Ethics and Community

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

As part of their initiation ceremony marking them as Krishna Conscious devotees, individuals take two vows. First, they vow to chant sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mahamantra, a task that takes anywhere from forty-five minutes to two hours. But also, devotees vow to adhere to the four regulative principles of ISKCON, which are the prohibition against eating animal flesh or eggs, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sexual activities.

Many outside of the movement are aware of ISKCON's eating prohibitions through the several vegetarian Hare Krishna cookbooks that the group has published. Over the past thirty years non-devotees have used recipes from A Higher Taste, Lord Krishna's Cuisine, and The Hare Krishna Book of Vegetarian Cooking, all of which have been sold at health food stores, New Age shops, and even mainstream bookstores. Yet Hare Krishna devotees understand vegetarianism as far more than a health issue. The underlying logic behind ISKCON's prohibition against eating meat and eggs is that such activities would harm spiritual life, since the killing of animals displeases Krishna. In addition to following the will of Krishna, ISKCON devotees understand vegetarianism as in keeping with the laws of karma and a philosophical opposition to the taking of animal life.

The Bhagavata Purana describes Krishna as a protector of cows and a lover of wildlife, and therefore the Vaishnava tradition has taken this text as evidence to support a vegetarian diet. Because of the textual evidence supporting Krishna as enjoying dairy products, as well as Indian dietary norms, ISKCON does not extend its opposition to the eating of animal flesh to all animal products. The movement therefore encourages the protection of dairy cows and their humane treatment, and permits the use of dairy products. In keeping with the dietary norms of brahmanical Hinduism, the movement rejects the consumption of eggs, whether fertilized or not, which it considers a meat product, as well as garlic and onions, which are considered spiritually unsettling, though this latter proscription is less a matter of morality.

The second ISKCON regulative principle requires abstention from gambling. The movement defines gambling in the narrow sense to include card-playing, dice games, lotteries, casino games, wagers, and bets. A Hare Krishna devotee avoids all such activities. Though the movement offers numerous pragmatic reasons to refrain from gambling, the foundation of the group's opposition is theological. All gambling involves a player seeking to beat the odds. Yet "the odds," that is the natural laws and their repercussions, have been set by Krishna. To attempt to circumvent them or take advantage of them implies a willingness to challenge the natural order of the cosmos as defined by Krishna.

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?

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