Chastity – What Does It Actually Mean?
By Devaki Devi Dasi
On the 26th of July we welcomed 40 ladies in Kharkov/Ukraine, who had traveled all the way from Moscow, Minsk, Moldova, Crimea and various corners of Ukraine to participate in the two-week course for ladies entitled “Exploring the Roots of Spiritual Culture”. As every year we had arranged for their accomodation in a nearby hostel of a ladies’ college. Our youngest participant was ten years of age and the oldest mid fifty, and everyone was excited to embark on this transformational journey. Each and every participant received a colorful folder with printed materials and articles. We had a tight schedule with a three hours’ session in the mornings, and another 2 hours in the afternoon. Every morning we began the lessons with a role play demonstrating the topics of the previous day’s discussions. Whenever ten-year old Manjari took part, the role plays were especially heart moving and sweet.
One of the many captivating topics was chastity – what exactly does it mean? These days we often have a very shallow and superficial understanding of this most important quality, and since women in materialistic culture don’t aspire for it at all, the term is therefore almost lost and forgotten today. I distinctly remember how I was preaching at a Sunday program many years ago in Sydney, Australia, and I mentioned this term ‘chastity’ to some newcomers. One of the ladies exclaimed with a thousand question marks written all over her face: “Chastity? What’s THAT??” Also in the German language the term chastity (Keuschheit) sounds like something from the Middle Ages.
The two main tools for a woman to cultivate chastity are tolerance and shyness. Unless a woman is tolerant, she will demand, complain, answer back, get disturbed at the slightest provocation and inconvenience, and can easily leave her husband and walk out. Tolerance is a most important quality within spiritual practice. It is the main criterion in order to measure a devotee’s advancement and spiritual strength. Tolerance indicates that the false ego is subdued and reduced. Prahlada Maharaja and Haridas Thakur are always famous examples for the topmost level of tolerance. Also Devahuti serves as a wonderful example of a wife following her husband in utter tolerance and submission. And she received such outstanding rewards— great opulences in the flying mansion which Kardama Muni created, and finally giving birth to the Supreme Lord Himself! What more would a woman desire?! She received those wonderful benedictions by paying the price of serving her husband in tolerance and submission. The main tools for cultivating tolerance however are humility and firm faith in Krsna. Unless these two elements are there, it will be impossible for a person to be tolerant.
Of course, in material life tolerance is not given any credit at all, in fact, it is seen as weakness. Very often we hear people say: “I’m not going to tolerate this. Who do you think I am….!?” and “How long should I tolerate this nonsense?!” It is considered to be a sign of strength and victory not to tolerate. However, within spiritual life the values are the diametric opposite. To perform tapasya is of greatest importance for spiritual progress–not only for men, but also for ladies. There are many purports where Srila Prabhupada describes the purifying effects of tapasya. All great personalities such as Dhruva Maharaja, Lord Brahma, the Pracetas received great mercy and empowerment by performing tapasya. For a woman, the field of tapasya is within marriage and family life. This is her ksetra to engage in tapasya and cultivate tolerance, and if she does so she will become spiritually strong and very powerful.
The quality of shyness is also commonly misunderstood in a rather shallow and superficial way. We often confuse shyness with mentalness and being on the bodily platform. As a rule when a woman is “too shy” to say anything, it is rather her being too self-conscious and on the mental platform, fearing to make a fool out of herself. But this actually is not shyness.
In the purport to SB.1.9.27. Srila Prabhupada very nicely describes the quality of shyness as follows: “As far as women class are concerned, they are accepted as a power of inspiration for men. As such, women are more powerful than men. Mighty Julius Caesar was controlled by a Cleopatra. Such powerful women are controlled by shyness. Therefore, shyness is important for women. Once this control valve is loosened women can create havoc in society by adultery….”
The analogy of shyness being a control valve is simply excellent. And this control valve is meant to keep the powerful feminine energy within and stop it from bursting out into the world. Shyness means to resist the temptation of enjoying the effects of one’s powerful feminine energy–even on the most subtle levels. It means a woman resists the temptation to show off. This is shyness. And as Srila Prabhupada describes, once this control valve is loosened, women can create havoc in human society. This is what is going on in these modern days. Any woman can bewilder any man if she tries hard enough–such is the power of the feminine energy. Therefore it has to be controlled through shyness. Today women as a rule have lost this quality, and shyness is rarely to be found – even within ISKCON.
In SB.1.10.16 Srila Prabhupada gives another detailed elaboration on the quality of shyness: “Out of loving desire to see the Lord, the royal ladies of the Kurus got up on the top of the palace, and smiling with affection and shyness, they showered flowers upon the Lord.” Purport: “Shyness is a particular extra natural beauty of the fair sex, and it commands respect from the opposite sex….This incident from the Mahabharata period proves definitely that the ladies of the palace observed strict parda (restricted association with men), and instead of coming down in the open air where Lord Krsna and others were assembled, the ladies of the palace went up on the top of the palace and from there paid their respects to Lord Krsna by showers of flowers. It is definitely stated here that the ladies were smiling there on the top of the palace, checked by shyness. This shyness is a gift of nature to the fair sex and it enhances their beauty and prestige, even if they are of a less important family or even if they are less attractive. We have practical experience of this fact. A sweeper woman commanded the respect of many respected gentlemen simply by manifesting a lady’s shyness. Half-naked ladies in the street do not command any respect, but a shy sweeper’s wife commands respect from all…Shyness is a check to the unrestricted mixing. It is nature’s gift and it must be utilized.”
As we know, men become very powerful when they resist the temptation to enjoy the effects of their powerful energy of procreation on a gross level. If they keep their semen within, they become very effulgent, with sharp memory and intelligence, good health and vitality. Every serious sportsman knows the glories of celibacy. A similar principle is there for ladies–on a more subtle level. If she keeps her powerful energy within, she can use it on higher levels and thus becomes spiritually very powerful and extraordinarily attractive — indeed even fascinating. But when this feminine energy is wasted for sexual attraction and sense enjoyment, even in a more subtle way such as showing off her beautiful body, the control valve is loosened, which then can create disturbances, and ultimately she becomes contaminated and spiritually weak. However, when this powerful feminine energy is kept within through the control valve of shyness, a woman can use it on higher levels for spiritual practice, poetry, arts and music, and she will bring about good fortune, fame, wealth and all auspiciousness. She will become the auspicious source of energy to men–a minute representation of Laxmi Devi, the Goddess of Fortune. And she will manifest a forever fascinating womanhood for her husband.
These deep secrets to the extraordinary strength and beauty of a woman are unfortunately lost and forgotten today–even amongst us ISKCON devotees. Once we understand more deeply the importance of shyness, it becomes very clear that a truly chaste woman would for example never even want to be in the front of a harinam parade, showing off her feminine beauty. Such practices, even for preaching purposes, bring about a subtle change to a woman’s consciousness by increasing the bodily identification, and thus contaminate her. Therefore ISKCON leaders of some yatras have passed a national resolution that the ladies are not meant to be in the front of the harinam procession but should go behind the men, protected by a couple of grhastha men who walk right in the back behind them.
The same principle is upheld when a woman covers her head. It has a subtle yet very powerful and transformational effect on her consciousness. It helps her to cultivate shyness, humility and submissiveness–qualities which are so important for a woman in order to happily progress in Krsna consciousness. Interestingly enough, in all spiritual cultures we find that women should cover their head. In Ukraine a woman cannot even enter a Russian Orthodox Church unless she covers her head with something–at least a little hankerchief. These days, we are deeply influenced and conditioned by materialistic propaganda around us, which measures a woman’s success by how sensually attractive her body is. This conditioning takes very subtle forms and easily creeps into our spiritual practice. Only when I started to preach in Bangladesh could I understand what Canakya Pandit means when he says that the beauty of a woman is in her chastity. Still today the Bangladeshi ladies have this quality of chastity deeply ingrained in their hearts. It keeps the atmosphere within society very pure, and makes the ladies almost a different species of women–with extraordinary beauty and spiritual strength.
In our closing ceremony the course participants shared heart warming realizations which moved many of us to tears. I had requested everyone to bring a wrapped up little gift which I then re-distributed, so we all offered a gift and received one as well…..
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