Srila Prabhupada left us with clear directives for women: in every stage of her life a woman must be protected, either by her father, her husband or her grown son. A woman is dependent and chaste; she is an expert cook and a faithful wife.
Are Prabhupada’s female followers changing these clear guidelines?
The women who today are examining the mood and restrictions that some male members of ISKCON have imposed or would impose on them, are doing so on the strength of Prabhupada’s teachings and personal example. Whatever contradictions we may find in his teachings and example are only apparent. Closer examination and realisation will reveal that Prabhupada’s legacy is harmonious in all its aspects, including the role of women. It is only in the mature reconciliation of apparent contradictions that Srila Prabhupada’s priceless legacy will be left balanced and complete for future generations of his followers.
Apparent contradictions repeatedly originate from statements concerning the principles of bhakti-yoga on one side and varnasrama on the other.
Srila Prabhupada describes bhakti in this way: ‘Sarvopadhi-vinirmuktam. You have to understand that “I am not this body. I am neither Indian, nor American, nor Russian. I am part and parcel of God. Therefore my business is to serve God.” This is called bhakti. That is the definition of bhakti. Sarvopadhi-vinirmuktam … . The dirty things are within my heart, so if we cleanse our heart, then we become free from this designation.’
Prabhupada’s personal lila exemplifies his own pristine heart. For example:
Jadurani helped Govinda Dasi gather flowers and the two girls talked together. Both had heard the men say that women were less intelligent, and they felt discouraged. Later Govinda Dasi told Prabhupada about the problem. ‘Is it true,’ she asked, ‘that because we are women we won’t make advancement as quickly as the brahmacaris?’
‘Yes,’ Prabhupada answered. ‘If you think of yourselves as women, how will you make any advancement? You must see yourself as spirit soul, eternal servant of Krsna.’ (Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, 1993, Vol. 3, p. 150)
Prabhupada was smiling and looking directly from one devotee to another. ‘I want each of you to go and start a center. What is the difficulty? Take one mrdanga. Then another person will come and join you – he will take karatalas …’ ‘The girls also?’ Rukmini asked. ‘There is no harm,’ Prabhupada said. ‘Krsna does not make distinction – female dress or male dress. I mean to say, the female body is weaker, but spiritually the body does not matter. In the absence of Lord Nityananda, His wife, Jahnava Devi, was preaching. First you must understand the philosophy. You must be prepared to answer questions. Krsna will give you intelligence. Just like I was not prepared to answer all these questions, but Krsna gives intelligence.’ (Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, 1991, pp. 146-7)
And, in his purport to Adi-lila 7.31-2, Srila Prabhupada emphasises the same principle: ‘… those girls are not ordinary girls but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Krsna consciousness.’ (Prabhupada, 1987, p. 24)
Referring to varnasrama, on a morning walk in Chicago in 1975, Srila Prabhupada said:
‘Our policy should be that at Dallas gurukula we shall create first-class men. And we shall teach the girls two things: how to become chaste and faithful to their husband and how to cook nicely.’ While Prabhupada and the group of devotees returned to the car, the topic changed to the political troubles in India. Prabhupada commented, ‘If Indira Gandhi takes my advice, then I can keep her on the post, and she can do greater service to India. Immediately the whole public will give her support … . But to remain the leader she requires spiritual knowledge, otherwise it will be another disaster. If she wants to remain leader then she must be a spiritual person. She must become a Vaisnavi.’ (Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, 1993, Vol. 6, p. 67)
Here, Prabhupada first explains the traditional, home-centred role for women in the varnasrama system, and then explains how a female leader can best remain in power – through her development in bhakti-yoga. So, as conservative as one may consider Prabhupada’s stance regarding women in the varnasrama system, one will find Prabhupada’s stance equally liberal regarding women in bhakti-yoga.From a letter: ‘The actual system is that the husband is the spiritual master to his wife, but if the wife can bring her husband into practicing this process [of Krsna consciousness], then it is all right that the husband accepts the wife as the spiritual master. Caitanya Mahaprabhu has said that anyone who knows the science of Krsna should be accepted as spiritual master, regardless of any material so-called qualifications, such as rich or poor, man or woman, or brahmana or sudra.’From a conversation: ‘In the material world, is there any prohibition that a woman cannot become a professor? If she is qualified, she can become a professor. What is the wrong there? She must be qualified. That is the position. So similarly, if the woman understands Krsna consciousness perfectly, she can become guru.’
Our duty, as the custodians of Srila Prabhupada’s legacy, is to synthesise the principles of bhakti-yoga on one side, with the principles of varnasrama on the other. If we are presently forbidding certain services to qualified Vaisnavis, we may be quickly gliding towards the caste system, the convoluted and stultifying misapplication of Lord Krsna’s divine social arrangement – daiva-varnasrama.
Due to this perversion of Krsna’s plan, in India today we may find a child born to simple labouring parents who would make an able leader, but is forbidden, or a child born of priests who wants to farm but cannot, or a farmer’s child who is a natural scholar but is obliged to raise okra. These are travesties. Do we want ISKCON to go in this direction? By not protecting the right of a woman to serve according to her capacities and by squeezing her into a box that all women are obliged to fit in, we follow this direction by default, unless we take definite steps to change. The rigid society that refuses to accept individual proclivities – whether in women or in men – harms itself and those it suppresses. In Krsna’s divine arrangement one’s duties are determined by one’s activities (karma) and qualities (guna), not by one’s birth (janma).
In November 1972, when Srila Prabhupada returned to Vrndavana with his Western disciples, he enjoined the caste conscious brahmanas and gosvamis, ‘Our purpose should be to serve Krsna with our senses purified of false designations. This is the transcendental stage. A Vaisnava should not be considered European or American. No. … We have to become designation-less. We should forget all these false identities. … So many nonsense things are going on for want of actual spiritual education. … This Krsna consciousness movement proposes that nobody should think of himself as belonging to a certain family, sect or nation. All these designations have created havoc in the world.’
Similarly, discriminatory attitudes towards women have created, and will continue to create, havoc in ISKCON. As, in 1971, Srila Prabhupada requested the Brijbasis not to see his disciples in terms of their birth, so today – 29 years later – Prabhupada’s ladies request the gentlemen in his Society not to see them in terms of their birth. Please do not offer us sexism in the name of Krsna consciousness.
Srila Prabhupada offered qualified women, like qualified men, services commensurate with their abilities, and part of these women’s qualifications was that they were protected, dependent, faithful and chaste. Thus Prabhupada’s instructions about women and his practical example in relation to women have always been in harmony.
Women who are encouraged rather than suppressed will, by the grace of Krsna, develop a keen sense of propriety and act in such a way that pushes on Krsna’s mission. Srila Prabhupada often quoted the aphorism that ‘Men are like butter and women are like fire. In the presence of fire, butter melts.’ As far as is practical, women and men should remain separate and make gradual advancement in Krsna consciousness. In this way, the woman’s fire becomes not a fire to melt butter but, due to the purity of her intent, a fire of knowledge, a fire that burns ignorance to ashes. The flames of such a fire can consume the fire of lust that threatens to burn every unmindful conditioned soul. And the man’s butter becomes the butter that is stolen away by a naughty, young bluish-hued boy.
Julius Lipner, a British scholar of Hindu studies at Cambridge University, writes: ‘ISKCON needs all the help it can get in the years ahead. Unless it succeeds in convincing the female devotees that they have an equally important role to play – not only physically, but also intellectually and spiritually if they so desire – an immense resource will be wasted; more important, ISKCON’s prospects for the future will be seriously undermined. It seems to me … that the role of women must be reconstructed in ISKCON.’ (Lipner, p. 24)
In his purport to Bhagavad-gita 9.32, Srila Prabhupada emphatically states, ‘ … in devotional service there is no discrimination between lower and higher classes of people. In the material conception of life there are such divisions, but for a person engaged in the transcendental service of the Lord, there are not.’ (Prabhupada, 1989, p. 498) Similarly, in a letter he writes, ‘So far your question regarding women, I have always accepted the service of women without discrimination.’
Our basic point is one of common sense: that within the Krsna consciousness movement, individuals, whether male or female, accept duties according to their qualities and activities and do those duties as an offering to the Lord. This is a fundamental principle of a peaceful, co-operative, spiritual society of fulfilled individuals, and as it manifests in our Society, dignity and respect for all women will manifest with it. ISKCON will have begun to heal its heart.