“I’m a celibate monk from a 5,000 year old Krishna tradition…” declared Sivarama Swami, as he launched into his September 9 video Can Vegans Consume Milk: Part 2, a response to criticisms and questions regarding his promotion of “ahimsa milk” as suitable for vegans. As he explained, this information was proffered because he wanted to “shine a little light” on where he was “coming from.”
I found myself wondering what relevance the status of his sex life—or lack of—has to animal ethics, and why he felt it necessary to tell us that he’s celibate. I doubt that the animals Sivarama Swami exploits for milk care about whether he has sex. What’s relevant to animal ethics is not whether he refrains from sex, but that he ought to refrain from facilitating the repeated impregnation of cows, interfering with their udders, and stealing milk meant for their babies. That is, the only thing that is relevant is that he stops violating the fundamental rights of animals.
See part 3 here.
And although Sivarama is a “monk” in that he is authorised by the International Society For Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) as a “sannyasi,” to use the Hindu term, and to therefore adopt the title of “swami,” we should perhaps bear in mind that this does not necessarily mean that he is a sannyasi in any traditional sense.
Central to the station in life of sannyasa is renunciation of worldly and materialistic desires, pursuits and possessions. It is a state of disinterest in, and non-attachment to, material life in order to devote oneself to a simple, ascetic lifestyle. The traditional ideal of sannyasa is to be focused exclusively on spiritual life and service to those aspiring to spiritual realisation, and to the welfare other sentient beings in general. But it’s well known that, rather than living in voluntary poverty, “sannyasi” gurus in ISKCON enjoy opulent, pampered lifestyles. They are supported, and have every need catered to, by the labour of those below them in the hierarchy. It’s these “ordinary,” lower-level devotees who are working hard and often living simple, austere existences to support the comfortable lives of those at the apex of the organisation.
In addition, ISKCON increasingly cultivates, and is reliant upon, affluent Indian congregational members in particular for monetary support to finance the very comfortable lifestyles of its gurus and others in senior positions, and the building and maintenance of extravagant temples.
A number of articles from independent Hare Krishna sites (for example, here, here, here, here, here, here and here) claim that, contrary to the principles of sannyasa, many “sannyasis” in ISKCON have private, independent wealth. It’s said in an article entitled The Luxuries of Sannyasa that, in a reversal of the traditional situation where sannyasis have no contact with money and rely on the lay population for basic food and clothing, “sannyasis,” including gurus in ISKCON, monopolise a great deal of money and control how, to whom, and for what purposes it is disbursed. They are involved in “making money, acquiring and saving their own money, and even lending money at interest to the temples and devotees,” and that “the devotee community is essentially left to suffer the results of this accumulation and concentration of money, power and facility in the hands of sannyasis.”
An ex-devotee told me that he knows for a fact that some “sannyasis,” including gurus, do not renounce their substantial inherited wealth, but instead have it held in family trusts or administered by lawyers. He did not want to be named for fear of retaliation.
Another way in which ISKCON sannyasa has strayed from tradition, according to Nori Muster, is that “the institution covertly allowed men to leave their home without providing for their families.” The wives who are “renounced,” that is, abandoned, with children to support are consequently left in the position of being single mothers. In other words, ISKCON colludes with the making of “deadbeat dads.” What a sad irony, when the women are heavily indoctrinated that their “dharma” is to be wholly dependent upon men.
Muster also comments on how being a sannyasi is highly sought after as a status symbol in the society, and that those so honoured—men exclusively—took to adding the title, “His Holiness,” before their names, followed by “swami” or “goswami,” titles of great respect in the Vaishnava tradition from which ISKCON has arisen. But “His Holiness” was apparently too humble for the newly minted Western gurus who thought “His Divine Grace” was more fitting. She says that these gurus could typically end up with a string of honorifics seven words long. Hardly the humble, self-effacing behaviour one would expect from a traditional monk and renunciant. I notice that Sivarama Swami is referred to as “His Holiness.” Most likely, his own devotees use extra titles of honour.
Muster goes on to say that:
Instead of living as pilgrims, ISKCON sannyasis and gurus arranged exclusive dinners, flew around the world on expense accounts, and enjoyed the best accommodations that temples could provide. People bowed to them every day, and they had ‘servants’ to do their errands and housekeeping…they became stars, charismatic figures on the ISKCON skyline.
There is an article appearing on a few of the independent Hare Krishna sites that discusses Sivarama’s opulent lifestyle, portraying him as living more like a minor monarch than a monk. Another piece repeats the claim made in that article that Sivarama’s Krishna Valley “Hungarian Eco Village,” which includes the farm where cows are exploited for milk, is a privately owned project, and not in ISKCON’s name. On his own website Sivarama responds in an audio podcast to the question:
We find in ISKCON that there are certain sannyasis who live austerely with minimal comforts, whilst others live more “opulently” e.g. flying business class, driving in luxury vehicles, living in fancy hotels etc. How do we reconcile this with the sannyasa dharma of living simply or explain this to others?
Sivarama admits to flying business class, and to having his own house in Vrindavan, India. He justifies the materially comfortable lifestyles of ISKCON sannyasis like himself as being a reflection of how the dharma of sannyasa is necessarily different in the modern West to that of traditional Indian society. And he says that a level of material comfort is acceptable, as long as it’s not “excessive,” in order to be able to effectively do the required work, especially in older age. Some of the comments in response show that not everyone is convinced by this rationale for swamis generally being more privileged than householders in the organisation.
I don’t begrudge anyone, including spiritual teachers, a level of basic material comfort and I don’t think austerity or deprivation is necessary for spiritual advancement or leadership. But there are two points to consider in connection with Sivarama’s position that the dharma of sannyasis is dependent on time and context: Firstly, the word, “monk,” has a definite meaning. If you are not living the lifestyle of a “monk,” or “sannyasi,” i.e. “swami,” then it would be better not to call yourself that—find another title that’s more accurate. Secondly, it’s interesting that Sivarama finds no difficulty in the idea that the “dharma” of sannyasis can change according to time, place, necessity and cultural norms, yet he rigidly clings to the idea that it’s the unalterable “dharma” of cows to “give” milk, and that they can therefore be exploited by him and others—indeed, that it’s a duty to do so, since not “engaging” cows in their supposed dharma as milk slaves constitutes “violence.” This is despite the fact that in the current time, place and culture in which he finds himself, it’s abundantly clear that there is no nutritional need to consume dairy products—rather, that dairy products are harmful for health; that there are cogent ethical arguments against exploiting cows for milk, which he has shown himself to be so far either unwilling or unable to answer; and that animal agriculture is a scourge on the environment.
The same intransigent attitude to “women’s dharma” applies within ISKCON. The official view is that women should never be allowed independence throughout their lives, and should forever remain dependent on men; that their most important dharma is to serve, and be submissive to, their husbands and other male authority figures. All of this is apparently set in stone according to traditional “Vedic dharma.” I’m afraid it looks as if the approach to “dharma” is very selective, depending on to whom it’s being applied and whose interests are being served. Indeed, it seems clear that Sivarama and other ISKCON sannyasis use “dharma” to promote and sustain sexism and speciesiesm.
Whether or not Sivarama is really a “monk” according to any usual understanding of that word is irrelevant to his arguments in support of animal exploitation, which should be judged on their merits. However, I cannot help but wonder if his slick advertisements for “ahimsa milk,” pitched to vegans, are part of a moneymaking project, whereby “ahimsa milk” is being positioned as a saleable product, as is already happening in the UK by a Hare Krishna business, and is planned by other Hare Krishna farms. Confused, welfarist “vegans” as well as non-vegans seeking to convince themselves that there is a “compassionate” or “spiritual” way to exploit animals, would be an obvious market.
Furthermore, with regard to Sivarama’s claim to being a “monk,” it’s obvious that, again, the cows and bulls on “ahimsa milk” farms could not care less whether the person who exploits them is a layperson or a member of a religious order, just as they are indifferent to the race, class or gender of their exploiters. Exploitation remains exploitation, regardless of who engages in it. It’s incumbent on everyone, of every social category and identity group, including those who are “celibate monk[s],” to go vegan.
In my next essay I’ll discuss why Sivarama Swami is on very shaky ground in referring to his “tradition” in defending his exploitation of animals for so-called “ahimsa milk.”
By Linda McKenzie
To learn about how to go vegan, see here.