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Vaishnava-Dharma Is Very Liberal
There are two types of dharma or religion described by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura in his book, Jaiva Dharma. One is naimittika-dharma, or religious practices that are circumstantial and temporary by nature (varnasrama-dharma falls within this category), and the second is sanatana-dharma or religious practices that are eternal and based upon the soul. This second type of dharma, known also as vaishnava-dharma or jaiva-dharma, relates directly to the nature of every soul as an eternal servant of Krsna.
Many devotees fail to distinguish between these two types of dharma, yet in Vaishnavism we are duty-bound to give precedence to vaishnava-dharma over naimittika-dharma. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura describes naimittika-dharma as follows:
“Naimittika-dharma is not direct spiritual practice; rather, it consists of temporary, material activities that are taken up to attain pure spiritual practices. Hence, it is merely the means to an end.” (Jaiva Dharma, p. 52)
“Naimittika-dharma is commendable because it aims at the truth, but it is eventually meant to be abandoned, and it is mixed with undesirable results; only spiritual reality is truly beneficial. Although the jiva [spiritual entity] should relinquish matter and its association, materialism is prominent in naimittika-dharma. Moreover, naimittika-dharma produces such an abundance of irrelevant results that the jiva cannot help but get entangled in them.” (Jaiva Dharma, p. 53)
Bhaktivinoda Thakura then establishes the superiority of vaishnava-dharma and instructs us how to keep naimittika-dharma in the proper perspective:
“Before [the liberated] stage, when the Vaishnava is still materially bound, although spiritually awakened, he only accepts objects and association that are favorable for his spiritual practice, and he rejects all that is unfavorable. Thus, he never adheres blindly to the rules and prohibitions of the sastras [scriptures]. He accepts the instructions and prohibitions of the sastras graciously, but only when they are favorable to his practice of hari-bhajana [worship of God]. When they are unfavorable, he immediately rejects them.” (Jaiva Dharma, p. 54)
In this way, we should be careful not to consider the details of naimittika-dharma, such as varnasrama, the smriti-sastras, and the various rules and regulations governing things like marriage, etc., as absolute or equal to sanatana-dharma. Indeed, Bhaktivinoda Thakura warns about the danger of over-emphasizing naimittika-dharma and placing it above vaishnava-dharma. Such a pitfall can be observed in the smarta-brahmanas of India who hold ritual and regulation above all else, often even erecting them as impediments to devotional service or bhakti. Bhaktivinoda Thakura states, as quoted above, that this tendency to consider naimittika-dharma as equal or more important than vaishnava-dharma results in materialism, undesirable results, blindness, and irrelevance. We must always be vigilant against this type of illusion.
Having established the superiority of vaishnava-dharma over naimittika-dharma, Bhaktivinoda Thakura then gives a practical example. What is that? Well, as it turns out, it’s an example of a type of marriage forbidden under ordinary smriti-sastra (naimittika-dharma), but permitted within the liberal bounds of vaishnava-dharma—the remarriage of a sannyasi. Srila Bhaktivinoda states:
“Even outcastes can take up vaishnava-dharma and live as grhasthas, although they are not part of varnasrama. Moreover, people who have accepted sannyasa within varnasrama, and have fallen from their position, may later adopt pure bhakti by the influence of sadhu-sanga [saintly association]. Such people can become grhastha-bhaktas, although they are also outside the jurisdiction of varnasrama regulations.” (Jaiva Dharma, p.172)
For someone who has formally accepted the vows of sannyasa, remarriage is certainly forbidden under the strict varnasrama and smriti systems. Nevertheless, because such an arrangement may be necessary to sustain a person along the path of bhakti, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and our own Srila Prabhupada have accepted such a practice in the spirit of giving precedence to vaishnava-dharma over naimittika-dharma. It is an exception to the rule, but in this instance vaishnava-dharma, or the sustenance of bhakti, is more important than rejecting someone under the plea of ordinary dharma. In other words, the end (bhakti) justifies the means, or, as they say, what works best, is best.
Now, let us apply this same consideration to same-sex marriage. Gay marriage is also taken to be outside of the rigid varnasrama system and the ordinary prescription for married life, but suppose it is found to be the best practical arrangement to sustain a person’s bhakti—someone who is exclusively homosexual and unable to follow complete celibacy. Can an exception be made to the general rule in the spirit of encouraging bhakti, as cited above, or should we give more importance to the rigid codes of ordinary dharma?
Srila Bhaktivinoda continues:
“So we see that there are two kinds of grhastha-bhaktas: one who is part of varnasrama and one who is excluded from varnasrama. Which is superior of these two? Whoever has the most bhakti is superior.” (Jaiva Dharma, p. 172)
Here we find the essence of vaishnava-dharma. Vaishnava-dharma or devotion to God (bhakti) surpasses all material considerations and arrangements. For example, there may be a grhastha couple that is opposite-sexed (male and female) and married by fire sacrifice in the temple. Despite this, the couple neglects their chanting and Deity worship at home and regularly engages in illicit sex. They often fight and sometimes the husband even beats the wife. On the other hand, there may be a grhastha couple that is same-sexed (homosexual) and outside of the normal varnasrama system, but nevertheless the couple chants regularly and worships the Deity at home with sincere devotion, refraining from sex and working together in the spirit of cooperation and affection. Which of these two is superior? The answer is the same: whoever has the most bhakti is superior. The type of body or specific practical arrangement is immaterial in all cases.
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura concludes:
“Ah! Vaishnava-dharma is very liberal. All jivas have the right to vaishnava-dharma; that is why it is also known as jaiva-dharma. Even outcastes can take up vaishnava-dharma and live as grhasthas, although they are not part of varnasrama.” (Jaiva Dharma, p.172)
In these three simple but very sublime statements, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura delivers an excellent summary of Vaishnavism: (1) it is very liberal; (2) everyone has a right to it, and (3) even outcastes who are not part of varnasrama can take it up and live as grhasthas. Why is Vaishnavism so liberal? Vaishnava-dharma or Krsna consciousness is liberal because it places the person (jaiva-dharma) above the ritual (naimittika-dharma). Those who do not do this, who place the ritual above the person, will not be kind-hearted and liberal. Rather, they will be cold, stonehearted, and irrationally conservative like the smarta-brahmanas of old.
May Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura always help us to remember and embrace the liberal spirit of vaishnava-dharma!