What follows is some correspondence I've been having recently about this topic. A conservative ISKCON friend wrote:
I like your discusion. Your point is correct. It is not so much the living together part as it is the illicit sex. A decision to be married should be one that is looked into both logically and emotionally. The problem is that when sex life comes before the marriage it overrides the logic. The emotional bond becomes very strong and the ability to make an objective decision about your marriage partner becomes hampered. The ideal situation would be for the family or friends of the perspective partners to arrange things as far as possible based on the tendencies of the individuals. Unfortunately we are not living in an ideal situation. Especially for those not born of Vaishnava parents this may be harder to do. Not because it is wrong but there are few qualified caretakers who could facilitate this. At least if sex can be avoided and a decision can be made based on compatability that would be ideal. Sex is sex and unless someone is downright ugly you can pretty much get attracted to them if you have similar ideals.
There has been a lot of statistical evidence gathered that also validates the point that relationships that begin with individuals living together before getting married are more likely to result in domestic abuse, child abuse (mental and physical) as well as adultery. This brings up a main point. When we get Krishna's blessings in an endeavor (i.e. marriage) this can help us to overcome obsticals. But when we enter into relationships without those proper blessings than we are willingly turning are back on the mercy and for what? Most people argue "its just a piece of paper". What I read between those lines is "it is too much responsibility for me to handle". Both men and women are becoming less and less inclined toward taking responsibility. People in general are not interested in obtaining the blessings of Krishna or having relationships with him in the center. Instead such relationships have selfish desires in the center. That selfish desire manifests in the inability to take responsibility for our actions i.e.making a promise and keeping a promise (no matter what). This staunch determination to become selfless in our relationships is ultimately a reflection of how much we are striving to become selfless in our relationship with Krishna.
I have never taken a poll about other peoples sex life so I cannot tell you. If we wanted to actually study that I think an impartial and objective poll should be taken to look at it from a completely unbiased and scholarly angle. I will tell you frankly that I did not engage in any intercourse with my wife until I got married and I am glad I didn't. I can see practicly how it helped me to make the best decisioin. Yet even if most people are doing it that is not our concern to change the rules that Krishna has given. Most people don't eat meat so we shouldn't change that principle. In essence none of the pillars of sinful life that Srila Prabhupada told us to avoid should be abandoned just because the whims of a godless and self-centered civilization have made them their life and soul. If we stay principal centered and moral that amount of purity will help us to deeply imbibe the philosophy, change our hearts, and ultimately the hearts of others. To simply call ourselves Vaishnavas and engage in sinful acts will not help. Instead we are cheating ourselves and simply maintaing our material existence while superficially giving ourselves another identification. How can we really help someone if we are hypocrits. Then it comes down to telling people to just put on dhotis and saris (if even that) instead of telling them to change their hearts.
I'm sorry I write so much and hope that I don't sound like I'm coming off to heavy. To be honest I am harder on myself than others. The only time I really get heavy on these points is when I can see that the person has now transgressed the point where he or she is not only hurting themselves but is now hurting others. Well tell me what you think. Thanks for keeping my mind working.
I responded with the following:
As for people living together before marriage…
I suppose we have different views essentially. Of course, I don’t have a problem with that. I just think that there are reasons why it is ok to live together before marriage. While sex can certainly delude one and not lead to the best decision making, I also believe that sexuality can be just another aspect of a relationship and doesn’t always hinder one. People can have sex before marriage and still make an objective decision about whether or not to marry. I think the most important point to be made is that there is really no black and white answer(s). There are really so many shades of grey. What works for some doesn't work for others.
Just for one example, I do think prior living together before marriage allows people to know one another much better than if they don’t. Sure sex is there, but chances are that sex is going to be there anyway. Therefore, I see it that it can help to live with a person to get to know them that much better. One could even argue that you don’t see the complete person until you’re around them 24/7. Why wait until marriage to completely know someone?
You made a point about the ‘ideal situation’ of having family and friends match make for one. These days, that is impractical for the most part as we are forced to do the courting rituals ourselves - believe me I know! Nor would I really put this decision in the hands of another. I wouldn't mind exploring a potential match, but that would mean that I would personally have to do some testing myself rather than just accepting a match made by someone else. But again, matchmaking is really just another version of a blind date (with the aim of marriage).
Regarding the level of sexual practice of a person, if a person doesn't follow the 'no illicit sex' rule - which I believe most people don't, consider this... Is one to just practice celibacy with one's potential spouse just in principle? What is the point of it? I think the sexuality of a couple is something that needs to be addressed before marriage, whether experientially and/or via conversation. People always have their individual expectations that often go unspoken especially about sex. Then they go into marriage, begin expressing their expectations and the marriage unravels. Of course that is a generalization, but it happens more often than not – especially in ISKCON. Thus pre-marital counseling is becoming a needed service. It is strange to consider that devotees need counseling in some ways than non-devotees don’t.
Ideals are just that – ideals. Reality is often something different. While some ideals can be met, some always remain ideals. The problem comes in when we kill ourselves trying to meet some ideal that is unnatural for us based upon our bodily inclinations. Then you get mental unsettlement at best and psychosis at worst.
I also think it is extremely important for people to not suppress their sexuality. In the west we are bombarded with sex everywhere we look. Most people are affected by this and as Krishna says, "What will repression accomplish?" Along this line we've seen so many older devotees leave renunciation and get married later because they were repressing their desires. Not only that, but in my estimation there are so many psychotic devotees or at least devotees who don't have proper brain functioning because of repressing sexual desires. I think it is an important element of one's 'material' self-realization. If one is unsettled materially one will also be unsettled spiritually. Usually it takes a rare person to take material unsettlement and channel it into spiritual upliftment.
To sum up, some can follow celibacy, most can't. Thus their has to be different modes of dealing with different people. Srila Prabhupada operated on this model. Unfortunately ISKCON today operates by trying to make Prabhupada machine-like and very impersonal in the sense that all must conform to a specific set of criteria, when Prabhupada was really not like that.
As for the blessings of the Vaishnavas, I believe in that as a general principle. However, when the Vaishnavas as a majority are not very thoughtful about such issues and have very simple and dogmatic views of things I prefer to go with my conscience and/or with more discerning people/Vaishnavas. Also when it comes to the ‘blessings of the Vaishnavas’ there can be quite a bit of gray area depending on what Vaishnavas you associate with.
As for compatibility, what really works these days? It seems there are two polarities here: 1) Compatibility is checked based on astrology or via people who know the respective parties or 2) the two people get to know one another on their own, i.e. they find out for themselves whether or not they’re compatible. And really in healthy situations it tends to boil down to option 2. So many points can be made. Here comes more…
Anyone can see ISKCON doesn’t have a high success rate with marriage. It is hard to say exactly why this is so. I think it definitely has something to do with the strong emphasis on renunciation. I don’t think that Vaishnavism in a historic view ever had such an emphasis. Sannyas has become prominent due to a more recent emphasis and I think when you add the ‘American dream’ mentality to sannyas or vairagya in general (as most of us carry all kinds of baggage into bhakti with us), it creates an immature desire to renounce. We’ve seen the havoc caused by this in the form of divorces and falling renunciates.
One comment you made was, “Yet even if most people are doing it that is not our concern to change the rules that Krishna has given.” I would correct you by saying that this rule wasn’t given by Krishna, it was given by Srila Prabhupada. True that Prabhupada is Krishna’s representative. However, I don’t believe Prabhupada was absolute. If you read Hindu Encounter with Modernity, Bhaktivinoda Thakura makes a very essential point in that certain topics in sastra are subject to interpretation, while others are not. Shastra is actually a higher pramana than guru or sadhu therefore this principle of ‘subject to interpretation’ also applies to them as well. In addition, I think that Prabhupada may certainly have modified that rule by now if he were still with us today as he was consistently adjusting things. If you like, please have a read of the attached editorial I just wrote called 'Only the Pure Devotees'
. And again, Prabhupada was not the ‘institutional Prabhupada’ that is preached today. Prabhupada was not a square. He made concessions for his disciples and he was a person. He adjusted things to fit the lives of his diverse disciples. These days a lot of the leaders make Krsna consciousness so square and regimented that it smacks of niyamagraha. Prabhupada just wasn’t like that.
Again I think it is important to reiterate that I am not trying to convince you of what I believe. I am just presenting a differing point of view. I am becoming more liberal about Vaishnavism as the days go by. I don’t see the point of being conservative. It seems to me that being conservative is just a reason to mind other peoples’ business. I understand about sex and bodily identification, but I think it doesn’t have to be always boiled down to very crude explanations. One could make the argument that love of this world can help one understand love of God and without learning how to love here, how can we love there?
As for statistical evidence, it is essential to see who is doing surveys and studies on what and why? From my academic studies I think it is safe to say that most statistics are biased in one way or another and obviously people love to use whatever stats suit them best, just like we see many of the leaders slinging Prabhupada quotes back and forth to back up their sometimes nonsensical arguments.
We could go on this topic for days and days and pages and pages, ya think?! Anyway, it’s a good exercise for the mental muscle. I hope you’re also getting something beneficial from this katha.
Thank you for writing back. What a long letter! Where to start. All I can say is that I disagree with you about living together. Srila Prabhupada did not sanction it and as far as I'm concerned I follow Srila Prabhupada. Many people don't want to follow his instructions and that is o.k. but then they shouldn't take initiation. I don't believe in that "shade of grey" nonsense. Either your are interested in following the path of the previous acharyas or your not. If someone wants to manufacture their own philosophy then they can start their own path. For me I'm following what Srila Prabhupada said and I know that is the safest path. As time has gone on I no longer have the patience to argue about what Srila Prabhupada said. I take his word as absolute and I don't dispute it. There is a place for those who want to do that, its called chakra.org.
All I am going to say is that the response fits a conservative ISKCON person.
A few stats from a recent Australian report: Living in sin - and filtering true love
In the 1970s, about 60 per cent of couples living together out of wedlock had married within five years. Within in the same time-frame, about 28 per cent of unmarried men and about 22 per cent of unmarried women had split up with their live-in partners.
By the 1990s the trend had changed. About 40 per cent of couples living together out of wedlock had married within five years, and about 36 per cent of unmarried men and 40 per cent of unmarried women had split up with their live-in partners.
"As more people co-habit, the move into cohabitation may be more casual," Professor de Vaus said.
"More people may be entering the relationship with the intention of it only being short-term."
His report shows that 72 per cent of people who married in 2001 had lived together before the big day, a sharp increase from 1975 when the figure was 16 per cent.
A wise friend of mine--three kids is enough to make anyone wise!--gave me some marital advice once, stating that money, children and sex were the three most contentious issues. If either partner had very different expectations on any of them, there could be serious problems. But it is often difficult to speak openly on those topics or even to know what your own expectations are
in the post-conversion/"trying to be a devotee"/lala land. The ideals of simplicity, celibacy and the like might not hold the same appeal when you enter the reality of the working world, wider social interaction, and the daily tests that make up family life.