(This article appeared in Back to Godhead magazine 25-1, 1991)
IN DISCUSSING THE ROLE of women in our movement, we must understand Srila Prabhupada’s teachings and the Vedic social ideal and balance those with the precedents Srila Prabhupada himself set. It’s a “hot topic,” one on which even devotees may have spiritual differences of opinion.
In Vedic culture, women must be protected, they should be chaste and submissive, and they are naturally shy. Beyond this, Srila Prabhupada highlighted a woman’s standing as a devotee of Krsna and a preacher in Lord Caitanya’s movement.
Srila Prabhupada was expert in applying Vedic culture and spirituality to the present day, as he showed by fine tuning the roles of his disciples, both men and women. For example, he wanted his sannyasis teaching in the world, not going to the forest for severe austerities. And he wanted his women disciples spreading Krsna consciousness too, not merely practicing it for themselves.
In many ways, Srila Prabhupada adjusted the traditional Vedic culture because we’re in Kali-yuga and we are a Vaisnava preaching society. Our movement is dynamic, not static; so as a young institution we face the challenge of striking the right balances.
How much should we stress that a woman be ideal in the Vedic sense? Should we stress it more than her role as a devotee or preacher? When do Vedic norms of behavior help protect women, and when do those norms slide into stereotyped definitions of shyness and submissiveness that turn women away or cut women off? Do we look at a woman’s enthusiasm and competence in devotional service as a sign of good fortune or as a sign of independence and looseness?
Srila Prabhupada encouraged devotee women in all types of service. And because his vision for women was not stereotyped by traditional Vedic roles, women helped spread his movement all over the world.
But in the early ’70s ISKCON adopted various changes meant, I suppose, to set a higher standard of Vedic custom. For example, in ISKCON’s early years the women stood opposite (and separate from) the men during temple functions. Now they stand in the back, where it’s difficult to see the Deities on the altar. Newcomers find this strange, and even cultured Indian ladies don’t follow this policy, because it is foreign to them.
Other changes limited when women may lecture, offer aratis, offer flowers to Srila Prabhupada, and chant in the temple. Perhaps we should now look again at these changes, to see whether they fit what Srila Prabhupada desired.
We may also have to look again at some of our attitudes.
Srila Prabhupada spoke strongly about materialistic men and women, but he spoke differently about devotees both men and women. But now when men in ISKCON preach about women, they often seem to speak categorically, lumping together materialists and devotees.
What is the proper understanding about devotee women? Are they unintelligent? Or, as aspiring devotees, are they more intelligent than men who fail to devote themselves to Krsna? Speakers need to take care with the messages they send out. When the message to devotee women is that they’re less intelligent creatures, or agents of illusion, doesn’t that sap their inspiration to become Krsna conscious? And are those messages philosophically correct? If we want Krsna consciousness to spread, here’s a place for some good Krsna conscious sensitivity.
Another point: Philosophically we have to accept that women can become gurus. Yet our movement does not have any women initiating. It’s certainly not because of a lack of senior women devotees. Is it due to prejudice, or is it something the Vedic tradition tells us about women’s psychophysical nature? How do we understand Srila Prabhupada’s statement, in several letters, that his women disciples should also initiate?
Again, right now only men serve on ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission. Is there a need to add senior devotee women to provide a balance, especially to see to the needs of women and children?
Overall, the women’s issue in ISKCON concerns attitudes and behavior how do we relate to one another as devotees? We have to see one another as devotees, and then everything falls into place.
Srila Prabhupada stressed that to give women protection is essential for a progressive spiritual society. One way to judge a civilization is by how it treats its women. Does ISKCON provide women devotees the material and spiritual protection they need? We ought to make sure that it does.
This discussion within ISKCON is not an outcome of a battle of the sexes or a power struggle in the material world. It is a sincere attempt to look honestly into our hearts and correct wrongs if there are any so that we can preserve and spread Srila Prabhupada’s movement in its purest, most potent form.
In ISKCON we want to do things “the Prabhupada way.” So why should we let our way of life in ISKCON depart from Srila Prabhupada’s standards and attitudes about women? We shouldn’t and certainly we won’t.
We will solve the puzzle that confronts us in the “women’s issue” by looking closely at Srila Prabhupada’s caring, Krsna conscious dealings with his women disciples and following his mood. ISKCON consists of Srila Prabhupada’s sincere followers. Srila Prabhupada is certainly guiding us, so it’s just a matter of time before we address this topic and come to the right understanding.
Srila Prabhupada likened spiritual life to a razor’s edge. That razor has to be handled carefully. Each of us must continually reevaluate our internal progress, and so it is too for the movement: As a group we must always reexamine how carefully we are following Srila Prabhupada’s instructions. That will insure ISKCON’s purity and longevity.
The present discussion about women’s roles in ISKCON is an opportunity for such a reexamination. Our movement faces questions today and will continue to face them for the next ten thousand years as we grow, mature, and flourish. And just as by carefully polishing a diamond one brings out its natural, beautiful shine, the devotees in ISKCON, by advancing in Krsna consciousness, will show more and more examples of wonderful spiritual relationships in every sphere.
The topic of women’s roles in ISKCON has only recently surfaced. As more devotees become aware of the discussion, surely we will deepen our understanding.
As Yadurani Prabhu points out later, our foremost meditation has to be on taking spiritual life seriously ourselves and teaching Krsna consciousness to others. For us as individuals, nothing is more important than this. And for us as a society of devotees, nothing is more important than working cooperatively to ensure the integrity of our movement. For Krsna consciousness, the world depends on us and we certainly won’t let it down.
Pranada Devi Dasi was initiated by Srila Prabhupada in 1976 in Los Angeles. She distributed Srila Prabhupada’s books until 1980 and then served in publishing Krsna conscious literature. She lives with her husband and twelve-year-old son in San Diego, where she manages a company that represents overseas printers in the United States.