on Oct. 19, 2007
Author's note: I wrote this almost a year ago. Like so many other ISKCON controversies, the discussion was hot and heavy for a while, then trailed off when the next hot topic came up. I've had time to think about the subject a little more, and intend to post a follow-up article soon.
Braja Sevaki dasi's "hugging" article, "A Touchy Subject
" generated voluminous controversy and comments. As far as I can tell, there are more comments on that article than on any other. I find it ironic, personally, because I have recently taken it upon myself to become more of a hugger. I don't really like hugging, but there are some people--male and female--that I feel so much affection for, that I force myself to show it in that fashion. Other times, the hug is just a social formality, or even a kind of preaching.
The men that I've hugged recently are very close friends of my husband, of both the devotee and non-devotee kind. One non-devotee friend, a loud Irish-American guy my husband has known since he was a kid, hugs me as a matter of custom, and rather than stand there like a tree, I hug him back. Why not? If that's the best he can do to appreciate a Hare Krishna (which is how he sees me), I'm not going to act like some uptight little priss because I'm afraid I'll fall down. No chance of that happening with Patrick, unless perhaps he was the very last man on earth and the human race needed to be perpetuated.
The other men were very close devotee friends of my husband, and that's precisely the reason why I hugged them, because they are so dear to him. In the past, I've been very reserved with them. But considering that my husband just went through the ordeal of cancer and chemotherapy, that these friends have been almost as distraught over him as I've been, that we've been apart for a year or more, what I feel in response to their love and friendship inspires me to hug them. As indifferent as I am to hugging, I can't not hug them. They are like family to me, brothers. I may not hug male devotees, but I do hug my brothers.
In thinking about the whole issue, I remembered the various accounts of Srila Prabhupada showing affection in a physical way to his disciples. The first time he left San Francisco for India, he embraced the boys and patted the girls on the head. When I first read that, it crossed my mind how totally unnecessary it was to do that. Prabhupada was a sannyasi; he could have kept a formal distance between himself and his girls and boys, but he touched them—physically and spiritually. Srila Prabhupada was heavy at times, but he was never cold. There was a very good chance (or so they thought) that they would never see each other again. How many of us, faced with the loss of a dear friend, would not long for the chance to physically connect with that person for what may be the last (or first) time?
We reside in the body. We acquire knowledge through the senses and we act through them. Everything we know, everything we feel, and everything we are is expressed and achieved through the body, including love. Yes, the danger of lust is always present. But it won't disappear by squelching expressions of real love.
Real love is not expressed in the casual embraces between men and women just saying "hello" to one another at the Sunday feast. It seems a bit much to assume that such "hugs" (the word itself sounds trivial, unlike "embrace") are fully focused and consciously exchanged. They may be chaste, but they're also cheap. And the mind, being what it is, looks for any chink in our armor, so that sense gratification and Maya can trickle in, until they loosen and wash away our defenses in a torrent so strong that we can no longer remember how they found their way in in the first place.
We have to remember also, that, whatever our own consciousness might be, we can't control how others perceive our acts, and if we embrace publicly, we risk it's being misinterpreted. We can argue that others' agitation or sexual immaturity is not our problem, but that doesn't reflect the mood of real spiritual love. Real love is concerned with, and careful of, others' weaknesses. That's why I don't hug in public, and I hug male friends rarely, always in my husband's presence, and with his consent. It's a standing precaution, because I can't take it for granted that I'm infallible. On the other hand, I think I'll likely be hugging my female friends more and more. My distaste for hugs is something less than transcendental in my character, and the change will do me good.
The issue of hugs/no hugs is a starting point for a discussion of something deeper. As a society of aspiring transcendentalists, we've been less than open and honest, with ourselves or each other, about the problem of sexual tension. There are so many ways for women and men to associate illicitly, way before it gets down to anything overtly scandalous, that hugs are just the tip of the iceberg. The body, as essential as it is while we're still conditioned, is hard-wired to seek sexual enjoyment. Indulging is not the answer, but pretending we're free of it isn't either.
The point is to engage that energy in the cause of spiritual love, bhakti, in service to the Lord and to the devotees. We have the best process, we're just not fully involved in it yet. It may be that age and the deterioration of the body are just as critical to the waning of lust for some of us as is the chanting of Hare Krishna. In the interim, treating each other with greater gentleness, respect, and gratitude would probably go farther to fulfill our desires for intimacy and affection than hugs. Kindness touches more than the body. It embraces the heart.