Sunday, April 20, 2008

Some thoughts on discussions of polygamy

Recent events in Texas have some Hare Krishna devotees blogging about polygamy. I engaged in a brief discussion of how devotees discuss this sensitive issue a few years ago, and put together a synthesis of those articles for another devotee friend's blog a year or two ago. I thought this might be a way to revive this blog. I'm not sure how relevant anyone who happens on this page will find this. We'll see . .

Regarding the topic itself, I think that thorough study of Srila Prabhupada’s discussion of polygamy will show that, although he felt it was an important part of ideal Vedic culture, his consideration of time, place, and circumstance led to the conclusion that it was undesirable in the modern Krishna consciousness movement. My own opinion of polygamy in our time is very close to what Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura wrote in 1857: “Polygamy is the bane of native [Indian] society—a curse that enslaves many of the softer sex. The Kulina Brahmins are inseparable companions of polygamy. In their society it is as firmly advocated as is American slavery in the Southern States. The Kulina women are no better off than the African blacks. But an African black has many advocates around: he has a voice in the ‘Anti-Slavery League,’ whilst a Kulina Brahmini has no zealous friend to tell of her sorrows and relieve them. The legislature ought to hear the cries of the people as far as their interest is concerned. Reform in everything is sought for and as the first movement we desire the removal of polygamy by an enactment.”

Some years ago one of my Godbrothers, who has made a name for himself as an advocate of polygamy, wrote a critique of a Godsister’s complaints about the practice of polygamy among devotees. I wrote a very short response, called “Lord Ramachandra’s Example,” noting that his article, like most advocacy of this practice, seemed to miss one important source: a verse and purport in the Ninth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Chapter 10, verse 54 says, “Lord Ramacandra took a vow to accept only one wife and have no connection with any other women. He was a saintly king, and everything in His life was good, untinged by qualities like anger. He taught good behavior for everyone, especially for the householders, in terms of varnasrama-dharma. Thus He taught the general public by His personal activities.”

In his purport, Srila Prabhupada explains this further: “Eka-patni-vrata, accepting only one wife, was the glorious example set by Lord Ramacandra. One should not accept more than one wife. In those days, of course, people did marry more than one wife. Even Lord Ramacandra’s father accepted more wives than one. But Lord Ramacandra, as an ideal king, accepted only one wife, mother Sita. When Mother Sita was kidnapped by Ravana and the Raksasas, Lord Ramacandra, as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, could have married hundreds and thousands of Sitas, but to teach us how to be faithful He was to His wife, He fought with Ravana and finally killed him. The Lord punished Ravana and rescued His wife to instruct men to have only one wife. Lord Ramacandra accepted only one wife and manifested sublime character, thus setting an example for householders. A householder should live according to the ideal of Lord Ramacandra, who showed how to be a perfect person.”

I pointed out that this purport makes abundantly clear Srila Prabhupada’s desire that we establish daivi-varnasrama-dharma by marrying only one wife and remaining faithful to her throughout our lives. Since My Godbrother invests much in dates, let’s note that this volume was published in 1977. My Godbrother’s research shows that, in the abstract, we should have little objection to the kind of polygamy practiced by men with qualifications similar to King Dasarath. We should also note, however, that even Dasarath’s household was not perfectly peaceful. If men less qualified than he try to care for more than one wife, we can expect just the sorts of problems we have experienced over the years.

In fact, our godbrothers’ attempts at “polygamy” were really meant for increasing their sense gratification, regardless of their attempts to rationalize their behavior. I know of no such arrangements in which the “wives” were all equally satisfied with the results over the long run. In the conversation my Godbrother cites as Srila Prabhupada’s “last and final instruction on the matter,” Srila Prabhupada says another wife would be allowed “[i]f the woman allows husband.” He imposed the same restriction on acceptance of the sannyasa ashram by his married disciples. This shows the wife’s importance in the family and underscores Srila Prabhupada’s assertion that both husband and wife should be faithful.

In trying to introduce spiritual culture to the world, we need to be bold, as Srila Prabhupada showed by his own example. We must also be humble and honest enough to acknowledge the limits of our actual understanding of varanasrama’s cultural manifestations, as well as the limits of our understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s desires. Otherwise, we risk minimizing his significance and missing the richness of genuine spiritual culture.

When this Godbrother wrote a nine-page reply entitled, Lord Krishna’s Example: Giving Shelter to 16,108 Wives,” I wrote what follows:

I have no intention of becoming embroiled in a tit-for-tat argument with my Godbrother about the propriety of polygamy; however, I do want to respond to a few problems I found in his reply to my article, “Lord Ramachandra’s Example.”

First, it should be clear to anyone who reads my article carefully that it does not disparage polygamy, either as a principle or in its correct practice. It argues for nothing other than careful consideration in argument. That’s all. In the article to which I responded, my Godbrother simply ignored any views other than his own. As I have taught over 6,000 college students, any successful argument must take into consideration other sides of an issue, including any questions or objections that may be raised. My Godbrother’s didn’t, and I simply wanted to point out that if we intend to include polygamy in our understanding of establishing varnashrama-dharma, we should do so carefully. “We must also be humble enough to acknowledge the limits of our actual understanding,” is what I actually said. I stand fast by my advocacy of humility.

Further, anyone who reads my article can also see that nowhere in it do I attack my Godbrother’s character or his motives for repeating Srila Prabhupada’s words. I met my Godbrother when he lived in Los Angeles and Three Rivers, and never had any impression of him except that he is a serious, sincere devotee. And since an interlocutor’s character is an important element of classical rhetoric, maybe I should mention my own track record: I have been a faithful disciple since early 1970 and a faithful husband to my wife for 33 years. Ask anyone who knows me.

Since my Godbrother finds it appropriate, however, to question my motives, let me deal with that section of his recent article first. He asks, “Are you trying to create a generation of young prostitutes so you can enjoy them?” Not at all. I’m strictly monogamous, and at 58 I’m done with sex and headed in the other direction. I’m probably more upset than my Godbrother is that so many of our devotees’ daughters aren’t properly situated; many of them were my students. Moreover, as far as I know, no one has ever before suggested such a flaw in my character. I find it insulting to Srila Prabhupada, to my vaishnavi wife, and to my godbrothers’ daughters. More to my point, though, such character attack, although it’s certainly his prerogative to indulge in it, weakens my Godbrother’s argument.

Early in his second article, my Godbrother misstated my comments. Regarding the June 28, 1977 conversation, my Godbrother wrote I’m “reading things that just aren’t there and putting words in SP’s mouth that he didn’t say.” This is simply not true. Even in his quotation in this most recent article, right where he tries to prove I’m making things up, Srila Prabhupada says, “If the woman allows husband, ‘He likes.’ . . .” I didn’t say this; Srila Prabhupada did. His main point here is, as My Godbrother points out, that a chaste wife who is properly protected ought not to object. But Srila Prabhupada does say that a second wife would be permitted “If the woman allows.” My Godbrother says, “I only read that SP says the wife must not mind very much if her husband takes more than one wife.” Then read it again, more carefully this time, prabhu, because you seem to have missed a sentence. “If woman allows.” One more time—those are not my words, but Srila Prabhupada’s own. My Godbrother should read his own article more carefully, or at least be careful enough to edit out what he doesn’t want us to see.

He says I claim the Ninth Canto purport says “that Srila Prabhupada does NOT want us to take more than one wife.” That is just not what I write there. What I do say is that it expresses his desire that his male disciples accept only one wife and remain faithful to her.

He claims that I see this verse “as some sort of absolute dictum that is so strong and powerful that it totally overpowers and over shadows [sic]” all instructions that favor polygamy. But that’s not what I say, either. Nowhere do I even imply that it nullifies any other instruction. One could make a case that instructions in Srila Prabhupada’s books should carry more weight than comments made in his room, on a walk, or even in a letter. I read a letter to a godbrother named Sadhanananda in which Srila Prabhupada wrote that devotees say, “Srila Prabhupada has said this, or said that.” This is another form of cheating, he said. “If it is not in my books,” he wrote, “I did not say it.” I won’t make such a case. I will, however, present some of Srila Prabhupada’s instructions in the matter, from his books and other sources, to show that this is not an isolated statement that runs counter to his real desire.

In the purport to SB 4.26.4, Srila Prabhupada writes, “One should be satisfied with his married wife, for even a slight deviation will create havoc.” Then he continues, “A Krishna conscious grihastha should always remember this. He should always be satisfied with one wife and be peaceful simply by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra.” In a 1972 Bhagavatam lecture in Los Angeles, he said, “So to become Krishna conscious means immediately--that is the test--immediately he will become free from lust and greediness. If he's not free from lust and greediness, he is making a show; he's not Krishna conscious. This is the test. If one is actually advanced in Krishna consciousness, then these two symptoms will be visible in his character: no more lusty, no more greediness. He should be satisfied with one wife or one husband. Why hankering after others? That is lusty. That means it is not on the stage of Krishna consciousness; it is in the material platform.” In a 1974 Bhagavatam class, he said, “a person should be so nicely trained up that the one wife with religious, by performing religious ceremony, is given to him, he should be satisfied with her, not to see other women, adulteration. This is Kali-yuga.” In 1975 he told us, “If anyone can maintain a family--family means one wife and one or two children--then he is to be considered very expert, successful,” and in 1976 he said, “Tapasya begins with brahmacarya, life of celibacy, or accepting one wife only. That's all.” Years before, in 1971 he said, “We recommend our students not to have illicit sex. We don't stop sex, but regulate. . . . What is the difficulty? No illicit sex means don't be cats and dogs. Be married man and have one wife, one husband, and be satisfied.”

In 1974, he wrote Sukadeva prabhu, “No, devotees are not allowed more than one wife. Devotees should have no wife if possible, but those who cannot maintain celibacy, they can marry one wife. At the present moment people are so unfortunate they cannot maintain even one wife. First of all at the present moment they are not married and remain mostly unmarried. So for such persons even one wife is a great burden. Under the circumstances how one can think of more than one wife? This is stupidity.” There are more, but this just shows that, although I don’t claim this one purport supersedes all others, it is also not an isolated instruction.

My Godbrother objects to my saying that his research shows that, “in the abstract, we should have little objection” polygamy practiced by men as qualified as Dasharath. He’s particularly upset by “little objection” and suggests we should have “NO” objection. He also doesn’t like “in the abstract.” I agree. I’m happy to change it to “In principle, we should have no objection to the kind of polygamy practiced by men with qualifications similar to King Dasharath’s.” Despite my Godbrother’s cleverness, I have no desire to obstruct our understanding of varnashrama-dharma, but to encourage careful understanding and even more careful application.

At one point, my Godbrother concedes that, so far, experiments with polygamy have failed. Then he suggests that “most” monogamous marriages have failed as well, so perhaps we should give up on marriage altogether and just couple like animals. I’m sorry he wasted any of his time energy, and space on this unfortunate point. This is a clear case of the logical fallacy called argumentum ad absurdum.

Although my Godbrother claims that polygamy is not meant for increasing sex life, Srila Prabhupada seems to have another opinion. In a 1973 letter to Rupanuga, he wrote, “After conferring with my various GBC representatives I have concluded that polygamy must be strictly prohibited in our society. Although it is a Vedic institution still there are so many legal implications. Neither are many of our men fixed up enough to tend for more than one wife. Polygamy will simply increase the sex life and our philosophy is to gradually decrease the sex life till eventually there is no sex life.” Of course polygamy is ideally meant for protecting women. But that’s not its only purpose, as we see in a Srimad-Bhagavatam purport: “A man is allowed to keep more than one wife because he cannot enjoy sex when the wife is pregnant. If he wants to enjoy sex at such a time, he may go to another wife who is not pregnant. These are laws mentioned in the Manu-samhita and other scriptures” (SB4.26.4, purport). And in a Bhagavatam class, he said, “According to Vedic civilization, because man is very aggressive, so he's allowed to accept more than one wife.”

Finally, my Godbrother invokes examples different from Lord Ramachandra’s that he seems to think Srila Prabhupada wanted us to follow. Bhima, Arjuna, and other devotees, he points out, had more than one wife. Of course, they were rich kings and perfect devotees. Lord Nityananda had more than one wife, my Godbrother says. Maybe, but the example of Nityananda Prabhu’s Srila Prabhupada wants us to follow is his compassion and tireless preaching of the holy names, not his disregard for social conventions. Even Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, he says, ignored Lord Rama’s example by remarrying after his first wife’s passing. In fact, He did, but only at the insistence of his widowed mother. He also left that wife at age 24 to go preach all over India.

Ultimately, as evidenced by my Godbrother’s title, he suggests we follow the example of Lord Krishna, who had 16,108 wives. However, when Srila Prabhupada discusses the Lord’s household, he doesn’t suggest it as a model for ours, except that, despite lying comfortably next to our wives, we should rise early in the morning, bathe and meditate on Krishna. Instead, Srila Prabhupada points out that Krishna accepted 16,108 wives to demonstrate His opulence as the full-fledged Personality of Godhead. This is one way Krishna shows He is not one of us!

Once more, in case it’s not clear to some, I’m not writing specifically to oppose polygamy. I’m really suggesting that we discuss the issue fully and apply it carefully. In fact, I expect this to be my last article on the subject. I’m much more interested in how we discuss it than in whether anyone has more wives than I. Neither do I suggest that anyone with an opinion different from mine is an atheist or infected with sinful desires of some sort. I only advocate careful and civil discourse among devotees, especially in public.

Perhaps we should follow Srila Prabhupada’s example. If necessary, marry one wife or husband, conduct our home lives according to the instructions of our spiritual master, gradually give up all material endeavor and sense gratification, and immerse ourselves in distributing prasadam, protecting cows, and chanting and broadcasting the glories of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s sankirtan movement. After all, Narada Muni testifies that “those who are always full of cares and anxieties due to desiring contact of the senses with their objects can cross the ocean of nescience on a most suitable boat—the constant chanting of the transcendental activities of the Personality of Godhead.”