In this paper, Arcana Siddhi Devi Dasi draws on her experiences as a counsellor and a mother to propose some guidelines for healthy Vaisnava relationships, particularly in marriage. She challenges us to examine our preconceptions of these relationships and to learn how to practically apply Vaisnava philosophy to this most sensitive aspect of our lives and to the lives of our children.
I joined ISKCON in 1976. At that time I was in graduate school studying to become a psychotherapist. In 1990, I returned to school and finished my masters degree in Clinical Social Work. Since that time I have counselled a number of devotee couples who were struggling to stay in their marriages. Often a couple just needs to learn some basic relationship skills. At other times the couple faces very difficult situations that require them to make adjustments in their Krsna conscious practices or perceptions in order to survive as a couple and to remain in the association of devotees.
Some years ago a devotee couple left the association of devotees. When I asked them why they had left, they answered that they would rather be good Christians than bad devotees. It wasn't the first time I had heard this logic, and I felt very sad that this couple felt it was all or nothing. While in ISKCON the couple had struggled with abstaining from sexual intimacy, in Christianity they found a religion in which sexual intimacy was allowed.
I knew another couple that had three children. The husband left his devotee wife because he wasn't ready to completely abstain from sex. His wife, on the other hand, didn't want any more children and refused to consider breaking the regulative principles to satisfy his 'lust'. He ended up having an affair and leaving his wife with their three children and no means of support. She ended up getting a job in a non-vegetarian restaurant to support her children. She had less and less time for sadhana and eventually disappeared from the association of devotees.
These are tragic scenarios brought about by inflexible, black-and-white thinking. Such thinking affected our whole movement in its early years and perhaps is an unavoidable developmental stage in the growth of a spiritual movement. But Srila Prabhupada was never fanatical. He made practical decisions and adjustments to help transplant Vedic teachings and culture into our Western mindset. Of course, being a self-realised acarya, he had the latitude to make decisions such as reducing the number of rounds of daily japa from 64 to 16 and giving brahminical initiation to women. While we have to be careful not to change what Srila Prabhupada gave us, he gave many examples of how practicality in Krsna's service supersedes strict rules and regulations.
Prabhupada did many things to accommodate our Western mentality, from having Western toilets in his Indian temple projects to allowing men and women to live in temple communities together. He was progressive and innovative in his preaching. He gave permission to his book distributors to wear Western dress and for the men to wear wigs. He always made decisions based on what would benefit the mass of people, even if it didn't conform to Vedic standards.
In one purport Prabhupada writes: 'To broadcast the cult of Krsna consciousness, one has to learn the possibility of renunciation in terms of country, time and candidate. A candidate for Krsna consciousness in the Western countries should be taught about the renunciation of material existence, but one would teach candidates from a country like India in a different way. The teacher has to consider time, candidate, and country. He must avoid the principle of niyamagraha; that is, he should not try to perform the impossible. What is possible in one country may not be possible in another. The acarya's duty is accept the essence of devotional service.' (Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 23.105)
It is important to see that Prabhupada tried different strategies for spreading Krsna consciousness. If something wasn't working, Prabhupada would be quick to change it. For example, public chanting, harinama, was a successful strategy for spreading Krsna consciousness in the West, but when Prabhupada had his disciples introduce harinama-sankirtana in India, it was not effective - rather, it created a negative impression of our movement, despite the fact that Lord Caitanya had propagated Krsna consciousness throughout India by harinama-sankirtana 500 years ago. Prabhupada was able to assess the situation and devise a programme of Life Membership in India which proved to be very successful.
We, as Prabhupada's disciples, were not so flexible in our thinking and were not able to make adjustments as Prabhupada did. Rigid thinking and hard-line dictums often left devotees in very difficult situations.
I would like to cite a personal example of how inflexible thinking can create a dilemma for devotees. My temple authority advised me that leaving my fallen husband was acceptable, but that remarriage was not acceptable. I was a young mother with a four-year-old son. The scriptures do say that a woman should not remarry, but they also teach that a woman should always be protected by a husband, father, or grown-up son. Since staying in my marriage was not an option, the only possibility my authority left me with was to remain unmarried and unprotected. Vedic culture was set up to protect women who were not married. Unfortunately, ISKCON had (and still has) a long way to go towards protection of unmarried women.
I did eventually remarry, and remarriage has become tacitly accepted in ISKCON, owing to the fact that unmarried women are given such limited support and facility. While I don't advocate divorce and remarriage, they became necessary for the survival of ISKCON's first-generation grhastha-asrama. Many marriages were put together with little considera-tion of spiritual and material compatibility. Some devotees never even saw their spouses prior to their marriage ceremonies. In other situations, the moment a man and woman began to associate, the community addressed them as husband and wife. This created a lot of pressure for mismatched couples to tie the knot. Looking back, it is easy to see our attempts as a very poor imitation of Vedic-style arranged marriages - sincere, though misguided.
Another obstacle that Western devotees face in finding and keeping suitable spouses is our indoctrination into a culture that intensely promotes romantic encounters. Romance and passionate love affairs are the theme of most literature and media presentations. Just doing our daily errands, we are bombarded with images of embracing, kissing couples.
In Srimad-Bhagavatam (Sixth Canto) there is the story of Ajamila, a pious brahmana who left his saintly wife for a prostitute after witnessing the prostitute passionately embracing her suitor. Ajamila had been trained in religious principles since birth, and he was surrounded by religious persons, yet he still fell down as a result of witnessing a sight that is ubiquitous in our culture. In our neophyte stage of spiritual advancement we are still prey for maya's greatest allurement.
The institution of marriage is becoming ever weakened in the culture we live in. In Srimad-Bhagavatam it is foretold that in Kali-yuga men and women would unite on the basis of sex attraction only. Consequently, when the sex attraction wanes, which is inevitable, the couple separates.
The healthy relationship between a man and woman is the building block for a strong grhastha-asrama. And a strong grhastha-asrama is the foundation of a healthy spiritual society. In a Srimad-Bhagavatam purport Srila Prabhupada states:
Affectionate dealings with the husband are very important. It is recommended that a wife be attached and attracted to him. She must treat him with loving intimacy. It is pleasing for the husband to know his wife is devoted to him, willing to please him and fulfil his Krsna conscious ideals. If immediate renunciation is difficult for him, this will enable a man to gradually decrease his material desires. After one has been trained in household life and his lusty desires have decreased, he can move anywhere without danger. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.1.18)
It is critical that we begin preparing our children for living properly in the grhastha-asrama at a very young age. The earlier we introduce life skills that help people have more satisfying relationships, the better. Part of the curriculum for educating children should include relationship skills. These include communication skills, assertiveness skills, and conflict resolution skills. Adolescents need to understand the difference between infatuation and lasting, wholesome attachment. Self-exploration and introspection need to be greatly encouraged to help young people understand their psychological make-up and what kind of person would make a good life partner.
We can also use astrological charts and psychological personality profiles such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to assist parents and children to understand their natures and to better enable a person to assess compatibility with a potential spouse.
Another strong recommendation for couples is an extended courtship. The idyllic perspective experienced during a period of infatuation generally lasts between six weeks and six months. During this period, a person is unable to see faults in their beloved. There is the illusion that this person will make one happy eternally, and we feel as if we are floating on a cloud. During this period of euphoria, our best qualities come out. We are more selfless and giving than at any other time. We can have increased energy and can find it difficult to eat or sleep.
Infatuation is the perverted reflection of unconditional love for Krsna. The difference is that love for Krsna increases eternally and is never-ending, whereas infatuation wanes and the reality of imperfection demystifies the beloved. If the couple has a lot in common, the relationship will continue; if not, it will generally break apart shortly after the infatua-tion ends. It is therefore important that couples not marry or make strong commitments until they have gotten through this period. Of course, this is easier said than done, since often infatuated couples can't be reasoned with. This shows how essential preparation is before attachment sets in.
Another very helpful tool for couples contemplating marriage is premarital counselling. The couple can explore and share their expectations of marriage. Often people don't even think about what they want or need from a relationship. They somehow expect that these undefined, unspoken needs will magically be met by their spouse. When this doesn't happen, they become disappointed and angry. Often in counselling married couples, these expectations and needs are as much a revelation to the spouse as they are to the person expressing them. Helping couples examine these issues in the beginning sets an accommodating tone and direction for the marriage. It may also help a couple understand that they are less compatible than they thought and allow them to separate before getting married and having children. My experience with devotee children is that they seem much more cautious about entering relationships than their parents, perhaps because they have seen and felt the pain and chaos from the broken relationships of their parents.
Men's and women's groups have been encouraged in devotee communities as a way to give support and encouragement to one another. It is a fallacy to think that our spouses are capable of meeting all of our relationship needs. Forming intimate relationships with other devotees in this group forum can help support the relationship within marriage and give association to unmarried men and women. We all have a need for society, friendship and love. Failure to find these things in the society of devotees can become a reason for leaving Krsna consciousness. To some extent, these groups can also play the role that the extended family played in Vedic culture. In the early years of ISKCON, grhastha couples often strug-gled with their difficulties in isolation. This had a detrimental effect on both the marital relationship and their Krsna consciousness. Our grhastha-asrama will become much stronger the more we openly discuss our difficulties and counsel each other.
We are pioneers of this movement, and Prabhupada and Krsna have given us a great responsibility. Before passing away, Prabhupada said that half of his work was done and that he was leaving the remaining half to us. Prabhupada was referring to the establishment of varnasrama-dharma: how to create a society that fulfils peoples' material needs and inclinations while elevating them spiritually. This will require a great amount of maturity, flexibility and creative thinking, as well as strong sadhana.
Strong relationships are a prerequisite to making any project successful. People judge our movement by observing our relationships. So it is in our best interest to become expert at relationship skills. I strongly encourage temple communities to include regular workshops on communication skills, assertiveness skills and conflict resolution.
Undoubtedly, there have been many mistakes in the past, and we need to heal from the effects of those mistakes. We also need to learn the lessons from those mistakes and prevent them from happening again. In this way we can go forward with new insights and optimism for the future.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Sri Caitanya-caritamrta. Los Angeles: BBT, 1975.
Srimad-Bhagavatam. Los Angeles: BBT, 1975.