I’m often asked what traditional yoga wisdom texts have to say about homosexuality and gay marriage.
‘May all beings be happy and free’ is a traditional benediction that’s commonly recited in modern yoga classes. Given the all-inclusive nature of the benediction, one may take it for granted that yoga philosophy supports the rights of everyone – straight, gay, and otherwise – to be happy and free.
However, the Bhagavad-gita, a time-honored text of spiritual wisdom, is set in an ancient and orthodox culture. As such, one would be justified in wondering whether or not the teachings of the Gita support gay marriage.
While the specific issue of gay marriage never comes up in the Gita, a careful study of the text can reveal principles that support an inclusive, spiritually oriented society.
The Bhagavad-gita is a book about dharma. ‘Dharma’ is a complex word that connects one’s ‘essential nature’ to one’s ‘social duty’. It can also mean ‘the path of righteousness.’ To put it another way, one’s dharma is ‘the best way to respond to one’s destiny.’
The Gita teaches us that we all have two essential natures: a temporary material nature and an eternal spiritual nature. In other words, we are eternal spiritual beings who, somehow or other, have acquired temporary material identities. The practice of yoga, as described in the Gita, builds a bridge that connects our temporary identity to our eternal nature.
The best way to respond to our destiny
In the course of making his practical and philosophical arguments, Krishna consistently refers to Arjuna’s royal lineage, his martial talents, and his natural aptitude for leadership and heroism. In other words, Krishna emphasizes that 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 those 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.
Which brings us back to our two essential natures: material and spiritual. A key difference between the two is that the former is a temporary fluctuation in the quality of consciousness and the latter is an eternal and steady state of consciousness. Krishna characterizes our material consciousness, the temporary fluctuation, as 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, etc.
The cure for our amnesia is to bring our temporary material identity into harmony with our eternal spiritual nature by means of a transformation of consciousness. The Gita teaches us that the best way to respond to our destiny is to optimize the temporary, relative truths of our material identity in ways that will move us in the direction of the eternal Absolute Truth and, subsequently, our eternal spiritual identity. This is the essence of a spiritual journey.
Crossing the bridge of yoga
So let’s re-frame the question: ‘how does the Gita support the spiritual journey for those who are karmically pre-disposed to have an attraction to members of the same sex?’
To find out, we can cross-reference a few relevant verses. Let’s start with this one:
“Even those who possess knowledge act according to their own nature, for everyone acts in accord with the tendencies they have acquired due to contact with the three qualities of material nature (goodness, passion, and ignorance). What will repression accomplish?” – Bg 3.33
‘Knowledge’ in the context of the Bhagavad-gita means the ability to distinguish between the spiritual self and the material body, the latter of which includes the mind and all of the psychology and behavioral tendencies associated with the mind and senses. Krishna is describing a person who is simultaneously acquainted with transcendental knowledge and yet is still affected by behavioral conditioning that arises due to contact with prakrti, material nature.
As we cross the bridge we’re building to connect our temporary identity to our eternal nature we’ll find ourselves straddling the gap between our material and spiritual identities. Since this can be a precarious position, we need a solid bridge, a firm foundation underfoot to stabilize us as we attempt to cross this gap.
A steady yoga practice grounded in both a clear understanding of our eternal spiritual nature and a compassionate acceptance of our temporary material identity is the raw material from which we build such a solid bridge.
The social function of yoga philosophy
Throughout the Gita, Krishna encourages Arjuna to act according to his nature, both spiritually and materially. Since the Gita’s teachings are universal the same must apply for any eternal spiritual being who, due to contact with the three qualities of material nature, identifies as being gay or trans, etc. in this or any other lifetime.
This brings us to the next relevant verse:
“I created the four social orders of human society, which are divided according to the qualities one acquires and the actions one performs. You should know that, although I am the creator of this system, I have no position within it, for I am eternally transcendental to such qualities and actions.” – Bg 4.13
Yoga philosophy has a social function: to provide every member of society with an opportunity to make spiritual advancement.
The social organization of yoga has four divisions: one for vision and guidance, one for protection and administration, one for production and commerce, and one for construction and support.
These four divisions are intended to work cooperatively to ensure that every member of society can live peacefully, with their needs fulfilled, and build a bridge, both individual and collective, so that everyone’s spiritual journey is supported. This is the basis for the cultural spiritualization of society.
Everyone’s primary need is the opportunity for spiritual advancement. In order to focus on our spiritual advancement we need to be peaceful. In order to be peaceful some reasonable material needs need to be met. This includes basic human rights like the right to self-determination in balance with reasonable social obligations, the right to share our lives with those we choose to share it with, access to education that matches our potential and medical care that matches our needs, and equal opportunities to work in accordance with our natural talents.
If the institutions of a society systematically deny any of these basic human rights to people based on race, gender, nationality, or any other temporary material designation then it fails to live up to the Bhagavad-gita’s standard for a society that protects and supports the progressive spiritual progress of all of its citizens.
The Bhagavad-gita is not a book of religious commandments. Krishna makes it unmistakably clear that we have free will in the matter of choosing how we respond to our destiny. It is, however, a book about what the world looks like from God’s point of view. Though not shy about establishing his omniscient position, Krishna often uses the phrase ‘in my opinion’ during the course of his dialog with Arjuna and encourages Arjuna to decide for himself what his course of action should be:
“Thus I have described to you the most confidential secret of all. Carefully consider everything that I have said and then do as you wish.” – Bg 18.63
Krishna, speaking from the position of God, confirms that freedom of self-determination in relationship to social obligation is an inalienable right that cannot be denied by any human agency. To do so would constitute an injustice.
Thus, if a government imposes restrictions on how we may respond to our destiny, such as restricting our right to choose who can visit us in the hospital when we’re sick, who is permitted to make critical decisions on our behalf when we are unable to make them for ourselves, who is qualified to inherit our assets, dispose of our liabilities, or take over legal guardianship of our children when we die, etc., then that constitutes an unreasonable imposition of state will on our divinely bestowed free will, an injustice.
Arjuna’s social obligation is to fight injustice. The Gita presents Arjuna as a role model for aspiring yogis. One can therefore reasonably argue that depriving gay people of the rights enjoyed by straight people is an injustice that ought to be opposed by anyone who aspires to follow in Arjuna’s footsteps.
Marriage as a social construct and marriage as ‘holy matrimony’
The most conspicuous right in connection with social justice and the LGBQT community is the right to be legally wed to the partner of one’s choice. This right, now confirmed in America by its highest court, touches on both the idea of marriage as a social construct and marriage as ‘holy matrimony’. The emphasis on the latter is at the heart of most religious objections to same-sex unions.
‘Holy’, as an adjective in this case, means ‘devoted to the service of God; morally or spiritually perfect; dedicated to religious purposes’. The word ‘matrimony’ has its roots in the French word matremoine, which appears around 1300 CE and is derived from the Latin word matrem – meaning ‘mother’ – monium – indicating an action, state, or condition. The assumption is that motherhood follows marriage.
In other words, the institution of marriage is meant to sanctify sexual intercourse. Heterosexual intercourse undertaken with the expectation that its natural outcome will be responsible procreation may thus be regarded as both a social duty and the fulfillment of ‘holy matrimony’ insofar as expectant couples intend to guide their offspring toward proximity with divinity as an essential part of the sacrifice known as ‘parenting’.
At no point in the Gita does Krishna repudiate this conception of marriage, which brings us to the next relevant verse:
“O best of the Bhāratas (Arjuna), among the strong I am strength that is free from passion and attachment. Within all beings, I am desire that does not conflict with the principles of religion.” – Bg 7.11
The most compelling of desires is the desire for sex in one form or another, which lends paramount importance to its sanctification for one on the path of yoga. Given that the word ‘religion’ in the context of the Gita means ‘healing by reconnection’ (in Latin, re-ligio: again, to bind together) and the word ‘yoga’ means ‘union’, the words ‘religion’ and ‘yoga’ are synonyms.
As such, the principles of religion as they pertain to sex are the same as the principle of brahmacharya in yoga: the direction of sexual energy toward a spiritual purpose.
Arjuna achieved spiritual perfection by overcoming his superficial impulse toward pacifism, embracing his unique calling as a warrior, and offering both his action and the results of his actions to the Supreme Person. Similarly, couples can achieve perfection by following the dharma of ‘holy matrimony’ and making both the act and the results of procreation a spiritual sacrifice.
Unless, of course, their can be no expectation of procreation from the act of sexual intercourse. In this case there are no results to offer, rendering the act itself un-offerable. Since the ‘principle of religion’ throughout the Gita is proximity to the Supreme Person rather than increased personal intimacy between loving couples, the spiritual content of sex between same-sex couples, however much it may be an expression of interpersonal love, comes into question: how is an expression of intimacy in the form of sex between same sex couples spiritual?
A Progressive Approach to Spiritual Life
One may just as easily ask ‘how is any sexual activity not associated with procreation spiritual?’ How many modern heterosexual couples abide by such an orthodox standard of spiritual lovemaking? Not many, I’ll bet. The potential for ‘holy matrimony’ may be present in heterosexual unions in a way that’s absent from same-sex unions but, in practice, such lofty standards are rarely aspired to.
Fortunately, for both gay and straight couples, the Bhagavad-gita is not a draconian work of inflexible edicts. On the contrary, Krishna offers a very progressive approach to spiritual life that provides a point of entry for everyone:
“Even if you are unable to practice (the regulative principles of yoga), just try to work on my behalf. By offering your actions to me you will surely attain perfection.” – Bg 12.10
Here, Krishna clearly indicates that any person who is unable to fully abide by the highest standards of the Gita’s injunctions, such as those concerned with ‘desire that does not conflict with the principles of religion”, can still engage in spiritual life as long as one is not resentful of such principles. As clearly stated in this verse, simply by working for the sake of Krishna’s mission, namely, the spiritual emancipation of all beings, one will certainly, in due course of time, be promoted to the stage of spiritual perfection.
This does not offer anyone a license for promiscuity. The constructive direction of sexual energy either by celibacy (if one is single) or principled restraint (by couples) is definitely upheld in the Gita as a fundamental requirement for substantive spiritual attainment (6.14, 8.11, and others). Monogamy within a committed relationship, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity, is more conducive to spiritual growth than indiscriminate or casual sex.
The last issue is one of language: if gay couples can work towards the ideal of spiritual life within the context of a committed relationship, why must that relationship be called ‘marriage’? Why not simply divorce the social issues from the religious ones and advocate for “civil unions” for gay couples?
The answer is simple: language matters. To call the union of two straight people one thing and the union of two gay people another based exclusively on procreative potential creates the perception that there is an inherent inequality, irrespective of legal guarantees, that implicitly condones acts or attitudes of discrimination. In short, human nature ensures that ‘separate but equal’ never works.
Everyone’s marriage is different in one way or in many ways but the emotional experience of marriage is the same for one as it is for the other. The language to describe that experience should also be the same.
From the standpoint of the Bhagavad-gita, the issue of language would fall under the category of a guarantee of protection for all citizens by the social order rather than under the category of religious rituals conducted in association with a marital union. From the standpoint of the Gita’s Vedic culture, ceremonies for same-sex couples would differ from those for opposite sex couples insofar as the purpose of their respective unions would be different.
The principle, however, is one of equal protection and inclusivity. Since we do not live in a Vedic society the issue is one of proper application of principle in accordance to time, place, and circumstance.
The relevance of the Bhagavad-gita to the contemporary world is that it’s a handbook for social activism in pursuit of a non-sectarian spiritualization of modern society. The Gita’s position on such issues as gay rights and gender identity is of particular importance because love of the Supreme Person, the ultimate goal of the Gita’s teachings, is inclusive by definition: to love the Supreme Being is to love everyone because everyone is a part and parcel of the Supreme Being:
“O son of Pandu (Arjuna), having acquired this knowledge, you will never again fall under the influence of illusion, for by this knowledge you will see the shared spiritual essence of all living beings and how they all abide within me.” – Bg 4.35
Progressive spirituality is concerned with ascertaining the proper application of the Gita’s timeless teachings to contemporary life. The beauty of the Bhagavad-gita is found in the universality of its philosophical conclusion, namely, that all relative dharma-s are subordinate to one ultimate dharma: complete and fearless surrender, motivated by love, to the will of the Supreme Person.
There is no verse in the Gita where Krishna says “I support gay marriage”. The difference between religious fundamentalism and progressive spirituality is the project of ascertaining the proper application of the Gita’s timeless teachings to contemporary life. The proper application in this case rests on the understanding that any relationship that supports this objective is considered higher than one based on the pursuit of mundane religiosity, worldly prosperity, material happiness, or even liberation from material existence.
A truly spiritual society functions like a house in which the whole world can live. The Bhagavad-gita promotes a message of transcendental inclusivity in pursuit of the spiritualization of human society.
Tell me what you think
How do you think the traditional wisdom of yoga relates to the issues that affect the LGBTQ community? Please share your thoughts with me in the comments section below. Hearing from someone who can offer an experiential point of view would be especially welcome.