by Visakha dasi
“These women are not ordinary women. They are preachers. They are preachers. They are Vaishnava. By their association, one becomes a Vaishnava.” (Srila Prabhupada, morning walk, March 27, 1974)
Srila Prabhupada, India’s greatest emissary to the Western world, established asramas and temples in the west, as well as an entire spiritual society. To do this he inspired women as well as men to become devotees of Lord Krishna and he authorized these women to live in asramas and to serve the Lord in a wide variety of ways, some of them unconventional, although exactly in accordance with the teachings of Lord Krishna. So, what is the position of women in the society that Srila Prabhupada founded, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)?
To answer, let’s first look at the purposes of ISKCON. In its founder’s vision, the members of ISKCON are dedicated to distributing spiritual knowledge and techniques to others, and to practicing the same themselves. It is a spiritual movement based on rendering transcendental loving devotional service to the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna.
Devotional service means to engage all our senses in the service of the Lord, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the master of all the senses. When we render service unto the Supreme, there are two side effects: we are freed from all material designations, and, simply by being employed in the service of the Lord, our senses are purified.
In other words, Srila Prabhupada wanted all of his followers — men, women, and children — to become free from all material designations and restored to their pure identity, engaging their senses in the service of Lord Krishna, the proprietor of the senses. In this way their spiritual life is revived.
Another way to understand Srila Prabhupada’s message and mission is to reflect on the Sanskrit word “dharma.” Dharma is the essential function or nature of a thing and that characteristic that constantly exists with it. Thus one can say that the “dharma” of fire is heat, the “dharma” of water, liquidity, and the “dharma” of sugar, sweetness.
And what is our dharma, the dharma of the living being? To render service. Srila Prabhupada writes, “we can easily see that every living being is constantly engaged in rendering service to another living being. A living being serves other living beings in various capacities. By doing so, the living entity enjoys life. The lower animals serve human beings as servants serve their master. . . one friend serves another friend, the mother serves the son, the wife serves the husband, the husband serves the wife and so on. If we go on searching in this spirit, it will be seen that there is no exception in the society of living beings to the activity of service. . . and therefore we can safely conclude that service is the constant companion of the living being and that the rendering of service is the eternal religion [dharma] of the living being.” (introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is)
In the material world every living being dwells within a body made of material elements. Each of us is a living being (soul) who is presently covered with a gross and subtle material body. Due to our original nature, which is spiritual, and due to our covering, which is material, each of us has two types of dharma: eternal (sanatana) dharma—our spiritual service to the Supreme spirit, Lord Sri Krishna; and our own (sva) dharma—the service that is appropriate for our particular mind, intelligence, and senses.
Concerning our own dharma, Lord Krishna says (Bhagavad-gita 4.13) that this service is not determined by our birth but by our qualities and activities. According to the qualities and activities of human beings, the Lord has established four general types of occupations for the smooth functioning of human society: brahmanas—learned priests, teachers, and advisors; ksatriyas—government leaders and military men; vaisyas—agriculturalists, businessmen, and cow-protectors; and sudras—laborers. (In our present confused age, many persons don’t fit neatly into any one occupation, but express their talents in several of them.)
Whatever one’s position in this societal scheme, the persons who fill these various roles generally do not do so alone, but together, as a husband-wife team. In other words, men and women marry based on their compatible natures and propensities and the wife assists her husband and takes primary charge of the home and of raising their children. Srila Prabhupada writes, “a wife should not only be equal to her husband in age, character and qualities, but must be helpful to him in his household duties” (Srimad Bhagavatam 3.22.11 purport). And the Srimad Bhagavatam declares, “Marriage and friendship are proper between two people who are equal in terms of their wealth, birth, influence, physical appearance and capacity for good progeny, but never between a superior and an inferior” (10.60.15). Thus a brahmana’s wife is like a mother for her husband’s students, the queen is considered as a mother by the citizens, the agricultural women are expert in utilizing milk and other products of the cows and land, and so forth. In this way both husband and wife are fully and fulfillingly engaged, and in a society composed of such families, peacefulness, happiness, and a cooperative spirit prevail.
However, our own dharma is not complete unless it is also bonded with eternal dharma. “The occupational activities a man performs according to his own position are only so much useless labor if they do not provoke attraction for the message of the Personality of Godhead.” (SB 1.2.8) In his explanation to this verse, Srila Prabhupada writes, “The self [soul] is beyond the gross body and subtle mind. He is the potent active principle of the body and mind. Without knowing the need of the dormant soul, one cannot be happy simply with emolument of the body and mind. The body and the mind are but superfluous outer coverings of the spirit soul. The spirit soul’s needs must be fulfilled. Simply by cleansing the cage of the bird, one does not satisfy the bird. One must actually know the needs of the bird himself.
“The need of the spirit soul is that he wants to get out of the limited sphere of material bondage and fulfill his desire for complete freedom. He wants to get out of the covered walls of the greater universe. He wants to see the free light and the spirit. That complete freedom is achieved when he meets the complete spirit, the Personality of Godhead.”
It was to this end, to enable persons to get out of the limited sphere of material bondage and to meet the Supreme Lord, that Srila Prabhupada founded ISKCON. Although he was in the renounced order of life (a sannyasi), Srila Prabhupada arranged and sometimes performed the ceremonies for the marriages of his disciples—acts unprecedented in the history of sannyasa—and Srila Prabhupada engaged these young people in a myriad of services both according to their propensities (sva dharma) and as their service to the Lord (sanatana dharma). Thus, under Srila Prabhupada’s direction, there were devotee men and women artists, writers, typists, speakers, singers, Deity caretakers (pujaris), book distributors, managers, and so on. For example, my husband, Yadubara das, and I were both trained in photography and served in ISKCON together, my husband as a cinemaphotographer, and I as the sound person and photographer. In this way we sometimes filmed and photographed Srila Prabhupada, who, on more than one occasion, commented, “Husband and wife working together in Krishna consciousness, this is very nice.”
For another example, when three householders couples successfully started a Krishna conscious center in London, Srila Prabhupada praised their efforts and noted that his spiritual master had wanted such a center in London many years before, but his spiritual master’s sannyasi disciples had been unsuccessful in starting one. Srila Prabhupada’s young, western Krishna conscious householders had succeeded where mature Indian renouncers had not.
Thus Srila Prabhupada’s vision was for his disciples to marry and serve the Lord together, in harmony. He writes, “a wife is necessary to assist in spiritual and material advancement. It is said that a wife yields the fulfillment of all desires in religion, economic development, and sense gratification. If one has a nice wife, he is to be considered a most fortunate man” (Srimad Bhagavatam 3.21.15 purport). Srila Prabhupada wanted to see happy Krishna conscious couples, of like dispositions and proclivities, offering their services to the Lord, making their home conducive for spiritual life, raising their children to be godly, and making gradual, solid spiritual advancement. “By worship of the Lord who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading, persons can attain perfection by the performance of their own work.” (Bg 18.46).
While this ideal is quite attractive for most people, it also raises some questions: what, if anything, can a woman do beyond assisting her husband, beyond her housework, and beyond her sacred duties as a mother? And what of women who are unmarried, widowed, married but childless, or married with grown children? For such women, their services to their children are nonexistent or minimal, and their services in the home also minimal.
In answer, the first point is that women must always be protected. Srila Prabhupada criticized the so-called “woman’s liberation” movement which encouraged women to become unprotected and thus available to be exploited by unscrupulous men. Srila Prabhupada noted how the unwanted progeny from such unfortunate combinations are an embarrassment for the government, which is obliged to provide for many husbandless mothers and fatherless children. In the culture Srila Prabhupada introduced, a young man is trained to be a responsible, first class person, and he then marries a compatible, faithful young woman. In such a culture women are protected and children grow up in a peaceful, stable, two-parent home.
However, it is certainly possible for a woman to be protected and at the same time to serve the Lord according to her unique ability. Srila Prabhupada encouraged and occasionally insisted that his women disciples lead kirtans, speak, and distribute his books. And, while Srila Prabhupada did not approve of women leading a country, he found no fault with women being leaders within his spiritual society. For example, in the late 1960’s, when his movement was still quite young, he put one of his first women disciples, Jadurani Devi Dasi, in charge of all the men and women artists who were creating paintings to illustrate his books.
A little later, in the spring of 1970, when Srila Prabhupada was forming the Governing Body Commission (GBC) as the management arm of ISKCON, he personally wrote down the names of GBC appointees and included women in the list. (As it happened, these women declined the position.)
When asked if a woman could become a temple president (in Chicago, July 5, 1975) Srila Prabhupada replied unequivocally, “Yes, why not?,” and then explained that women should remain dependent on either her first-class father, first-class husband, or first-class son. (In the final analysis there is only one person who is not dependent, namely the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna, but women are specifically enjoined to remain dependent on their intimate male relation.)
Here, on one hand, Srila Prabhupada states that a woman may be a temple president, but on the other he says that she also must be dependent. Is this contradictory? To gain some insight, we can turn to a conversation between Vallabha Bhatta, Advaita Acarya, and Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu:
One day Vallabha Bhatta said to Advaita Acarya, “Every living entity is female [prakrti] and considers Krishna her husband [pati]. It is the duty of a chaste wife, devoted to her husband, not to utter her husband’s name, but all of you chant the name of Krishna. How can this be called a religious principle?”
Advaita Acarya responded, “In front of you is Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the personification of religious principles. You should ask Him, for He will give you the proper answer.”
Hearing this, Lord Caitanya Mahäprabhu said, “My dear Vallabha Bhatta, you do not know religious principles. Actually, the first duty of a chaste woman is to carry out the order of her husband. The order of Krishna is to chant His name incessantly. Therefore one who is chaste and adherent to the husband Krishna must chant the Lord’s name, for she cannot deny the husband’s order” (Cc Antya 7.103-7).
Similarly, a chaste, Krishna conscious woman who’s encouraged by her Krishna conscious father, husband, or son, may render whatever service she’s qualified to do, whether a mother, a cook, a temple president, a GBC, or a spiritual master.
In a letter to Silavati devi, Srila Prabhupada wrote, “Now if you can induce all the women of Los Angeles to place an altar in their homes and help their husbands have peaceful, happy home life in Krishna Consciousness, that will be very great service for you. The actual system is that the husband is Spiritual Master to his wife, but if the wife can bring her husband into practicing this process, then it is all right that the husband accepts wife as Spiritual Master. Caitanya Mahaprabhu has said that anyone who knows the science of Krishna, that person 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.” (June 14, 1969)
This same point was confirmed again, years later, when Professor O’Connell asked Srila Prabhupada, “Is it possible, Swamiji, for a woman to be a guru in the line of disciplic succession?” Srila Prabhupada replied, “Yes. Jähnavä devi was—Nityänanda’s wife. She became. [Jahnava devi was an initiating spiritual master who had male disciples.] If she is able to go to the highest perfection of life, why it is not possible to become guru? But, not so many. Actually one who has attained the perfection, she can become guru. But man or woman, unless one has attained the perfection…. Yei krishna-tattva-vettä sei guru haya. The qualification of guru is that he must be fully cognizant of the science of Krishna. Then he or she can become guru. Yei krsna-tattva-vettä, sei guru haya. In our material world, is it any prohibition that woman cannot become professor? If she is qualified, she can become professor. What is the wrong there? She must be qualified. That is the position. So similarly, if the woman understands Krishna consciousness perfectly, she can become guru” (June 18, 1976, Toronto).
In spiritual circles gender is not a disqualification.
As being dependent and being a leader are not necessarily contradictory, so being protected and being a leader are also not contradictory. A woman can be protected (as all women must be throughout their lives) and yet be a leader also. In Srila Prabhupada words, “The child must be taken care of. That is good. Similarly, woman also. Just like old man like us, I am always taken care of . . . That is civilization” (lecture, Srimad Bhagavatam 1.8.51). Although he is a topmost Vaisnava, Srila Prabhupada here humbly identifies himself as an “old man,” and, since old men are one of the five groups that must be protected (the other four being brahmanas, women, children, and cows), Srila Prabhupada sees himself as protected. Yet at the same time he was an unparalleled leader.
In the Hare Krishna movement, Srila Prabhupada trained men to see all women—except their own wife—respectfully as “mother,” and women to see all men respectfully as their “sons.” As the son’s duty is to protect his mother, so one of the duties of Srila Prabhupada’s men is to protect Srila Prabhupada’s women. A Vaisnavi leader is protected by her husband and/or by her “sons.”
Therefore in the Lord’s spiritual society and for His pleasure, a woman may do whatever service is suited to her particular qualities and activities. While this principle may seem straightforward and clear to some, it is a point of great controversy for others. These others believe that due to her birth a woman may not do certain services for the Lord, even though she may be qualified for them. Sometimes this line of thinking is culturally based, for example, traditionally in India women don’t perform certain Deity services in the temple—a standard that Srila Prabhupada respected in India in order to preach successfully to the people there. And in other cases, especially in reference to a woman leading, disqualifying a woman simply due to her being a woman may be a product of the male ego (a version of the false ego) that is easily identified as “the temperament of always wanting to be in a superior position” (Srimad Bhagavatam 9.3.10 purport).
To function successfully in such a difficult milieu, a woman spiritual leader must be soft-hearted, sensitive, astute, guileless, clear-headed, and fixed in Krishna consciousness, seeing herself as a servant of all. It is her natural, humble service attitude which is her saving grace as well as her gracious and urgently needed contribution to Srila Prabhupada’s society.
Srila Prabhupada’s established ISKCON so that devotees could please the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna by serving Him with devotion. The Lord is pleased by all service sincerely rendered to Him; in one sense there are no “superior” and “inferior” services. And, from the perspective of the Lord and His pure devotees, all the servants rendering those services are equal. Srila Prabhupada explains, “Therefore in the bhakti platform, Krishna consciousness, there is no such distinction, “Here is American, here is an Indian, here is an African, here is this and that.” No. Everyone is Krishna conscious. So actually if we want equality, fraternity, then we must come to Krishna consciousness. This is the purpose of Krishna consciousness movement. And actually, it is becoming fact, factual. These boys and these girls, they are no more thinking that they are American or European or Canadian or Australian and Indian also. They are equal. So if you want equality, fraternity, friendship, love and perfection, solution of problems, all problems, economic, political, social, religious, then come to Krishna consciousness. Come to this platform. Then all your ambitions will be fulfilled and you will be perfect.” (Bhagavad-gita lecture, 13.4)
And let us be enlightened by the perspective Srila Prabhupada reveals in this conversation:
Srila Prabhupada: In the spiritual platform there is no such distinction, man, woman, or black, white, or big or small. No. Everyone is spirit soul. Panditah sama-darsinah. Vidyä-vinaya-sampanne brähmane gavi hastini suni caiva sva-päke ca panditah, one who is actually learned, he is sama-darsinah. He does not make any distinction. But so far our material body is concerned, there must be some distinction for keeping the society in order.
Woman: The women could become panditas, then.
Prabhupada: Oh, yes. Te ’pi yänti paräm gatim. Not only [be]come, she can also attain perfection. There is no such restriction. Krishna said.
Woman: Do you have any panditas in the Western movement?
Prabhupada: There are so many Western woman, girls, in our society. They are chanting, dancing, taking to Krishna consciousness. Of course, because superficially, bodily, there is some distinction, so we keep women separately from men, that’s all. Otherwise, the rights are the same.” (June 18, 1976, Toronto)
In order not to be distracted from the goal of our lives — rendering uninterrupted, pure devotional service to Krishna — Srila Prabhupada here emphasizes that men and women should not mix (except if they are married). And he also says that men and women have the same rights. What are those rights? Their right — their privilege — to serve the Lord according to their propensity, according to their hearts’ desire. Ultimately the real occupational duty, dharma, of women is nondifferent from the dharma of all living beings: to eternally serve Krsna. A woman who is sincerely and seriously serving the Lord in whatever capacity she chooses should be honored and encouraged rather than being designated as a “woman” and discouraged in this divine service. Those who discourage her reveal their own lack of spiritual awareness and create a godless disruption. Srila Prabhupada clearly declares: “Everyone should be allowed to render service to the Lord to the best of his ability, and everyone should appreciate the service of others. Such are the activities of Vaikuntha. Since everyone is a servant, everyone is on the same platform and is allowed to serve the Lord according to his ability.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 7.5.12 purport).