The first preaching engagement I went to after being initiated was an experience I will always remember. In the fall of 1988, I and several other devotees, armed with karatalas, mantra cards, prasadam, and books, found our way to Temple University's branch campus in center city Philadelphia. Mostly adults filled the evening class on new religious movements. Except for one unfriendly student (a voice for impersonalism), the class responded well to the talk given by Ravindra Svarupa Prabhu. The students asked thoughtful, penetrating questions. Even after 2 hours, hands were still in the air.
I was thoroughly enjoying the lively, fast-moving dialogue, especially the philosophical deftness with which Ravindra Svarupa Prabhu defeated the one baiting antagonist. But then I was jolted from my track when a woman in the class abruptly turned to me and said, "I want to address this question to the only woman member of your organization present. I have the impression that the ISKCON church is male chauvinist. I have only seen men in the role of teacher. What is the role of women in your church? Do you have a function in teaching?"
I gulped, regretting I had not chosen a less conspicuous seat. The "women's issue" in ISKCON had caused many heated discussions among devotees, and for me it was still a touchy issue. I would have preferred to avoid the topic altogether, but now I was thrust on center stage with forty people awaiting an answer.
My heart accelerated as I quickly inventoried my scanty knowledge of Krsna consciousness, looking for an answer that would satisfy both the inquirer and me. After all, the student's assessment was to the point: women had not been encouraged to take up visible leadership in our movement. How was I going to explain why this was so?
My mind sped back over the years I had spent looking for the ideal philosophy that could wipe out the suffering and exploitation that millions of women face every day. I had evolved from a feminist perspective (seeing "men and patriarchal institutions" as the enemy), through Marxism-Leninism (seeing "the capitalists and their state" as the enemy), to finally finding Krsna consciousness (seeing "maya and my own impurities" as the enemy). My goal was to find a truly harmonious society in which all people, including women, could live with mutual care and respect and flourish to their fullest potential. I had recently concluded that such a society could only be one in which we give up self-centeredness and make Krsna the center of our lives.
As I gathered myself to speak, I was struck by the irony of the moment. Even though I felt, after years of searching, that I had found my home in ISKCON, I still felt the prejudices toward women that had initiated my search for truth years earlier. But now, instead of me seeing men as the enemy, they saw me as the enemy, as "Maya Devi," or illusion personified.
To be viewed as an embodiment of sin in the eyes of some male devotees would not have been so bad if it stopped there. But because I was seen as a temptress first and a devotee second, I was subtly or overtly denied or discouraged from a host of spiritual activities that I understood to be given to me by Srila Prabhupada. A frustrating dichotomy presented itself. On one hand, I was welcomed to clean, cook, and make flower garlands, services I enjoyed. But on the other hand I was told that because I am a woman I would disturb the minds of men (that is, sexually agitate them) if in their presence I chanted japa in the temple room, led kirtana, stood up near the Deities during arati, offered puja to Srila Prabhupada, gave Srimad-Bhagavatam class, was involved in higher levels of management, and so on. This dichotomy made me feel excluded, and a little schizoid, because I wanted to excel in all activities, not just those stereotypically designated as female.
ISKCON is supposed to be a house in which the whole world can live, so there must be room for all of me, not just the part that fits the female stereotype. Srila Prabhupada taught that Lord Caitanya rejected the bodily-based caste system and affirmed spiritual enfranchisement for everyone. Enfranchisement is the heart and soul of Lord Caitanya's sankirtana movement; it is why Srila Prabhupada came to the West. Srila Prabhupada confirms that anyone can be a Vaisnava:
Sometimes persons criticize the Krsna consciousness movement because it engages equally both boys and girls in distributing love of Godhead…. But these rascals should consider that one cannot suddenly change a community's social customs…. These jealous fools who criticize the intermingling of boys and girls will simply have to be satisfied with their own foolishness because they cannot think of how to spread Krsna consciousness by adopting ways and means which are favorable for this purpose. Their stereotyped methods will never help spread Krsna consciousness. (Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila, 7.32)
If Srila Prabhupada accepts women and men equally, then how do I get enfranchised and get all of me into Lord Caitanya's sankirtana movement?
Unfortunately, two years ago I didn't know how to answer that question. I acknowledged that in principle there is no service from which a woman is barred but in practice we are actually discouraged in some ways. But I felt that my answer was incomplete.
As the bell rang to end the class, I departed with the other devotees fortified with a new resolve: for the sake of preaching, I would learn to answer her question. As I continue to struggle, two years later, to follow the process Srila Prabhupada gave us, that answer is becoming clearer to me:
"Yes," I would now tell her, "there are men in ISKCON who are chauvinist in their behavior, and that's a problem that needs to be addressed, but that doesn't mean that the ISKCON church is male chauvinist. Srila Prabhupada, as a pure devotee, was above the dualities of male and female. So in that sense his teachings are radical. He brought us the gift of the Vedas, which teach that the purpose of human life is to realize that we are not these bodies but spirit souls meant for serving Krsna. The Vedas teach us how to achieve this goal and become free from sex life, which is the cause of death.
"To rise above the duality of male and female, we have to understand that the mind of the conditioned soul is perverse, because it is infused with the modes of material nature. The mind looks for so many ways to be the enjoyer, both grossly and subtly. It can even trick us into wanting to become spiritually advanced so it can enjoy having fame, respect, mystic potency, lots of followers, and so on. The conditioned mind leeches onto anything that will make it feel superior to others.
"In ISKCON, some men find mental satisfaction in thinking themselves superior to women. Well, where does this sense of superiority come from? Is Krsna speaking to us from within through the Supersoul, or is our mind subtly influenced by lust, greed, and anger because the false ego in us wants to feel important?
"To honestly determine the origin of our thoughts and feelings, we have to go to guru and sastra and carefully study what they say. A description of how our minds are conditioned is given in chapter fourteen of Bhagavad-gita, called 'The Three Modes of Material Nature.' There Krsna speaks in detail about the categories He devised for running material nature: passion, goodness, and ignorance. They fit, respectively, with the basic cycle of nature: creation, maintenance, and destruction.
"When a soul takes on a material body, he is forced to act according to one or more of these three modes. And these modes act in all sorts of complicated ways.
"The modes of nature affect everything, including human psychology. In the mode of passion, the mind jumps here and there, unable to sit still. This agitated mind, restless, active, and wanting to create, finds ultimate expression in the sex act.
"In the mode of goodness, where things are maintained, one is calm, peaceful, and reflective. Knowledge and the ability to see things as they are is possible only in this mode. It is the steppingstone to spiritual awareness.
"In the mode of ignorance, one doesn't care about anything. The mind is neither active nor reflective. It is inert. This is the state reached through intoxicants.
"By studying this chapter in Bhagavad-gita we can learn to recognize these modes in ourselves and understand how they affect us. If a man acts to assert his superiority over women, he clearly is under the influence of the modes.
"In the mode of goodness, a person, through detachment, cultivates knowledge, which brings a sense of charitable superiority over those less knowledgeable. But in passion a person aggressively jockeys for some kind of position or control over others. And in ignorance one may be angry and violent.
"From this one could deduce that a male devotee who doesn't want to hear a qualified woman give class, lead kirtana, and so on, protesting that his mind becomes agitated, is affected by the mode of passion.
"But chauvinism—the desire to feel superior to others (racially, sexually, or however)—is antithetical to spiritual life. Not only does a transcendental person see all living entities as equal parts and parcels of Krsna, but because of humility he sees all other devotees as better servants of Krsna than himself.
"With this understanding of what makes some male devotees discriminate against women, I am better able to look at myself, for I face a similar struggle: to learn to control my mind and rise above the duality of seeing men as the ones excluding me from devotional service. I must look at the source of my anger and dissatisfaction, because ultimately no one who wants to get out of this material world is unfairly denied access to the means of getting out. As soon as we sincerely desire to get out of this material world, Krsna makes every possible arrangement, and no one and nothing can stand in Krsna's way, not even the male false ego. The facility for devotional service may not always come in the form we expect, but it will be there. That Krsna guarantees.
"Naturally, tests will come, and those tests are tailor-made with uncanny precision to goad the false ego. For me, learning to avoid becoming entangled in others' false egos has been the greatest challenge I have had to face. But I believe that with Lord Caitanya's mercy it is possible to meet that challenge.
"The storehouse of knowledge that Lord Caitanya has so mercifully unlocked for us is there ever ready for plundering. By distributing the holy name to the millions of lost souls, Krsna helps us transcend the dualities of male and female caused by the modes of material nature. And if we take His mission to heart, university students will soon no longer be asking, 'Where are your women teachers?'"
Manasa Ganga Devi Dasi lives in the Philadelphia ISKCON community. She is a disciple of Ravindra Svarupa Dasa and serves as his secretary. Prior to becoming a devotee, in 1986, she received her B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina, spent six years as a community organizer in New York City, and completed a premedical curriculum at West Chester University.