A parampara critique of “Women in ISKCON in Prabhupada’s Times”
The importance of this paper is that for the first time in ISKCON, the mistreatment experienced by some of ISKCON’s women since ISKCON’s beginning is explained primarily in terms of the teachings found in Srila Prabhupada’s books. All other works before this have attempted to explain their mistreatment primarily in terms of what they remember of their personal dealings with Srila Prabhupada, with little to no input from his books, and Jyotirmayi’s paper “Women in ISKCON in Prabhupada’s Times” is an outstanding example of this. It is found that on topics related to women, emphasizing the authority of people’s memories of their unrecorded encounters with Srila Prabhupada at the expense of the authority of Srila Prabhupada’s books is motivated by a deep attachment to Western ideas of gender equality, which in turn leads to a faithlessness that results in the complete repudiation of the authority of shastra and Srila Prabhupada. The distinct advantage of an explanation based on Srila Prabhupada’s books is that it avoids the problem of becoming faithless, because the causal explanation closely conforms to shastra and Srila Prabhupada’s purports. Moreover, it offers practical guidance that has application not only for ISKCON’s members but for the people suffering in the world at large.
 For further discussion of these matters, please see Sri Bhakti Vikasa Swami’s book Women, Masters or Mothers. More information about the book can be found at:<http://www.bvks.com/books/women_masters_or_mothers>.
If you have never heard the term, then no need to read this. It’s probably not something you have to deal with.
On Facebook in a conversation which recently took place and about which I had no prior knowledge of or interest in, one of the participants felt compelled to make a public display of contempt towards Bhakti Vikas Swami, Basu Ghosh Prabhu, and me, by name, in order to convince a group of people with their own suspicions that Srila Prabhupada was a male chauvinist sexist that it is not Srila Prabhupada but his defenders (specifically, Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Basu Ghosh Prabhu, and me) who make him appear like a sexist. That is, we’re the sexists, not Srila Prabhupada. At least that’s the gist of Prabhu Akruranatha’s innuendo.
So, here is brief sample of Prabhu Akruranath’s “Two Minute Hate” and starting point for the rest of whatever I have to say here. He writes:
— quote —
But when conservative devotees like Bhakti Vikas Swami or Basu Ghosh Das or Krishna Kirti Das tell me that the liberal devotees and “feminists” in ISKCON actually reject Srila Prabhupada and the teachings of his books, I tell them, “No. You have misunderstood them. They just want us to be lenient with social rules and understand the true purpose behind them, as Srila Prabhupada did. They want to address the spirit soul of those not trained in higher Aryan moral values.”
— end quote —
As a principle, we say that consistency is an essential property of correct understanding. The best understanding of what Srila Prabhupada meant is that it can be supported from a comprehensive range not only of his other statements but also of shastra and the statements of prior acharyas. Cherry-picking statements from the Vedabase according to one’s personal tastes, as is the common fashion, is unacceptable.
This principle of consistency is followed by Srila Prabhupada himself. In his Gita commentary to verse 2.12, he writes,
— quote —
The Mayavadi may argue that the individuality spoken of by Krsna is not spiritual, but material. Even accepting the argument that the individuality is material, then how can one distinguish Krsna’s individuality? Krsna afﬁrms His individuality in the past and conﬁrms His individuality in the future also. He has conﬁrmed His individuality in many ways, and impersonal Brahman has been declared to be subordinate to Him. Krsna has maintained spiritual individuality all along; if He is accepted as an ordinary conditioned soul in individual consciousness, then His Bhagavad-gita has no value as authoritative scripture. A common man with all the four defects of human frailty is unable to teach that which is worth hearing. The Gita is above such literature. No mundane book compares with the Bhagavad-gita. When one accepts Krsna as an ordinary man, the Gita loses all importance.
— end quote —
Srila Prabhupada rejects the Mayavadi argument on the grounds of it being inconsistent with other precepts supported by shastra. This mode of argument is typical of Vaishnava acharyas in our parampara or in others we consider authoritative. We say that to understand Srila Prabhupada’s properly we must approach in the same way whatever he wrote or said. Conversely, a good indication that someone has misunderstood Srila Prabhupada is when that person’s statements are inconsistent with whatever else Srila Prabhupada, previous acharyas and shastra have said.
The virtue of this approach is that it is measurable. We can understand when some idea attributed to Srila Prabhupada is correct or incorrect in just the same way Srila Prabhupada demonstrated the fallacy of the Mayavada understanding.
As a contemporary example, in Mother Jyotirmayi’s widely acclaimed essay “Women in ISKCON in Srila Prabhupada’s Time,” she writes,
— quote —
He made the necessary adjustment of womanhood to modern Western situations, as he saw that following the traditional Vedic definition would be completely anachronistic and impede our movement.
— end quote —
But if the traditional Vedic definition of womanhood is “completely anachronistic”, then why did Srila Prabhupada often criticize modern society on the basis of this definition? See for example Bhagavad-gita As It Is http://www.vedabase.com/en/bg/16/1-3 and especially http://www.vedabase.com/en/bg/16/7.
Thus while we can all widely agree that Srila Prabhupada did in fact loosen some standards for the sake of preaching to a people unfamiliar with Vedic culture and precepts, where we disagree is on the intent and permanency of those changes being ascribed to Srila Prabhupada. Much of what Srila Prabhupada says specifically about the subject of womanhood has to be rendered irrelevant or untenable just to uphold Jyotirmayi’s interpretation of Srila Prabhupada’s words. Moreover, calling the Vedas, or literature in pursuance of the Vedic version, “completely anachronistic” also happens to be an offense against the holy name — sruti shastra nindanam.
So when there is such a gulf of difference between what they say Srila Prabhupada meant and what he actually meant, a lot of things go on in the name of Srila Prabhupada that aren’t really genuinely Krishna conscious. People mimic him without proper understanding and then expect the same results, not unlike how people in a cargo-cult go through the motions of building airstrips and wooden props resembling radios and other electronic equipment with the expectation that airplains and “cargo” would be the result of their attempts at sympathetic magic.
As per the Wikipedia entry for “Cargo cult”,
— quote —
With the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo. In response, charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, Jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day-to-day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles. The islanders carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses
— end quote —
In the same way, the cargo-cult adjuster thinks if he imitates Srila Prabhupada and continues to adjust ISKCON until–surprise! time, place and circumstance, Prabhu!–it resembles any one of the innumerable modern, socially and politically leftist, Western unitarian churches, then we will become powerful and influential like the West and dominate the world. Instead, they imitate Srila Prabhupada without adequate depth, and they always somehow end up getting a contrary result.
When Akruranatha says (in this case, to me, in public), “No. You have misunderstood them [the liberal and ‘feminist’ devotees]. They just want us to be lenient with social rules and understand the true purpose behind them, as Srila Prabhupada did,” he’s making a big, and unwarranted, leap of faith in the critical judgment of “liberal and ‘feminist’ devotees”. Do they really know what Srila Prabhupada’s intentions are? If so, then why is it that the “liberal and ‘feminist'” crowd is the only demographic in ISKCON that is known for criticizing him publicly? No other group does this. Really.
Here is an excerpt from a report produced by a group of women convened by the GBC women’s ministry to discuss ICC (ISKCON Continental Committee)’s reservations of the 2000 Women in ISKCON resolutions passed by the GBC.
— BEGIN QUOTE —
Meeting of Senior Vaisnavis, February 18th, 2004
Present: Malati dasi ( GBC, New Vrindavana ), Subuddhi dasi ( Temple President, ISKCON Toronto), Gaurangi dasi ( India and France ), Ali Krishna
( Italy ) dasi, Urvasi dasi ( Ohai praching center, USA), Visaka dasi ( Saranagati Farm, Canada ) , Sudamani dasi ( Philadelphia , USA ), Prasanta dasi ( India ), Acintya Rupa dasi ( Australia ), Praharana dasi ( Toronto), Rupa Manjari dasi Radha Desh, Belgium), Vishnu Priya dasi ( Italy ), Arcana dasi ( Bolivia ), Racitambhara dasi ( Vancouver, Canada, lived in Mayapura for many years ),
Paurnamasi dasi, Toronto, Canada), Saranga dasi ( Bombay and Vrindavana )
Seventeen senior Vaisnavis met to discuss the issues raised by the non-compliance of the ICC regarding GBC Resolutions 501 and 618, passed in 2000.
There was discussion regarding the need to define the role of women in ISKCON which was established as a preaching movement by Srila Prabhupada. The definition needs to be determined by sastra, by the instructions and example of Srila Prabhupada, by looking at the social environment where we preach in India and abroad, and by 35 years of practical experience of devotees within ISKCON.
There was acknowledgement that there will be diversity within ISKCON as devotees determine for themselves what particular path brings them further along the path of devotional service. Unity in diversity is certainly relevant in the definition of the roles of both men and women as servants of Lord Caitanya. The extreme views of some men and women regarding a Vaishnavi’s role as restricted to family activities are seen NOT to be a women’s issue, but rather an authority issue, relevant to all thoughtful devotees.
The group did not in anyway minimize the role of women as wives and mothers within the family structure. This is the top priority for a married woman. However women were acknowledged to be effective in many other devotional capacities as well, during all periods of their lives. Tolerance, respect and appreciation is necessary because variations are valid and should be valued. We as a Society can choose to have an international society of devotees or we can develop into a Balkan type of institution with many entrenched camps and little unity or cooperation.
Vedic life, as extolled in our scriptures, is highly interpretive. Understanding what is truly Vedic is elusive. Srila Prabhupada, taught us about Vedic society and the role of varnashrama in elevating society, but he did not practically speaking, engage his spiritual daughters within such a system. They were active preachers, pujaris, cooks, etc. Srila Prabhupada in fact, introduced a new model with new standards; one based on preaching. He had Yamuna dasi perform Abhisehka in Jaipura when the Radha Govinda Deities were installed in 1972 before thousands of Indian pilgrims. He had Malati dasi speak before a large crowd including Gaudiya Matha in Mayapura after the laying of the corner stone in 1972. He was proud to showcase his competent daughters to his god-brothers.
. . .
— END QUOTE —
Just in case your liberal or “feminist” eyeballs “accidentally” skipped over that last paragraph, or perhaps found its meaning “truly elusive”, here’s a recap:
These senior women, who are supposed to be the advanced among the advanced women in our society, are on record for declaring that Srila Prabhupada “introduced a new model with new standards” and that somehow all the old-fashioned Vedic stuff about womanhood, values and standards that Srila Prabhuapda criticizes modern Western civilization with are now irrelevant.
Why? Because “Understanding what is truly Vedic is elusive.” Even though he referred to Vedic culture and Vedic civilization and Vedic principles in his books and in person on innumerable occasions, whatever he meant by what he said is incomprehensible.
The fact that these women are supposed to be advanced devotees means they don’t get a pass for being naive. It is not the case that they don’t understand “what is truly Vedic” or that they believe that understanding it is “elusive.” They know very well what it is. It’s just that they don’t like it. That is why they are so dismissive of it.
And the reason they don’t like it is because they want to be welcome in the company of others who are non-devotees–asuras, demons, people who are envious of Krishna. To be pleasing to them, they not only have to say things like this but also end up believing them, too.
A case in point is the Facebook post by Prabhu Akruranath that occasioned this response. In order to appeal to a group of people who tend to be liberal and feminist in their social values and are sometimes outspokenly critical of Srila Prabhupada, he has to show his solidarity with them by disparaging others who have a track record of defending Srila Prabhupada. He is trying to say, “Hey, I’m on your side, not on theirs.”
Moreover, to show his comrades that he really, most truly is a faithful party member, Prabhu Akruranath stages a very brief “Two Minutes Hate” against me and two others as token Emmanuel Goldsteins. He neither quotes us nor describes with any reasonable standard of accuracy a specific idea that any of us have articulated over the years. His message to his distressed Facebook friends are clear enough: he and his friends are with the good guys, and we are the bad guys. Really, what can you say to that?
You can’t say anything, because the motivation is fundamentally irrational. In this case and more generally it’s like arguing with someone about his preference for a color. “You like the color pink for the wrong reason!” “But I *like* pink.” That’s the nature of the disagreement. It cannot be rationally discussed.
But the fact that our differences are fundamentally irrational does not mean they are trivial or unimportant. They are very important because our convictions about these matters arise from our association with (or transcendence of) the modes of nature. The siddhanta, or conclusion, is that our reasoning begins with the modes of nature and naturally proceeds from there. Sattvanarupa sarvasya shraddha bhavati bharata, shraddha mayo yam purusho yo yac chraddha sa eva sah, “According to one’s existence under the three modes of material nature, one acquires a particular kind of faith. One is said to be of a particular faith according to the modes he has acquired.” (Gita 17.3) The differences arise because within our society there are deep disparities in terms of the modes of nature, which is to say that our social issues are fundamentally driven by widespread contamination of the lower modes.
This contamination has specific sources: initiated devotees taking up jobs in the workforce, children of devotees going to public schools, keeping friends at work or in the school, or elsewhere, that are not devotees, spending years in universities to acquire advanced training and credentials (often giving the excuse of doing it for preaching) and thereby coming into the association of non-devotees, and so forth. Naturally, by spending so much time with them, you make friends with them and want to be more like them. The common thread in all this is that ISKCON’s members, whether great or small, maintain extensive association with non-devotees not simply for the sake of preaching to them but for their friendship or professional association. This is where the contamination is coming from. That has to be corrected before any meaningful dialog can take place.
Hence, nothing can be gained in discussion with the interlocutors of the Facebook thread that occasioned this piece. I’m not posting the full response there–only a link just because I said I would respond. But after spending some time organizing my thoughts somewhat on this matter, I thought it would be of some benefit to share them with the people on my side, “the good guys.” :-). At least “good” in terms of fidelity to the corpus of Vedic literature in general and Srila Prabhupada’s teachings specifically. That in connection with Krishna consciousness is a virtue worth fighting for.
This is why I’ve lately grown more inclined to avoid debating same-sex marriage in open discussion forums. I haven’t declared an unbreakable personal moratorium. I’ll happily explain the Christian position to a good-faith questioner over coffee. But I don’t want to act as though the marriage issue is just another open question that we’re all free to consider. I’m not willing to pretend anymore that rational debate has anything to do with what is happening in America today (and indeed, throughout the Western world). Christians are not losing the cultural battle because they’ve lost the argument. Their arguments are as compelling as ever, but in most “decent company” they are no longer permitted to explain them, and are often subject to censure and other penalties if they try.
Rachel Lu, “Why I Avoid Same-Sex Marriage Debates” 8 Jun 2015, Ricochet 16 Aug. 2015 < https://ricochet.com/avoid-sex-marriage-debates/ >
Says Lord of the Rings actor John Rhys-Davies about the Western response to ISIS:
‘But it’s all relevant, it’s all equally relative. We’re all the same. And God and the devil, they’re the same, aren’t they, really? Right and wrong? It’s really just two faces of the same coin.
‘We have lost our moral compass completely, and unless we find it, we’re going to lose our civilization.
That is what impersonalism does: it destroys one’s sense of right and wrong because no culture is supposed to be better than another.
When you hear someone describing exploitation in terms of “power imbalances”, you have probably encountered someone whose view of the world is profoundly conditioned by Marxism.
But even if that weren’t the case, the commentators’ response would be misguided. The law didn’t come out of nowhere. It emerged as a response to a status quo that has proved to be an all-too-powerful tool for sexual predators, because it enables them to claim to see consent in everything except continuous, unequivocal rejection. That status quo puts women in the position of having to constantly police their own behavior to make sure that they are not giving the appearance of passive consent. That’s not only exhausting; it’s limiting. It reinforces power imbalances that keep women out of positions of success and authority.
Amanda Taub, “‘Yes means yes’ is about much more than rape”, 13 Oct. 2014, Vox, 13 Aug. 2015 < http://www.vox.com/2014/10/10/6952227/rape-culture-is-a-tax-on-women-CA-yes-means-yes-dierks-katz >
Note the reference to “power imbalances”. Of course, if you are convinced that “power imbalances” are the cause of oppression and exploitation, then no amount of reasoning is going to convince you otherwise. It’s a belief about the way the world works. Beliefs are primarily changed by changing the belief-holder’s association. That is why proper Vaishnava communities — temple ashramas, grihastha ashramas, and so forth, are necessary for our own protection and for the upliftment of others. Otherwise, it is very difficult to save ourselves and save others. They are supposed to be safe-spaces to help us spiritually heal others and ourselves.