A “TOUCHY” SUBJECT…
By Braja Sevaki devi dasi
When the subject of this article was proposed to me, I found myself reacting in several ways over the course of a few short minutes. It was presented thus: “write an article about men and women hugging.” Without specific details, I was left to ponder what that meant, and myriad images came to mind. My intellectual responses were as many and varied. They ranged from “definitely shouldn’;t be happening,” to “hang on, what exactly is the problem?”, and finally to, “okay, we have to define this a little more-what are we talking about here?”
So what are we talking about here? Firstly, let’s establish one thing: we are approaching subjects from a Vaisnava point of view, and whatever is written has to build on that. That’s easy enough-I can take any number of quotes from Srila Prabhupada’s books and present a nice, neat article that propounds a certain angle of the philosophy. But obviously there’s a problem within the society of Vaisnavas, otherwise why address it? It seems, then, that what we’re really talking about here is how our daily practices and rituals can be infected with the insidious disease of liberalism.
Certainly in non-devotee society this practice of greeting each other with a hug is considered a display of open, loving exchange-a non-sexual yet intimate embrace that speaks volumes; an exchange between two people who understand that yes, men and women can be friends. So why are we getting all het up about it? What’s wrong with “displays of affection” and “emotional outreach?”
If I refer to the Gaudiya Vaisnava theology on this delicate subject matter, I find so many examples of “loving embraces” between devotees, and between the Lord and His devotees. I found myself thinking that there wasn’t much of a problem. I mean, seriously: what’s the big deal? Surely devotees can only benefit from displays of affection towards each other, and if it’s done in the Bhagavatam, well, we have ourselves a precedent.
In Srila Prabhupada’s own words, “those who are attracted by the Hare Krsna mantra, they are not very much attracted with the bodily features of the women.” Within this sentence, I’ve found the essence of this article: differentiating between the actions of a person who sees everyone with transcendental vision-and who is therefore qualified to engage in loving, transcendental exchanges that engage the physical body-and one whose actions are tainted with lust and body consciousness.
Bodily attachment-the greatest barrier to transcending the material realm and entering the spiritual abode of Lord Sri Krsna-is embedded so deep in our psyche that we are mostly unaware of the stealth with which it dogs our every move. A most commonly repeated phrase fromSrila Prabhupada’s books and lectures was “you are not this body.” While it may appear to be the most simplistic and fundamental aspect of our philosophy-and nowhere near as “advanced” as raganuga-bhakti and discourses on the rasa-lila-still it is the most difficult hurdle to conquer in the pursuit of Krsna-prema. It is not a “motto'” of ISKCON, but a very real philosophical precept that very few-one out of thousands, according to Krsna Himself-will ever understand. Adherence to Vaisnava teachings and scripture to conquer our material attachments is not an option to the serious transcendentalist, but a very real driving force behind the sincere desire to extricate oneself from the clutches of material nature. The anomaly of behaving in a manner dictated by the gross material senses and maintaining one’s attachment to the demands of the “body culture”, while externally donning the dress of a Vaisnava, chanting Hare Krsna, and executing all the apparent duties of a devotee merely waters the weeds that grow around the delicate creeper of devotion that has sprouted within the heart by the mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, His eternal associates, the disciplic succession, our merciful param-guru Srila Prabhupada, and his representatives.
Therefore, atau sri-Krsna-namadi na bhaved…These present senses, these impure senses, contaminated senses, cannot understand Krsna; therefore we should follow this principle: sevonmukhe hi jihvadau.*
What we are aspiring for, of course, is entrance into the transcendental loving exchanges of the Lord and His devotees. While that is not restricted to Krsna and the gopis, and outraged cries of “Gopi Bhava Club!!” need not be broadcast from the temple rooftop every time loving exchanges are displayed, we ought to know, as Vaisnava devotees of the Lord, the difference between “loving exchanges” and “mundane social behavior.”
There is, firstly, the sanction of marriage.Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura writes that for those who are married according to religious principles, there is no sin involved in their talking and touching. He says, in fact, that “rather, this touching and talking is beneficial because of the scriptural sanction.” Naturally, etiquette surrounding this behavior exists, and he elaborates: “There is, however, no provision for illusory activities other than the execution of reciprocal duties. If they are illusioned by each other and they engage in activities other than prescribed duties, then that is called stri-sanga and puruna-sanga, or association with the opposite sex. For those who are engaged in worshiping Krsna, such association yields inauspicious results. If either one is guilty of such association, then they become an obstacle for the other party.” Nowhere does our esteemed Thakura mention embracing in public, and certainly not between the opposite sexes.
Then there are the references to loving exchanges which I mentioned were found in the Srimad-Bhagavatam and other scriptures. Perhaps the most significant-if it’s possible to separate one significant text from another in the bottomless well of nectar which these scriptures represent-is this one:
All the residents of Vrindavana were overwhelmed with ecstatic love, and they came forward and greeted Sri Krsna according to their individual relationships with Him-some embracing Him, others bowing down to Him, and so forth.
The significance of this verse lies in the words, “according to their individual relationships with Him.” The residents of Vrindavana were all eager to display their affection for Krsna, overwhelmed with symptoms of ecstatic love, desperate to come forward and engage in loving exchanges with Him. Yet their methods varied from person to person, relationship to relationship, rasa to rasa. Some embraced Krsna; some bowed down, and the words “so forth” indicate a wealth of exchanges: offering of flowers; expressions of loving affection; words of praise; poetry and recitations glorifying Krsna and His wondrous qualities. All according to their individual relationships. These words indicate clearly that such behavior deemed appropriate for one relationship is not necessarily and automatically replicated in another, an understanding supported by the philosophical precepts of madhurya-rasa, sakhya-rasa, and so on.
Unfortunately, this philosophy is not adhered to by the proponents of liberalism. In an effort to display “open-minded, inclusive, loving” personae, we are subject to public displays of misplaced “affection” by those who believe that men and women greeting each other with embraces is a loving exchange. So let’s take another look at scripture to see where this behavior is supported by the exalted personalities whom we aspire to follow:
The inhabitants of Vrindavana were well-wishers and intimate friends of the Yadu dynasty. This meeting of the two parties after long separation was a very touching incident. All the Yadus and the residents of Vri felt such great pleasure in meeting and talking together that it was a unique scene. Meeting after long separation, they were all jubilant their hearts throbbed, and their faces appeared like freshly bloomed lotus flowers. Drops of tears fell from their eyes, the hair on their bodies stood on end, and because of their extreme ecstasy, they were temporarily speechless. In other words, they dove into the ocean of happiness.
These words capture beautifully a scene of intense joy after a period of separation. We can all feel a little of what the residents of Vri and the members of the Yadu dynasty were experiencing-we, too, suffer separation from close friends, from our spiritual masters and mentors, from godsisters and godbrothers, from school friends, and former temple and ashram members with whom we have served. As an international society, our lives are constantly taking separate paths due to different services and personal situations (marriage, family, etc.), yet coming together again during festivals and celebrations. And shouldn’t there be loving exchanges at this time? No one is asking that we attain a state of “pure loving devotion” before we engage in displays of affection and love for the family of devotees that exists under Srila Prabhupada, surely? Of course not. Yet the paragraph above continues in a telling way:
While the men were meeting in that way, the women also met one another in the same manner. They embraced one another in great friendship, smiling very mildly, and looked at one another with much affection. When they were embracing one another in their arms, the saffron and kuìkuma spread on their breasts was exchanged from one person to another, and they all felt heavenly ecstasy. Due to such heart-to-heart embracing, torrents of tears glided down their cheeks. The juniors were offering obeisances to the elders, and the elders were offering their blessings to the juniors. They thus welcomed one another and asked after one another’s welfare. Ultimately, however, all their talk was only of Krsna.
What a beautiful, transcendental, joyful, loving exchange of affection and respect this description gives us. Who wouldn’t be attracted by this scene occurring every time we separate and again come together? How can we consider comparing it to the mundane exchanges that we are exposed to these days, with men and women hugging each other and imposing their liberal mindset on those who wish to remain loyal to the Vaisnava principles of loving exchanges?
Indeed, we should encourage and assist each other in transcending the bodily concept which binds us to this material world, rather than reinforcing it each time we meet. What may appear to be a harmless hug can actually bind one further to the material platform in subtle ways. The attraction between men and women is powerful and is only increased by engaging the senses, one by one. Srila Prabhupada told of how, even in his day, women were very shy to see men, and his mother would go from place to place in a covered palanquin. While advocates of liberalism and feminism will tell us that this is “oppression” of women, it is actually protection of women-that no man other than her close family members look upon a woman is a display of loving affection by the husband and family; not that she is free to be looked at, touched, and enjoyed by every man who happens to pass her by. No one is advocating, of course, that we women are locked up. Society prevails, and unfortunately cultural customs are swept away in the rush to create an environment of so-called equality. Yet seeing a woman is just the beginning-when the other senses follow suit, the binding is complete:
Actually, women have the power to attract men through all of the material senses. Men become lusty by seeing the body of a woman, by smelling her fragrance, by hearing her voice, by tasting her lips and by touching her body.
With a subject matter of this nature, however, it is not only the protection of women we are discussing, or the influence of woman over man. The opposite is always applicable. While we can learn via these scriptural references and the teachings of Srila Prabhupada what our behavior should be based on, it is through association that we gain strength to exercise sensual restraint and re-educate ourselves about genuine loving exchanges, as opposed to the false versions that society would have us follow.
“My dear son, association is very important. It acts just like a crystal stone, which will reflect anything which is put before it.” Similarly, if we associate with the flowerlike devotees of the Lord, and if our hearts are crystal clear, then certainly the same action will be there.
When we associate with genuine devotees of the Lord and take shelter in their exemplary behavior, we are encouraged to nurture our own sense of purity in dealings with others. This need not be restricted to what we consider “lofty” association that is so “rare.” We can take advantage of the culture of Vaisnava association within the daily exchanges we conduct with devotees. While intimate exchanges will certainly take place with those whom we are close to, still it is a rare and wonderful thing to experience the embrace of the pure devotee of the Lord.
Still, cultural restrictions are observed by the pure of heart: we see from the examples included here that there is an observance of etiquette, that the women embrace the women, and the men embrace the men. Does that mean we are “missing something?” Are we to understand that the exalted personalities described in these pastimes had “emotional issues” or weren’t “inclusive” enough? Hardly. We seek to emulate their example and find the highest form of association with each other. Ultimately our goal is Krsna, and senses that are dulled by, and attached to, mundane sensual satisfaction cannot take us to the lotus feet of Krsna. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura pleads with Krsna,
O Gopinatha! How shall I reach the goal? My mind is overwhelmed by the powerful senses. I cannot shake off attachment to worldly pleasures…Destroy these dangerous obstacles, correct my mind and guide me to Your own true path…I am helpless, but You are Harikesa, the Lord of the senses. Please control my senses and pull me out of this world of dangers. Bhaktivinoda Thakura prays: O Gopinatha! My voice is faltering. I must throw off these shackles and catch hold of Your mercy.
A worthy conclusion to a touchy subject…