Hare Krishna movement and sexual orientation
Hare Krishna views of homosexuality, and especially the view of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) towards LGBT issues, are generally typical of most fundamentalist religious movements. Nevertheless, same-sex relations and gender variance have been represented within Hinduism from Vedic times through to the present day, in rituals, law books, mythical narratives, commentaries, paintings, and sculpture. The extent to which these representations embrace or reject homosexuality has been disputed within the religion as well as outside of it.
The Hare Krishna movement, as a distinct Hindu sect, and especially ISKCON, generally view all sex and sexuality (except procreational sex within the context of marriage) as being "illicit" with another partner. The focus of one's life is supposed to be geared towards spirituality and not sexuality. Nevertheless, there have been a number of LGBT people involved in the Hare Krishna movement over the years.
Hare Krishna movement in the 1960s
When A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to New York City in the 1960s to start his religious movement, he was met by hippies and beatniks such as Allen Ginsberg, Howard Wheeler and Keith Ham, who took an interest in his Krishna-based religion and spirituality.
Allen Ginsberg was involved with Krishnaism, and had been chanting the Hare Krishna mantra since he first visited India in 1963. He befriended Swami Prabhupada, a relationship that is documented by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami in his biographical account Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta. Ginsberg donated money, materials, and his reputation to help the Swami establish the first temple, and toured with him to promote his cause. Ginsberg also claimed to be the first person on the North American continent to chant the Hare Krishna mantra. Music and chanting were both important parts of Ginsberg's live delivery during poetry readings. He often accompanied himself on a harmonium, and was often accompanied by a guitarist. When Ginsberg asked if he could sing a song in praise of Lord Krishna on William F. Buckley, Jr.'s TV show "Firing Line" on September 3, 1968, Buckley acceded and the poet chanted slowly as he played dolefully on a harmonium. According to Richard Brookhiser, an associate of Buckley's, the host commented that it was "the most unharried Krishna I've ever heard." Ginsberg spoke with Swami Prabhupada on many occasions and discussed the importance that the mantra and Krishna Consciousness can have on the world.
Howard Wheeler and Keith Ham were two early followers of Swami Prabhupada. Howard and Keith met at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, became lovers, and then moved to New York. In New York City, they met Swami Prabhupada, began following him, and went on to play prominent roles in the Hare Krishna movement. Keith Ham became Kirtanananda Swami, and Howard Wheeler became Hayagriva Swami. After becoming involved in the Hare Krishna movement, Kirtanananda became "celibate" (though later was caught breaking his vows), and Hayagriva was married by Prabhupada to Shyama Dasi. The marriage lasted eleven years, and later he was married to Purnamasi Dasi. Nevertheless, the book Monkey On A Stick (by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson, 1988 and 1990) suggests that Hayagriva was likely seeing men throughout those years too. Hayagriva died of cancer in 1989. Kirtanananda Swami, on the other hand, was supposed to be "celibate", but was eventually caught being intimate with a boy in 1993. This was the final incident that basically resulted in Kirtanananda being removed from the New Vrindaban Community that he and Hayagriva originally founded. Kirtanananda, in recent years, has left the United States. Keith Ham died on October 24, 2011 at a hospital in Thane, near Mumbai, India with reasons being quoted as Kidney Failure.
Musician Boy George was openly involved with the Hare Krishna movement, members of ISKCON have appeared in several of his stage performances, and his 1991 song "Bow Down Mister" includes the Hare Krishna mantra and other references to the Hare Krishnas. Regarding homosexuality and the Hare Krishna movement, George says in his book Take It Like a Man, "A swami, who I was very fond of, told me it was harder for homosexuals to enter the gates of heaven. I replied, 'especially if you keep them shut.'" George also wrote, "Some devotees are obviously uncomfortable with my association with Krishna Consciousness. Others treat me with utmost respect and kindness."
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Recent ISKCON views
In 2001, several LGBT members of ISKCON joined together to form GALVA, The Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association (see link below). GALVA works to provide information and support to all LGBT Hare Krishnas, Vaishnavas and Hindus in general. The organization is also dedicated to reminding straight members about the importance of all-inclusiveness and accommodating all members of society in Krishna consciousness. Since its inception, GALVA has expanded its membership to over two thousand and many leaders (such as Bhakti Tirtha Swami) have applauded its efforts.
Regarding the issue of accommodating LGBT persons within the Hare Krishna movement, Hridayananda dasa Goswami—a leading member of ISKCON—has stated, "We should encourage all people from all backgrounds to come to Krishna consciousness, and it is natural to form various associations to support the diverse Vaishnava communities in their spiritual practices. Surely Lord Krishna appreciates and blesses all sincere efforts to help others advance in Krishna consciousness. Vaishnavas should endeavor to bring Lord Caitanya's mercy to all living beings, and we must treat all devotees, and indeed all creatures with appropriate dignity and respect." (Chakra editorial, 1/30/2003)
Regarding the issue of Gay Monogamy and Same-sex marriage, Hridayananda dasa Goswami has further stated, "It is the duty of any society to recognize, and thus encourage, the admirable behavior of its members. Monogamy, among devotees of any orientation, is an admirable achievement in the context of today's promiscuous society, and should be thus appreciated and encouraged. Given the need to balance strict varnasrama with liberal spirituality, I believe that ISKCON should recognize and encourage monogamy among all its members of whatever orientation, and that such recognition and encouragement should take appropriate forms that achieve both purposes: the maintenance of varnasrama and the encouraging of spiritual sincerity. I am not convinced that marriage is the best means in all cases, but some serious, formal and public recognition and appreciation of gay monagamy is, in my view, in the best interest of ISKCON and its members." (Open Letter to Chakra, 12/11/2004)
Other Hindu views and traditions regarding Krishna and LGBT issues
Hindu religious narratives
In the Hindu tradition, in the Upanishada and sacred texts, Brahmacharya (austere celibacy in mind, word, and deed) is described and extolled. Further, it is held as the prerequisite for the spiritual progress of a human being (CIF Brahmacharya, Gettha Press, Gorakhpur). Sublimation of sexuality and observance of celibacy are mandated even for married couples for spiritual progress.
The sakhi-bekhis are prominent throughout Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh although their numbers have diminished in recent years. Members of this sect typically dress themselves as women in order to reinforce their identity as sakhis or girlfriends of Krishna and to attain the esteemed spiritual emotion known as sakhi-bhava. Such men are not always transgender or homosexual but in many cases they are. In modern times, the sakhi-bekhi sect was condemned as sahajiya (unauthentic) when some members began making public shows of their romantic feelings for Krishna while at the same time having illicit relations with cudadharis (men dressed up as Krishna with a crown of peacock feathers). Nowadays, most sakhi-bekhis crossdress in private and are less conspicuous. They generally worship Sri Radha, the consort of Lord Krishna, although some specifically worship Lord Caitanya (the incarnation of Radha and Krishna combined) and are known as gauranga-nagaris. Neither group practices castration.
- Ravindra Svarupa Dasa as quoted in Holy Cow Swami, a documentary movie by Jacob Young (WVEBA, 1996). Ravindra Svarupa Dasa says, "As you know, there's very strict sexual regulation... Even married couples are not supposed to have sex except for the procreation of children. So, it's possible to have something within marriage called 'illicit sex'."
- Goswami, Satsvarupa dasa (2002), Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta, 1 & 2 (2nd ed.), Los Angeles, CA: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, ISBN 0-89213-357-0
- Chowka, Peter Barry, "This is Allen Ginsberg?" (Interview), New Age Journal, April 1976. "I had known Swami Bhaktivedanta and was somewhat guided by him... spiritual friend. I practiced the Hare Krishna chant, practiced it with him, sometimes in mass auditoriums and parks in the Lower East Side of New York. Actually, I'd been chanting it since '63, after coming back from India. I began chanting it, in Vancouver at a great poetry conference, for the first time in '63, with Duncan and Olson and everybody around, and then continued. When Bhaktivedanta arrived on the Lower East Side in '66 it was reinforcement for me, like 'the reinforcements had arrived' from India."
- Konigsberg, Eric, "Buckley's Urbane Debating Club: 'Firing Line' Set a Standard For Political Discourse on TV", The New York Times, Metro Section, p B1, February 29, 2008.
- There are a number of discussions with Swami Prabhupada and Allen Ginsberg online, like this one, and this one.
- Kirtanananda Swami (Keith Gordon Ham) admitted that he had a homosexual relationship with Howard Morton Wheeler (Hayagriva) for many years, and this is documented in the film Holy Cow Swami, a documentary movie by Jacob Young (WVEBA, 1996). There is court testimony shown in that movie where Kirtanananda admits this in a court of law too. Here's a clip of Kirtanananda with the court transcript where he was asked, "Back in the 1950s and early 60s, were you homosexual?" Kirtanananda replies, "Yes." He then goes on to say that he was celibate after becoming Swami, but was later caught being "intimate" with a boy during the "Winnebago Incident" of 1993 , and on September 10, 2000, ISKCON released their Official Decision on the Case of Kirtanananda Das, ISKCON Central Office of Child Protection, and determined that Kirtanananda had molested two boys.
- Kirtanananda was caught being "intimate" with a boy during the "Winnebago Incident" of 1993 , which is discussed in detail in Holy Cow Swami, a documentary movie by Jacob Young (WVEBA, 1996), and on September 10, 2000, ISKCON released their Official Decision on the Case of Kirtanananda Das, ISKCON Central Office of Child Protection, and determined that Kirtanananda had molested two boys.
- Boy George with Spencer Bright, Take It Like a Man (Harper Collins, first US edition, 1995) pp. 481–482. On page 482, he says, "I enjoy the rituals of offering obeisances to Krishna and chanting, especially when there are hundreds of devotees jumping and banging drums. At that moment it seems like the human ego is truly transcended. I do find the sexual attitudes far too rigid, though I admit the cycle of desire is fraught with anxiety and disappointment. I don't choose to cut off from it, maybe I enjoy the pain." On page 481 he says, "'Bow Down Mister' swept me up in a spiritual whirl and I became an unlikely queer envoy for Krishna Consciousness."
- Wilhelm, Amara Das. Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, p. 51. Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris Corporation, 2003.
- The Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association - Information and support for GLBTI Vaishnavas and Hindus.
- Pink Pages, India's National Gay and Lesbian Magazine - Interview of Amara Das Wilhelm, founder of GALVA.