We are faced yet again with the question of same-sex or gay marriage. On a legal level this involves the federal government, and on a religious level, organized religions such as ISKCON. The often heated debate has been a benediction somewhat as it impels us to ask the question: what is marriage?
Herein I make a simple proposition that may hopefully resolve the same-sex marriage debate, on a governmental level and within ISKCON, and also address marriage across the wider sexual spectrum we find in society; transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and others - including heterosexuals.
Firstly though, I'll tell you where I am coming from, and add the obligatory disclaimer. I am a heterosexual male and an ISKCON devotee. My views don't necessarily reflect the views of others in ISKCON. In fact, although this issue has caused a kind of “culture war” between conservative and liberal viewpoints in ISKCON today, I have never heard another member of ISKCON espouse the views I propose here-in.
And on to that view.
When I was first confronted with the conundrum of gay marriage and national laws in the media, and shortly afterwards in ISKCON, I simply put myself in a gay persons shoes and asked myself “what would I do?” The answer came remarkably quickly. To me it would be a complete null issue. What does my love and commitment to another human being have to do with the government, or anyone else for that matter. If my partner and I wanted to get married we would get married and that would be it. We would have no need of a certificate from the government nor the sanction of anyone else in the community to validate our marriage either. And here we have the answer to the question “What is marriage?” Marriage means different things to different individuals, and as individuals we have every right to actualize our own terms of commitment between ourselves and our consenting partners.
This thought led me to some research and it turns out the idea of “marriage privatization” is nothing new. The exponents of this idea (probably first enunciated broadly in 1997 by libertarian David Boaz who wrote an article for Slate magazine titled “Privatize Marriage: A Simple Solution to the Gay-Marriage Debate”) hold that the state has no role in defining the terms whereby individuals contract to arrange their personal relationships, regardless of whether those people are homosexual or heterosexual.
People holding this viewpoint argue that the state should have a limited role or no role in defining marriage, only in enforcing those contracts people construct themselves and willfully enter. Those following this line of reasoning believe that efforts to "legitimize" same-sex marriage as a state institution are backwards-looking, and will have the effect of expanding state influence into personal affairs where state influence already does not belong.
You can read more about Marriage Privatization at Wikipedia.
That may be a solution for the government - though it's extremity means it probably may never be instigated - but where does this leave ISKCON? Is there a solution in our Vedic culture?
Few of us would think that in India there are legitimate alternative methods of marriage to the one that is most commonly seen today; arranged marriages whereby the bride is given by the father along with a rather large dowry. According to Vedic culture (the ancient culture of India and the one that ISKCON attempts to ascribe to), there are in fact eight types of marriages.
The second most common type of marriage is performed by what's known as the “Gandharva Rite”. In this, the bride and bridegroom meet each other of their own accord and consummate their meeting in sexual union and the exchange of flower garlands. No sacred rituals are necessary. There are numerous accounts in Vedic scriptures of such marriages taking place. Tulasi Devi (a great and saintly devotee who is worshiped daily in ISKCON) married her husband Sankhachuda in such a manner. The rather romantic description of how it took place is given here, and is taken from the book, “Life of Tulasi Devi and Her Care and Worship” by Amala-bhakta dasa:
Sankhacuda then married Tulasi by the Gandharva rite. Glorifying the marriage, the demigods sounded their drums and showered flowers on them from the sky.
Sometimes the newly married couple would go to a flower grove and at other times to a river bank. There, they would sleep on flower beds smeared with sandal paste and enjoy marital pleasures. Tulasi easily stole the heart of her husband, and Sankhacuda also attracted Tulasi's heart. After Tulasi garlanded her husband with parijata flowers, which prevent disease and old age, she placed a precious jeweled ring on his finger and offered him rare beautiful gems. Bowing down to his feet with devotion, she repeatedly said, "I am at your service!"
Sankhacuda smiled. He then presented Tulasi with clothes he had obtained from Lord Varuna's house; he also gave her a precious necklace of jewels, an armlet he had gotten from Svaha (Agni's wife), armlets from Chaya (the sun god's wife), earrings from Rohini (the moon god's wife), finger rings from Rati (Cupid's wife), conch ornaments from Visvakarma, as well as excellent bedding adorned with pearls and jewels. After further adorning her, he placed her feet on his chest and said, "I am your servant."
A week later there was a letter from the government of nonrecognition of their marriage because they did not sign the appropriate papers and register at the Department of Marriages. I'm joking. Seriously though, could marriage in our society be this simple?
And what did Srila Prabhupada, the founder acarya of ISKCON think of the Gandharva Rite? From a wedding lecture, November 17, 1971, New Delhi:
Prabhupada: This marriage is being performed as gandharva marriage, simply by changing the garlands. In the Kali-yuga, the other kinds of marriage, selected by the parents, that is not possible. Therefore, one of the marriage system, gandharva marriage, is accepted. And simply by changing the garlands and promising. (Sanskrit) That is stated in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. In the Kali-yuga, simply by accepting, the man accepts the woman as wife and the woman accepts the man as husband, that is the vow. Svikara eva hi udvahe. Simply by acceptance. Because other things are not possible. And without marriage, that is not civilized life, because in the animal society there is no marriage. But in any form of civilized society there is marriage. Everyone has got sex appetite. Therefore, marriage is allowed by the Vedic system. And Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita that dharmaviruddho kamo 'smi, "Kama, lust, which is not against religious principles, that is I am."
- JP Miller