberated from the bondage of birth
they go to the plane of non-disease. (51)
Krishna hammers away at the same point.

yadā te moha-kalilaṁ buddhir vyatitariṣyati |
tadā gantāsi nirvedaṁ śrotavyasya śrutasya ca ||
When your intelligence goes beyond
the dark forest of confusion
then you will become indifferent
to all that was heard or will be heard. (52)
Now this section concludes—

śruti-vipratipannā te yadā sthāsyati niścalā |
samādhāv acalā buddhis tadā yogam avāpsyasi ||
Unaffected by scriptural injunction
when your intelligence stands firm
fixed solidly in samādhi,
then will you attain to yoga. (53)
All the yoga systems have the goal of samādhi. Indeed, Vyasa in his commentary on the Yoga-sūtras (1.1) simply defines yoga AS samādhi, which means total absorption on a single object, or in the case of asamprajñāta, no object at all. Of course, for the Vaishnavas, this is understood to mean that the mind has been completely spiritualized and is focused on the transcendental object, the Supreme Lord, so though the material mental functions appear to be operative, they are nevertheless completely spiritualized due to their absorption in Krishna.

The important thing is this context is that all spiritual practices are experiential. The practitioner is the laboratory in whom the experiment of yoga is conducted. Yogi-pratyakṣa or the direct experience of the yogi is the ultimate arbiter of success. This direct experience is more important than scriptural injunctions or even the preceptor's teachings. It is more important than logical reasoning. In the Sixth Chapter Krishna says that one who even inquires into yoga is above the scriptures, what to speak of one who has attained samādhi! jijñāsur api yogasya śabda-brahmātivartate (6.44).

Patanjali says that yoga is control of the mental functions, yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ (YS 1.2). Vyasa makes it clear that the stages of progress in such control pass through single-minded absorption, ekāntatā, and this is clearly the premise of all the Vaishnava shastras as well.

smartavyaḥ satataṁ viṣṇur vismartavyo na jātucit |
sarve vidhi-niṣedhāḥ syur etayor eva kiṅkarāḥ ||
Vishnu must always be remembered and never forgotten. All injunctions and prohibitions are exclusively meant to serve these two rules. (BRS 1.2.8)
In the Gita also, Krishna says,

tasmāt sarveṣu kāleṣu mām anusmara yudhya ca |
mayy arpita-mano-buddhir mām evaiṣyasy asaṁśayaḥ ||
abhyāsa-yoga-yuktena cetasā nānya-gāminā |
paramaṁ puruṣaṁ divyaṁ yāti pārthānucintayan ||
Therefore, at all times,
remember me constantly and fight.
By surrendering your mind and intelligence to me,
you will undoubtedly come to me.

Being fixed in this yoga of practice,
the mind never going anywhere else,
thinking continuously [of him], O Partha,
one attains to the divine Supreme Person. (Gita 8.7-8)
Now it is my premise here, as already stated above, that whereas Krishna is telling Arjuna to fight, i.e., to adopt the work ethic and use his natural inclinations to activity and work in such a way that they lead to him, there is another natural side to the human character, which is the desire to experience the pleasure of love. When it comes to remembering Krishna, all means are good, but since the true goal of life is to experience the happiness of divine love of prema, the most direct means to attaining Krishna would be through such experience.

Work or service is clearly in the noble mood of servitude or dāsya, but the whole point of the later bhakti tradition founded by Rupa Goswami is to point out that the root of human existences lies in the affects, and since bhakti is more about emotions than merely external service and submission, one needs to cultivate the emotional side of one's being as the royal road to spiritual beatitude.

This is psychologically extremely astute, as it goes below the surface of action, beyond rote habit and superficial or apparent rationality, and tackles the very root of our existential problem directly.

Indeed, this seems to be the intent of the following very important texts of the Bhagavatam:

tasmāt kenāpy upāyena manaḥ kṛṣṇe niveśayet
Therefore, by whatever means possible, one should immerse the mind in Krishna. (SB 7.1.31)
The Yoga-sütra is also remarkably liberal in its prescriptions for meditation.

yathābhimata-dhyānād vā
Or, one can adopt an object of meditation according to one’s own predilection. (YS 1.39)
Or, as Swami Veda Bharati translates it: “Also, through meditation in whatever way or on whatever objecct is agreeable the mind-field attains stability.” But, of course, the YS is not interested in bhakti or prema. We are.

The Bhagavatam continues,

kāmād dveṣād bhayāt snehād yathā bhaktyeśvare manaḥ |
āveśya tad-aghaṁ hitvā bahavas tad-gatiṁ gatāḥ ||
gopyaḥ kāmāt...
By absorbing the mind in the Lord, whether through sexual desire, hatred, fear, affection, many attained to his side, just [as others] did through devotion. The gopis did so through sexual desire... (SB 7.1.29-30)
Since Rupa Goswami emphasizes ānukūlyena kṛṣṇānuśīlanam, the negative emotions are not given as much emphasis, of course, as sexual desire or the impetus to romantic love. The very centrality of sexuality itself, both in the world and in Radha-Krishna lila, should make us well aware of the need to deal with it directly.

Of course, there is admittedly a big difference in how Vaishnava and Hindu orthodoxy interpret such passages from that of the Sahaja Vaishnavas, and we shall discuss this further in the next article.

Our purpose here has simply been to propose that since the purpose of yoga is to remember God by whatever means possible, through exercising an approach to activities that is characterized by expertise, and since remembering God favorably with love is the purpose of Vaishnava yoga, that sexuality or romantic love may indeed find a place in yoga.

Go to Part II.


Steve Bohlert said…
Another excellent article Jagat. You present in your most scholarly way a similar theological perspective to that which lead me to develop Universalist Radha-Krishnaism. Thank you for presenting it so clearly and authoritatively.
very interesting, i´ve been investigating into this since years. when will you post the follow up article? joy nitoy :-)
pmirchan said…
Very Well written, indeed an eye opener. IMO sexual relationship is a human need and we can't just artificially ignore it in the name of Bhakti. If we see Krishna (GOD) as the creator of everything then yes it can be use to obtain him. it all depends on how one sees it. Not only Guru's are falling for that same sexual desire many ghrihastas are also experimenting that relationships can't last without it. Sex is so bad after all let's face it. Hare Krsna.
robert said…
A Real Cliff Hanger!

When can we look forward to reading the next article?
the approach of many well known gaudiya-vaishnava-acaryas seems to cause unnecessary polarisation and may cause "evil shadows" in those who are unable to follow the ideals of "proper" household life or brahmacari life. what about those haven´t found the right life-partner yet? the picture presented by is quite idealistic. what about those who do not have sattvik samskaras from home and no adhikar from anartha-nivritti or nishta upwards or enough sukriti to be in constant high-class sadhu-sanga? how will they deal with this most powerful force that runs the universe. try to avoid and compensate with some kind of consumption or develop all kinds of dis-eases. where is the model for the left-outs?
abhaya said…
Let me have sex in my marriage. I am entitled to it. Sex can also be yoga. But my article simply says what the reality of sex is from spiritual point of view. The reality is that material life is in the mode of sex and sex is impersonalism. I am not just talking about the act of sex. Sex is our reality. From the moment we wake up till the night and then in our sleep we float in the mode of sex desire. This is material existence. And if someone wants to be in the material world that is fine. He may even keep celibate but in the material world he is floating in the existence of sex. He needs to move beyond impersonalism. He needs to become personal.

If two people have sex all day long and do not talk to each other is this a real relationship? This is impersonalism. The impersonal way is the way most people relate to each other in this world. My article is not written by a conformist. It carries some revolutionary ideas but only the wise will perceive them.

Abhaya Mudra Dasi
Jagadananda Das said…
Dear Abhaya,

Absolutely right. This is much of what I have to say. I am going to write a little more on this subject. But there are several earlier blogs.

I have written about kanishtha-madhyama-uttama in several places, and also about singular-dual-plural. Martin Buber had some interesting insights that can be found here as well. I will try to bring some of that together in my next post.

In the meantime, may I suggest perusing the articles linked at the top of this page? Radhe Radhe.

Anonymous said…
I read some of your posts today and find them as the missing link for spiritual seekers. I have been myself very concerned about the fact of sex in spiritual life and how it has affected negatively the life of many devotees. I was initiated by Prabhupada in 1973 and have been outside of Iskcon for the last 15 years, after many years of bewilderment and confusion, like many other devotees for many reasons, but mainly after hearing the pastime of Tulasi Devi. I could never understand why Radha had to curse her to the material world for being with Krishna. After reading your posts, I believe you are the person who could please explain this. I would also like to know, from your understanding, if we are destined to remain eternally in this material world, as the humane manifestation of Radha Krishna, for Their pleasure.
pmirchan said…
There is a big difference between Bhakti Yoga and Prema Yoga. Both are yogas...(a form of meditation). In Bhakti yoga you sacrifice for a higher cause in Prema yoga you enjoy to get to the higher cause. As you mentioned that the couple who can enjoy mundane love enhances his/her relationship for Radha-Krsna. Bhakti Yoga does not require physical contact. It's all done in pure form of meditation involving the heart and the mind. Prema Yoga (sahajiya) is a spiritual abuse. To me it is easier to enjoy in the name of loving God then to sacrifice and give it up. Love is an offering. Offering is made when we can surrender and make a sacrifice. That is why we have so many bogus gurus enjoying women and making them believe he is Krishna and they are gopis. It's all perverted/twisted way of saying I am intelligent and have the knowledge. Sounds like Hindus who will tell you, God is everywhere while they continue to do their nonsense act. Or something like I have read B.G but they don't have a clue what Krishna is saying in B.G. My point is more and more people want to enjoy why not go for something very few can do and be that special/best person? For argument and education sake sahajiya should be discussed but not to encourage the community in believing in it. To pursue Sahajiya is a spiritual suicide and very misleading. Hare Krishna
Prem Nidhi said…
So here is a human being, the crown and glory of God’s creation, high above all the rest of the living species, going down to the gross, physical, material animal level and giving oneself totally to it—seeking it, wanting it, going after it, doing everything one can in order to obtain it, indulging in it, and wanting to have it always available. That means that one is voluntarily binding oneself down to a level of physical consciousness. brahmacharya is neither repressing sexuality nor avoiding sexuality. It is just bypassing sexuality—making use of this sexual potential for something ten times, a hundred times greater. Therefore, the question of repression and suppression is a misnomer. It is due to a lack of proper understanding of what the real spiritual quest is. If it is understood, then these terms will not be used. We are not just human beings; we are more than human beings. Our human status is only a pale reflection of what we really are. The only reason our human status acquires some meaning and significance is because if it is properly utilised, it can raise us up and take us into that which is our own, bring us into the Kingdom—to which we have a birthright.However, in one way the idea in the West that brahmacharya is suppression is not entirely off the mark. If one represses or suppresses some inherent natural force or faculty, it can bring about undesirable changes in the personality. If brahmacharya is forced upon an individual against the individual’s inclination and will, abnormal conditions naturally may result, because the person is being compelled to do something that deep within himself or herself the person does not want to do—compelled by others, by social restraint or by taking up vows that he or she ought not to have taken before having well considered exactly what it implied.

But if an intelligent person, having deeply pondered the whole basis of life, says: “When I want to achieve something great, something mighty, I cannot afford to deplete the energies that I have. The more I conserve, the more I can divert into that achievement and the greater the chance of succeeding.” So thinking and having understood the rationale of it and fully appreciating the ultimate achievement it would lead to, if he or she voluntarily, willingly and with great enthusiasm undertakes celibacy, where comes the question of suppression?

On the contrary, what appears to be a sort of denial is actually giving full self-expression to a higher dimension of your being into which you have now placed yourself. So, far from denying self-expression, it is giving full expression to yourself because you are no longer identified with the lesser aspect of your total personality. You are identified with the higher aspect. It is a sort of a liberation and evolution to a higher level. It is something positive, creative, and not anything negative. It is not a denial but an actual expression of yourself in the form of a keen aspiration and a noble ambition.
Jagadananda Das said…
There is another option: Making use of the potential that sexuality provides. If we understand the nature of the sexual energy, as the basis of our entire psycho-physical system, then its sublimation can lead to the higher states that you mention. But I agree that such sublimation can take place in the singular state or in the dual. Indeed without mastery, there is not much point in pursuing the Dual sadhana.
Unknown said…
Hare Krsna! What does Krsna mean when He says "I am that sex life that is not contrary to religious principles" As far as i know, there are different expectations for the different varnas in the previous yugas. But in Kali yuga, everyone is less than sudra. If a man and women in Kali yuga can just stay together married in one life peacefully that is a great acheivement.

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