Chakra Discussions

Things Change; Avoid Silly Controversy

by Ramachandra Goswami

Posted June 15, 2008

Times have changed. Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami was born and grew up in an age in Bengal which could almost have been a different planet than today's modern India. When I was first in India 30 years ago, to see an Indian girl in western dress was unusual. Unmarried girls wore salwar kurta, and married women wore saris, unless they were Muslims or were from the northern states. The ladies of Prabhupada's era wore the Bengali style of sari, which is very modest.

I remember that in Vrindavan 30 years ago brahmin women would wrap a white shawl over their saris if they went out -- even in summer. Today in the big cities the sari is dying, and unmarried girls parade in jeans and shirts. To see the old ways vanishing in the name of modernism and women's rights is perhaps sad for some, but it is the way of ongoing kali-yuga. It is an interesting irony that nowadays in India only the Muslims seem to follow the old ways of female modesty and gender segregation that had been a part of Indian culture.

An old friend of mine, a working woman from Delhi, was talking to me about the sad demise of the sari. If you are working, commuting and earning a living in today's fast-track India, a flowing, modest sari, beautiful though it may be, is just too difficult to do anything in. Female modesty has more or less disappeared from India; was it ever there in ISKCON? Well, it is not easy for western females to gain a modest mindset when they have grown up in a world that teaches that modesty in body or mind is a weakness. Of corse, we must appeal to all Vaishnava women never to confuse modesty with weakness.

Undoubtedly, women in india have been oppressed for millennia; this is undeniable. In the name of Vedic or Hindu culture, women have been exploited; this is not even debatable. One who has spent a lifetime in India, as I have done, will know the truth, but perhaps we should not, in the name of freedom and human rights, throw out the baby with the bath water. We must also accept a new reality.

Do we want to go back to 19th century Bengal? While women "knew their place," they were slaves, for sure, and no Hindu, whether Vaishnava or Shaivate, would even touch a Westerner unless there were water for purification. Hindus and Muslims were slaughtering each other; if you were "negro," you were not even considered human; and if you were "lower caste," you were actually untouchable -- so things have changed.

It is depressing that the real problems facing us and the world are never discussed. I think we should be more concerned about saving our planet and stopping an evil, bloody war in iraq (where some Vaishnavas are actually serving) than getting worked up about non-issues such as so-called "evil gays and feminists" taking over the world. There will always be women, and there wil always be people who are sexually attracted to the same gender (from birth, by the way). Rather than demonising differences, we should accept new realities and compromise to live together despite differences.