Ashé Journal, Vol 2, Issue 4, 2003.
For the Love of God:
Variations of the Vaisnava School of Krishna Devotion
Western pagans seeking for queer-positive themes & representations in
Indian mysticism have tended to focus on popularized notions of Tantra, possibly
due to Tantras supposed emphasis on sacred sexuality.
In this essay, I will outline some of the odder ideas & practices that
are associated with the Vaisnava tradition focusing on those lineages
where there is to a western, queer eye at least some element
of gender-liminality going on.
The Classical bhakti (devotional) Vaisnava tradition grew up around the
medieval Bengali saint Caitanya (1486-1553) and his followers. Classical (orthodox)
Vaisnava was drawn from Classical Vedic literature such as the Bhagavata
Gita, the Bhagavata Purana and the Bengali Gita Govinda.
For orthodox Vaisnavas, Krishna is the primordial god and creator of the Universe.
Krishna resides in a heavenly pastoral abode, sometimes known as the Golaka
(Cow-land) to which all human souls yearn to return. In this idyllic realm,
Krishna frolics with the Gopis the beautiful young cowgirls whom
he has enticed away from their husbands. Krishna was also accompanied by cow-boys,
(Gopas) and although they do feature in various of the popular Krishna
myths, their appreciation of Krishnas beauty was said to be chaste
(at least by the orthodox Vaisnavas). It is said that the Gopas experienced
madness caused by their grief of being separated from Krishna, just
as Radha and the Gopis did. This is the divine love (premas)
as opposed to human passion (raga). I have seen occasional references
to some Gopas described as priya-nama-sakas effeminate
cowherd boys who assisted Krishna in his affairs with the Gopis.
A surviving celebration of Radha & Krishnas dalliances is the gotipua
a tradition (thought to have started in the 16th Century)
of cross-dressing boy temple dancers (although they are said to only dance within
the temple on particular occasions) who enact the Radha-Krishna oriented poems
such as the Gita Govinda, and who in turn, have influenced the development of
modern Orrisan Dance. A troupe of Gotipua acrobatic dancers visited Edinburgh
in 2002, but the tradition is said to be waning in contemporary India. As a
dance form, Gotipua employs not only acrobatic feats, but also highly formalised
steps and mudras; each Gotipua troupe is led by a guru who teaches the form.
According to some sources, Gotipua emerged as a reaction to the Mughal invasion
of Orissa, which suppressed the existing tradition of female temple-dancers,
and led to the tradition being continued by cross-dressed boys.
Much of Classical Vaisnava practice is concerned not only with singing and dancing
the praises of Krishna, but also the belief that by identifying with the inhabitants
of Krishnas heaven, devotees are able to return to an eternal loving relationship
with Krishna, the supreme god. However, unlike Tantric traditions where devotees
would identify with the god or goddess (or both), Vaisnava devotees only identified
with Krishnas companions, and not the god himself. Devotees who identified
with the Gopis and in particular, the female attendants of Krishnas consort,
Radha, were thought to experience the most intense divine love, as they visualised
the divine couples erotic lila (play) in the heavenly world. This
reflects a Hindu view that the relationship between the ideal devotee and deity
is identical to that of the ideal woman. So, in order to become devotees, men
must renounce their masculinity.
This should not be interpreted (as is often done by Western pagans seeking expressions
of male-female complementary status in Indian religious practices) as giving
prominence to women. If anything, this bhakti supports and reinforces the dominant
gender hierarchy so that service becomes not only a matter
of duty, but also the only source of authentic fulfillment, particularly
for women. So a womans dutiful love for her husband is reframed as the
highest kind of devotion. Whilst there are numerous examples of males becoming
female in Hindu mythology, there are far fewer instances of women becoming men,
and these are usually portrayed negatively (see Wendy Doniger, 1980). Moreover,
it was very difficult (and remains so) for women to become bhaktas (female
devotees). One of the most famous bhaktas is Mira Bai, a 16th century
female saint. Accounts of her life mention that her family (she came from the
Rajasthani ruling class) disapproved strongly of her devotion to Krishna, reportedly
locking her in her room and even attempting to kill her. Whilst the songs and
poems of Mira Bai are still popular in modern India, and she is revered as a
saint, her renunciate lifestyle, though admired, is still not held up as a model
for women to emulate. Religious devotion, it seems, was a legitimate (though
extreme) alternative to marriage and family life for women.
In Classical Vaisnava doctrine, the erotic loveplay of Krishna was largely interpreted
in allegorical terms. Although Krishna himself engages in numerous adulterous
affairs, this was interpreted as an allegory for god playing with his creation.
Human beings should not therefore, seek to mimic Krishnas passions, and
should observe the rules of caste and family values. This viewpoint is still
echoed by contemporary Krishna devotional movements such as The International
Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON):
Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita that He is sex according to religious
principles. So that sex, within marriage for having a nice Krishna conscious
child, is very good. But otherwise sex, be it homosexual or heterosexual is
simply meant for the pleasure of the senses of the people involved. It is not
being done for the service and pleasure of Krishna. So it is not allowed in
In Krishna consciousness sex is for having nice God conscious children and such
sex is Krishna Himself and is very glorious. But other sex is illicit sex and
it is prohibited for a devotee. At the time of initiation a devotee has to accept
vows including no illicit sex which that means no sex except within
marriage for having children. It seems to some to be an almost impossible task
as we are so attached to sex and think it is so important... But a devotee experiences
a higher taste, a greater pleasure. A devotee fully engaged in Krishna consciousness
under the direction of a bona fide pure devotee spiritual master is constantly
enjoying a greater pleasure than sex from serving Krishna. So for him sex is
not a very important thing at all.
So having sex is not at all satisfying, one simply wants more and
more sex and even if he gets it he is still not satisfied and the results are
actually very bad. There are so many diseases and a man looses his energy, strength
and determination if he looses too much semen.
Madhudvisa dasa, quoted from krishna.org/Articles/2001/01/00239.html.
This rather suppressive view of human sexuality has recently come under scrutiny
due to a multi-million dollar lawsuit launched against ISKCON by forty-four
former Krishna students who claim that as children, they were abused both physically
and sexually, at schools run by the Society, located in both the USA and India.
Also, Gay & Lesbian members of ISKCON have founded the Gay and Lesbian
Vaishnava Association, which advocates the understanding of Gay & Lesbian
issues using a third gender typology that they argue, is present
in the Vedas.
Madhudvisas comment regarding men losing energy through sex
(particularly through the loss of semen) is itself worthy of exploration. The
Indian belief that loss of semen through sex dates back to the time of the Upanishads,
and still retains its power today. Gananath Obeyesekere has coined the term
cultural disease in referring to the Indic concern with semen retention
which is often synonymous with the maintenance of good health, life expectancy,
and the production of sons. Male virility therefore requires that
semen be conserved.
According to Ayurvedic theory, semen is accumulated slowly, as a by-product
of digestion, and males have only a limited supply. A popular belief (again
stemming from the Ayurvedic texts) is that one drop of semen is equal to one
hundred drops of blood. It is said to take 28 days (i.e. a lunar month) for
the food ingested by males to become semen.
Coupled with these beliefs regarding male seed is the belief that sexual
intercourse is actually potentially dangerous to men, as a woman who is older,
younger, or more powerful than a man, can potentially drain him
of his vital essence (i.e. his Sakti, which resides in male semen).
In the popular imagination, women appear to have a potential vampiric quality
their mere presence, even as male imaginative images, may be enough
to drain a mans vitality. Hence celibacy is equated with health and
longevity, not just for ascetic yogins (which tends to be the Western expectation),
but as a general cultural imperative. Loss of semen through any type
of sexual activity (including masturbation and nocturnal emissions) is considered
harmful, both spiritually and physically, and thus are sources of anxiety.
Tantric Vaisnava Variations
The Vaisnava Sahajiyas flourished in Bengal, Assam and Orissa between the
16th 19th centuries. For these Tantrics, Krishna
was not a supreme being, uninvolved and distant, but the inner divine aspect
of man, whilst his consort, Radha, was understood to be the inner divine aspect
of woman. However, the Sahajiyas were not content with merely visualizing
the love-play of Krishna and his consort in heaven, but espoused the view
that men and women should make love in order to attain the condition of Sahaja
a term usually translated as spontaneous or primordial.
Sahajiya practices (sadhanas) were devised in order to help devotees attain
the sahaja state of liberation. These sadhanas - much to the horror of orthodox
Vaisnavas included ritual sexual intercourse and pursuing adulterous
relationships. According to Glen A. Hayes, there were three stages of Sahajiya
practice. Beginners (pravata) used the standard Bengali Vaisnava devotions
singing, dancing, and chanting praises to Krishna, accompanied by the
practice of divinizing the body and identity as one of Krishnas followers.
The second and third stages (sadhaka accomplished and siddha
perfected) related to the use of the more obviously tantrically-inspired
erotic practices. According to the Sahajiya tradition, this required a guru
who should, ideally, be a woman. The Sahajiyas believed that all women were
teachers, and that men should learn from them. Further, drawing on the many
dalliances of Krishna for inspiration, for the Sahajiyas, the ideal female
partner for the male devotee was a woman denoted as parakiya
belonging to another. Such risky, forbidden liaisons were said to heighten
the passions of love.
The Sahajiyas developed an extensive sexual alchemy around bodily fluids,
and also had a unique model of the subtle body that differed markedly from
most Saivite and Sakta Tantric sects. The latter is described at length in
I first came across references to the Sakhibhava cult in an article by James
M. Martin entitled Id Radha be Krishna: Some Thoughts on the Sakhibhava
sect of India. Martin quotes a passage from Hastings Encyclopedia
of Religion and Morals:
"The Sakhibhavas are a branch of the Radhavallabhis (q.v.), small in
number and of little importance. They carry to extremes the worship of Radha,
Krishnas mistress, whom they look upon as his shakti, or energetic power.
The men assume the character of Radhas sakhis, or girl friends, and,
to enforce the idea of the change of sex, assume female garb, with all womens
manners and customs, even pretending to be subject to the catamenia. Their
aim is to be accepted as genuine sakhis in a future life, and thus to enjoy
a share of Krishnas favors. They are of ill repute, and do not show
themselves much in public. According to [H. H.] Wilson, they are to be found
in Jaipur and Benares and also in Bengal. Some of them are wandering mendicants.
They appear to have been numerous in the 17th century.
Martin observes that the above passage acts to marginalize and downplay the
significance of the Sakhibhava due to their transgressive sexuality.
Vern L. Bullough notes that the Sakhibhava held that only Krishna was truly
male, and that every other creature was, essentially female, subject to the
pleasure-play of Krishna. According to Bullough, female devotees of the sect
offered their sexual favours freely to anyone, believing that all
their partners are manifestations of Krishna. Male devotees affected the dress,
behavior and mannerisms of women, including an imitation of menstruation (during
which time they withdrew from worship) and took the female part
in sexual intercourse, offering it as an act of devotion. Bullough does identify
male Sakhibhava with the term, Hijra, which slightly confuses the issue.
Just as orthodox Vaisnavas viewed the Tantric Sahajiyas with horror, so too the Sakhibhavas were held up as an example of degenerate behavior, Devdutt Pattanaik, in The Man Who Was a Woman and other Queer Tales from Hindu Lore notes that the Sakhibhavas were more likely to be viewed as objects of derision and amusement rather than honored for their devotion:
When a male ascetic of the esoteric Sakhi-bhava order dresses up as
a woman in order to be closer to the supreme divine principle who is perceived
as the male god Krishna, he often ends becoming the object of amusement and
ridicule rather than awe and appreciation. The average Vaishnava family, while
fervently worshipping Krishna
would not empathize with their sons
desire to become a Sakhi.
The Khartabhaja appear in Jeffrey J. Kripals Kalis Child:
The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna.
From Kripals description, the Khartabhaja appear to be another Tantric
manifestation of orthodox Vaisnava ideas. The leader of the sect, Vaishnarvacharan,
taught that if one can worship God in an image [then] why not in a living
man? For Vaishnarvacharan, such worship led to the complete knowledge
of Gods play in man. The Khartabhaja cult took the form of a community,
possibly composed of both men, women, and Hijras. According to Kripal,
Vaishnarvacharans teachings had some influence on Ramakrishna, and it
is from Ramakrishnas teachings that Kripal has pieced together what
little is known of Khartabhaja practice. For example, Kripal (quoting Ramakrishna)
"Vaishnarvacharan liked to look at pictures of men, for they aroused
in him feelings of tenderness (komala) and love (prema).
This practice was also used by female Khartabhajas through loving a
chosen man, identified with God, they could attain the divine. Ramakrishna
railed against such an idea in his teachings, speaking against the women who
take lovers and end up scandalously pregnant.
Glen A. Hayes: The Necklace of Immortality: A Seventeenth Century Vaisnava
Sahajiya Text, in Tantra in Practice, David G. White (ed), Princeton University
Jeffrey J. Kripal: Kalis Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the
Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, University of Chicago Press, 1995
Wendy Doniger OFlaherty: Women, Androgynes and Other Mythical Beasts,
University of Chicago Press, 1980.
James M. Martin: Id Radha be Krishna: Some Thoughts on the Sakhibhava
sect of India.
David Gordon White: The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India,
University of Chicago Press, 1996
Phil Hine is a spiritual theorist noted for his ground-breaking
work in the field of Chaos (Kaos) Magic. He is the author of several books
including Condensed Chas and Prime Chaos from New Falcon and the now out of
print Pseudonomicon from Dagon Productions. He is also the author of several
e-books and numerous articles, many of which are available at his site:
Rebel Satori Press