April 11, 2012

Don’t Copy India! ~ Toongi Dasi

steven depolo

Why India’s dichotomous householder/brahmachari model doesn’t work–for them, or us.

My guru was 11 years old when his marriage was arranged in his village somewhere in the rural interior of the state of Bihar, India. Of course the actual wedding and consequent living together with his wife did not occur until he was older, probably somewhere between mid-teens to early twenties. Years later, he would leave his family to take sannyasa, voluntary vows of renunciation. Many years later still, I would go to India, meet him, take diksha (formal initiation into mantra-sadhana) and live in his ashram.

Those times spent in his ashram were the happiest of my life. Almost three years after meeting him and taking diksha he would go on his first “world tour” out of India to teach foreigners about Bhakti. After that first tour every year saw more and more foreigners from around the world coming to his humble ashrams in the famous Braj area of India (Mathura-Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh), where Radha and Krishna sported their divine play (leela) 5,000 or so years ago. As a result, the ashrams gradually became more crowded and more “westernized.”

I remember clearly one incident that gave me a little shock (I admit to being somewhat of a prude by nature).  A middle aged couple nearing 50 who were not married came to the ashram and set up their tent on the roof of the ashram in order to live there for a month.  Gurudeva knew they were not married and yet he allowed them to sleep together in the ashram which was traditionally inhabited by brahmacharis (single, assumed to be celibate men and women), and the occasional married couple.

After a while of staying at the ashram the couple thought it would be cool to have a traditional Indian style commitment ceremony inside the temple (though they were not legally married, or ever became so). I remember clearly the Indian brahmacharis and other locals affectionately joking with one another about their age and how unusual and strange it is to see people “so old” getting into a relationship, what to speak of having a formal Indian fire sacrifice to affirm their commitment. Nonetheless, the ashram hosted their ceremony and feast and a pleasant time was had by all.

Part of the amusement for the locals was that this particular relationship model; middle aged, living together without being legally or religiously married, having a fire sacrifice at such a ripe old age past one’s peak fertility years, was in direct opposition to their model which has been in existence for hundreds if not thousands of years; two young, fertile people, most likely both virgins/brahmacharis who have never even dated, what to speak of having shacked-up, coming together at the behest of their elders to religiously wed with the express purpose of preserving society, culture and the propagation of the species.

Steve Hicks

I’ll admit that yours truly, being young, prudish and very much influenced by the local culture at the time, was also quite amused, if not bemused. One thing that I did note however was that our guru, who perhaps out of all of us came from the most traditional, orthodox and conservative background, seemed to think nothing of it and gave his complete blessings and affections to the couple from the time they showed up at our ashram doorsteps. He didn’t blink an eye when this unmarried couple set up tent on the roof or asked for a fire sacrifice at their “advanced age.”

Over the years and travels with my guru I would witness what was at the time a more liberal approach to relationships than the one even I as an American was raised with. (My parents were against shacking up before marriage, as many of their generation. Things have changed since).

While in India he honored the cultural norms of that country, when dealing with his non-Indian disciples he conceded that different cultures have different relationship models. Though one thing he was consistent about across cultures was staying together and trying your best to make things work once a commitment was made. Even then, he understood that there are some circumstances in which even that is impossible.

I very much appreciated and agreed with Lakshmi Nair’s two recent elephant journal articles (here and here) about brahmacharya. One of the biggest culture shocks of my life was experienced not when I went to India but when I returned to the USA again, and that was the complete taboo that the subject of celibacy is here, and that too within yoga circles themselves!

No matter the yoga studio, the seminar, the workshop, whatever, I found the most frequently talked about thing was “relationships”–and by relationships they meant of the romantic/sexual kind, not platonic or otherwise.  All ages–whether teens, adults, or elderly persons in their viagra/cialis years, all age groups are talking about “relationships.”

I remember giving one yoga class to some American women and talking about brahmacharya and one of them exclaimed, “who in the world would want to be celibate and why?!”  I had no answer!  The idea of being single, happy alone, drama-free and satisfied without sex was lost on her. I realized I’d have to revamp my presentation for a demographic wherein the benefits of either short or long term brahmacharya are not collectively known.

On the opposite and far other extreme of the spectrum I give you the result of a brahmacharya that is culturally enforced against the will of the people, and that is eve-teasing. Eve-teasing is India’s euphemism for “street sexual harassment” which has reached epidemic proportions across the sub-continent. You can read about it and what India’s women (and some men) are doing to fight back here.

It’s a major problem in the area my guru’s ashram is located in. I remember going on short trips to other parts of India just to get a break from it all. My first night in Mumbai (Bombay) I was shocked to see young couples on Marine Drive cuddled up, hugging and kissing. Remember, India is a country where PDAs (public displays of affection) remain illegal in some areas.  But after the initial shock I reasoned, “this is a good thing. Those young men are too preoccupied with their girlfriends to harass me. I feel safe here”.

Contrast that with the area further north I had just come from wherein the local police staff of Meerut, U.P, were commissioned to crack down on eve-teasers and they instead went after consensual couples – all for showing a lil’ PDA in public!  Please see news report here.

The villages, small towns, and second tier cities of India remain places without any socially accepted dating culture.  Hence you have unmarried singles in the prime of their lives who are denied the physical and emotional affections of romantic relationships. That denial can extend all the way into their late 20s or even 30s if their parents are unable to arrange marriages until that time.  A recipe for frustration?  What do you think?

Moreover, in these same areas the few non-married consensual relationships that do manage to emerge are given almost the same treatment as non-consensual eve-teasers, as exemplified in this video,  where Operation Majnun officers are stalking and roughing up free citizens of India (and asking some to do exercises on the spot holding their ears!) simply for enjoying each other’s company in a park!

Meena Kadri

The reason for this is the grihasta/brahmachari or householder/celibate lifestyle model that India continues to abide by, more or less (exceptions are there).

In this model, as Lakshmi Nair pointed out, the brahmachari stage of life is during one’s youth when studies take precedent over everything else.  After that stage of life one is meant to enter the grihasta or householder stage; marriage, family, career, what is often referred to as “samsara” or the binding cycle.

Many in India see no middle ground between these two extremes and that is why in this modern age of extended college education where we remain students often up until our mid-20s and sometimes beyond, the culture expects one to remain brahmachari, or celibate, well into one’s adult years without break!  The break comes only with marriage.

For those of us with low libidos that’s not difficult.  But how many low libido or asexual people are there in the population? Exactly. Very few. Forget libido, this doesn’t even begin to address the positive emotional impact a romantic relationship can have on the human psyche. Nor does such an either/or model address the many individuals who desire neither marriage nor family, but are not eager to sign up for lifelong celibacy when they are just barely out of their teens either. Where do they fit in? And what about all the LGBT people in the global yoga scene?

By collectively giving only two extreme options to the entire population across the board, and those options are either;

1. Marriage, family, complete samsara with all its subsequent duties, or
2. Complete celibacy and single life.

A society sets up a situation wherein a moderate middle ground is shamed at the same level sexual crimes are shamed.  In other words, healthy, consensual relationships between legal-aged but unmarried adults carry almost the same, and sometimes more, stigma in (many parts of) India as non-consensual crimes like sexual harassment do!

This is not a healthy model to be exported globally, and certainly not healthy for the yoga community to adopt.

In our eagerness to reform some ethical breaches in the international yoga scene, let us not go to the other end of the extreme and begin to repress, shame and stigmatize consensual relationships between adults whether they be young, old, or in between–yoga teachers or not.

By demonizing consensual relationships we run the risk of creating a breeding ground for non-consensual harassment to bloom just below the surface and replicate itself to epidemic proportions.

Don’t throw baby Gopal out with the bath water!

editor: Greg Eckard


Toongi Dasi is a third culture person who has lived most of her adult life in India studying the literature and lore of Bengali Vaishnavism under the guidance of her guru. She currently resides in the United States where she teaches meditation techniques and dishes out unsolicited advice to the lovelorn in the tradition of Vatsyayana, the celibate sex guru of Kama Sutra fame. She can be reached on email here.

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