by Pranada dasi and Saudamani Dasi
January 17, 1988
Dear Saudamani Prabhu,
Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
In light of our conversation the other day, I want to share with you some further thoughts I have been having about the role of women in the Krsna consciousness movement, and how I perceived that their role as Prabhupada saw it has been misunderstood.
I am sincerely trying to understand Srila Prabhupada’s desires in this connection, and I am getting much realization from the various quotes I will include here. I know you will find these statements by Srila Prabhupada extremely thought-provoking. They are revolutionary in terms of what the movement has come to expect from devotee women, who are most often viewed as less intelligent, inferior, and personifications of maya. Based on this view, women were once seen as valuable to the movement only if they could collect money. That has changed for various reasons, but being in a woman’s body still bars devotees from doing many services they may be qualified to do. This stereotyped understanding of women as inferior even leads many devotees to think that it is entirely appropriate for women to be beaten by their husbands. This mentality derives from a misinterpretation of the Vedic scriptures. The mentality is prevalent, and it is obvious by the way men speak to and about women, and how they behave toward them. At different times Srila Prabhupada tried to give a balanced, correct understanding of the position of women, but somehow devotees have not imbibed it.
During Srila Prabhupada’s 1975 U.S. tour, when he was strongly challenging the women’s liberation movement, Prabhupada explained that the scriptural quotes describing women as less intelligent are material; they do not apply on the spiritual platform. In other words, materially a woman is less intelligent, but spiritually there is no difference between men and women. In fact, Prabhupada laughingly commented to some women disciple during a room conversation in Philadelphia that when a woman becomes a devotee, her brain expands. Also, Visakha Prabhu related to me that on a morning walk when she was present, Prabhupada was speaking very strongly about women, and at the end of his comments he said, “But not devotee women; they are Vaisnavas.” In other words, anyone, male or female, who once surrenders to Krsna become intelligent Srila Prabhupada used to quote a verse from Caitanya-caritamrta that says, “One who is a devotee of Krsna is most intelligent.”
Concerning the point that women are the agents of maya, Srila Prabhupada explained that when the term woman is used in the sastra is doesn’t necessarily mean the female sex:
“Two things: woman and money. If we become attracted . . . The woman means for woman the man is woman. Not that woman means a particular class. Woman means that which is enjoyable. In this material world the man is enjoyable and the woman is enjoyable. So for both of them, visayinam . . . yosit. . . . This body is superfluous. The bodily structure can be changed. Perhaps you know now in medical since they can change the woman’s body into a man’s body, and the man’s body into a woman’s body. . . This body is superfluous. The bodily structure, it can be changed. Perhaps you know, now in medical science they can change the woman’s body into man’s body, and the man’s body into woman’s . . . We are not these bodies, this dress. It is a man’s dress. I can transform into a woman’s dress with a sari, but that does not mean that I am a woman. So, every one of us, living entities, we are part and parcel of the Supreme Lord. The outward dress, man and woman, that is dress.” (Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.7.11, September 10, 1976)
In the following letter Prabhupada explains that while previously only men would take up spiritual life and preaching, that has been changed in recent Gaudiya Vaisnava history—and it pleases Srila Prabhupada and Lord Caitanya:
“Personally I am so much engladdened that the pairs of young boys and girls whom I have placed in householder life are doing so nicely in the Western world. When Lord Caitanya delivered Jagai and Madhai He was also a householder, but when Jagai and Madhai were actually reclaimed, His wife, Visnupriya, was not there. But in this case and in many other cases also, I find that my disciples combined together, husband and wife, are doing this preaching work so nicely. So I am especially proud how my householder disciples are preaching Lord Caitanya’s Mission. This is a new thing in the history of the Sankirtana Movement. In India all the acaryas and their descendants later on acted only from the man’s side. Their wives were at home because that is the system from old times that women are not required to go out. But in Bhagavad-gita we find that women are also equally competent like the men in the matter of Krishna Consciousness Movement. Please therefore carry on these missionary activities, and prove it by practical example that there is no bar for anyone in the matter of preaching work for Krishna Consciousness.” (Letter to Himavati dasi, December 2, 1969) [italics added]
Removing all bars and opening the preaching doors for everyone is the special mercy of Lord Caitanya, and this is the principle Srila Prabhupada applied to spread the Krsna consciousness movement all over the world. How can we expect to spread Krsna consciousness on the scale Srila Prabhupada did, engaging all classes of people, unless we realize this principle and practice it? Srila Prabhupada is quite explicit about this point in the Caitanya-caritamrta:
“Since both the boys and girls are being trained to become preachers, those girls are not ordinary girls but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Krsna consciousness. Therefore, to engage both boys and girls in fully transcendental activities is a policy intended to spread the Krsna consciousness movement. These jealous fools who criticize the intermingling of boys and girls will simply have to be satisfied with their own foolishness because they cannot think of how to spread Krsna consciousness by adopting ways and means which are favorable for this purpose. Their stereotyped methods will never help spread Krsna consciousness. . . . we are thoroughly instructing both men and women how to preach, and actually they are preaching wonderfully. . . . Both men and women are preaching the gospel of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Lord Krsna with redoubled strength.” (Cc. Adi 7.32 and 7.38, purports)
Because of the present mentality prevailing in the movement, women have been restricted in their preaching activities by being restricted from various services. I will not go into details here because it would increase the length of this letter too much. But after reading this letter from Satsvarupa dasa Goswami that a Godsister recently shared with me, I felt really encouraged that we may be able to change this unfortunate situation and develop a proper understanding.
“First, I would like to express my admission of the fact that some men have misused the Krsna conscious philosophy regarding the place of women. The Vedic philosophy and the Vedic cultural context certainly recommend protection of women through all stages of her life. But the idea of a demeaning, insulting attitude toward women, treating them as less intelligent, inferior, as persons who may be beaten, is certainly obnoxious and is not Krsna conscious. I think you have accurately described that a male chauvinistic attitude of conditioned souls has been implanted on top of the Krsna conscious philosophy by a wrong interpretation. Thus we have a hypocritical misuse of the philosophy. I think it is only fair that mature women devotees, as well as men devotees, rectify this wrong. Since we are trying to rectify so many wrong directions we have taken in ISKCON, in regard to our approach to the public, and in other matters, this also should be rectified. And it will require admitting mistakes wherever they occurred by whoever made them.” (December 13, 1987)
This wrong mentality has woven itself deeply into the thinking of the majority of devotees. This is a big mistake, and it goes against Srila Prabhupada’s spirit, as he expresses it here in a 1968 room conversation in Seattle:
“Now another thing, that girls should not be taken as inferior. You see? Sometimes . . . Of course, sometimes scripture we say that “Woman is the cause of bondage.” So that should not be, I mean to say, aggravated. That should not be aggravated, that “Woman is inferior,” or something like that. So the girls who come, we should treat them nicely. I heard that G., after his wife left him, he became a woman-hater. That is not good. After all, anyone who is coming to Krsna consciousness, man or woman, if very fortunate. The idea of addressing “prabhu” means “you are my master.” Prabhu means master. And Prabhupada means many masters who bows down at his lotus feet. So everyone shall treat others as “my master.” This is the Vaisnava understanding. That is stated in Bhagavata . . . . So, in spiritual life there is nothing like this sexist. The more we forget sex life that means we are advancing in spiritual life. So this should be the attitude: Women. Godsisters, they should be nicely treated . . . That should be our policy everywhere.”
Missing this spirit, we are committing a great violence to the prosperity of the Krsna consciousness move and the individual spiritual lives of the devotee women. To what extent? I think greatly, and from my experience in talking with devotee women all over the movement, I think we’ll hear more and more how this is so. Of course, I have personally seen many women leave our movement and many unable to join because of this problem. To me this is most regrettable and painful.
I also have personal experience how this “off” mentality is affecting our children. A known cure for a little’s boy’s misbehavior in arati will be to threaten that he must “stand with the women”—humiliating, horrible fate (even though his own mother is probably there!). Recently, Patita Pavana told me he didn’t have to follow his teacher’s instructions because (verbatim, “She’s a woman, and women are less intelligent. I’m smarter than her.”Therefore, it’s all right to be disrespectful—that’s logical enough for a ten-year-old (or, it seems, for many thirty-five year olds). He imbibed this from Bhagavatam classes and the display of the male devotees’ general attitude toward women. However, these lessons he has learned are faulty in that they have not taught him how to respect all devotees of the Lord. Without respect he can have not submissiveness thus he’s missing out on a spiritual principle intrinsic to our whole philosophy. How will he absorb Krsna consciousness, since his mother and his schoolteacher are women? In fact, the mother is a guru, who is giving Krsna consciousness and encouraging her children on the spiritual path all their lives. Many devotees have experience that our teenagers are able to confide more confidentially in the mothers than their fathers. If our children have imbibe this wrong mentality about women, thus having their respect undermined, who will they fare?
One Godsister told me that her daughter (at 3 or 4) didn’t want to go to nursery in a skirt because girls weren’t allowed to lead kirtanas and do so many things she wanted to do. Why should this child experience this squashing of her spiritual aspirations? Rather, whatever spark of Krsna consciousness is there should be fanned, not smothered. Blinded by our misconceptions, we are committing great violence to our own children. We are thoroughly implanting in their heads material duality. I find it very sad.
We have already discussed at length how this attitude has contributed to difficulties in a number of marriages in the movement. Marriage requires that the parties respect one another as devotees. If there are to be good, God-centered marriages, then there must be solid Vaisnava relationships. If men see women as less intelligent, like animals (or children), and not as devotees of Krsna, how can they have Vaisnava relationships with them?
There is much more to be said about these particular ISKCON social ills, and our movement as a whole, as well as the individuals within it, will have to come to terms with them. We will have to see changes in the near future. But I wanted to specifically talk to you now about one particular, but very important, matter: devotee women not being allowed to give Srimad-Bhagavatam class. I feel this practice is symbolic of the mentality we have been discussing—and it is with several, strong quotes by Prabhupada that we can refute this policy as complete, unadulterated maya.
I am completely convinced about Prabhupada’s desires in this regard. There is certainly good reason for women to desire to give class, and it is the movement’s duty to train them for this preaching work. We need so many experiences preachers. We now that our realization of the philosophy deepens the more we speak it. This is an essential principle Prabhupada addresses in the First Canto, Chapter One, text 6:
“To hear and explain them [these literatures] is more important than reading them. One can assimilate the knowledge of the revealed scriptures only by hearing and explaining. Hearing is called sravana, and explaining is called kirtana. The two processes of sravana and kirtana are of primary importance to progressive spiritual life. Only one who has properly grasped the transcendental knowledge from the right source by submissive hearing can properly explain the subject.”
Prabhupada wrote a few letters where he explicitly stated that women can and should give Bhagavatam classes. These are most solid evidences, and after reading them I cannot understand how we so drastically deviated from this point.
“Regarding lecturing by woman devotees: I have informed you that in the service of the Lord there is no distinction of caste or creed, color, or sex. In the Bhagavad-gita, the Lord especially mentions that even a woman who has taken seriously is also destined to reach Him. We require a person who is in the knowledge of Krishna, that is the only qualification of a person speaking. It doesn’t matter what he is. Materially a woman may be less intelligent than a man, but spiritually there is no such distinction. Because spiritually everyone is pure soul. In the absolute plane there is no such gradation of higher and lower. If a woman can lecture nicely and to the point, we should hear her carefully. That is our philosophy. But if a man can speak better than a woman, the man should be given first preference. But even though a woman is less intelligent, a sincere soul should be given proper chance to speak, because we want so many preachers, both men and women.” (Letter to Jai Govinda dasa, February 8, 1968)
“So far as girls or boys lecturing in the morning, that doesn’t make any difference. Either girl or boy devotees may deliver lecture if they choose to do. We have no such distinction of bodily designations, male or female. Krishna Consciousness is on the spiritual platform.” (Letter to Shyama dasi, October 21, 1968)
“So you please continue your devotional service, cooking etc, and you can also keep giving Bhagavatam class if you like. Women in our movement can also preach very nicely. Actually male and female bodies, these are just outward designations. Lord Caitanya said that whether one is brahmana or whatever he may be if he knows the science of Krsna then he is to be accepted as guru. So one who gives class, he must read and study regularly and study the purport and realize it. Don’t add anything or concoct anything, then he can preach very nicely. The qualification for leading class is how much one understands about Krsna and surrendering to the process. Not whether one is male or female. Of course women, generally speaking are less intelligent, better she has heard nicely then she will speak nicely.” (Letter to Malati dasi, December 25, 1974)
About this last quote I have an interesting story. I obtained a copy of the outline for the “Strong Speaking” course from the Vrndavana classes Jayadvaita Swami led this y ear. To my surprise this letter was discussed at one of these classes. The topic was, Should women give class? My copy had notes written by one of the students, who gave his understanding of the outcome of the classes’ discussion. The notes said that there would be two acceptable circumstances to have a woman speak” (1) If all men in the temple had gone out preaching and only women had children remained, or (2) students had come to a Sunday Feast to hear about “The Lady’s role in Krsna consciousness.”
With all honesty, I cannot imagine how they reached their conclusion, and I have to doubt this interpretation of Prabhupada; straightforward instruction. I wrote to Jayadvaita Swami about this, but I have not received a reply.
Though we can’t bring ourselves to ask a Godsister to speak, Srila Prabhupada himself wouldn’t hesitate to ask his women disciples to speak—because he practiced what he preached. We find in the Lilamrta that Prabhupada asked women devotees to speak on many different occasions. In this next letter Prabhupada expresses his appreciation of Jadurani Prabhu’s speaking ability:
“When I got to Montreal, I shall take selected pictures from Jadurany and as well as some of the pictures by Gourasundar and Govinda published in BTG. Jadurany has now become a nice preacher. I have report from Satsvarupa that she gives lectures very nicely. If we open a pavilion I shall take Jadurany also at that time, so she will deliver nice lectures.” (Letter to Mahapurusha, March 28, 1968)
I remember Jadurani Prabhu giving enlivening lectures full of sastric references as late as 1975 in Los Angeles under Srila Prabhupada’s auspices. In fact, that same year in Hawaii Kirtanandana Swami and another sannyasi complained to Srila Prabhupada about it. Prabhupada’s response was (as related at that time to Jadurani by Ramesvara): “A preacher is spiritual and designation of ‘women’ and ‘sannyasa” are material.” Unfortunately, shortly afterwards the temple president stopped asking her to give class—the men had become perturbed and agitated. But Prabhupada had something strong to say about that problem at an earlier time. In New Work, 1972, women were prohibited from chanting in the temple during the japa period. Apparently, on the plea that the men were agitated, they tried (and ultimately have been successful) excluding women from the temple room. Prabhupada was quite furious about this restriction.
“ . . . and I have noted the contents with great concern. I do not know why these things inventions are going on. That is our only business, to invent something new programme? We have already got our Vaisnava standard. That is sufficient for Madhavacarya, Ramanujacarya, it was sufficient for Lord Chaitanya, six Gosvamis, for Bhaktivinode Thakur, for my Guru Maharaja Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, for me, for all big, big saints and acaryas in our line—why it shall be inadequate for my disciples so they must manufacture something? That is not possible. Who has introduced these things, that women cannot have chanting japa in the temple, they cannot perform the arati and so many things? If they become agitated, then let the brahmacaris go to the forest, I have never introduced these things. The brahmacaris cannot remain in the presence of women in the temple, then they must go to the forest, not remaining in New York City, because in New York there are so many women, so how they can avoid seeing? Best thing is to go to the forest for not seeing any women, if they become so easily agitated, but then no one will either see them and how our preaching work will go on?” (Letter to Ekayani dasi, December 3, 1972)
Prabhupada remarkably points out here that our whole disciplic succession supports the standards he introduced in ISKCON regarding women. How have we become more advanced than all the acaryas about “keeping women in their place,” at the cost of our preaching endeavor?
Prabhu, let me, in closing, include a few quotes about women becoming gurus. I want to put these forth merely as supporting evidence that devotee women can give a Bhagavatam class. It is sound common sense that if a woman can initiate she can preach the Bhagavatam philosophy—to anyone.
First, there is a precedent in our Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya. Jahnava devi, Lord Nityananda’s wife, and Hemlata Thakurani, Srivasa Thakura’s daughter, both gave formal diksa to male devotees. This is documented in the Bhakti-ratnakara and the Prema-vilasa, as explained to me by Nandarani Prabhu, who recently returned from her BBT Research in Delhi.
How does that apply to ISKCON, thought? Srila Prabhupada expressed his desires explicitly in this letter of December 3, 1968, to Hansadutta:
“I want all of my spiritual sons and daughters will inherit this title of Bhaktivedanta, so that the family transcendental diploma will continue through the generations. Those possessing the title of Bhaktivedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples. Maybe by 1975, all of my disciples will be allowed to initiate and increase the numbers of generations. That is my program.”
I happened upon this letter describing women as capable of becoming spiritual masters of their husbands:
“The actual system is that the husband is the spiritual master to his wife, but if the wife can bring her husband into practicing the process, then it is all right that the husband accepts the wife as spiritual master. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu has said that anyone who knows the science of Krishna, that person would be accepted as spiritual master, regardless of any material so-called qualifications, such as rich or poor, man or woman, or Brahmin or sudra.” (Letter Silavati dasi, June 14, 1969)
Srila Prabhupada reaffirms this in Teachings of Lord Caitanya:
“Whatever position one may have, if he is fully conversant with the science of Krsna, Krsna consciousness, he can become a bona fide spiritual master, initiator or teacher of the science. In other words, one can become a bona fide spiritual master if he has sufficient knowledge of the science of Krsna, Krsna consciousness. The position does not depend on a particular position in society or on birth. This is the conclusion of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and it is in accordance with the Vedic injunctions.”
In fact, all the quotes in the Vedic literature about becoming guru by qualification and not by birth also apply to women. Srila Prabhupada—with reference to Lord Caitanya’s teachings and example—preached so strongly against the idea that one is disqualified from spiritual practices because of birth. If spiritual life depended on birth, even the men in our movement wouldn’t be able to worship the Deity. Isn’t it just as incorrect to say that someone is disqualified from becoming guru and speaking on the Bhagavatam because of having taken birth as a woman? (The English language does not afford us the use of a singular pronoun that refers to either men or women [any human being]. So sometimes when the word he is used, it is misunderstood to refer only to men.) When Lord Caitanya states, “One who knows the science of Krsna is guru,” He doesn’t mean that only men can become qualified. (At one point our movement thought that only sannyasis could become guru, and we came to realize that this was “blatantly asastric.”)
As you know, I have been thinking these things over for a couple of years, and I feel it is time to correct these mistakes. As a first step to rectify this wrong in our movement, I think that there should be a GBC resolution stating that women can give Srimad-Bhagavatam classes, or better yet, that they should be included on Srimad-Bhagavatam class schedules. They should be asked to give classes. Of course, I’m well aware that there is no resolution stating that they can’t. So, why a GBC resolution? Because I feel that this problem is very deep-rooted, and I also feel that by addressing the point of women giving classes, we will take our first practical step in dealing with the larger issues. Women being denied the right to give Bhagavatam class has become an unspoken, unwritten law of ISKCON. It is enforced uniformly. However, it is unwritten and because it cannot be philosophically justified. Because this policy is completely contrary to Prabhupada’s instructions, it must be corrected by a GBC resolution.
Women devotees should be seen as teachers and preachers, and they should be respected. They are Prabhu also, and they should be addressed as such. If women started giving Bhagavatam classes, this would greatly help foster this vision, enabling us to discard our current vision of women as lowly, etc/, and help establish a healthier, more prosperous condition of our Society. At present this unaddressed problem is a hurdle for our movement to overcome. Our spiritual growth, individually and collectively, depends on our purity and knowledge of our spiritual truths. If we misunderstand Srila Prabhupada’s orders, then our growth will be slowed or stunted.
Many women have come to the Krsna consciousness movement with sincere desires to advance in spiritual life. Have the women had to perform any less austerity than the men in becoming devotees? Is their sincerity in Krsna consciousness tested any less severely than the men’s? Is it tested in a different way? Is their adherence to the process of Krsna consciousness something other than realization of the philosophy of Krsna consciousness? Are they any less eager to preach? Does Krsna make a distinction that men are more dear for preaching than women? Why should women be denied the basic function of a devotee to speak among the devotees?
After all, our main principle is that we are spirit souls, not men or women, and the soul is to be engaged in spiritual service. If we deny services on the basis of the body, how is that a spiritual principle? How will that help spread the Krsna consciousness movement all over the world to everyone? And how will this denial of services be spiritually healthy or encouraging to the women devotees?
I think devotees all over the movement should seriously reflect upon these questions. Please let me know what you think of these things.
P.S. I just received a response from Jayadvaita Swami. He explained that there was no final conclusion reached in their Vrndavana class, but he expressed that some of the arguments raised by the students against women giving were:
1. Women giving class would be contrary to varnasrama.
2. The examples in our sampradaya (such as Jahnava devi) of women taking on such roles of spiritual leadership are rare.
3. No one could recall any woman giving a temple class in front of Srila Prabhupada.
4. Prabhupada’s letter should be understood according to time and place; a letter to Malati encouraging after her husband left may not be intended for general application.
5. Dhruva Maharaja dasa played a undefeatable “trump card” by stating that Srila Prabhupada told Jadurani women shouldn’t give the temple class if the men get disturbed.
Some points that come to my mind after reading these arguments follow. I have responded to them in order, but I would like to talk with you more about them to see if we can understand these things further.
1. What do you think about the idea that a woman’s giving Bhagavatam class would be contrary to the varnasrama institution?
2. It is also rare for mlecchas and yavanas to become Vaisnavas, but we don’t start out with a defeatist mentality by not even trying to become transcendentally situated. That would be quite ridiculous and would leave us without any members in the Krsna consciousness movement. If Jayadvaita Swami is implying that since it’s rare surely no Vaisnava in ISKCON will make it, then we may point out that Prabhupada gave brahmana initiation (to women also) because he accepted that we were on the transcendental platform—we were Vaisnavas (at least aspiring ones) by our attempting to surrender to Krsna and follow his instructions. He always encouraged us to keep endeavoring to come to the transcendental situation of becoming Vaisnavas, and he clearly explained that it is possible by Krsna’s mercy—as much for women as for men.
3. This may be so, but the example of Srila Prabhupada asking his own women disciples to speak their realization at engagements (and Vyasa-puja ceremonies) in front of him set a precedent. If Jayadvaita Swami is trying to say that there is a difference between speaking at an engagement and a Bhagavatam class, then I would have to ask what the difference is. Prabhupada made clear that we should hear from one who can speak about Krsna, he didn’t say if it was a woman, then we would only hear her speak at an engagement. (An interesting aside: Prabhupada would personally ask women to lead kirtanas in his presence. Revolutionary today! But why?)
4. As for Prabhupada’s letter being understood according to time and place—in the letters that I have quoted here Prabhupada is explaining our philosophy. He is demonstrating spiritual vision based on the Bhagavatam philosophy. He isn’t only telling so-and-so to do such-and-such at a certain time for his or her personal progress. He is speaking and applying the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. Why else would he so pointedly tell Jai Govinda dasa to hear a woman devotee carefully if she was speaking krsna-katha?
5. I called Jadurani Prabhu about this “Prabhupada said.” She said that Prabhupada never told her that.