by Radha devi dasi
I recently read an online post by a woman who was born and raised in India that covered the topic of “How should a woman behave in the brahmana culture?” I’ll refer to her as Krishna dasi in this essay, although that is not her name. In the post she describes her experience in a physically abusive marriage and how her diksha guru advised her to stay in her marriage. She offered her experience as a model for other women to follow.
I don’t intend to criticize this woman for the choices she has made in her married life. However, having worked with survivors of serious domestic violence, I have learned that an abusive relationship can seriously threaten a woman (and most survivors of domestic violence are women) and her children. A “one size fits all” approach to abusive relationships literally puts lives at risk.
We tend to assume that what works in an ideal situation is going to work even when the situation is less than ideal. Srila Prabhupada instructed Vaishnavis to be humble and submissive to their husbands so that their marriages would be peaceful. Some take this instruction to an extreme, opining that a woman may never disagree with her husband. While there is give and take in any healthy relationship, many Vaishnavis will choose more feminine communication styles in their marriages. These less confrontational communication styles can be part of strong marriages.
On the other hand, a chronic domestic abuser does not, as many think, respond to his wife’s behavior. Domestic violence is often a response to stress, insecurity and other anarthas on the part of the abuser who has learned to use violence as a way of managing difficult situations and emotions. This pattern gives rise to the classic “cycle of violence” in which an abuser first courts his wife, then becomes more and more angry as his stress builds, explodes with violence, returning to the courting stage with remorse and promises of change. His violence is independent of anyone else’s behavior, including his wife’s.
Krishna dasi’s post makes it clear that her husband’s behavior was beyond her control. Although she was a model wife, she was frequently beaten and describes her husband as “cruel” (somewhat of an understatement!). Her guru advised her to go to her brother’s house when her husband beat her and then return when her husband calmed down but not to divorce her husband for any reason. Krishna dasi is an ardent defender of “stri-dharma” and believes a woman should never “leave your husband.” She was uncomplaining and submissive in the face of horrific abuse. No one will argue that she caused her husband’s violence.
It’s important to acknowledge this violence as aberrant behavior. Beating one’s wife is not normal, not a healthy response to life’s challenges, and a serious form of Vaishnava aparadha. It can also harm children who become anxious and distressed when witnessing such violence or who may be on the receiving end of such violence. Children who witness domestic violence are more prone to mental illness, drug abuse and more likely to be violent with their families as adults. Marital violence can also undermine a family’s faith in Krishna.
An often overlooked point is the fact that abusers actually kill their wives. Sometimes they go so far as to kill their children, family members, neighbors, co-workers, or law enforcement along with their spouses. Would we encourage a woman to stay in a marriage knowing that it could end in her death and the death of her children? No. We need to recognize that some women are in life-threatening situations. All devotees should be able to live in peace and safety.
And despite her claims and her advice to others, Krishna dasi did in fact leave her husband. When the violence was at its height, she would typically leave her home and stay with her brother. This kind of safety planning is essential to surviving domestic violence. What Krishna dasi means is that she did not divorce her husband or refuse to live with him after his beatings.
Why is it acceptable to leave the home temporarily to protect oneself but not permanently? The truth is, Krishna dasi found a safety plan that worked for her and balanced her social and cultural considerations with her safety. Kudos to her. Where she goes off track is in assuming that her compromise should be adopted by any woman in a violent marriage.
Krishna dasi was fortunate in having a brother who offered her a safe haven. Many Vaishnavis lack that resource. Getting out of the house while her husband was violent was, by her own admission, key to Krishna dasi’s safety. For those who lack a welcoming relative, that choice is not available.
Krishna dasi was also fortunate that her husband did not beat their children. However, abusers who hit their wives are also more likely to hit their children. Should we expect women to allow their children to be abused in order to comply with a traditional vision of stri-dharma? Part of a mother’s dharma is to protect her children. There are many ways in which another Vaishnavi’s situation might differ from Krishna dasi’s and we should not expect all women to make the same choices.
Krishna dasi’s choice to remain married to her abuser was also driven by her culture and social environment. Although she writes that “everybody” told her to leave her husband, she also writes that her decision to stay in the marriage protected her daughter’s social status. If Krishna dasi had left the marriage she writes “who would have married her?” If the decision to stay in an abusive marriage is based on the idea that it is a woman’s duty, then do these social considerations even matter? The truth is, Krishna dasi was predisposed by culture to make particular choices. There is no reason to expect other Vaishnavis to make similar choices.
Ultimately, we have to understand that a marriage with recurring domestic violence is a terribly dangerous environment and destructive to everyone involved (husband, wife, children, extended family, and community). Each situation is different and each Vaishnavi should be able to choose her response based on what protects her and her children on what provides an environment where their spiritual lives can flourish.