Devotees of the Lord
Women in Krishna Consciousness
By Dhyanakunda devi dasi
The lady devotee who came out to greet us said that this was a temple and that segregation of the sexes had to be observed; thus my friend was directed to the men's quarters, and I, slightly frightened, was left alone with the strange, exotic looking girls.
I stayed on the farm for some time, rising "in the dead of the night" to attend beautiful temple services, enjoying feasts, reading Bhagavad-gita (although I never got through the first few pages), shyly trying to chant Hare Krishna when nobody looked. What stays in my mind most vividly were the devotees' simple-hearted attempts at bringing me up to the "standard." These were the early romantic days in the Hare Krishna movement, when every guest was treated as a candidate for immediate conversion, no questions asked...
I was suggested to tie my hair, which had never before been subjected to any such disciplinary measures. I was presented with a safety pin to make my flying hippie skirt more chaste, and a kerchief for the head. My attempts at greeting the male celibates with a friendly smile met a wall of reserve. "Am I invisible, or what?"
After three days I decided I had had enough. I was leaving the temple feeling a liberated woman. I experienced a willful desire to do something forbidden, something wild! Just to affirm my freedom to be myself.
To be myself... The several years that followed made me doubt whether I really knew how to do this. I tried everything, I grew disgusted with myself... my self again?
Ultimately, in my search I returned to the Hare Krishna movement. This time, I started from philosophical inquiries. Until this day, I am grateful to my mature and sensitive mentors, who convinced me in a friendly, open discussion that first and foremost I am a soul, eternally a person, a part of God. And they respected me as such.
My hair I tied much later, without anyone having to tell me.
This article is written for those who are convinced that God exists and that He is loving. What name you give Him, that doesn't matter. But please don't read this if you believe that your existence has no inherent meaning to discover, no purpose that transcends our ever-changing whims.
Maybe we have come about by chance, a spark of free will attached to a randomly created lump of matter. If you think like that, why should you be interested to find out how one should be a man or a woman? In a God-less world there are no shoulds. There are likes and wants. Only when you accept that there is a plan behind the creation, one that springs from love, will you have a reason to inquire about moral principles, and the trust to surrender some of your freedom.
"Wake up! Rise up! Now that you have achieved this greatest boon, the human form of life, take up the path of self-realization, which is narrow like a razor's edge" -- call the sages in Katha Upanisad. Their appeal is directed to all human beings. Everyone: man, woman and child can engage in spiritual activities, in devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As souls we are all equal, and the Lord loves us all equally.
All the forms of direct service to Krishna, such as hearing and chanting His name, glorifying Him, remembering Him, offering prayers, worshiping His Deity form etc., are accessible to men and women equally. They are the basis of our spiritual life, and the most powerful means to transcend bodily identification.
"Yeah, I have heard this before. You Hare Krishnas repeat again and again: 'I am not this body, not American, not Indian, not a man, not a woman...' Why, then, do you make distinctions? You are constantly telling me how I, as a woman, should and should not behave. Frankly, in my whole life I have never been so aware of my being a woman!"
This is because we appreciate the sages' warning that "the path of spiritual realization is like a razor's edge." We still have material bodies and material desires. Therefore in our mutual relationships we observe an etiquette which protects us from becoming overwhelmed by these desires. They can be fulfilled, but it should be done in ways conducive to spiritual advancement, not in blind passion. Men and women devotees help in each other's spiritual life by reducing free association and, whenever they do associate with each other, by maintaining the mood of sobriety and respect. This is why the woman is addressed and should be seen as Mataji, Mother.
We are trying to implement in our lives the wisdom of the ancient Vedic scriptures. What they teach is more than just individual spiritual practice. It is a culture, complete with all the aspects of a God-centered society. Every person is different, has different strong and weak points, different needs and aspirations. The Vedic culture recognizes these differences and builds on them to create a thriving, God-centered society.
Every member of a society has many roles, or identities. Look at the people walking down the street: they are passersby. The next moment they stop at a street stall; now they are customers. Then they run up to catch a bus; they have become passengers. Each role lasts minutes. Still, each has its rules, which ensure smooth running of the social organism on one hand, and fulfillment of every individual's goals on the other.
Schoolgirl, student, worker, wife, mother, grandmother -- these roles last longer, and you identify with them more. Woman you are for a whole lifetime. Next lifetime you can become a man, if you so desire. The only role that never changes, our real eternal nature, waiting to be reawakened, is to be God's loving servant. Compared to this, everything else is unimportant. Or, is it really? My identity as a woman may last only one lifetime, but if this is the lifetime I want to dedicate to realizing God, then I will want to dedicate to Him a meaningful, harmonious piece.
Every creation in the material world -- most importantly, our human body -- has a double purpose. Materially, it is the karmic fruit of our independent actions and desires from the past lifetimes. Spiritually, it is a perfect vehicle to reach God. Our body is precious. And it's God's property. A devotee doesn't neglect his or her body just because "It's not me!" or just because its capacities are limited. A devotee learns how his or her body can best be used to know and serve God, Krishna, and at the same time to make the most valuable contribution to the society.
Men and women's bodies and minds are not the same and they have not been designed to work the same way. Why are so many women protesting against this fact? Because our life's experiences have conditioned us into thinking in terms of competition rather than cooperation and interdependence. In our modern society, to be dependent or weaker, or just to be different in any sphere, translates into being worse, being a loser, being neglected or abused. The feminist movement in 19th century Great Britain was not started by some bored ladies, fed up with being sweet and submissive; it was the thinking women's protest against cruel exploitation by the unworthy men, who abused their position as their guardians. The men's degradation in turn can be linked to the industrial revolution, which replaced the relatively peaceful and God-centered life of the olden ages with infatuation with technological progress and the chase after quick profit.
Many modern women strive for achievements in masculine spheres of activity, and they do succeed; but the price is often disruption of their personal life. They fail as wives and mothers, or they experience such a severe conflict between these spheres of activity that their physical and emotional health is endangered. Intuition, gentleness, tender nurturing love -- the gifts unique with our sex and so sorely needed in today's troubled world -- can blossom only when we are properly situated and protected in our traditional womanly roles. As Canakya Pandita said, "Three things need to be supported in order to shine with their real beauty: women, vines and brahmanas."
To set things straight, we have to start from our individual relationship with God. Without that, even the best-designed society will ultimately degrade into the society of the exploiters and the exploited. A most sad example, for devotees of Krishna anyway, is the degradation of modern-day India, once the seat of the advanced Vedic civilization and culture.
In this section of this article, I would like to answer several commonly asked questions. If you have more, feel free to ask!
The purpose of spiritual practice is to set the soul free from the prison of its material conditioning. How does it make a woman free if she is forced to occupy an inferior, dependent position?
First of all, that women in general are expected to follow men, does not mean that they are sub-humans. It unmistakably betrays our exploitative, godless mentality when we are so quick to reduce differences between persons to a pecking order, superior/inferior, rather than to see them as an opportunity to cooperate and thus benefit one another.
The body of a woman is neither higher, nor lower, nor the same as the body of a man. It's different. D i f f e r e n t. Accordingly, her social role is different from that of a man. Not to say less important. "The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that moves the world." For her unique contribution to the society, one that no man will be able to make, a woman deserves to be highly respected. And all of this is still on the material level. We haven't begun discussing spiritual contributions and spiritual reasons to respect one another yet!
I have just read an anxious letter from a lady trying to understand the ISKCON teachings about women. She writes: "If you look at some of your theories objectively, do you ever wonder if some of the teachings that women are lesser than men, come out of the fact that men wish to keep women down? That they preach this insanity out of fear and insecurity of their own worth? I'd REALLY appreciate it if you got back to me on this; I really don't want to ask my boyfriend. We almost broke up when he told me I was of unclean spirit because I was menstruating!!"
One cannot help but admire the spiritual heights this man has achieved. (And where did he get this "unclean spirit" from?? According to the Gita, spirit by definition is never unclean.) To be frank, when I first read this, I became very angry. How many intelligent, thoughtful women cannot accept the Vedic knowledge simply because it is presented to them in a distorted form by immature men with the motive to exploit rather than liberate, to make powerless rather than to empower.
On the other hand, I have seen women who, due to their past unfortunate experiences, became so paranoid about male chauvinism that they saw it as the underlying motive whenever any difference was made between men and women. The coin has two sides. I guess the only convincing proof here is the proof of reality. When you meet women who are materially happy and spiritually empowered, thriving, while functioning in the traditional womanly roles, protected by mature and kind men, then you will start to believe that the Vedas -- or any authentic religious scriptures for that matter -- do have something valuable to tell us about our gross and subtle material natures.
In Vedic times, when women were considered "less intelligent", men nevertheless felt responsible for the wellbeing of women, children and elders. Chastity and shyness were considered virtues. Women were protected, cherished and never thought of as inferior. Rape and abuse were extremely rare and resulted in a sure death penalty. Someone said that the test of how cultured a society is, is how it deals with its weaker members.
Having clarified all of this, we can rephrase the original question as follows: "Doesn't the social role assigned to women in the Vedic scriptures limit their opportunities to grow spiritually?"
It's a valid question and a complex subject, one that should rather be discussed in texts dealing specifically with the Vedic social system. Systems, more accurately. There is a significant difference between the ancient Vedic social system (varnashrama-dharma) and the social structure accepted by the devotees of Krishna (daivi-varnashrama). However, this is rarely remembered when discussing social topics. Indeed, in Srila Prabhupada's translations of the Vedic scriptures the statements referring to these two are often mixed together.
Varnashrama-dharma: As long as one identifies with the body or with one's role in society, one is completely bound by it. Thus evolves a set of principles and rituals that ought to be strictly observed and that are seen as ends in themselves. To some extent, this was the case with the ancient Vedic society.
Daivi-varnashrama-dharma: When we speak about the social structure accepted by a community of practicing transcendentalists, who understand that they are souls, not bodies, and that their life's mission is to serve Krishna and help others advance, it is not the ordinary varnashrama. It is daivi, or spiritualized, varnashrama. In such a social structure, individuals still accept the roles afforded by the varnashrama system (why? because it is a perfect system created by Krishna himself, one that accommodates all kinds of human natures), but do not identify with them and are thus not limited by such designations.
tasya kartaram api mam
viddhy akartaram avyayam
"According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated
with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me. And
although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet
the nondoer, being unchangeable."
Devotees act in the roles of brahmana, sudra, wife or husband not because of bodily identification, but rather in order to offer Krishna and other devotees the service that is most needed, or that they are most capable of rendering. For a devotee, his or her social designation does not bear an absolute value of self-identification. The only absolute value is service to God, and everything else is seen as relative to that.
In ISKCON, which is gradually introducing the daivi-varnashrama structure, women do not immolate themselves on their husband's funeral pyre in the ritual of sati (how would that help their Krishna consciousness??). They are not thought of as failures unless they give birth to sons. They are encouraged to study the revealed scriptures along with the men and strive for the heights of spiritual realization. They accept initiation from spiritual masters. In fact, they can become spiritual masters themselves. And all of these are not our recent Western adjustments, a kind of compromise with the tradition. Such is the tradition of Lord Caitanya's movement, dating back to the medieval ages.
In the Moscow temple, where I serve, there are around 30 ladies. Some worship our Deities on the altar, some distribute books, some act as guest managers, yet others are secretaries and bookkeepers. Some ladies run the temple shop, some cook and clean. Some make decorations for festivals and stage theater performances. I do talk shows on the radio. Ladies give scriptural classes in the temple and in congregation members' homes, they teach courses and seminars. In fact, the scarcity of space in our temple has forced us to refuse admission to girls who are unwilling to go beyond the traditional female model: all the temple devotees must be prepared to act as leaders and gradually take responsibility for people and projects. Only then can our temple properly fulfill the needs of the huge Moscow congregation.
Even though the ladies in our temple are welcome to accept all these engagements, still most of the department heads are men. But if one thinks this is due to male chauvinism, then the same diagnosis would apply to most of the modern governments and parliaments. How about the army? We do not even have one lady working in our temple guards department!
Having said all of that, let me make a final point of caution: varnashrama roles can be freely accepted and rejected only by self-realized devotes. To the extent we are still materialistic, still not completely free from bodily identification, it will be prudent not to go too far beyond the traditional varnashrama strictures. They are a safeguard.
An example: In the ancient Vedic society, women would generally not speak in public. In daivi-varnashrama, however, every devotee has a mandate to preach about Krishna on the basis of the scripture. Our Founder-acarya, Srila Prabhupada, confirmed this when he stipulated that both boys and girls should give scriptural classes. Now imagine we have invited a young Vaishnavi to give a Bhagavatam class in the Moscow temple. This particular girl is well read and can give a good class, but being young and unmarried and, incidentally, quite pretty, she may not be comfortable singing and speaking in front of two hundred people, many of them young male celibates. (In which Christian monastery would such a thing be allowed?) In such a situation, both parties may be unable to concentrate on the transcendental message being spoken. Therefore we generally choose senior ladies to give classes before large audiences, and have young girls begin from lecturing to other girls, or to married people. It's just common sense.
Another example: a newly initiated devotee tells his spiritual master that he wishes to take the vow of lifelong celibacy and dedicate himself fully to spreading the glories of the Lord. Even though this sounds very spiritual, the guru will usually not encourage such a vow. He will simply advise the disciple to remain celibate as long as he can. In a few years, the fresh enthusiasm of a new convert may wear off. He may reach the natural age to create a family. His vision of spiritual life may change, as he will begin to see the many ways of serving Krishna in married life. He may also realize that his need for association with the opposite sex is stronger than what he initially thought. Lifelong celibacy may be a great asset in spiritual life, but not practical for this person, due to his particular material nature.
It takes some humility to properly gauge our current level of spiritual progress, and tread the "middle way."
Do you really believe women are less intelligent than men?
Such statements are indeed found in the Vedic scriptures. But the Vedic understanding of intelligence differs from the modern one as much as differ the societies which form their respective frames of reference. Mechanically mapping the Vedic perspective to modern reality leads to absurd conclusions.
In the Vedic scriptures the original word for intelligence is buddhi, and is defined as the ability to discern and see things in perspective, or, in other words, to go beyond sensory data and see the remote consequences of one's choices. This is far from our Intelligence Quotient. Buddhi refers to the power of judgment and to the decision-making process. Women as a class are in their choices less rational than men, have more difficulty controlling their emotions, and tend to vacillate when faced with a dilemma. They also tend to overly trust others' judgments, and are thus easily misled. This is exactly why the ancient Vedic society made sure that women had adequate protection in each stage of their life.
The idea of the intelligences of men and women being different is not new to Western science. (Read Brain Sex. The Real Difference Between Men And Women, by Anne Moir and David Jessel)
In our civilization, a low intelligence label is extremely stigmatizing. We may be great artistic talents or possess rare virtues of heart, but just being slow in solving multiple-choice tests or having limited technical vocabulary will weigh on our life's career. Just remember the fate of a less intelligent child at school! No wonder women tend to shrink with horror when they read in the Vedic scriptures that they are supposedly "less intelligent."
If society is to flourish, greater ability in any sphere must be accompanied by greater responsibility, a mandate to help those less able. Thus a man who uses the "less intelligent" label to put a woman down, eo ipso proves his own lesser intelligence.
Another point to be made is this: When the Vedic scriptures speak of women being less intelligent than men, they refer to the limits of development of intelligence. In the olden times, humans were much closer to the full realization of their natural potential than we are nowadays. Srimad-Bhagavatam calls the people of our present age, the Kali-yuga, manda sumanda-matayah: slow-witted, foolish and always misguided. It is not an exaggeration. Are we really able to see remote consequences of our actions? Just look at our irresponsible environmental policy, at the rapid decrease in moral values. We kill Mother Earth, we kill animals, we kill babies in the womb, we kill ourselves with drugs and casual sex, and it doesn't even cross our dulled minds that anything is wrong here. In this situation, does it really make any sense to argue who is more intelligent, men or women? A more proper way to word the question would perhaps be: Who is less unlimitedly stupid?
Let us repeat once more: we speak here about material intelligence. Spiritual intelligence is defined as the ability to discern between matter and spirit, between body and soul. Once in the early days of ISKCON, a lady disciple asked Srila Prabhupada: "Is it true that women are less intelligent?" "If you think you are a girl," he replied, "then you are indeed foolish!"
Spiritual intelligence, by which one can understand his own identity and relationship with God is a property of the soul itself and does not depend on the body. It depends wholly and solely on the soul's love and devotion. If we have a sincere desire to understand Krishna, then Krishna, who is the source of all intelligence, will give us what we lack:
dadami buddhi-yogam tam
yena mam upayanti te
"To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the
understanding by which they can come to Me."
Those, however, who are proud of their great material intelligence, will be left in the dust, because no amount of material intelligence is sufficient to understand God!
Srila Prabhupada writes: "Women in general are unable to speculate like philosophers, but they are blessed by the Lord because they believe at once in the superiority and almightiness of the Lord, and thus they offer obeisances without reservation. The Lord is so kind that He does not show special favor only to one who is a great philosopher. He knows the sincerity of purpose. For this reason only, women generally assemble in great number in any sort of religious function. In every country and in every sect of religion it appears that the women are more interested than the men. This simplicity of acceptance of the Lord's authority is more effective than showy insincere religious fervor." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.20, purport)
Let me close with some more verses from the Vedic scriptures and ancient teachers to show that spiritual intelligence, the original intelligence of the soul, has nothing to do with gender.
"A person who has broader intelligence, whether he be full of all material desires, without any material desire, or desiring liberation, must by all means worship the supreme whole, the Personality of Godhead." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.3.10)
"In the age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting to worship the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the names of Krishna." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.5.32)
"O intellectual fools, just worship Govinda, worship Govinda, worship Govinda! Your knowledge of grammar and word jugglery will not save you at the time of death." (Sripada Sankaracarya)
Is it true that you do not accept partnership in marriage?
The Hare Krishna movement does not interfere with their members' personal relationships. Every couple can choose a model of marriage that works best for them, within the limits of the regulative principles. But if your question refers to the model advocated in our tradition, the answer depends on how you define partnership. Mutual respect and cooperation is unanimously accepted. But so is division of roles.
In every team, be it as small as two persons, a leader emerges naturally. Why? Because nature favors most economical, stable solutions. The situation wherein two persons do the same chores together is unstable and creates tension. Especially when the partners differ from each other as much as do man and woman.
By their psychophysical nature, men tend to lead, while women have an inborn tendency to follow. Men are naturally more fit to work and struggle with the challenges of the outside world, while women are endowed with greater social talents, intuition, ability to care and nurture, gifts indispensable for building and maintaining a stable, happy family. All these talents can fully flourish only when the woman is properly protected and cared for by her husband. Independent struggle with the adversities of life will sap a woman's energy and rob her of these finer qualities.
Dear reader, please do not reject these statements simply because you don't see ideal role models, as described here, in men and women around you. Habit is our second nature. What kind of habits does the modern society, with its disruption of values and chaos replacing order, form in our children? What does it know about their natural potential to begin with? Traditional societies had that knowledge. All the religious scriptures of the world speak about this at length. (If you are interested to find out what the Bible has to say about the nature of man, woman and their relationship, and whether this knowledge still works in our times, I highly recommend reading Fascinating Womanhood by Helen Andelin) Now the human society is in such a disarray that the most important value taught to children, beginning from school, is survival of the fittest.
Is it true that you teach your female children only homemaking?
No. Homemaking they must learn because failure in this sphere will affect not only the girl herself, but her future husband and children as well. No career is worth that. But apart from homemaking, girls can and should learn many other things according to their particular interests and abilities. Anything that can be engaged in service of the Lord.
Are you advocating the system whereby a girl is not allowed to mix with boys and is married early to a man chosen by her parents, even though she may not love him?
This was the time-tested ancient Vedic tradition. Traditions such as this can only work in a very stable, religious, high-trust culture. No person will accept such a degree of interference in his or her life unless he/she sees others accepting it and becoming happy as a result. Forcing such a system onto our present-day society, even a society of devotees, is out of the question. However, the principles behind the traditional approach are valid. Parents do know more about marriage and compatibility than teenagers. Premarital sexual restraint does help form a lasting bond with the partner. And as far as love is concerned...
Do you still remember how it was when you were, say, 15? Weren't you dreaming of a boyfriend who would be the object of envy for all your girlfriends, and who would take you with him and never leave you? At that time, 18-year old boys seemed big heroes, intimidatingly grown-up and serious. Imagine how it must feel when a young man, full of knowledge and shining with the luster of austerity, coming from the big world beyond the boundaries of your village, straight from his guru's ashrama, comes to accept you as his wife? And it's all for real, for serious, from now on you are accepted as grown-up and do not have to fear abandonment or condemnation, rather you are embarking on your sacred duty. A girl cannot possibly be more ready to fall head over heels in love.
In the Moscow temple, like in many other temples I know, the choice of the marriage partner is entirely up to the individual. The only restriction, a common sense one, is that a devotee should not approach his or her chosen spouse personally and try to enter a relationship. (Unmarried devotees have the status of monks and nuns, and they may not wish to be approached in this way at all.) Therefore, the party wishing to initiate a relationship should approach a senior, respectable devotee and ask him/her to mediate between him/herself and the other party. Ideally, the mediator himself/herself should be married.
If both parties are agreeable, the couple enters an engagement period, during which they associate with each other more closely, ideally serving together, and decide whether they really fit each other and wish to marry. Still, they are not allowed to live together and to have sexual relations before factually marrying. Such a system encourages responsibility and reduces the danger of making hasty decisions based on superficial attraction.
Some devotees decide that they want to get married but do not see a suitable partner around. In such cases, help and counsel is available. We are slowly developing the institution of matchmaker. There are also matrimonial offices and astrological services available in ISKCON.
Some think that our husbands and wives are chosen by our gurus. This is not true. A guru may offer his counsel if requested (some won't do even that, feeling unqualified due to having never been married themselves), but in principle, match making is not the guru's responsibility.
Even in Vedic times marriages were not 100% perfect. Neither are the marriages of the present-day members of ISKCON. It is difficult to change our cultural patterns, especially when it comes to such an intimate sphere of life. But we are strongly convinced the principles we are trying to adopt are correct. They worked for millennia.
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