Women, ISKCON, and Varnashram
By Sita Pati Das
It has become fashionable to accuse Srila Prabhupada, and by extension the entire Gaudiya Vaisnava Guru parampara, of being socially conditioned. Of course, if we want to separate Srila Prabhupada’s presentation from that of the previous acaryas it is pointless to talk about him at all because he loses all relevance. His claim to fame is the presentation of Gaudiya Vaisnava Siddhanta according to parampara. Here I attempt to demonstrate that what Srila Prabhupada presents in terms of proposed social arrangement for advancement of Krishna Consciousness on a mass scale is on authorised and enjoined by the Lord and the acaryas. Further to that I wish to examine on the basis of logic and reasoning the implications of the instructions given by the Lord and the Guru parampara. I also wish to humbly offer my realizations on why this backlash is taking place, and how the issues that give rise to it may be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.
The accusation leveled against Srila Prabhupada is that he is socially conditioned by Indian culture, especially with reference to the role of women in society and their social relations. We are faced with the fact that there are significant psycho-physical differences between men and women. To try to artificially make men and women equivalent is to deny the variegatedness that reflects the impetus of rasa in the spiritual world. At the same time, to view men and women as unequal is to fail to view all living entities as Brahman, spirit-soul. So simultaneously we have quality and non-equivalence. Therefore, men and women must exist in a social setting where they play different roles according to their psycho-physical condition, and both are equally catered for in terms of their spiritual needs. Many different possible social arrangements exist, each with its own merits and demerits depending on one’s angle of vision, and the goal of society.
We should never forget what Srila Prabhupada taught us – your life has a goal, and society by extension also has a goal. What is that goal? Well, for different people it is different things. According to the different conceptions of the self, people conceive of different duties in relation to that conception of self. For us in Srila Prabhupada’s house, our goal is to go back home, back to Godhead. Actually our goal is not even that. Our goal is to send everyone else back home, back to Godhead. Therefore we need a social arrangment that reflects that goal and facilitates achieving it.
Srila Prabhupada accepted, upon the instruction of his guru Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, the social arrangement of daivi varnashrama-dharma. In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna states that He creates the four divisions of human society, according to the mixture of modes a particular person is born under. There is no mention made of the division of the human society into male and female, because it is quite obvious to the reader that this has been done, whereas the division according to modal quality is less apparent to the blunt senses. No instructions are given as to the specific duties of women.
Where then does Srila Prabhupada get his ideas about the nature and duties of women and men? Many examples of the manifestation of the relationship between male and female in varnashram-dharma are found in the Srimad Bhagavatam. The essence of this social relationship was still reflected in the social organization of the India of Srila Prabhupada’s youth, and thus he would often make reference to it as a contemporary example of varnashram-dharma in action. This is quite different from being socially conditioned to accept it. Many others were unable to spread Krishna Consciousness in the West precisely because they were socially conditioned in that they were unable to adjust the program according to time, place, and circumstances. Srila Prabhupada’s expert implementation of Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition in the West showed that while he was aware of the benefits of the social arrangement of varnashram-dharma, he was also not attached to it.
The individual can go home without varnashram-dharma. You can go back to Godhead without adopting the gender roles of varnashram-dharma in this lifetime. It is possible. At the same time, if we really want everyone to go back to Godhead, then a varnashram society is the way to facilitate that. The acaryas have been quite clear in this matter. So many other social arrangements are possible, but what is the widescale effect of them? What the implications of a given social arrangement on a mass scale for the spiritual life of the individual? How will it affect their inclination and ability to engage in spiritual cultivation? These things are unknown, and unknowable for minute living entities in advance of the mass adoption of a given structure. Therefore, a working structure has been given that facilitates return to Godhead for the general society. As Srila Prabhupada would say to people: Yes, there may be other ways, but why don’t you just take this? If you are sincere, we are offering this – why not take it?
One should perform one’s own duty without attachment. It is better to face destruction in the course of performance of one’s own duty than to follow the path of another. Why? Because following the path of another does not guarantee progressive purification of material conditioning. That is the purpose of varnashram-dharma. Other social arrangements encode within them the central goal of satisfying the material desires of the participants. Varnashram-dharma recognises this as a valid goal, but places it in a subordinate role to the central purpose of purifying participants of their material desires, and material identification. Under this perfect material arrangement the course of one’s own purification also contributes to the purification of others. Other systems may purify the individual, but they do not contribute to widespread social purification in the same way that varnashram-dharma does.
I submit that our present problems arise from an incomplete understanding of the real nature of the male-female roles and relationship in varnashram-dharma, and a dishonesty about our own qualifications. Without a deep understanding of the actual essence of this relationship and the necessary qualifications we have attempted to ape the external appearance and found it unsatisfactory. The varnashram-dharma model that Srila Prabhupada advocated should not be abandoned for other unproven model that we may concoct. We should not use our intelligence in a demonic fashion to oppose theh Lord’s agents, to find fault in them. We should try to understand how our implementation is faulty. A Vaisnava sees no faults in others, only in oneself.
One of the problems we encounter in presenting Prabhupada’s books are his statements that women are generally less intelligent than men. One thing we should bear in mind is that Prabhupada intended his books to be the standard for human society for the next ten thousand years. Prabhupada is stating the conditions in an ideal varnashram soceity, which we don’t have at the present point in time. To see where this society fails to meet the Vedic standard, it is not to the women that we should look, but to the men.
In Vedic society men control their senses according to a regulated program. This does not happen today. Therefore men have less intelligence than they have the potential to manifest. Although Prabhupada states that women are generally less intelligent, this may not be the case at the moment, hence Prabhupada’s qualification of the statement with the modifier generally. Or else he is referring to the “woman class” as less intelligent. Prabhupada is speaking in broad sociological terms about the general material society of conditioned living entities over a long period of time. We shouldn’t confuse our limited sense perceptions with the vision of a maha-bhagavat. When we try to put our perceptions into context with the statements of a maha-bhagavat then we are actually using our intelligence and our limited independence correctly.
That women are generally less intelligent does not translate into all women are less intelligent than all men, and I submit that at this point in time the exception can sometimes approach the rule. While recognising the limitations of our present circumstances, we should not lose sight of the proposed goal of varnashram-dharma implementation in society. We need to have faith that Prabhupada’s vision for the world is coming from Krishna. If we don’t, then what is the point in hearing anything from him? Prabhupada made that very clear – you cannot pick and choose. Either accept it all or reject it all. The mind is imperfect and when it attempts to discriminate amongst knowledge in that way it will do so according to its conditioning. Therefore one surrenders totally to a bona-fide system of transcendental knowledge, and is therefore given protection from this tendency of the mind. Either we accept Prabhupada as the captain of the ship or not. Let’s not try to have some half-way house – hot or cold, not an attempt to remain in a luke warm mix of Prabhupada’s instruction and our own imperfect speculation by claiming that in some respects he is “socially conditioned”, while in others he is speaking the absolute truth. We are the ones who are socially conditioned.
This controversy has arisen out of a lack of faith that what Prabhupada has said in this regard is true, when it clashes with our limited sense perceptions. We can accept information that is contrary to our sense perceptions when we have faith in the source. The lack of faith in Prabhupada has arisen through our miscomprehension and misapplication of his instructions. This miscomprehension, applied under the justification that “Prabhupada has said!” has caused a negative association to arise in the hearts of many. Not only in this regard, but in many other issues as well. We should not, however, mistake the baby for the bathwater and throw both out together.
We should never have made the mistake of thinking that women are inferior to men in the varnashram system. This is a conception from our social conditioning that we have imposed on Srila Prabhupada’s description. As soon as we hear “less intelligent” we automatically think and act: “inferior”. Intelligence means the ability to discriminate. If it is the case that women have a less developed ability to discriminate than men how does that make them inferior? It is our tendency to use this as a mechanism to lord it over that gives rise to the association. Even in Vedic civilisation where it is the case that women are generally less intelligent than the men they are never inferior. Women appear as subordinate to men, but at the same time men are reliant on women for everything. Actually, women are worshiped in Vedic society. Every women is regarded as one’s mother, and one’s mother is worshipable. What to speak of the current manifestation of maya where the reverse can often be the case, where men can be less intelligent than women. We find that many women are more receptive to Krishna Consciousness because they have more humility and less propensity to be the enjoyer. Intelligence means the ability to discriminate, and real intelligence means discriminating between spirit and matter. Therefore, according to Srila Prabhupada’s standard, by their actions they are among the most intelligent.
Women on the other hand are more compassionate. Witness Draupadi’s treatment of Asvattama. They generally have less intelligence and they generally have more compassion. A pita constituted body, according to Ayurveda, has less water and more fire. Why is it that we impose no conception of inferior in that case, but automatically do so when we hear that “women have less intelligence”? The answer lies in the same explanation that Prabhupada gave of the interaction between the varnas. It is not that brahmanas are superior to to the other social roles. They are all equally necessary, but the brahmanas are especially respected because they provide spiritual guidance to society. At the same time, a real brahmana offers all respects to others and expects no respect in return. This is not always the case, as we see in many historical examples in the Bhagavatam, but nonetheless it remains the ideal standard. Due to the deterioration of the Kali yuga the caste brahmanas began to develop a superiority comples and thus they lost all their good qualities. The brahmanas are reliant on the other social classes. They all exist in a mutually beneficial relationship.
Similarly, have to a large degree lost the good quality of their greater capacity for intelligence, men have retained a superiority complex through social conditioning. Along with this is a concomitant lack of humility that characterises all interactions in Kali Yuga. This is the age of quarrel and misunderstanding. Amongst all this, men have insisted that women live up to the Vedic standard of submission, chastity, and obedience, without insisting that they themselves live up to the terms of their varnashram contract: providing protection, well informed level-headed guidance and support. Varnashram is a social contract – all parties have to fulfill their obligations under the terms of the agreeement.
A woman’s traditional role, not just under varnashram-dharma but in the majority of societies, is to be submissive. This comes from the fact that women generally have more humility than men. Someone has to be humble. Actually, both husband and wife should be humble. That is the standard of the spiritual platform. However, on the way to the spiritual platform there needs to be an arrangement whereby disturbance can be minimised. Therefore, in society traditionally women have utilized their greater forbearance. humility, and tolerance to provide this peaceful social situation. Without this social chaos would have precipitated long ago. A woman’s applying her greater natural humility in submissiveness should never be mistaken for inferiority. Doing that has lead us to the mess we are in now. Actually she is serving a greater goal than her husband, who due to his conditioning has a body that mimics that of the Supreme Enjoyer. By her humility and submissiveness she actually trains him in service. First he is taught by his mother, and then by his wife. But he should be receptive to learning from this. He should be brought up to recognise it for what it is.
Srila Prabhupada’s sister, Srimati Bhavatarini, although herself an initiated Vaisnava, cooked fish for her husband for fifty years. After all this time he finally realised her greatness and accepted her as his spiritual master. She was qualified as his spiritual master as she had the humility and forbearance to do that activity without attachment or aversion. She was situated on the spiritual platform, performing her duty as a matter of course, just as Krishna instructs in the Bhagavad-gita.
Should we expect the women to be on that platform, performing their duties in accordance with varnashram-dhara while men are neglectful of theirs? Why should men expect women to be maha-bhagavats while they are not? There needs to be compromise, and understanding. We do not live in a perfect varnashram society and we are not all pure devotees. At the same time our compromise should be directed toward attaining the ideal varnashram society and pure devotion. It should be one of practical necessity in achieving the goal rather than one of expendiency in lowering or changing the standards whimsically to suit our present conditioning. In other words, it should be a working strategy that carries us forward, preserving and approaching the ideal while acknowledging and taking into account how our present reality does not meet with that ideal.
In varnashram society women are amply rewarded for their service in playing a submissive role, and that is what they are – spiritual beings playing a material role. They are given the facility to raise a family in a peaceful setting and to play a vital role in the socialization of children. The unique contribution they give in imparting the feminine qualities and values that predominate in their character to the future generation is recognised as the indispensable service to society that it is, and thus they are considered as one of the seven worshipable mothers. In fact, the seven worshipable mothers are named so after them. They have a strong sense of identity and self-worth as their contribution to society is acknowledged as equal to that of men. Without this input, society cannot go on.
Can society provide this for women today. within ISKCON or without? Obviously not. We have brought our social conditioning into the society from outside and in some instances interpreted Srila Prabhupada’s teachings according to it. When women’s unique contribution to society is acknowledged and valued and honored and reciprocated, then there can be equality of the sexes. Then there can be some form of material social stability. Women’s contribution to society should not be marginalized, undervalued, or denigrated under any pretext. These things do not come from Prabhupada or his teachings, they come from a socially conditioned conception of Prabhupada and his teachings.
The backlash has been against our misunderstanding of Prabhupada’s teachings and it has reflected badly on his character. Prabhupada was always a perfect gentleman, and no lady has come forward to complain about her treatment by him personally. The actions of the sons are to the credit or the disgrace of the father. Now the women do not want to help establish varnashram-dharma by taking up the roles and trying to apply them. Renunciation means performance of duties without attachment to results. It does not mean neglect of duty.
This has all come about due to a simplistic understanding of the nature of renunciation. Prabhupada gave us what we could take at the time and encouraged us to go as far as we could in the short time allotted to us. However we need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the sublime and profound philosophy and culture that is his legacy to us.
Devotees are transcendental to varnashram-dharma. They adopt the roles in order to demonstrate to the general mass of people how to live. Everyone wants to be a hero though. We want to be a brahmacari or a sannyasi because these are the “glory ashrams”. The grhastas are fallen and inferior. In order to encourage marginally materially attached people to take up these ashrams, or stay in the case of brahmacarya, this aspect is there. Prabhupada spoke against attachment to family life, he never spoke against family life itself. Family life is also necessary, and therefore demonstration of family life without attachment is also necessary. Without this the movement cannot be successful. People will not take part in a movement that can only demonstrate what is for the majority of people extreme renunciation (that sometimes ends spectacularly), or dysfunctional family life. An artificial emphasis on renunciation leads to artificial renunciation. Whatever ashram we are manifesting for the benefit of the general mass of people, brahmacari, sannyasi, grhasta, or vanaprastha, we cannot be attached to it. We have to do it as a service to Krishna. As a conditioned living entity we can also benefit from the adoption of a particular ashram, but we need to become attached to doing it as a necessary service to Prabhupada and Krishna, rather than as something that we want to do. On the spiritual platform there is no difference between a brahmacari, a sannyasi, or a grhasta who is attached to the service of the Lord. Playing as a devotee Lord Caitanya adopted the role of a sannyasi in order to benefit the general populace, not because He desired some material gain, subtle or gross, for himself.
We need to recognise the important role that grhasta life plays in society, for it is here that the women’s contribution is in effect. Society means grhasta life. Without children and families and socialisation there is no society. Without renunciation and travelling preachers there is no Krishna Consciousness missionary work. We need both. Because family life and socialisation have been de-emphasized in the endeavour to introduce renunciation into a society that has only a dim historical recollection of it, the vital importance of women and their unique role has also been de-emphasized. Now we need to mature in our understanding of how a proper Krishna conscious balance between both, existing in a harmonious relationship, is needed for proper human society. The children are our future. In order to ensure the well-being of that future, as well as the renounced orders of life, we need to understand the roles we need to adopt in order to facilitate Krishna Conscious family life. These roles, for both men and women, need to be recognised by society at large as a valid and important service for pushing on this movement, without detracting from the importance of perceived prestige of the renounced orders. Women will not be happy as long as their unique contribution to society is marginalized. Without their input and active co-operation this movement has no future.
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