Answer BY HIS HOLINESS ROMAPADA SWAMI
Question: In the Srimad Bhagavatam – Third Canto, Chapter 15: Description of the Kingdom of God – we find some verses and purports with language I find problematic. For example, SB 3.15.17: “In the Vaikuntha planets the inhabitants fly in their airplanes, accompanied by their wives and consorts, and eternally sing of the character and activities of the Lord.”
In these verses it seems that the archetype of spiritual identity is characterized as inherently male (”The inhabitants” of the Vaikuntha planets) and the female form, even in spiritual perfection, is relegated to the role of sidekick (”accompanied by their wives and consorts”). The subject/object framing of the male/female forms and the inherent implication of relative status appears to contradict the assertions of absolute equality in a pure, spiritual atmosphere amongst all beings, moving and non-moving, to be found in other verses (such as SB 3.15.16: “everything in the Vaikuntha planets is spiritual and personal”) and numerous purports.
However, Srila Prabhupada’s wording in the purport to this verse seems to reinforce this understanding and sets us up for an even greater implication of inequity in verse 20– SB 3.15.17p: “The inhabitants of Vaikuntha give first preference to the service of the Lord, not their own sense gratification. Serving the Lord in transcendental love yields such transcendental pleasure that, in comparison, sense gratification is counted as insignificant.”
SB 3.15.20: “The inhabitants of Vaikuntha travel in their airplanes made of lapis lazuli, emerald and gold. Although crowded by their consorts, who have large hips and beautiful smiling faces, they cannot be stimulated to passion by their mirth and beautiful charms.”
Between the purport to verse 17 and the text of verse 20 we find the implication that even in this archetype of spiritual perfection the female form is relegated to a second-class position and is intended to function as a “passion stimulator”, a function the male-formed spiritual archetype is presumably immune to.
Despite considerable time given to the concept of spiritual equality of all Jivas in both verses and purports, the problem remains that an educated person may reasonably assert that a society’s biases are revealed in its language and when the language of gender inequality is found in a religious scripture, particularly one meant to be understood literally and even more particularly when the literature is describing the ultimate spiritual archetype to be aspired to by the faithful, then you have to expect a culture, a society, or a religious institution whose values are derived from such literature to instill in its members a sense of righteousness in the devaluing of the female form; a glaring imperfection that invalidates any claim that the literature itself is the word of God (since God would never countenance such inequity) as opposed to the word of a patriarchal power structure comprised of fallible human beings – men who contrive a misogynous theology to assuage their gynophobia and justify their social domination.
I know the issue of institutionalized sexism is not new to ISKCON, but this is the first time I’ve noticed the implication of the language found in verses directly referring to spiritual archetypes (no doubt the result of my education by a discerning cynic predisposed to feminist politics and testimony to 30 years of poor study habits that I’m trying to rectify). Do you have any suggestions as to how I may properly understand the nature of the language in these verses for myself and for the sake of explaining it to others as transcendental literature that informs a transcendental culture?[*** End of question***]
Answer: You are to the point in stating that Srimad Bhagavatam is a transcendental literature that is describing a transcendental culture. Therefore, to understand it we have to be free from biases and preconceptions that come with our own material culture and upbringing. We can admit, to begin with, it is quite likely that we are imposing the biases of our conditioning upon a transcendental literature, as opposed to presuming that the literature is reflecting the society’s bias. If we are seeing through red glasses, the world appears red! Thus it is quite possible that the perceived inequality is most likely springing from our own predisposition and sensitivity to this subject as you acknowledge, and the connotations we provide to the language based on our present social context. If we carefully reflect, we can understand that in reality the Bhagavatam is describing a totally different cultural paradigm – we have to have some appreciation of this culture to understand its conception of equality.
There is certainly Absolute equality in Vaikuntha but not homogeneity; there is all variety and even hierarchy – we have discussed this in previous digests in different contexts. (see Digests 184, 194)
Let us try to just explore the theme of these verses in question from another perspective … suppose that a similar idea was conveyed in the following context: “the inhabitants of Vaikuntha were attended to by their ’servants’, and although they were given all sorts of comforts by these ’servants’, there was no sense of exploitation and the residents found no pleasure in these indulgences. They were simply absorbed in service to the Lord, indifferent to the attentions given by their servants.” Were such statements to be made, should it be taken to indicate that there are relative distinctions of master and servant and the position of servant is in some way inherently inferior? Not for those of us who understand the spiritual concept of servitorship. But the very mention of such a concept would be abhorred by someone who is sensitized by a proletariat idea of exploitation of working class and sympathetic to the cause of abolishing all distinctions between social classes. But those of us familiar with Srila Prabhupada’s teachings know well how he dismantled such ideologies of classless society as impractical and unnatural.
There is no claim of artificial equality in the spiritual world in some sense of utopian uniformity. The equality lies in the fact that everybody is engaged to their full capacity and full satisfaction in the service of the one Supreme Enjoyer, Lord Krishna – spiritual communism as Prabhupada would say. One in a subordinate position does not feel belittled or deprived in some way compared to a direct servitor of the Lord, nor does Krishna make such distinctions. Rather, in Vaikuntha consciousness, one prays to be servant of the servant of the servant, many times removed – such a position is more cherished than even direct service to the Lord. For example, the manjaris in Vrindavana whose service it is to assist the gopis do not feel inherently inferior in some capacity nor deprived of Krishna’s direct attention; rather they enjoy greater bliss in enhancing the service of the gopis. The gopis are very eager for Radha to meet Krishna, and Radharani in turn is eager to arrange the gopis’ meeting with Krishna, and so on. (Cc. Madhya 8.207-214) Although by material yardstick a bumblebee is not considered highly attractive, in Vaikuntha the cuckoo birds admire the song of the bumblebee. (SB 3.15.18) Thus the real basis of no-discrimination lies in the fact that there is no envy or exploitation in the spiritual world, not that there are no hierarchies and categories. If a soul, by constitution, has such a disposition of assisting their male counterpart in service to Krishna, they are provided with a suitable female form – there is no denigration in this.
Material world is simply a perverted reflection of the spiritual world – thus the categories and hierarchies we find here also exist in the spiritual sky, minus the inebriety found in this realm. The reflecting surface that perverts everything is the desire to enjoy and predominate. Here, those who have male bodies want to enjoy and thus exploit the female form rather than perform their designated service of offering protection; likewise, those with female bodies also want to enjoy and thus rebel against their subordinate position. The solution lies not in reversing the exploitation sequence by asserting oneself as equal and merging their respective roles, but in transforming the consciousness of both parties from the mood of enjoyment to service. The spiritual archetypes portrayed in the Bhagavatam – whether they are that of a male, female, bumblebee or lotus flower – highlights this perfection of the mood of service.
Not to speak of the Vaikuntha planets, even within this world there are illustrious examples of this paradigm in the Vedic culture. We do not find that powerful personalities such as Queen Kunti, Draupadi, Devahuti or Archi (the consort of King Prithu) were contending for equal rights and opportunities! Although in one sense they did enjoy equal footing with their respective husbands, they happily, willingly and gracefully accepted their roles as a dependent and subordinate, and as a fortress of support to their husbands. Did that diminish their qualifications or accomplishments in anyway or affect the Supreme Lord’s disposition or dealings with them? Not in the least. These ladies were fully content doing their specific services. Each of them also faced uniquely difficult challenges in their roles as wives and queens, which they faced very competently. They were grateful for the protection offered by their respective husbands and by the society. In turn, their exalted husbands were equally grateful for their extraordinary sacrifices and services. There was no sense of domination or exploitation, nor was there an artificial attempt at sharing of each other’s roles. The husbands saw themselves as humble servants of the Lord playing their part as a husband in extending to their wives the protection of the Lord. Thus they perfectly complemented and enhanced each other’s service to the Lord, who alone is the Supreme Master and Maintainer of everyone.
Quite contrary to giving room for minimizing womanhood, Vedic literatures and culture give tremendous emphasis and importance to respecting them as highly valuable members of the society even in this world, and as members deserving protection just as the brahmanas, cows, children and elderly deserve protection. An observant reader would not fail to notice this deep respect and importance given to women in the pages of Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita. We find powerful statesmen and world emperors such as Arjuna and Maharaja Yudhisthira giving considerable time and deliberation to the special interests of the women in society and the irreparable social consequences of neglecting their needs. If it should be considered that those performing the role of housekeeping, raising and training God-conscious children, protecting family tradition and offering much-needed support for the men constitute subordinate, unimportant roles, such an outlook reflects inequality in fact, because we are relegating these most crucial services to a denigrated position. This is not the outlook of Bhagavatam, for if it were so there would not be such concern expressed for their welfare. By Krishna’s natural arrangement, the female body is equipped to fulfill these roles which demand, in their own way, as much competency, resourcefulness and dedication as do the services traditionally assigned to men in a Vedic society. When the value of their roles is duly recognized and appreciated, competition for the latter’s role or for the form of respect offered to them is rendered meaningless and unnecessary.
We find this spirit also in Srila Prabhupada’s personal example – although he spoke quite candidly and openly about the myths of women’s liberation, in all of his dealings with the matajis (he trained us to see the women as mothers deserving the highest respect!) he treated them with utmost dignity and respect. It was unthinkable for him to neglect women as insignificant or secondary, what to speak of minimizing or exploiting them. Actual protection and dissemination of Vedic culture calls for imbibing this spirit.
Artificial attempts to create equality are bound to fail. In our attempts to negate the disparities and injustices found in this world, we seek to homogenize everything — not much different from the impersonal school of thought which aspires to “make everything zero” – but such a conception of equality is unnatural even in the spiritual world. Our expectation to find such uniformity in the pages of Bhagavatam leaves us disappointed and amounts to imposing our limited material conceptions on spiritual reality. Real equality lies in acknowledging that there are indeed differences in the natures and capacity of different classes of living entities and facilitating optimal engagement of everyone in their natural service to the Supreme.
I hope this helps to alleviate your discomfort on this subject!
Answer: The ability that Krishna can perform the function of any sense through any other sense organ is an indication that He is Absolute, that His body is not compartmentalized like ours but Absolute, Omnipotent and Independent. If we lose our eyesight, for instance, we would become dependent and cannot see anymore. But Krishna is not dependent like that, He does not need a particular bodily part to perform a particular action – every limb of His body is absolutely potent and complete as His Original Self — purna. Another way of saying the same thing is that Krishna is not different from His body and His different bodily limbs are non-different from His Self.
Although Absolute and undifferentiated, yet simultaneously Krishna’s spiritual body is full of variegatedness. He has variegated senses simply for His enjoyment, not because He is dependent on them for different functionalities. The common mistake that students of transcendental science often make in trying to understand the Absolute Realm with the help of their limited intelligence is that when they hear descriptions such as this of Omnipotence and all-pervasiveness, they imagine that the Absolute Truth to be some form of homogenized, uniform Energy without any form or features and without any variegated senses. These are the impersonalists whom Krishna declares in Bhagavad-Gita to be mistaken in their understanding. Krishna is the Supreme Enjoyer and as the saying goes, “Variety is the mother of enjoyment”. The inconceivable potencies of His spiritual body are meant for His enjoyment, and His Spiritual abode is full of variety for the same reason.
Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura points out that although the Lord can perform any function with any one of His senses, in His transcendental pastimes as Sri Krishna He generally sees with His eyes, touches with His hands, hears with His ears and so on. Thus He behaves like the most beautiful and charming young cowherd boy. (Cf. SB 10.14.2 p) And whenever He uses His limbs in extraordinary ways, that is also to enhance His enjoyment and thus He enjoys in many unlimited ways. At the same time, He is exhibiting his supremacy by these acts; e.g. entering Mathura, Krsna straightened Kubja’s hunchback with his fingertips and toes, AND with the same fingertips he separated the the head of the washerman from his torso!
The living entities do not possess such omnipotence constitutionally – this is the distinction between the Supreme Lord and the minute living entity; but Krishna may choose to invest such capability upon some living entity who can attain such mystic powers by His grace.
194: In this context, how are things absolute in the spiritual world? Even in the spiritual realm, the gopis are dearer to Krishna than anyone else, and even amongst the gopis, Radharani is most dear to Him. So, therefore there is relativity in the spiritual realm too.
Answer: There is certainly variety in the spiritual world, but not relativity as we speak of it in the mundane realm. As we have discussed in previous digests, Absolute is quite so often confused, by beginning transcendentalists, with some sort of homogeneous entity without any variegatedness, but this is not so. Those who are impersonalists have difficulty accommodating this because of their frustrated experience in the material world. Here, variety or multiplicity almost always brings quarrel, discrimination and misery, and so out of frustration and a poor fund of knowledge, they conclude that the Absolute must be devoid of any kind of variety or hierarchy.
But Krishna enjoys varieties of pleasures, and they are all of the same absolute nature – sat, cit and ananda. There are hierarchies in the spiritual world, as well – perfect, more perfect, and most perfect; pure, purer, purest, and even further ever-expanding degrees of purity and intensities of love. But they are all pure, and in that sense absolute. There is even so-called separation and lamentation in spiritual world, and even day and night, but these are all just different varieties of absolute pleasure.
The variegatedness of the Absolute is *VERY DIFFICULT* to understand from our present conditioned nature, and with a materially conditioned mind, but it is possible to understand by adopting a humble mood of service to the Absolute Supreme and by submissively hearing from those who know Him, the tattva-darshis. (BG 4.34)