Real freedom comes not by becoming free for sex, but by becoming free of sex.

When the media assault our eyes with images of half-naked bodies, lawmakers fight back with anti-obscenity laws, and the media complain that the government is policing personal morality.

“Who are you to restrict our sexual enjoyment?” cry the libertines.

“Ubiquitous sexuality,” say the cultural conservatives, “degrades society.”

Everyone cherishes the right to enjoy life, and libertines, to defend themselves, appeal to this right.

But could they be defeating the very purpose they claim to champion? Could moral restrictions on sexuality uphold, rather than impede, our right to enjoy life? This indeed is the daring and disarming proposition of the Vedic scriptures: We can best enjoy life by rediscovering our spiritual nature, and this rediscovery requires sexual restraint. Let’s investigate the Vedic perspective on the correlation between sexuality, spirituality, and the quest for happiness.

Vedic Insights

A Vedic seer would tell us that the roots of the present moral imbroglio lie in spiritual ignorance. Today, people addicted to material enjoyment are left to decide their goals for themselves. Ignorant of spiritual reality, modern man has no foundation upon which to build objective morality. The stormy winds of changing social trends shake and shatter moral standards that have no roots in spiritual knowledge.

Before we plunge into a frenzied fight for enjoyment, the Vedic texts urge us to take time out to inquire, “Who is the ‘I’ whom we seek to offer enjoyment?” When confronted with this basic question of identity, most modern people can only blink in bewilderment. In marked contrast, the Vedic texts clearly and confidently assert that we are not products of matter; we are souls, spiritual beings encaged in material bodies. Our real home is the spiritual realm, where we rejoice eternally in a personal loving relationship with the supreme spiritual being, Krishna. By misuse of our free will, we refuse to love and serve Krishna and are placed in the world of matter. Here we inhabit a succession of material bodies, which we accept as ourselves. Only in this spiritual amnesia are we able to pursue our quest for material happiness.

When passed through red glass, a clear beam of light comes out red. Similarly, when passed through the covering of the material body, the pure, selfless longing of the soul for Krishna emerges as the perverted, selfish craving for the flesh for the opposite sex. Under the spell of the illusion created by accepting the body as the self, our love of God distorts into lust for matter. Lust causes within all living beings the overpowering drive for sexual pleasure and all other forms of material enjoyment.

The Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.9.45) describes the nature of sexual enjoyment: “The pleasure obtained from sex is insignificant, like the relief coming from scratching an itch. Sexual pleasure leads not to satisfaction, but to multiple miseries. Just as a wise person tolerates the urge to scratch an itch, one should learn to tolerate the urge for sexual indulgence.” Based on this verse, we can note three inescapable characteristics of sexual enjoyment: It is temporary, illusory, and miserable. Let’s see how:

Temporary: Despite the media propaganda of unlimited erotic bliss, the pleasure in sex is heartbreakingly brief. Like the water-ejecting capacity of a sponge, the body’s capacity to enjoy is limited. Initially, when the sponge is filled with water, just by a slight pinch, water gushes out. But as the sponge is squeezed more and more, even a few drops of water become difficult to get. Finally, all that remains is the effort of squeezing. The sexual act similarly involves increasing effort and decreasing pleasure, leading eventually to utter exhaustion.

The sponge analogy applies not only to the sexual act, but also to the sexual capacity during one’s lifetime. During youth, the body easily offers sexual pleasure. But as the body ages, sex demands increasing effort and yields decreasing pleasure. Eventually, with the impotency of old age, the pleasure becomes zero.

Because sexual pleasure is temporary, the Bhagavatam describes it as insignificant.

Illusory: Like a car and its driver, the soul and the body have different needs. Fuelling the car can never nourish the driver; material gratification can never bring about spiritual fulfillment.

Then why does sex appear to give so much pleasure? The Bhagavatam’s analogy of scratching an itch gives us the answer. Scratching an itch seems to give pleasure, but actually gives nothing more than temporary relief. Similarly, the so-called pleasure of sex is nothing but short-lived relief from sexual agitation.

Miserable: Just as scratching worsens and prolongs the itch, sexual indulgence increases and prolongs our suffering in material existence. Sex perpetuates our misidentification with our bodies, thus forcing us to suffer the bodily, social, and environmental miseries inevitable in material existence. Further, the more we think that we are our bodies, the more we suffer when our bodies are battered by nature on the distressful journey through disease, decrepitude, and death.

Sex, especially illicit sex, leads to complications like abortions, single mothers, and marital ruptures, and sexual violence. Illicit sex also makes us susceptible to the menace of sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS, which threatens to wipe out significant portions of the human population.

Not only that, but lack of spiritual fulfillment haunts every soul in the material world, resulting in chronic dissatisfaction. The false conviction that this dissatisfaction stems from insufficient material gratification is the bane of the soul and the cause of the soul’s futile struggle for happiness.

The Science of Sex

Through this philosophical window, let’s see how Vedic culture rescues the soul. The Vedic social order helps every soul in a human body revert to its original pristine state. To this end, Vedic education, apart from teaching commercial, technical, and physical skills, focuses on imparting a deep philosophical understanding of our intrinsic spiritual identity. Such education protects students from victimization by the binding and blinding passions of sex.

Sex is a basic bodily drive that naturally results in procreation. Vedic science, being far more subtle and sophisticated than today’s matter-centered science, recognizes that the consciousness of the man and the woman at the time of union determines the kind of soul entering the mother’s womb through the father’s semen. Equipped with this knowledge, a married couple performs the sexual act as a sacred service to the family, society, and God. They accept the grave responsibility of bringing into the world a soul who will grow up to be a selfless, principled, exemplary citizen who can do immense good for the world. Such a sanctified union is an expression of the divine. In the Bhagavad-gita (7.11), Lord Krishna says, dharmaviruddho bhuteshu kamo ‘smi: “I am sex life which is not contrary to religious principles.”

Today, all this might seem impractical, even unnatural, because we’re at the receiving end of a media blitz saturated with covert and overt sexuality. The natural purpose of sex is procreation. With contraception and abortion, human beings unnaturally separate copulation and procreation. Their minds are full of dreams and schemes for sexual enjoyment, resulting in the problems arising from sexual licentiousness discussed earlier. Therefore, the Vedic texts remind us that real freedom comes not by becoming free for sex, but free from sex. Knowing the complications and miseries resulting from sexual indulgence, some people take to lifelong celibacy. Still, most people won’t or can’t choose this path, so the Vedic scriptures prescribe marriage to regulate the sexual drive in a religious way.

Protected by Marriage

When philosophically educated couples marry, they soon realize, by virtue of the spiritual disciplines they follow, the futility of bodily enjoyment. Then they base their relationship on assisting each other in advancing on the journey back to Krishna. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Marriage is meant to regulate the human mind so that it becomes peaceful for spiritual advancement.” Thus in Vedic culture the primary goal of marriage is not bodily gratification but spiritual purification. Therefore even in marriage, sex is curtailed.

Sexual regulations are not intended to deprive people of enjoyment and force them to live a torturous life of abnegation. Rather, they create a springboard to help catapult the soul to the transcendental platform to gain unlimited spiritual happiness, the soul’s constitutional right. The Vedic attitude is that material enjoyment rivets the consciousness of the soul to flesh and, while offering only a drop of pleasure, cheats us of our rightful oceanic spiritual happiness. Thus restriction, not its absence, deprives the soul of happiness.

Continence is a universal value enjoined not just in the Vedic scriptures, but also in the scriptures of all the great religions. It is a prerequisite for protecting us from material entanglement and for creating the foundation for raising our consciousness to the spiritual platform.

The Historical Degradation

The goal of Vedic culture, as well as other traditional religious cultures, is to awaken our dormant love for God and thus attain eternal happiness. But with the gradual decline of spirituality over the centuries, that goal has been obscured and forgotten. People once followed regulations for self-restraint out of deference for social and religious tradition, but with the spread of Western science and its reductionist, non-spiritual worldview, people started seeing these regulations as pointless.

With their social and physical superiority, men began to exploit women as sex machines. Outraged at the male chauvinism, women retaliated by employing their feminine charms to seduce men and use them as ATM (anytime money) machines.

Divorces and pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relationships became increasingly common-all in the name of enjoyment. Occasional forays into promiscuity degenerated into the reckless pursuit of relationships for pleasure alone. All sorts of sexual perversions spread.

Beneath all this frenzy for enjoyment, we souls long for our original relationship with Krishna. Sex is the main distraction that misdirects our search for happiness from spirit to flesh. The more we seek happiness in sex, in whatever form, the more we deprive ourselves of true happiness as more and more layers or forgetfulness shroud the spirit soul.

Our Choice

But there’s hope. If dilemmas over sexual morality can stir intelligent people to examine the spiritual foundation of their traditional moral principles, they can discover the lost wealth of their heart, their forgotten Lord, Sri Krishna.

Krishna is forever waiting for us. Playing on His flute, He is inviting us back to the sublime joys of an endless love in His eternal abode-our original home, the spiritual world. In the current dark age of Kali, Krishna has helped us channel our misdirected consciousness back to Him by revealing Himself in His holy names, especially the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. When our hearts are reunited with Krishna through the sublime medium of divine sound, all material enjoyment becomes disdainful.

Vedic insights can help us make sense of the current social degradation and equip us to confront and counter it. Will we let the current wave of degradation sweep us into the ocean of sin and suffering? Or will we join hands with a crew of intrepid spiritual sailors navigating the sturdy ship of genuine spirituality toward the safe shores of immortality and bliss? The choice is ours.