By Visakha Priya (dd) GRS (Vrindavan - IN)
In a comment to Sita-pati Prabhuâs article on âWomen, ISKCON, and Varnasramaâ His Grace Atmavidya Prabhu mentions that Srila Prabhupada wanted to reestablish varnasrama because his disciples were falling down. Atmavidya Prabhuâs sastric reference is a conversation of February 14, 1974 in Mayapur, but I did not find such a lecture in my Vedabase (which may be outdated). Meanwhile, in a conversation dated March 14, 1974 in Vrindavan, Srila Prabhupada states as follows:
Prabhupada: Yes. But our, our position is that we are above varnasrama. But for management or ideal society, we are introducing this. We, so far we are concerned, Krsna conscious men, we are above varnasrama. But to show the people that we are not escaping, we can take part in any order of life. That is our position. Just like if I brush somebody’s shoes, that does not mean I am shoemaker. My position is the same. But to show how to do it. Just like a servant is doing. The master is, “Oh, you cannot do. Just see.” Just like I show you sometimes how to mop. So I am not a mopper, but I am showing how to mop. So our position is like that. We do not belong to any varna and asrama. But we have to show these rascals.
(Morning walk, 14 March 1974, Vrindavan)
My understanding of the above conversation is as follows:
Prabhupada made a distinction between ordinary people and devotees. Devotees are neither male nor female. Both are prakrti. [Therefore, there is no reason why male devotees should enforce anything upon the women, whom they should see as Prabhu and consult with in all matters pertaining mutual cooperation in Guru and Krsnaâs service.]
In the Bhagavad-gita (9.32) the Lord says: mam hi partha vyapasritya ye ‘pi syuh papa-yonayah striyo vaisyas tatha sudras te ‘pi yanti param gatim “O son of Prtha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birthâwomen, vaisyas (merchants), as well as sudras (workers) - can attain the supreme destination.” The word papa-yonayah means “born of lower-caste women.” The vaisyas are merchants, and the sudras or workers are servants. According to Vedic classifications, they belong to a lower social order. A low life means a life without Krishna consciousness. High and low positions in society were calculated by considering a person’s Krishna consciousness. A brahmana is considered to be on the highest platform because he knows Brahman, the Absolute Truth. The second caste, the ksatriya caste, also know Brahman, but not as well as the brahmanas. The vaisyas and sudras do not clearly understand God consciousness, but if they take to Krishna consciousness by the mercy of Krishna and the spiritual master, they do not remain in the lower castes (papa-yonayah). It is clearly stated: te ‘pi yanti param gatim. Unless one has attained the highest standard of life, one cannot return home, back to Godhead. One may be sudra, vaisya or woman, but if one is situated in the service of the Lord in Krishna consciousness, one should not be considered stri, sudra, vaisya or lower than sudra. Though a person may be from a low born family, if he is engaged in the Lord’s service he should never be considered to belong to a lowborn family. The Padma Purana forbids, viksate jati samanyat sa yati narakam-dhruvam. A person goes to hell quickly when he considers a devotee of the Lord in terms of birth. Although Sri Ramananda Raya supposedly took birth in a sudra family, he is not to be considered a sudra, for he was a greatly advanced devotee. Indeed, he was on the transcendental platform. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu therefore embraced him.â (Cc Madhya 8, 33-36)
Our duty as devotees is two-fold: develop love for Krsna and arouse in others a desire to reestablish their own relationship with Krsna.
In order to be efficient in our preaching work, Prabhupada suggests implementing the varnasrama system.
When devotees asked Prabhupada whether the varnasrama college was for women also, Prabhupada replied negatively. âWomen should learn how to cook and clean.â But, as he points out in our first quote, “Just like if I brush somebody’s shoes, that does not mean I am shoemaker. My position is the same. But to show how to do it. Just like a servant is doing. The master is, âOh, you cannot do. Just see.â Just like I show you sometimes how to mop. So I am not a mopper, but I am showing how to mop. So our position is like that. We do not belong to any varna and asrama. But we have to show these rascals.” (Vrindavan, March 14, 1974)
So it seems that the devotee men should go to the varnasrama college with the idea of becoming brahmanas, etc., for the purpose of showing society at large how to manage things in such a way that everyone can progress towards the ultimate goal of life. And it seems that the women devotees should accept the seemingly subservient role of cooking and cleaning for the purpose of showing ordinary women how to live peacefully with their husbands and children.
But we have to bear in mind that these self-imposed duties are accepted only for the sake of teaching others, not because devotee women are inferior or whatever. They should be seen as fellow-teachers of Krsna consciousness and honored as such. BECAUSE IT IS ALL A SHOW FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE MASSES, NOT THE REAL THING. At least the preachers should know it and believe it and accept it.
Besides that, the men should educate the men in their duties and the women should educate the women in their duties, not that the men should dictate to their god sisters, whom they should see as the servant of their spiritual master.
Practically speaking, this model cannot be applied in the present situation. Devotees have to be advanced enough to understand and appreciate the position of the other devotees before they can accept and implement this plan for the benefit of humanity. This will take a lot of training and purification.
It is common knowledge that role models such as Draupadi and Rukminidevi were able to act as ksatriyas whenever it was needed (like Rukmini drove Krsna’s chariot while Krsna was engaged in fighting with Sisupala and others). But ordinarily, “to show these rascals that we are not escaping, we can take part in any order of life,” they followed the traditional model.
But far from being exploited by their husbands, they were worshipped by them.
Prabhupada: … So whatever business is going on in our movement, everything should be taught according to the capacity, boys or girls, it doesn’t matter. Some department is suitable for the boys, some department are suitable for the girls. In this way, they should be trained up. But everyone should be trained up to give service. (31 July 1976, New Mayapur)
On the point that “everyone should be taught according to the capacity”, we should note that if a girl has qualities that are usually found in men, then she should be encouraged to develop them, not to suppress them, since “in the service of the Lord there is no distinction of caste or creed, color, or sex.”
“Regarding lecturing by woman devotees: I have informed you that in the service of the Lord there is no distinction of caste or creed, color, or sex. In the Bhagavad-gita, the Lord especially mentions that even a woman who has taken seriously is also destined to reach Him. We require a person who is in the knowledge of Krishna, that is the only qualification of a person speaking. It doesn’t matter what he is. Materially a woman may be less intelligent than a man, but spiritually there is no such distinction. Because spiritually everyone is pure soul. In the absolute plane there is no such gradation of higher and lower. If a woman can lecture nicely and to the point, we should hear her carefully. That is our philosophy. But if a man can speak better than a woman, the man should be given first preference. But even though a woman is less intelligent, a sincere soul should be given proper chance to speak, because we want so many preachers, both men and women.” (Letter to Jayagovinda, 8 February 1968)
Regarding husbands being their wivesâs only guru, Srila Prabhupadaâs sister Bhavatarini got harinama initiation from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and second initiation from Srila Prabhupadaâs godbrother Bhakti-saranga Maharaja (from the Imlitala temple). Another (now old) Bengali devotee, Prabhavati devi dasi, also received initiation from Bhakti-saranga Maharaja. Another reference to women taking initiation is made in the epic âAbhay Charan.â There, Abhay tells his wife about his decision to take initiation and then says that âit is customary for wife and husband to take initiation together.â As we know, his wife declined. But the fact is that he expected her to take initiation from his chosen guru.
Another point I would like to make is that there will always be a small percentage of women who will opt for renunciation. In the context of ISKCON today, it is clear that whoever chooses the personal protection of Krsna instead of a husbandâs, cannot expect much protection from the society. Yet, the following words, spoken by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura in 1925, do not reflect this point of view:
âOur maths are being built at many places, and many sannyasis, vanaprasthas, grhasthas and brahmacaris are living there all the time and receiving the opportunity to learn spiritual conduct. But we have been trying for a long time to also give the mothers [women] the opportunity for devotional service. Of course, those who have the facility and opportunity for devotional service in their own homes do not need a separate residence.
âBut very often we hear that many of them are impeded in their devotional service due to bad association. It will be very beneficial for them if we can build Sri Vishnupriya Palli [palli means âneighborhoodâ] in Sridham Mayapura, near the residence of Sriman Mahaprabhu, and they can live there separately from their families and render devotional service. ? There should not be any bad association or mundane male association for them there. Only a few devotees like Ishan [the old devotee servant who took care of Sri Sachidevi and Sri Vishnupriya Devi after Mahaprabhu left] can stay at a distance and take care of them. It is necessary to have such an exemplary neighborhood so that the mothers [women] can read scripture every day, discuss devotional topics with each other, and have istaghosthi about devotional topics, so they can give up all luxury, live an exemplary, saintly life, always chant the holy name, and take care of the ingredients of Sriman Mahaprabhuâs service and serve Him in every way. (21 September
Srila Prabhupada appears to support his spiritual masterâs viewpoint in the following letter dated 10 February 1973:
âFirst let us understand that polygamy cannot be permitted in our society. Legally it is impossible and neither are there many of our devotees who are prepared to assume the responsibility for many wives. Therefore as I have suggested previously as they do in Christian religion they have so many convent where the women stay and they receive protection. The point is that the women must be protected and it is the duties of the leaders of our society to see that this is carried out.â
And in the following conversation dated 5 June 1976:
Ramesvara: Yesterday you suggested that I send groups of brahmacarinis to that farm in Oregon where Yamuna-mataji is staying, but I was thinking that, actually, she is a very, very wonderful preacher, and if she can visit our temples more often, then she can…. In other words, it’s more expensive and difficult to send so many people to her…
Prabhupada: So, do that.
Ramesvara: Otherwise, she can come to us.
Tamala Krsna: It’s also a healthier environment, I think. It’s a little…
Ramesvara: She lives alone with Dina-tarini. She doesn’t have much association. She’s keeping herself apart a little bit.
Tamala Krsna: Yes, I think, that’s one…, there’s one disadvantage is that they have a little bit of a, their attitude is a little bit separatist from ISKCON in the sense of keeping aloof, and if the girls go there and live there, they may develop that same mentality. It might be better for her to come to the temples to teach.
Prabhupada: Then make arrangement; I have not objection.
Ramesvara: (laughs) She has objection. We can’t force her.
Tamala Krsna: That’s the problem. And if that’s her feeling, then if you send people there they’ll get the same.
Prabhupada: [break] Worshiping Deity.
Tamala Krsna: Yes. Oh, they’re doing that beautifully, and they’re expert cooks. They’re very good devotees.
Ramesvara: They could just be so valuable to helping our temples if they agreed to preach to our devotees. They could train. [break] …brought the reporters from Time magazine over to see our temple. I had Mother Yamuna prepare some prasadam, and she was also serving them, and then she was explaining about prasadam and preaching. So I could understand that as long as she stays on that farm, she’s limiting herself, because she’s an excellent preacher. She could be very valuable, expert preacher. In her…. Their idea is that they would like to make their farm a little bigger, with more women living with them.
Prabhupada: I like that idea.
Ramesvara: There will be no man to help give advice, just the women manage it all themselves.
Prabhupada: Just like in Vrndavana there is bhajanasrama, they’re only women.
Tamala Krsna: Syamabhajis?
Prabhupada: Not syamabhajis, but bhajanasrama.
Ramesvara: So that’s a good idea.
Prabhupada: With man is dangerous for both. I, I have given that: man is good, woman is good, when they come together-bad. Both of them bad.
Tamala Krsna: Bad. We see that.
Ramesvara: They say that that farmland in Oregon is too small, very small.
Prabhupada: Let them organize that.
(5 June1976, Los Angeles)
Srila Prabhupada ki jaya!