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What's A Woman to Do?
by Visakha Devi Dasi
How may Krishna conscious women serve the Lord? Can they be leaders in His spiritual society?
"These women are not ordinary women. They are preachers. They are Vaishnavas. By their association one becomes a Vaishnava." (Srila Prabhupada, morning walk, March 27, 1974)
Srila Prabhupada, India's greatest emissary to the Western world, set up in the West not only ashrams and temples but an entire spiritual society. To do this he inspired women, as well as men, to become devotees of Lord Krishna. He authorized women to live in ashrams and serve the Lord in a wide variety of ways, some of them unconventional, although exactly in line with Lord Krishna's teachings.
What is the position of women in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the society Srila Prabhupada founded? To answer, let's first look at the purposes of ISKCON. In its founder's vision, the members of ISKCON dedicate themselves to practicing spiritual life and distributing spiritual knowledge and techniques to others. Srila Prabhupada taught that real spiritual life means to render transcendental devotional service to the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. Devotional service entails engaging all our senses in the service of the Lord, the master of the senses. That service purifies our senses and frees us from all material designations. So by teaching devotional service, Srila Prabhupada showed that he wanted all his followers – men, women, and children – to become free from all material designations and regain their original pure identity.
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. One can say that the dharma of fire is heat, the dharma of water, liquidity, and the dharma of sugar, sweetness.
What is 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." (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, introduction)
In the material world, every living being dwells in a body made of material elements. Each of us is a living being (soul), now covered with a gross and subtle material body. Because of our original nature, which is spiritual, and 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 appropriate service for our particular mind, intelligence, and senses.
Lord Krishna says (Bhagavad-gita 4.13) that one's qualities and activities, not one's birth, determine one's sva-dharma. According to the qualities and activities of human beings, the Lord created four general types of occupation for the smooth functioning of human society: brahmanas (learned priests, teachers, and advisors), kshatriyas (government leaders and military men), vaishyas (farmers, businessmen, and cow-protectors), and shudras (laborers and artisans). (In our present confused age, many people don't fit neatly into any one occupation but express their talents in several areas.)
The Husband-Wife Team
Whatever one's position in this societal system, those who fill the various roles generally do not do so alone, but together, as a husband-wife team. Men and women of compatible natures and propensities marry, and the wife assists her husband and takes primary charge of the home and 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 (10.60.15) 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." So a brahmana's wife is like a mother for her husband's students, the queen is considered a mother by the citizens, the agricultural women are expert in using milk and other products of the cows and land, and so forth. In this way husband and wife are fully engaged, and in a society composed of such families, peace, happiness, fulfillment, and a cooperative spirit prevail.
Yet our sva-dharma is not complete unless it is bonded with sanatana-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." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.8) In explaining 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."
Srila Prabhupada founded ISKCON to this end: to enable people to get out of the limited sphere of material bondage and meet the Supreme Lord. Although in the renounced order of life (sannyasa), Srila Prabhupada arranged and sometimes conducted the marriages of his disciples. And he engaged these young people in myriad services according to both their propensities (sva-dharma) and their service to the Lord (sanatana-dharma). Under Srila Prabhupada's direction, devotee men and women served as artists, writers, typists, speakers, singers, managers, Deity caretakers, book distributors, and so on. For example, my husband, Yadubara Dasa, and I, both trained photographers, served in ISKCON together: my husband as a cinematographer, and I as a photographer and sound technician. We sometimes filmed and photographed Srila Prabhupada, who more than once commented, "Husband and wife working together in Krishna consciousness – this is very nice."
Another example: When three married couples successfully started a Krishna conscious center in London, Srila Prabhupada praised their efforts. He noted that his spiritual master had wanted 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 renunciants had not.
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.
Service with Protection
While this ideal is quite attractive for most people, it also raises 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? Their services to their children are nonexistent or minimal, and their services in the home are 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 encourages 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. 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.
Yet 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 kirtanas, speak in public, and distribute his books. And while Srila Prabhupada disapproved 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 illustrating his books.
A little later, in the spring of 1970, when Srila Prabhupada was forming the Governing Body Commission (GBC)--the management arm of ISKCON--he included women on the list of disciples he was considering for the available positions.
When asked if a woman could become a temple president (Chicago, July 5, 1975), Srila Prabhupada replied, "Yes, why not?" and then explained that a woman should remain dependent on her first-class father, first-class husband, or first-class son. (In the final analysis, only the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna, is independent, but Vedic culture specifically enjoins that women should remain dependent on their intimate male relation.)
Here Srila Prabhupada states that a woman may be a temple president, but he also says that she must be dependent. Is this contradictory? To gain some insight, we can turn to a conversation between Vallabha Bhatta, Advaita Acharya, and Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu:
One day Vallabha Bhatta said to Advaita Acharya, "Every living entity is female [prakriti] 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 Acharya 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 Mahaprabhu 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." (Caitanya-charitamrita, Antya-lila 7.103–7).
Similarly, under the guidance of her spiritual master, a chaste, Krishna conscious woman encouraged by her Krishna conscious father, husband, or son may render whatever service she's qualified to do, whether as a mother, a cook, a temple president, a GBC, or a spiritual master.
In a letter to Shilavati Devi (June 14, 1969), 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 the 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 the wife as the spiritual master. Caitanya Mahaprabhu has said that anyone who knows the science of Krishna should be accepted as spiritual master, regardless of any material so-called qualifications, such as rich or poor, man or woman, or brahmana or shudra."
This same point was confirmed again, years later (June 18, 1976), when Professor O’Connell of the University of Toronto asked Srila Prabhupada, "Is it possible, Swamiji, for a woman to be a guru in the line of disciplic succession?"
Srila Prabhupada replied, "Yes. Jahnava Devi was Nityananda'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 a guru? But not so many. Actually one who has attained the perfection, she can become a guru. But man or woman, unless one has attained the perfection... Yei krishna-tattva-vetta sei guru haya. The qualification of the guru is that he must be fully cognizant of the science of Krishna. Then he or she can become a guru. Yei krishna-tattva-vetta, sei guru haya. In the material world, is there any prohibition that a woman cannot become a professor? If she is qualified, she can become a 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 a guru."
In spiritual circles one's sex 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's words, "The child must be taken care of. That is good. Similarly, woman also. And an old man like myself – I am always taken care of... That is civilization." Although a topmost Vaishnava, Srila Prabhupada here humbly identifies himself as an "old man." And since old men are one of the five groups society must protect (the other four being cows, women, children, and brahmanas), 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 except their own husband respectfully as "son." 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 devotee-woman leader is protected by her husband and her "sons."
The Platform of Equality
Therefore in the Lord's spiritual society a woman may do whatever service is suited to her, for the pleasure of the Lord. While this principle may seem straightforward and clear, to some it is a point of great controversy. They believe that a woman's birth precludes her from doing certain services for the Lord, even though she may be qualified to perform them. Sometimes such thinking is culturally based. For example, in India women don't traditionally perform certain Deity services in the temple – a standard Srila Prabhupada respected within India, but altered elsewhere. But often the thinking comes from the male ego, which Srila Prabhupada 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 astute, guileless, sensitive, soft-hearted, clear-headed, and fixed in Krishna consciousness, seeing herself as a servant of all. Her saving grace is her natural, humble service attitude, as well as her gracious and urgently needed contribution to Srila Prabhupada's society.
Srila Prabhupada founded 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 Lord's servants are equal. Srila Prabhupada explains, "Therefore on the bhakti platform, Krishna consciousness, there is no such distinction: 'Here is an 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 the Krishna consciousness movement. And actually it is becoming a fact. These boys and girls are no longer thinking they are American or European or Canadian or Australian or Indian. They are equal. So if you want equality, fraternity, friendship, love, and perfection, the solution to 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." (Lecture on Bhagavad-gita 13.4)
Let us be enlightened by the perspective Srila Prabhupada reveals in the following conversation (June 18, 1976, Toronto):
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-darshinah. Vidya-vinaya-sampanne brahmane gavi hastini shuni chaiva sva-pake cha panditah. One who is actually learned is sama-darshinah. He does not make any distinction. But as far as 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 yanti param gatim. Not only become – 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 women, girls, in our society. They are chanting, dancing, taking to Krishna consciousness. Of course, because superficially, bodily, there is some distinction, we keep women separate from men, that's all. Otherwise, the rights are the same.
To help them stay fixed on the goal of life – rendering pure, uninterrupted devotional service to Krishna – men and women should not mix (except if they are married), but they have the same rights. What is the most important right? The right – the privilege – to serve the Lord according to their propensity, according to their heart's desire. Ultimately the real occupational duty, dharma, of women is the dharma of all living beings: to eternally serve Krishna. A woman sincerely and seriously serving the Lord in whatever capacity she chooses should be honored and encouraged. In his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.5.12, Srila Prabhupada writes, "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 [the spiritual world]. Since everyone is a servant, everyone is on the same platform and is allowed to serve the Lord according to his ability."