Loma Hoffman, a Back to Godhead reader, wrote, "I was intrigued to read in the last issue that there existed a woman spiritual master in the Vaisnava tradition, named Srimati Gangamata." But Lorna complained that Srila Prabhupada omits mention of women in his writings. She quoted a sample:
" 'We can know God, however, because He has communicated with men …,' " and added. "Has Lord Krsna not communicated also with countless women and children?"
"I would join your movement tomorrow," Loma continued, "if it weren't for this solid wall of misogyny that I encounter at every rum. I find your magazine, and most of the individuals I've met to be fairly friendly to women. The problem is Prabhupada."
But in the samples Loma quoted, Srila Prabhupada intended no neglect of women. When he writes that God has "communicated with men," Prabhupada is employing the convention that men or mankind includes women and children. Nowadays, of course, statements that employ the male gender are no longer seen as sufficient for addressing all humanity. A writer is expected to use neutral statements referring to "all persons" or else mention them specifically as men and women.
But although Prabhupada's prose employs the older convention, it is unfair to accuse him of not including women in his invitation for all spirit souls to render loving service unto Krsna. Srila Prabhupada was born in the late 1800s and educated in the early part of this century, before such changes in convention took place. Only in the quite recent past have writers and the reading public considered words like he and mankind to be exclusively addressed to men.
Conventions of the English language aside, we should understand that Srila Prabhupada was very liberal in his distribution of Krsna consciousness, especially to women. Vedic culture emphasizes that women should be protected. Without neglecting this important principle. Srila Prabhupada took a giant step forward by encouraging women to participate as active preachers in the important work of spreading Krsna consciousness.
When Srila Prabhupada came to America, his free distribution of Krsna consciousness was revolutionary. In a purport in the Srimad-Bhagavatam(5.6.3) he explains his departure from the very strict separation of men and women that existed in traditional Indian society:
In our Krsna consciousness movement it has been very difficult to disassociate ourselves from women in our Society, especially in Western countries. We are therefore sometimes criticized, but nonetheless we are trying to give everyone a chance to chant the Hare Krsna maha-mantra and thus advance spiritually.
Prabhupada's attitude toward women was not demeaning or belittling. He saw them as equal to men:
Since both boys and girls are being trained to become preachers, these girls are not ordinary girls but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Krsna consciousness. Therefore to engage both boys and girls in fully transcendental activities is a policy intended to spread the Krsna consciousness movement . . . We are thoroughly instructing both men and women how to preach, and actually they are preaching wonderfully. .. . Both men and women are preaching the gospel of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Lord Krsna with redoubled strength. (Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila 7.32. 37, purports)
By a superficial reading of Srila Prabhupada's purports, one might think that Prabhupada considered women allurements to make men fall into illusion. But the fact is that both women and men are lures for the opposite sex. When Srila Prabhupada or any bona fide Vedic teacher says that woman is the cause of a man's fall-down, he actually means that woman is the downfall for a man and that man is the downfall for a woman:
In these instructions of Lord Kapiladeva it is explained that not only is woman the gateway to hell for man, but man is also the gateway to hell for woman. It is a question of attachment A man becomes attached to a woman because of her service, her beauty, and many other assets, and similarly a woman becomes attached to a man for his giving her a nice place to live, ornaments, dress, and children. As long as either is attached to the other for such material enjoyment the woman is dangerous for the man, and the man is also dangerous for the woman. But if the attachment is transferred to Krsna, both of them become Krsna conscious and then marriage is very nice. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.31.42, purport)
Prabhupada, therefore, gave the Krsna consciousness movement the legacy of equality for women. It is also a fact that ISKCON is undergoing considerable soul-searching in trying to apply these principles in the context of modern society and at the same time faithfully follow the Vedic scriptures. At present, members of ISKCON are engaged in much discussion over this issue, and the public is also curious about what direction we will take regarding feminism.
Among the different opinions expressed by Krsna conscious devotees, here is one I received in a letter from Kaisori dasi from Boston:
I don't think that the position of women in ISKCON is much different from their position in any industrialized society. ISKCON may, perhaps, give a little more scope for demeaning women, although it is not really part of our philosophy or culture. But our main problem is that we are members of, and therefore influenced by, Western industrialized society.
Kaisori goes on to say that in traditional Vedic culture women had a strong role to play because they were involved in the economic base of maintaining the families. She writes,
As we examine Vedic culture, we can see that while men pastured the cows (in the case of vaisyas), women dealt with the by-product of cow protection: milk. They churned butter, made yogurt and did whatever was necessary to preserve the quantity of milk (which was their wealth). They used it for the family or prepared the excess for sale. In this sense, women were partners.
Kaisori's point is that industrialization has changed all that Now the economic base of the family is no longer centered in the home, and that leaves women in a double bind. They are forced to either leave their children or no longer participate in the economic survival of the family. If they don't go out and work, they are sometimes seen as less productive. And if they do renounce taking care of their children, then they suffer greater anxiety.
In ISKCON, for example, if a woman has a child, she may be seen as not able to take part in the vital work of the community. So we in ISKCON are dealing with the same problem as industrialized women outside of ISKCON: whether to work or to care for the children.
The Vedic conception is that women should be mothers, that it is glorious to be a mother, and a religious duty. According to one Vedic saying, "Women become beautiful only after having a child." But if after having a child, they are treated by men as less productive or as useless members of the community then what to do? Kaisori writes,
I think the answer lies in the move toward self-sufficiency in rural farm projects. Then women can again take part in serving to fulfill the needs of family and community, in a respectful, anxiety-free way, with their children in tow. This will, of course, also be a struggle, because we are not trained to live like this. It requires simple living and high thinking and a real dedication to social change, even within ISKCON. It is a gradual process.
Of course, this is just one approach to a many-faceted problem. But Lorna Hoffman and others shouldn't think ISKCON is complacently sitting back with prejudiced attitudes toward women. If ISKCON is seen by some as behind the times in accepting women, they should not blame the teachings of Srila Prabhupada. He did more than anyone to give women a chance for equal participation in the most important aspect of human endeavor: devotional service to God.
ISKCON does not intend to imitate extreme forms of feminism that bear the materialistic stamp, but by sincere dialogue and by trying to work out problems, devotees are making progress. If we succeed, then Lord Krsna and Srila Prabhupada will be pleased with us because surely they intended that all men and women should live together happily in Krsna consciousness, in this life and in the next. SDG