Austerity and Pleasure: Managing Our Sexuality While Waiting for Transcendence

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Because sexual desire has a spiritual origin, the practices of bhakti-yoga can recover its pure eternal purpose.

Bhakti-yoga gives us the key to the origin of sexuality and its means of total fulfillment. Yoga literally means "union." Bhakti means loving service. Bhakti-yoga, therefore, means the loving union of the soul with the Supreme Soul. The soul’s deepest desire is for this loving union.

Whenever the Lord is pleased in any way, He and His pleasure energy reciprocate. Krishna is the ultimate masculine, and His pleasure energy is His feminine counterpart, Radharani. When there is yoga, or union, of the Supreme Soul with His pleasure energy, this yoga also gives full enjoyment to all the minute spiritual parts (us) who facilitate it. The sacred sound om shows this process, as it is a blend of the Sanskrit letters a (pronounced like the u in but), u (pronounced like the u in push) and m (a resonant nasal sound like in the French word bon). The a indicates the Supreme Soul, the u His pleasure energy, and the m individual souls like us. As illustration, the great devotee Hanuman aids the union of Rama and Sita, and in doing so feels continuously expanding pleasure himself.

The souls who refuse to exult in the Lord’s pleasure pastimes envy His central position. The utmost expression of that foolish rebellion twists the natural and intrinsic pleasure seeking of the soul into what we know in the world as sexual desire. Mundane sexuality is, therefore, a perversion of a desire that exists in our original, spiritual bodies. For this reason, all attempts to abolish sexuality result in failure. We cannot kill desires that are part of our very self.

When males and females touch each other's bodies, their lusty desires naturally awaken. It appears from this verse that there are similar sensations in spiritual bodies. Both Lord Ananta and the women giving Him pleasure had spiritual bodies. Thus all sensations originally exist in the spiritual body. This is confirmed in the Vedanta-sutra: janmady asya yatah. Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura has commented in this connection that the word adi means adi-rasa, the original lusty feeling, which is born from the Supreme. However, spiritual lust and material lust are as completely different as gold and iron. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.25.5, Purport)

The desire for enjoyment is present both in Krishna and in His parts and parcels, the living entities. In the spiritual world, such desires are also spiritual. No one should mistakenly consider such desires to be material. In the material world, if one is sexually inclined and enjoys sex life, he enjoys something temporary. His enjoyment vanishes after a few minutes. However, in the spiritual world the same enjoyment may be there, but it never vanishes. It is continuously enjoyed. In the spiritual world such sex pleasure appears to the enjoyer to be more and more relishable with each new feature. In the material world, however, sex enjoyment becomes distasteful after a few minutes only, and it is never permanent. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 8.138, Purport)

The only ultimate cure for mundane sexuality – which entices us, embarrasses us, drives us, frustrates us, and provides us at best with fleeting, temporary, and decreasing pleasure – is to regain the original form of that pleasure through a union of love and service with our source, Krishna. The process to achieve that is bhakti-yoga, which includes a variety of practices, the chief of which is to chant the names of Lord Krishna and Lord Rama and Their pleasure energy, Hare. Because the names of the Lord and His energy are identical with them, the total yoga between the soul, the Lord, and the pleasure energy is accomplished as soon as a soul is immersed in that sound with a mood of dependent love and service.

Therefore, when chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, one feels great happiness on a platform higher than that of the mind and senses. As a practitioner gradually deepens in bhakti-yoga, all mundane sexual desires are transformed back into genuine spiritual love, krishna-prema.

However, achieving the full purification necessary to return our original state of utmost bliss is generally a gradual process. Therefore, material sexual desires demand some outlet until they are fully back in their primal spiritual condition. The scriptures prescribe two righteous outlets that give the student of bhakti-yoga support along the route to transcendence.

Two Supports for Bhakti-yogis

The astonishing beauty of each of these supports is how Krishna uses the epitome of the soul’s rebellion against Him – mundane sexuality – to bring that soul back to the spiritual bliss of yoga. Because Krishna has linked material sexuality with reproduction, a human being who allows that link to remain intact is pulled to the path of sacrifice and dharma from which spiritual life is natural. In the Gita’s third and twelfth chapters, therefore, Krishna recommends dutiful sacrifice and charity, even for those not yet conscious of their relationship with God. As the “all-pervading transcendence is eternally situated in acts of sacrifice” (Gita 3.15), sacrifice directed by the scriptures gives a satisfaction beyond selfishness. Such satisfaction may lead a soul to search out the supreme object of sacrifice, Krishna.

The link between sex and reproduction requires one of two sacrifices – the sacrifice of celibacy, or the sacrifice of marriage and parenting. Each of these types of support for material sexuality involves unique pleasures and austerities. Because of the soul’s past deeds, each person in this material world has a predestined amount of pleasure and austerity in this life, which is mostly fixed. However, we can usually change the type. People can, therefore, choose the way of dealing with mundane sexuality that is in harmony with their nature, age, and circumstance. When one is getting the pleasures suited for one’s own nature and time of life, the concomitant austerities are bearable and often even joyful. As Krishna explains in the third chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, only one who accepts the austerities of a position has a right to enjoy the pleasures of that position. Indeed, one who tries to take the pleasures without the austerities will find those pleasures to be an empty shell only. “One who does not follow in human life the cycle of sacrifice thus established by the Vedas certainly leads a life full of sin. Living only for the satisfaction of the senses, such a person lives in vain.” (Gita 3.16)

The Sacrifice of Celibacy

The first support system for those aspiring for perfection through bhakti is celibacy. This support is appropriate for those who feel energized without sex, even in subtle emotional forms. The Supreme Lord, who when He descends sets the example for how to live, lives as a celibate in His incarnation of Nara-Narayana Ṛshi. Celibacy is often prescribed in the scripture as a great help for various types of yoga. Therefore, everyone should embrace the celibate life before marriage and, after the time of reproduction is passed, even within marriage. For a few people, lifetime celibacy without marriage is the most suitable support.

The celibate uses sexual energy – which includes creativity, enthusiasm, expansion, attraction to beauty, and the urge to connect with life – to accept all living beings as family and work innovatively for the ultimate good of others. Indeed, the saffron-colored clothing worn by celibates in Vedic culture is of the same hue as the sacred fire, agni-paricchadan (Bhagavatam 7.12.21). Freedom is one of the primary pleasures of a celibate life lived according to shastric guidelines. Celibacy also makes it easy to live shastrically according to one’s tastes without having to be overly concerned with pleasing family members. Other pleasures are simplicity and a satisfaction in the accomplishment of sense control. Without the need to impress potential mates, there is peacefulness and satisfaction. Less time and energy are needed for basic maintenance, and so one can more easily choose work for personal fulfillment and meaning rather than necessity.

The austerities of the celibate life involve not only sexual abstinence, but also the renunciation of subtle, emotional, quasi-sexual exchanges such as flirting and frivolous talks. A celibate should limit wealth, food, and possessions to basic needs.

The dharma of a celibate includes a focus on scripture study, prayer, and purification of existence. The youthful celibate focuses on spiritual study; the older celibate on producing literary works and holding learned discourses. (Bhagavatam 2.2.5, Purport)

Because the pleasures of channeling sexuality into a celibate life are sweet and enticing, a parody of it exists in modern society. Unfortunately the imitation, which seeks the pleasures without the austerity and is not based on the sacred, aggrieves individuals and society, harming rather than helping spiritual life. This modern “single life” is a parody of the celibate life, as it advertises the celibates’ freedom and simplicity – but without the celibacy that makes such pleasures possible. This parody consists either of no marriage or of delaying marriage and childbearing well past the time of desire and peak fertility. During this time, people may have one or more sexual partners, using contraception and even abortion to keep their so-called single status. Even those who abstain from sex often absorb their minds and hearts in the romance prevalent in various forms of media.

The Sacrifice of Marriage

The second support is marriage. Most people cannot live a scripturally directed celibate life during their youth and require the support of marriage. The incarnation of the Lord who sets the example of monogamous marriage is Lord Ramachandra and His wife, Sita, who remained faithful through many trials. The married couple use their sexual energy to produce children they raise in spiritual consciousness. Family members help each other and work as a team to meet material demands, have a pleasing emotional connection, and encourage each other in spiritual life. Companionship, stability, and security are some of the primary pleasures of married life guided by scripture. Regulated sexual life and home-cooked food please the senses, as does a home filled with comfortable furniture, art, and music. Married persons seek freedom through social status and wealth, which allow them a wide range of choices. Growing children fascinate and amuse the parents, while offering scope for a variety of affectionate exchanges. In marriage one attempts to accumulate enough wealth to have the pleasure of giving in charity to worthy causes, which gives a deep sense of meaning and of contributing to society. The austerities of marriage include limiting one’s sexual relationship to one person for life regardless of changing circumstances, working for income, tolerating the personality differences and conflicts within the family, dealing with envy and competition from neighbors, friends, and co-workers, arranging for children’s education, maintaining a home, and so forth. The dharma of marriage focuses on charity, honesty, and sense control.

The pious and stable sexual gratifications of family life have induced a parody in modern society, as married couples seek to separate sex from reproduction. Through contraceptives and abortion, they seek to capture the pleasures without the austerity. The result in many countries, such as Italy, is birthrates so low that the government has become concerned that the whole culture will collapse. In these parodies of family life, people buy more than they can afford through irresponsible debt, and spend far more on the family than on charity. For example, Americans – residents of the most generous country in the world in terms of donations of time and money – give an average of only 3% of their income to charity. With an entertainment center as the home “altar,” their family life becomes an entangling snare of materialism. Another parody is cohabitation without marriage, which sometimes produces children, and generally ends in a breakup. Northern Europe seems to favor unmarried temporary families, with 28% of children in Sweden in 2010 born to cohabiting unmarried parents. In America 40% of children are now born out of wedlock, compared to 4% in 1960.

The Need for Honesty

In considering which support system to use at what point in our lives, we need to be very honest. One of the most damaging tendencies to our spiritual advancement is deceit, according to Raghunatha Dasa Goswami, an associate of Lord Chaitanya. A deceitful person tries to take the pleasures from one or more support systems, with none of the austerities. Honest people admit what kind of pleasures they want and then take up the corresponding austerities. A gift-giving exchange of love can then occur between the soul and Supreme Soul. One offers the austerities to Krishna as a way to express loving gratitude and responsibility. And one accepts the concomitant pleasures as His loving gift, using them to glorify Him further.

The system of ashrama given in the scriptures prescribes celibacy until marriage, family life until around age fifty, and celibacy again until leaving this world. In the latter period of celibacy, married couples may opt to stay together but retire from occupations and from sex both physical and subtle. This ashrama system, while not possible for everyone today, works in synergy with the natural life cycle to engage mundane sexuality in ways appropriate to biology and psychology. Those who can engage their sexuality in this ashrama system generally find the practice of bhakti-yoga much easier.

A Loving Exchange with Krishna

Whether as a celibate or a married person, the bhakti-yogi acts in the way Prabhupada’s guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, describes here: “If whatever is accepted be received as favor vouchsafed by the Supreme Lord, the worldly activity will cease to be such and will turn into service of Godhead (bhakti)." (Brahma-samhita 5.61, Purport)

Prabhupada explains the same principle:

Whatever Krishna gives us . . . Just like a master. A master allots something to the servant. "You can enjoy this." That prasadam. You understand. “Everything belongs to Krishna, even my hands and legs. They also belong to Krishna, all the parts of my body. They belong to Krishna. Then they should be used for Krishna." That is called bhakti. (Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.9–10, Delhi, November 14, 1973)

When one acts on this principle, then “matter dovetailed for the cause of the Absolute Truth regains its spiritual quality.” (Gita 4.24, Purport).

When people live in this mood of a loving exchange with Krishna, the intrinsically spiritual processes of bhakti-yoga such as hearing and chanting about Krishna, along with an individually appropriate support system for mundane sexuality, unify in transcendence, as explained in the Gita (4.24): "A person who is fully absorbed in Krishna consciousness is sure to attain the spiritual kingdom because of his full contribution to spiritual activities, in which the consummation is absolute and that which is offered is of the same spiritual nature."

As bhakti-yogis mature, gradually material sexuality becomes as unattractive as someone’s spit-out chewing gum lying on the ground. There is no hatred for sex per se, which is simply a biological function. Nor is there hatred for those who may be objects of sexual attraction, as they are simply other embodied souls. However, there is repulsion from lust, which is the drive to gain happiness for one’s senses and mind by using the energy of the Lord and other beings. Mundane sexual lust gradually and proportionally transforms back into its original nature and becomes love of God. Then the need for a support system of a celibate or married ashrama starts to pale. One may still live in one of those ashramas, but as a service to Krishna and an example to others, not because of a personal need to do so.

The enlightened devotee’s detachment derives from the superior satisfaction of spiritual love. The rising tide of spiritual love gradually increases to a flood. This love, real love, means giving rather than taking. It means giving oneself for the pleasure of God. It means being an agent to unite the Lord and His energy of pleasure – Krishna with Radha, Narayana with Lakshmi, Rama with Sita. Of course, the Lord and His eternal consort do not depend on a tiny soul to aid their union. It is the kindness of the Lord that He engages the expanded living beings in this way so as to share His bliss. The finite soul, thus linked with the infinite through loving service, eternally experiences ever-expanding ecstasy. Such is our natural, constitutional, inherent nature. Let us take daily steps toward regaining our nature and letting go of its pale reflection.

About the Author: 

Urmila Devi Dasi

Urmila Devi Dasi (Dr. Edith Best) joined ISKCON in 1973 in Chicago. She received first initiation in 1973 and second initiation in 1975 from His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. In 1996, Urmila and her husband, Pratyatosa, entered the renounced order of vanaprastha. They have three grown married children and fourteen grandchildren.