BY A QUIRK OF FATE, when my family and I were living on an ISKCON farm some five years ago, I was assigned to once-a-week nursery duty. On my first day, I went to the nursery at the appointed time with my three-year-old daughter and received eight other lively three-year-olds as they were dropped off by their parents. I clapped my hands and said, "All right, children! Let's sit in a circle. We're going to have a kirtana!"
When they were seated, I asked, "Who would like to lead?" Immediately nine eager hands shot up, straining to get my attention, accompanied by a chorus of "Me!" "Me!" "Me!" Then the little boy sitting next to my daughter leaned over to her, his hand still raised, and said, "You can't lead because you're a girl."
I was so stunned by that comment that I can't remember what happened afterwards. At what other nursery, at least in the Western world, would a child have the notion that a girl couldn't lead others in singing simply because she was a girl? I think none.
Yet here, in a community of those attempting to practice Vaisnavism, a philosophy that acknowledges the spiritual equality of all living beings in all forms of life—we were shackled with "can do's" and "cannot do's" based on the particular body the soul was housed in.
On one hand our Vaisnava scriptures give explicit rules governing womanly conduct. Yet on the other hand the ultimate purpose of these rules is to enable all men and women to grow and blossom fully in Krsna consciousness.
For me, any seeming dichotomy this might raise is resolved when I think about the example of Srila Prabhupada, the embodiment of Vaisnava scripture. Since Srila Prabhupada's departure from this world thirteen years ago, little has been written about his unique exchanges with his female followers. This was a relationship free from any tinge of mundane romance or anti-woman sentiment. Srila Prabhupada, being free from sensual desires, did not feel his vow of celibacy threatened by his young female followers. And, being free from false ego, he had no need to assert male superiority or dominance.
In the atmosphere created by Srila Prabhupada's purity, a relationship grew. On Prabhupada's side it was full of caring and a continuous attempt to fan the spark of devotional service he saw within us. On our side it was fostered by a deep feeling of Prabhupada's concern for our spiritual advancement and well-being. We were full of excitement—how to serve him, how to please him, how to surrender more fully to him and so taste a tiny bit of the Krsna consciousness he was relishing at every moment.
I dearly wish that the little boy in the nursery and all the people behind the "you can't because" mentality in his mind could have seen Prabhupada as he asked my friend and Godsister Yamuna Prabhu to lead kirtana time and time again—at gatherings of his disciples, at the homes of life members, and at programs with literally tens of thousands in attendance. Prabhupada pressed Yamuna into leading even when she had a sore throat and wanted to avoid it. He even asked me to lead once, and I can't sing worth a farthing. (Afterwards he said, "Visakha Prabhu, you have sung very nicely.") But what we could or couldn't do wasn't really a consideration. As women with Prabhupada, we held within us the most treasured knowledge: that Prabhupada wanted us to succeed. He wanted us to go back home, back to the spiritual kingdom, and he wanted us to be perpetually enlivened, determined, and patient in our quest of this goal. By his guidance, by his smile, by his selfless love for us, he all but carried us along. What stigma can shackle persons so propelled?
Pages could be filled with stories of Prabhupada's gentlemanly dealings and sweet exchanges with us women. I can only bow my head at the feet of my Lords, Sri Sri Radha Krsna, and thank Them for allowing me to have a little of Srila Prabhupada's association in this life. For without that, I couldn't understand what it means to be an aspiring woman devotee in an international society of aspiring devotees.
Visakha Devi Dasi received an Associate in Applied Science degree, with honors, from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1970. In 1971 she became a disciple of Srila Prabhupada and has served him since then through her writing, photography, and filmmaking. She is now working on a line of Krsna conscious greeting cards. She lives with her husband and daughter near the Hare Krsna temple in Alachua, in northern Florida.