In “Pouring Ghee Into Ashes,” Niscala DD joins her cadre at the ramparts of iskcon.us to defend the sanctity of gay devotees everywhere. She attempts to make several points in the space of some 1600 words, points that should be self-evident to all but the most fanatical, but the crux is this: Discriminating against gay devotees is another form of “skin disease,” unwarranted prejudice on the basis of the body and indicative of spiritual shortcomings in the offender.
Publicly professing such a view is still fairly revolutionary for an ISKCON devotee, so Niscala’s article is worth a read (as are many other articles on the site, a selective aggregator of various online content). But the real point of interest is in the comments below the article itself. One reader, Anže Čimžar, has taken it upon himself to post a generous helping of Prabhupada’s more damning statements about what he called “homosex.”
Niscala’s reply, in brief: “Anze, posting quotes like these, by Srila Prabhupada is actually irrelevant.”
Niscala’s attempt to dismiss Prabhupada’s homophobic statements is speculative and, frankly, ridiculous. At some point the liberals in ISKCON will have to confront the fact that their conception of Prabhupada is disingenuous and largely indefensible. Any honest appraisal of his comments on this particular issue (collected here for ease of inspection) must acknowledge that Prabhupada did not consider all types of non-procreative sexual activity to be equally as sinful, as liberal devotees would like to insist. He wrote in his Bhagavatam commentary that “the homosexual appetite of a man for another man is demoniac” (a statement that refers simply to the desire for, not even the consummation of, homosexual activity) and equated such an appetite with insanity. In various public statements he referred to “homosex” as “animalistic,” “even less than animal,” and spoke of the possibility of gay marriage in the same context as abortion, a sign of human society’s alarming degradation.
Apparently in support of Anže’s approach, a reader named Gaura Das reproduces in another comment a letter from Prabhupada to Lalitananda, who had apparently revealed his homosexual orientation to Prabhupada. The letter reads, in part, “Even though you are in a very degraded condition Krishna, being pleased with your service attitude, can pick you up from your fallen state. You should stop this homosex immediately. It is illicit sex, otherwise, your chances of advancing in spiritual life are nil. Show Krishna you are serious, if you are.”
This letter shows not only Prabhupada’s view that homosexuality is incompatible with spiritual life (“…your chances of advancing in spiritual life are nil…”) it also reveals his conviction that it could be “cured” (“…Krishna…can pick you up from your fallen state…”). Devotees familiar with some of the less publicized parts of ISKCON’s history will know that this is in keeping with Prabhupada’s dealings with several other gay disciples.
As Gaura himself points out, by referring to a second letter, written in response to yet another gay devotee brave enough to expose his “abominable” proclivities to his guru, Prabhupada more than once instructed a gay male disciple to get married to a Krishna conscious wife and procreate as a means to curb his “perverted desires.” This seems to have been Prabhupada’s go-to prescription for this particular “malady,” often unbeknownst to the third party charged with the spiritual/sexual reform of her or his partner. The other prescription, of course, was sannyasa, a remedy adopted by Kirtanananda, Bhavananda, Umapati, and others. Neither prescription ended up having a very good record for success.
In the present day the “reform” of homosexual orientation through heterosexual marriage is seen by most as misguided, as the widespread failure of so-called conversion therapy proves. While devotees like Gaura are yet reluctant to admit that Prabhupada could have been at all misguided, this is not the only thing about homosexuality (or, indeed, several other subjects) Prabhupada clearly got wrong. Prabhupada more than once asserted, like many who seek to deny the equal rights of homosexuals on religious grounds, that “in animal society there is no homosex,” proof to him that homosexuality is unnatural or, as he put it, “less than animal.” Trouble is, there is “homosex” in animal society. Animals in over a thousand species (found so far) show signs of homosexuality that include affection, courtship, pair bonding, sexual activity, and even parenting among same-sex animal pairs.
Still, regardless of Prabhupada’s misguided approach to dealing with gay disciples and his willingness to repeat false information to support his position, exactly how he felt about homosexuality should be clear to anyone willing to take the time to examine his statements on the matter. And yet liberal devotees will defend him by arguing, as at least one other article argues elsewhere on the same site, that Prabhupada was unfailingly respectful (cordial, even welcoming) toward those homosexuals he dealt with in his public life. (The primary example given, that of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, can hardly be considered representative, as Ginsberg, and the boon he could have been to ISKCON, was himself hardly representative. To say nothing of the fact that on at least one occasion Prabhupada spoke less than cordially about Ginsberg and his sexuality. Actually, none of the anecdotes in this article held up as representative can be referenced to Prabhupada’s recorded statements.) By extension, liberal devotees also contend, on practically no basis but their own desires and opinions, that Prabhupada would have eventually allowed some form of monogamous homosexual unions within ISKCON.
Personally, I find the prospect doubtful, based on Prabhupada’s well documented opinions on the matter. Take a look at the quotes linked to above and you’ll find that he repeatedly referred to gay marriage in particular as a sign of the degradation of human society, lambasting the priests who were willing to perform the rite for their gay parishioners.
But, who knows? Prabhupada was nothing if not a pragmatist. He repeatedly stated that “women are not very intelligent” and made it clear that in his opinion they belong to the category of papa-yoni, “sinful birth.” He also instructed that the female children of his disciples should not be given a proper education, only taught how to cook, clean, and serve their husbands. (Actually, on several occasions he bemoaned the birth of girl children in his movement, clearly preferring boys.) In spite of all this, there is some roundabout truth to the claim that he was “the greatest feminist.” At least insofar as he was willing to give brahmana initiation to his female disciples and to allow them to live in his temples alongside the men, though not in the sense that he considered them deserving of the same rights and privileges, across the board, as their male counterparts.
Considering that he saw limited cultural innovation to be the only way forward in a world already past the point of no return in allowing women to be treated as human beings, a world that had at that point taken some steps toward regarding women as equal in some respects to men, I’ll grant that Prabhupada may have eventually come around to the idea of gay marriage. It is conceivable that he would have eventually allowed some sort of formal declaration of monogamy between same-sex devotees in an effort to encourage their continued service, whether physical or financial, to ISKCON. But it is also conceivable that he would have limited their service, restricting them from brahmana initiation or positions of power, possibly even forbidding them from giving class or leading kirtans. It is, moreover, highly likely that, if he’d done so, he would have made that decision based on a desire not to hinder ISKCON’s influence in a world that, by and large, now accepts homosexuality as perfectly normal and deserving of equal respect.
After all (conservatives in ISKCON take note!), the war is over. The homophobes lost. Sure, not everyone has received the memo, so legal and symbolic battles will still be fought for some time to come. But, as for your attempts to stand at the edge of the ocean and order the tide to recede – it’s not happening. Homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular have passed the tipping point of acceptability in mainstream Western culture. In India and the rest of the world, it’s only a matter of time.
But let’s not get distracted. The real point here, at least as far as this missive is concerned, is how much the validity of liberal ISKCON depends on a revisionist’s view of Prabhupada. Their conception of ISKCON’s founder, “the savior of the most fallen,” depends on an alchemical blend of wishful thinking and denial, informed primarily by their assumptions about what a saint should and shouldn’t be. Because they can’t imagine a “pure devotee” would be a misogynist, a racist, or a homophobe, they refuse to believe that Prabhupada could have been any of those things. So in those cases he said or did something that indicates he was a misogynist, a racist, and a homophobe, the evidence must be either creatively re-interpreted, conveniently ignored, or actively suppressed. The liberals’ attempts to make Prabhupada into a feminist, an egalitarian, or a gay rights advocate are all attempts to remake him in their own image. You can thank cognitive dissonance for that.
Now, let me be absolutely clear, as this last bit is starting to read like an editorial from The Sampradaya Sun: As far as gay marriage is concerned (and gay rights in general, to say nothing of racial equality, women’s rights, and a host of other things), I don’t agree with Prabhupada at all. In my opinion, the approach Niscala outlines in her article is the only sensible approach for a religious institution that allegedly proclaims the basic spiritual equality of all living beings. Let me say that again but in another way: If there is any credibility to ISKCON’s claim “to systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large…in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world,” then it must ensure that its philosophy is, in theory and in practice, equally available to all, regardless of bodily considerations – even if that means disagreeing with Prabhupada.
But, unfortunately, ISKCON’s course of action overwhelmingly has been, is, and will very likely be, always and forever, to regard Prabhupada as infallible and thus to make decisions only in the context of his desires, whether expressly stated or otherwise indistinct. Failing on his part a clear affirmation or condemnation, as in the case of the equally contentious fracas over “female diksha gurus,” ISKCONians still feel themselves duty bound to debate every issue based on what Prabhupada would have wanted. Alternatively, they could, bravely and intelligently, evaluate the options in a given situation within the wider context of their tradition or, Krishna forbid, in consideration of what appears to be the greatest good for the greatest number. But, let’s be honest: That will never happen, so long as Prabhupada is revered “as good as god” and his every word is regarded as having been dictated directly by Krishna. And because this is exactly what Prabhupada prescribed for his followers and what he said about himself, the conservative approach is the one he authorized, whereas the liberal is a deviation. In fact, to be a liberal in ISKCON is a paradox, requiring dishonesty and self-delusion in relationship either to Prabhupada or to oneself. The only choices are to become a misogynist, a racist, and a homophobe yourself, or to disavow the all-or-nothing approach Prabhupada demanded in favor of free thought and a clear conscience.