Gay Marriage in the Bhagavad Gita, Part 3

rainbow-flagBy Hari-kirtana das, see also Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Which brings us to the question of dharma. When Krishna speaks of acting according to one’s own nature or ‘dharma’, he is specifically referring to Arjuna’s social duty as a warrior, which, in this case, is to uphold the cause of justice by fighting. One may reasonably ask: ‘why is this duty specifically assigned to Arjuna?’ The answer is that Arjuna is distinctively qualified to be a member of the warrior class within the highly structured social system that Krishna advocates throughout the Gita.

What is Arjuna’s distinctive qualification to belong to the warrior class and not some other class? For one thing, Krishna consistently refers to Arjuna’s royal lineage that confers upon Arjuna a natural aptitude for martial arts, leadership and heroism. Krishna also encourages Arjuna by calling him ‘mighty-armed one’ and other names that indicate Arjuna’s inherent strength and soldierly skill. In other words, Arjuna’s social duty is not an arbitrary assignment; it’s a function of genetics and fate. Arjuna’s dharma is a function of his karma: he was born that way.

The Vedic social system aligns people’s social obligations with their natural inclinations. Arjuna is naturally endowed with the essential qualities of a warrior and his social obligation is aligned with his essential qualities. Therefore we can understand that dharma as a function of social duty does not exist in isolation from dharma as an expression of an essential nature.

The concept of ‘essential nature’ has two parts in the Gita: a temporal material nature and an eternal spiritual nature. The Gita is a set of instructions on how to act in accordance with our temporary material nature in such a way as to help us realize our eternal spiritual nature. Krishna is telling us, through the Gita, that we’re not who we think we are, that we have a kind of spiritual amnesia resulting in a case of mistaken identity by which we think we are male or female, black or white, gay or straight, but that there is always an opportunity to act harmoniously with our mistaken identity in a way that will help to awaken an awareness of our real identity. To put it another way, the Gita teaches us how to respond to our destiny in order to optimize relative truths in ways that will move us in the direction of the Absolute Truth.

The corollary texts that describe the moral codes and social obligations that Krishna upholds in the Gita are called Dharma Sastras. If we want to understand dharma from the perspective of social duty then it behooves us to see what they say about such social issues as gay rights. Unlike the Judeo-Christian bible, which plainly states that homosexuals are to be killed (see Leviticus 20.13), Vedic Dharma Sastras, along with Ayurveda, consider homosexuality to be an anomaly, an innate peculiarity that is neither a normal alternative mode of being nor a particularly sinful offense worthy of punishment. In other words, it’s understood that homosexuality is not a learned behavior: gay people are born that way. And they are not to be persecuted or forced to enter into opposite sex marriages. On the contrary, the Dharma Sastras enjoin members of the class to which Arjuna belongs to provide for the well being of homosexuals within their own social sphere. In Vedic culture gay people are expected to have their own relationships and their own community within the greater community and are to be accorded suitable rights and protections.

Which brings us back to the word ‘marriage’ and the concept of Holy Matrimony. It should be noted that the overwhelming majority of marriages that we consider “normal” in the west are ‘aprashasta’: not sanctioned by Dharma Sastra. For example, when the bride and bridegroom meet each other of their own accord and the union is consummated in passion then that would be  considered aprashasta. This is not necessarily a disqualification for the practice of yoga, however: Arjuna’s marriage to Krishna’s sister, Subhadra, was by way of abduction with the active consent of the abducted. Though it was considered a social norm for members of Arjuna’s class, it’s not a method of matrimony that’s officially sanctioned by Dharma Sastra.

It should come as no surprise then that gay marriage is also aprashasta, so much so that there isn’t even a description of such marriages in the Dharma Sastras; all Vedic texts assume that marriage is between a man and a woman. Therefore one can say that gay marriage falls outside the perimeter of Vedic dharma. And from this point of view I can easily understand why someone might take issue with my insistence that the Bhagavad Gita supports gay marriage.

Ultimately we understand dharma through the lens of bhakti because Krishna asserts that the ultimate dharma is bhakti: knowledge of and loving surrender to the Supreme Person, to Krishna himself. In the Bhagavad Gita, any relationship that supports this objective is considered higher than one based on the pursuit of prosperity, material happiness, or even religiosity: the rules of the Dharma Sastras are subordinate to the rule of love of God. The Gita supports one’s right to work through one’s conditioning by acting in accord with one’s nature. This would tend to support the notion of chaste monogamy as the best strategy for gay couples on the path of yoga just as it does for straight couples. In contemporary society it’s possible for a gay couple to have children that they are at least 50% biologically responsible for. They can also adopt a child and there is certainly no shortage of children in need of loving parents, foster or otherwise. In either case it’s possible for a gay couple to have an exclusive, committed and spiritually centered relationship and do their best to inspire the children they’ve taken responsibility for to pursue a spiritually centered life. And a society based on the Gita’s values is obliged to offer rights and protections to gay people on par with those of straight people in order for all people to have the opportunity to be peaceful and content and practice yoga.

Therefore it is not a question of ‘where does the Gita explicitly state that gay marriage is okay?’ The question is ‘how should the intention of the Gita be honored when it comes to ensuring the rights of society’s gay members?’ One can parse language and say that civil unions that convey the same legal rights as marriage can be used in the case of gay couples, but I don’t think that cuts it. Arguments of separate but equal sound suspiciously like 19th century biblical arguments that offered a religious justification for racial segregation. I don’t think advocates of Vedic traditions want to be sitting in the back of the same bus that Christian conservatives ride on their way to declarations of marital sanctity that are often just thin veils for an irrational homophobia.

Besides, celebrating the commitment of two people to one another with a ceremony that highlights the spiritual connection between the betrothed creates just the kind of impression that will help a couple feel motivated to elevate one another spiritually during the course of their union. Does anyone really have a problem with that? A friend of mine, a woman I helped train to become a yoga teacher, married her partner in a beautiful interfaith ceremony with the enthusiastic blessings of friends and family in attendance. Looking at the photos, I was so happy to see the look of love and joy on their faces: it looked like it was the happiest day in their lives. As her well wisher, I’m anxious to support my friend in her spiritual journey, to illuminate the path of action in accordance with her temporary material nature that will take her in the direction of realizing her eternal spiritual nature. Can I really do that if I oppose her getting ceremoniously hitched to the love of her life, if I seek to deny her the rights and freedoms that go with marriage on the basis of an anachronistically orthodox interpretation of yoga wisdom texts? I don’t think so.

Creating opportunities for advancement in spiritual life is the bottom line. Therefore I remain convinced that, according to time and circumstance, the proper application of the philosophical conclusion of the Bhagavad Gita, backed by the inclusiveness of the Dharma Sastras that Krishna upholds in the Gita, calls for support of gay marriage in contemporary society as a vehicle for gay people to have the sacred foundations and social protections that create an environment suitable for advancement in spiritual life.

A footnote: Some of my readers gravitated toward the issue of sex and procreation rather than civil rights and matters of the heart. They have a point: while not central to the focus of my argument, a discussion of marriage absent the subject of brahmacharya would be incomplete. We often hear a general definition of brahmacharya as meaning constructive control of sexual energy within a committed relationship. It should be understood, however, that the highest standard of brahmacarya in yoga is celibacy: the determined transmutation of sexual energy toward the goal of self-realization. Brahmacharya does not necessarily mean remaining single: it can be observed within the context of marriage when sex is exclusively reserved for opportunities to conceive a child. Yoga implies a conformance to the natural world and a serious yogi is in tune with nature rather than opposed to it. Therefore, a yogi doesn’t impede the course of nature by artificial means such as, for example, contraception: a yogi accepts nature as she is and accepts responsibility for the results of engaging in sex, making both the act and the result of the act an offering to the Supreme Person that facilitates the spiritual advancement of all concerned. This is the true definition of ‘Holy Matrimony’. I want to emphasize that this is the highest standard of brahmacharya in yoga, not the mandatory pre-requisite or starting point for the practice of yoga. To those who are able to maintain this glorious standard, mazel-tov.

By Hari-kirtana das, see also Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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