Recently ISKCON’s Grihastha Vision Team informally surveyed scores of couples and individuals in ISKCON to ascertain some of the greatest challenges in their marriages. Two top challenges emerged:
1. Lack of emotional and or physical intimacy; Absence of closeness, including loving exchanges and struggles with sexual intimacy.
2. Incompatibility and lack of premarital education and/or marriage counseling.
No other religious group quite has the same problem of sex in marriage. According to all scriptures, sex outside of a legitimate, spiritual marriage is sinful. However, in marriage, all other religions condone sexual intimacy as a God-given privilege.
Many ISKCON couples are contacting the professional Marriage and Family Educators, Therapists and Counselors that make up the Grihastha Vision Team (GVT) about the issue of sexual intimacy. Devotees are divorcing or leaving the movement because of it. GVT marriage and family educators have witnessed time and time again, the pain and devastation caused by devotees wrestling with the problem of emotional and physical intimacy.
One devotee wrote in the survey: “There is no proper honest communication support for couples going through problems. Devotees don’t talk about their issues, and suffer alone from judgment. Some devotees and kulis have a high rate of mental health issues without support — another factor for divorce. Even though devotees take initiation vows, I would say that many, many have sex but no one wants to publicly admit for fear of guilt and ridicule for breaking vows.”
The stance of “no sex in marriage except for procreation” is a cause of concern for many couples. Some, being overwhelmed, divorce or separate. Families have strained and some devotees have even considered pornography or committed suicide!
We don’t talk much about how to deal with sex in our Krishna conscious society, except the negatives of it. It’s the elephant in the room, the “hot potato topic” and unfortunately, the cause of a lot of distress, confusion and misunderstanding. That is why this is such an important topic in ISKCON.
“I would say there is a higher divorce rate in ISKCON than in the [outside] world,” one survey participant wrote, “Because of fanaticism, false renunciation, guilt over sex and not being able to follow the initiation vow, I think from what I’ve seen.”
There are some devotees who are hesitant to even hug or embrace because they were told that sex is bad and that it leads to more hellish situations; that hugging or embracing will lead to sex.
Another respondent on the informal survey wrote: “Rejection of sex desire = when sex is seen as dirty, wrong, sinful, etc then emotional abuse happens. I also see people who are not finding healthy outlets to express their hormonal influences. This can cause, again, neglect and also emotional abuse. I’ve seen erratic behavior from people trying to control their sex desire and it’s been not nice.”
For most people, there are several stages before one actually reaches the level of pure, advanced love for God. Artificial repression of desires before this high standard is attained isn’t healthy. As Lord Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita, “What good does repression accomplish?”
Artificial repression of sex desire leads to anger, hardened hearts, and going away from spiritual life. But should devotees simply let go and try to gratify their desires without principle or plan? No. The GVT recommends that couples endeavor to purify these desires in a bonafide marriage, with a caring spouse, working towards the ultimate goal of freedom from material desires.
An Honest, Principled Approach
This takes thoughtful consideration and an honest, principled approach. As one survey participant commented, “Some devotees feel like they have to LOOK more saintly than they can manage and it misleads the partner — honesty is good.”
There are three main categories of married devotees, all of them sincerely and seriously practicing Krsna consciousness, and all are considered bonafide grhasthas:
1. Couples who are very advanced and free from many of the gross and subtle material desires. These couples, though rare, do exist as a result of having seriously practiced devotional service. They work together in a healthy, loving relationship to please the Lord through service and devotion. They have healthy, caring interactions amongst themselves and others.
2. One spouse may be able to give up sexual intimacy but the other is not able or ready to do so. Research by social scientists has shown that sex desire may be different in each member of a couple. This couple still works together in a healthy, loving relationship to please the Lord through service and devotion. They assist one another, realizing that service to each other is a part of their service to God. They show healthy affection for each other, their children and their community. They do not close themselves off from having and raising children as an offering to the Lord.
3. Both spouses want to enjoy physical intimacy and realize that being close and caring for one another does not have to be harmful to their devotional service. Rather, they understand that by being honest and wholesome in their approach, while regularly chanting and serving, they will gradually become free of material desires. These couples show healthy affection for each other, their children and their community. They do not close themselves off from having and raising children as an offering to the Lord.
In each of these examples, the couples are sincere devotees, desiring to work as a team to overcome the challenges of maya. The intention of each couple is to lovingly assist their spouses to diminish desires that keep us bound to the material world.
How one couple deals with their particular challenges may be quite different from another because of their individual, unique desires, life experiences, resources etc. One should consider the issue of sex desire in the same way as any of the other struggles of aspiring devotees. Sometimes people struggle to consistently chant their rounds of japa; others may struggle with sex desire; another may struggle giving up envy; someone else may struggle with a former addiction. Whatever the case, one can try one’s best to follow the principles, chant the Holy Names and cry for mercy in any situation.
“Actually, a person who is developing Krsna consciousness and still has some attachment to material enjoyment will soon be freed from such a tendency by regularly discharging devotional service under the instruction of a bona ﬁde spiritual master,” writes His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in “The Nectar of Devotion.”
Married Life Allows us to Fulfill (and Purify) Our Desires According to Spiritual Principles
In the marriage ashrama, Lord Krishna allows for the fulfillment of desires in principled ways, thus letting us gradually become free of sensual desires. He gives a spouse to assist with this process. And, sex in a God conscious marriage can be seen as a venue to grow closer to the Lord and each other.
Devotees who are seriously committed to spiritual life should not feel unnecessary guilt when they are not able to keep the highest standards, as long as they are committed to achieving the highest standard. Committed to achieving the highest principle means that a person wants to one day be free of material sex desire or any desire that binds one to the material world. Additionally, it means working to achieve this freedom through bhakti yoga: chanting, serving devotees and sharing the message of Lord Chaitanya with others.
“In the beginning of Krsna consciousness, one may not fully discharge the injunctions of the Lord,” Srila Prabhupada writes in the purport of Bhagavad-gita 3:31. “But because one is not resentful of this principle and works sincerely without consideration of defeat and hopelessness, he will surely be promoted to the state of pure Krsna consciousness.”
Lord Krishna created sex; it’s a spiritual act as well as a physical one. Principled sex isn’t just two bodies rubbing together, but for husband and wife, sex is a physical act that should reflect an emotional union within a spiritual lifestyle. Many people see physical intimacy as part of emotional intimacy and it actually should be. What is wanted are loving exchanges, closeness, respect, appreciation and union with one’s spouse – and this is quite natural.
Sex Has Been Given by God
Sex has been given by God to all living beings to reproduce, to allow other souls to get physical bodies so that they can fulfill their material desires and become purified by developing spiritual desires. This is the primary and very important function of sex. In human society, for society’s well-being and upward spiritual progress, Lord Krishna has given guidelines or laws.
Lawful sex is ordained between people who can reproduce (males and females) — and it is sex in a sanctified marriage where people make vows before God, family and community. When sex is honored in this way, it is actually spiritual. This is validated by the Lord Himself in Bhagavad gita when He declares, “I am sex according to religious principles.”
“The genitals and the pleasure of begetting counteract the distresses of family encumbrances,” Prabhupada writes in the purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 2.6.8. “One would cease to generate altogether if there were not, by the grace of the Lord, a coating, a pleasure-giving substance, on the surface of the generative organs. This substance gives a pleasure so intense that it counteracts fully the distress of family encumbrances.”
For spiritual seekers, however, the effort is to reduce the material pleasure-seeking (which is inevitably temporary and has a consequence) so that gradually the eternal pleasures of pure unconditional loving exchanges can be realized. Using intelligence and compassion, the Grihasta Vision Team recommends that spouses cooperate to make spiritual advancement and have healthy, loving relationships.
Grihastha Vision Team members have counseled and educated hundreds of couples, presided at weddings, written books and heard the cries and frustrations of devotees struggling to be Krsna conscious before and after marriage. By no means does the GVT encourage devotees to just gratify their sexual urges without restraint. Rather, the GVT wants to raise the discussion, to invite open and honest consideration and to give hope and encouragement about a controversial and bewildering subject in our movement. Survey respondents resoundingly stated that guidance and support are needed in the area of affection and intimacy.
Devotees need to feel hope wherever they are in the spiritual journey, whatever rung of the ladder they are on. Hope that they are making progress; knowledge that they are not condemned. We know that Srila Prabhupada, ever compassionate, was always inspiring us to use our intelligence in figuring out how to allow for people to grow and be inspired in Krishna consciousness. Let’s consider the Principle and allow individuals the grace to achieve that principle in the best way that works for them.
Krsnanandini devi dasi was instructed by Srila Prabhupada over 40 years ago to “show the world how to have a real Krsna conscious marriage,” an instruction she has endeavored to carry out with prayer, passion and persistence. She serves as president of the Grihastha Vision Team (GVT, vaisnavafamilyresources.org); co-director of the Dasi-Ziyad Family Institute (www.dzfi.org), contributor to Back-to-Godhead magazine, Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE), author, senior minister, mother and wife.