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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

Bhaktivedanta sometimes extended gambling to also include any entertainment and sports outside what he considered Vedic norms. Though he excluded soccer from such a ban, he implied that all other forms of play or entertainment distracted devotees from godly pursuits and represented non-Vedic intrusions and innovations. The first generation of ISKCON devotees tended to strictly follow Bhaktivedanta's advice, meaning that most Hare Krishna adherents in the 1960s and 1970s avoided all forms of sports and entertainment outside the movement. With the rise of congregational membership came a more moderate sentiment, and most ISKCON devotees today permit non-Vedic forms of entertainment and play, especially for their children.

The Hare Krishna movement emerged from the American counterculture, with its propensities to drug use and free love. Consequently, the final two regulative principles -- those banning intoxication and illicit sex -- represented a major departure for Prabhupada's early disciples. Bhaktivedanta defined intoxicants to include any substance that induces an artificial mental or physical state in the user. This includes the common legal intoxicants of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, as well as all varieties of illegal drugs, such as marijuana, hallucinogens, amphetamines, and narcotics. Consequently, Hare Krishna devotees not only reject the use of illegal drugs, but abstain from smoking or consuming tea, coffee, or alcoholic drinks, and even avoid taking prescription narcotics if at all possible.

Like the movement's vegetarianism and opposition to gambling, ISKCON recognizes sensible pragmatic reasons to avoid drugs, including physical health, economics, and mental wellness. Yet the Hare Krishna movement's rejection of intoxication rests on a theological critique of the nature of the material world as ultimately illusionary. Drugs, the movement argues, delude people by offering a material rather than spiritual path to altered consciousness or experience. Intoxicants harm spiritual progress by providing false shelter from pain and false pleasure, both of which derive only from temporary psychological states dependent solely on material substances. Even individuals who use drugs for spiritual reasons delude themselves into thinking that one can obtain knowledge of God through material means.

Finally, ISKCON devotees vow to avoid what Bhaktivedanta labeled "illicit sexual activities." These forbidden activities include all forms of sexual enjoyment for any purpose other than procreation within the bounds of marriage to another devotee. The movement understands this requirement to mean that Hare Krishna devotees must avoid all premarital sex, practice strict monogamy within marriage, and even then engage only in vaginal sex without the use of contraceptives. Even in the case of permitted sexual activity, ISKCON teaches its members to avoid physical pleasure and focus on devotion to Krishna, a state that renders the sexual act a spiritual one, and therefore means that the true devotee avoids sex for the purposes of pleasure in all forms and at all times.

The movement's opposition to illicit sexual activity and other forms of sexual enjoyment derive, like its rejection of drug use, from its strong anti-materialist position. Since ISKCON understands the material world to be ultimately illusionary and distracting, it considers physical pleasure and physical desire completely incompatible with spiritual life. Sexual desire, which the movement considers lust, represents a longing for material pleasure, whereas the true devotee hopes for spiritual pleasure. Sex also roots an individual in the material, distracting the individual from religious pursuits.

Study Questions:
     1.    What are the vows of ISKCON members? The prohibitions?
     2.    Why are there dietary constrictions? What do they include?
     3.    What are the theological implications of gambling? Of drug use?
     4.    Why is there an emphasis prohibiting material distractions?