The Importance of Women in ISKCON
a talk by Hridayananda Maharaja
Reposted November 29, 2002
In the time allotted to me I wanted to speak on three related topics and leave as much time as possible for any questions or comments - we could have some discussion on these points. The topics I wanted to speak on are, firstly, how I think this process affects myself personally and also the men in ISKCON, as we sometimes say 'the male bodied devotees'; secondly, how from listening I think it is important for the women themselves; and thirdly, how the topic is important for the world and Srila Praphupada's mission.
I will start with my own awareness. I became convinced some time ago that what was about to happen here was of great historical importance, and I am now even more so convinced that this meeting is not only Krishna conscious but it is an important event that will be recorded historically. It is not the beginning, of course, but it is certainly one of the first powerful, organised manifestations of a process which I think will bring tremendous good to ISKCON and to the world. Before launching directly into the first point, what not only this meeting but also the general process of trying to facilitate and empower the women in ISKCON means to me, I feel I must express my most profound appreciation for the women and men who have spoken here, and I say this with great sincerity, it's been very moving and very enlightening to say the least, and I think the eloquence, intelligence and Krishna consciousness of the women who have spoken practically proves the point they were making. Anyway, I would like to thank all of them.
So the first point, what it means to me. When I went home last night from the conference the realisation that came to me was that I felt by the women striking forth to re-establish their proper position in ISKCON and in Vaishnava culture, they were also restoring to me part of myself, and I'll explain what that means. Prabhupada used to say that we are not impersonalists, we do not see Krishna alone. One time Prabhupada saw a poster of Krishna, one of those things you sometimes see in India. Krishna was maybe the syllable 'Om' with some light behind him, no cowherd boys or girls, no cows, no Vrindavana, and Prabhupada said this is not bona fide because we are not impersonalists, we don't see Krishna alone. As we have heard from Krishna-devata who has been speaking very eloquently about this point of the family, we have to understand that ultimately there is, as I say, that big family up in the sky in Krishna-loka. Actually we are eternally a family and to understand that is to understand Krishna consciousness. When, due to injudicious polices or our own immaturity and ignorance, basically half the family in ISKCON is cut off from what could be much more meaningful participation, then actually all of us are cut off. That was my realisation last night, that if we are denied the normal spiritual relationships with mothers, with sisters, with daughters, nieces - we don't have aunts so much - we are actually being denied our own self realisation. Because to be Krishna conscious, to be able to go back to the spiritual world and actually participate with Krishna and with the pure devotees there, to be up to speed, so to speak, with the spiritual world, means that one has to fully realise one's own self as an eternal spiritual person, and the realisation of that eternal spiritual personality actually comes by relationships, because to be a person means to have relationships with other persons.
By artificially denying those fortunate great souls who have taken birth as women, to deny our own relationships with them on the spiritual platform, to try to subjugate them or relegate them to a type of sub-human or sub-devotional status within ISKCON, is actually to deny our own spiritual identity and to deprive ourselves of the types of relationships that we personally need in order to develop our own understanding of ourselves, to develop ourselves as spiritual persons, because when we get to the spiritual world you can't do that kind of nonsense. So that's the realisation I had last night, that among many other things, this is also a self-realisation experience for me. All the men, I think, are really depriving themselves of the full richness of Krishna consciousness, they cannot actually fully understand themselves as spiritual persons if they deny these relationships. Also, as some speakers mentioned, the symptom of a pure devotee or Krishna conscious person is to see Krishna in everyone, to see everyone in Krishna. We all know that famous verse in the Baghavad-gita:
'tad viddhi pranip„tena/ pariprasnena sevay„/ upadeksyanti te jnanam/ jnaninas tattva-darsinah'. "Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realised souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth". (Bhagavad-Gita 4.35).
The next verse is also very significant because Krishna says, 'Who has understood this knowledge given by the spiritual master hears the truth'. Krishna says that when you have understood this knowledge, which comes from the spiritual master, then one understands that all living beings are part of Me and are in Me and are Mine. So without this ability to see all living beings as part of Krishna, especially those who are directly engaged in the Lord's service, one cannot actually become Krishna conscious. So I think it should be philosophically obvious that without offering the proper respect to the devotees who are appearing as women, without actually caring about them, without appreciating them, one cannot understand spiritual knowledge. One will actually be unable to really understand Krishna consciousness. So I think any sane person who is practising Krishna consciousness can recognise this point of offering proper respect.
One thing that keeps coming to my mind is I'm now very convinced that the very best women in the world are actually in the Hare Krishna movement. According to all the descriptions we have in the Vedic literature they are actually great souls, they are actually worshippable. If we don't see things this way we are actually devaluing Krishna, because if great souls in whatever bodies dedicate their lives to serving Krishna and we don't give importance to them, we're actually not giving importance to Krishna. Again, in many ways I think that this process of offering to the women in ISKCON what is actually owed to them is essential for the men for their own spiritual advancement, for their own spiritual understanding, for them to go back to Godhead. I don't think that men can go back to Godhead if they don't respect women. So that was my first point.
The second point is that as far as the women themselves are concerned, the greatest violence is to cause someone to forget Krishna. Prabhupada, of course, said the absolute good is Krishna consciousness, and the absolute evil is to take Krishna consciousness away from someone. Certainly in our present conditioned state we do need some encouragement to be Krishna conscious - this has already been said by so many other speakers, so I'll just refer to it - but to deny to the women what Krishna actually wants for them, what Prabhupada wants for them, is the greatest violence. It means not to represent Krishna but to represent Kali. This movement is actually meant for spreading knowledge, so to create ignorance or to create illusion within the Hare Krishna movement is the greatest disservice, and in my view to claim that the women are unable to perform outstanding devotional service, to actually make a significant historical difference to the salvation of the world, to deny that is simply to create illusion within the community of Vaishnavism. I think that point has been made very well by so many other people; by listening to the speakers here I really felt that I was in the presence of great souls, and I think not to recognise that is ignorance.
The third point I wanted to make is that, as I've already hinted, just as the men cannot actually become pure devotees of Krishna if they don't recognise that there are also great devotees who are women, I think also that this movement cannot actually mature and flourish unless we recognise the women. To me, I think that in many ways the women are actually saving the Hare Krishna movement. For example, this emphasis on 'ista gosti'. Just by demanding - as I hope they will demand - that the men actually, as I sometimes say, 'wake up and smell the kafta', by insisting that the men actually be Krishna conscious, I think that the women are actually making a tremendous contribution to our personal advancement and to the preaching. Although the women have done so much service, I think in a sense this is perhaps historically one of the greatest contributions the women are making. This process of the women becoming organised is making a contribution which will be historically recorded, and it has actually made a tremendous and outstanding contribution to the salvation of the world, to the empowering of the Krishna consciousness movement. I think it's clear from our scriptures that men often fall into illusion and have to be brought out of illusion by their wives, mothers, sisters or daughters. There are many examples one can give: the wives of the Brahmanas - Oh, the Brahmanas! Krishna sent his cowherd boyfriends to the Brahmans to ask for food, but they couldn't appreciate this request, they couldn't appreciate Krishna, and they flatly refused. Then Krishna said, 'Ask their wives, they're actually much more intelligent'. The wives, of course, were pure devotees of Krishna. So, as I sometimes ask, why did Vyasadeva put this story there if the real point was to hammer into everyone's head that men are always more intelligent. Why wasn't the opposite story described? So that's one example where actually the wives enlightened their husbands.
In the 'Mahabharata' Pandu wants Kunti to have sons with another man, a pure Brahman or whatever, or by demigods, but Kunti's reluctant. At one point Pandu says, 'A woman has to follow her husband; whether he's right or wrong, she has to follow him', and I'm sure some people will quote that, but what happens a few paragraphs later is that when Pandu is actually wrong Kunti corrects him and he surrenders to her. Just after saying that, 'A woman has to follow her husband, right or wrong'. So there are many cases like that. Kunti had to correct Pandu, the wives of the Brahmans had to correct their husbands. Draupadi had to chastise and correct her five husbands, the Pandavas, who were pure devotees of Krishna. Still, Draupadi knew better. Kunti gave the instruction that the alms should be shared equally between the brothers, and then it turned out that the alms were of course Draupadi's. At that point Yudhisthira said, 'Well, it was just a joke, she didn't understand, therefore we really don't have to follow this', and Kunti chastised Yudhisthira and said, 'No, why are you trying to degrade me by making me go back on my word?', and Yudhisthira, of course, accepted what his mother said. If we look in the scriptures there are many, many examples where the men were in illusion and the women had to save the men from illusion by giving them Krishna consciousness knowledge. I am personally convinced that this is just such a situation. I am personally convinced that for some time the men have been in a type of illusion, and there are still some men who are in a type of illusion about this, and that the women are actually giving us knowledge and bringing us back to Krishna consciousness. So I think that this is an outstanding contribution which is not only bringing us back to Krishna consciousness on one particular point but actually, on an institutional level, bringing the entire society back to a higher state of Krishna consciousness.
As far as what this means for the preaching, the women are of course at least half of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and therefore we want to double this. As Prabhupada said, we should double it. Obviously the easiest way to double it is to simply recognise that half of us are women and that they are, as Prabhupada said, equal to their brothers. This simple act of waking up, of coming out of the ignorance which is based on the bodily concept of life, and acknowledging the women will not only double this community and give us twice as many empowered devotees but it will also mean we won't have devotees working at cross purposes. Those are basically the points I wanted to make but there are a few other details I could mention. Having travelled around many countries this year, and everywhere I went trying to explain some of these points as best I could, my own observation are that, as some people said, it's not just simply a question of Vedic culture. I found in Poland, in Italy, in Brazil, in Argentina and around America that there is a type of unconsciousness on the part of the men. As a typical example, in the temple room the men somehow or other have developed the illusionary understanding that the temple room is actually their temple room and that the women can take their remnants in the form of whatever spaces they don't choose to occupy, and if they choose to occupy all of them the women can take a walk. So I tried to explain to them that actually the women are an equally important community within the ISKCON and that it is also their temple room, it's actually Krishna's temple room. I have noticed, for example, that the men sit down for a class and we try to make an equal space for the women and the men - I think they've simply become crude and uncultured - simply sit down in front of a woman without thinking, 'I'm sitting down in front of another person'. As has already been mentioned, a Guru-puja may be going on where the women are offering the flowers but then whatever man walks in feels that because he is a member of the master race, the master sub-race of the human race, he can simply butt in line and all the matajis, immediately becoming ashamed of their existence by seeing a male body, should immediately flee and run back and apologise and then wait untill the last man has finished and then come back again. This type of behaviour is actually uncivilised. It's crude, uncultured behaviour, and my experience from going around the temples was that when we were having very heavy ista gostis on this point - in the temples where I was allowed to have ista gostis - the men were actually relieved and they thanked me, and the relief was that finally somebody had told them that it was bona fide to be a gentleman.
My personal perception - some of best friends have had male bodies - was that when we joined the Krishna consciousness movement we had to sort of reject everything, so you just pressed that button on your computer that says 'erase' and you erase all the programs and then you just start getting all this information. As you know, we rejected a lot of simple, normal culture like being a gentleman, being kind, being compassionate, so a type of male mafia has I think arisen in ISKCON. It is a type of consciousness where the men, even men who would actually be much more satisfied being kind and gentlemanly, feel that it's somehow not bona fide to be nice to women. That somehow it's like, you know, you're not a man unless you play this role, and they were very relieved and grateful that someone had authorised them to be gentlemen.
I would like to make a further point about the actual way to conquer lust. I think Mother Jyotirmayi spoke so nicely and so much better than I can, also Malati and many other ladies. I remember 1970 in Boston in the Sankirtan van, I was Sankirtan leader, we just all piled in, there was no women's or men's section of the van what to speak of a men's and women's van. You can still see these pictures in the Back to Godhead magazine. We're all just in the van, smiling and waving at the cameras. There was actually no lust, and there was no lust because there was great respect. I was a Brahmacari for one and a half years and it was one of the best times of my life, it was super-ecstatic, always thinking of Krishna, and I can honestly say - you know, after a few weeks I got the hang of it - that there was no question of lust. I was actually thinking of Krishna, and I had tremendous respect for the ladies. I don't think it was just because I loved my mother, which I did - I actually have a nice mother - it was not only that I was brought up with great affection for my mother, but also that was just the consciousness. As a Brahmacari I actually felt great respect for the ladies, I felt they were transcendentalists, Bhakta-yoginis, and there was no question of lust. I think that the idea that the way to conquer lust is to despise the woman enough so you don't fall down, cultivating hatred and hostility towards women, has obviously totally failed. Everyone already knows that the men who are the most averse to women are the ones who are going to fall the hardest.
So my recommendation to the men, which is what I've been preaching to my own disciples and brahmacaris in general around the movement, is that the real way to conquer lust is by learning to offer all respect to women. If you actually feel reverence for women as your mother, if you actually have this reverence, this deep respect, if you very sincerely feel this, then actually this is the way to conquer lust because you can't simultaneously respect someone and want to exploit them. After all, lust is the desire to exploit and the opposite of that is the desire to serve. I know if my mother came to the temple I wouldn't ask her to stand at the back while I went to the front. We should see women as mothers, sometimes Prabhupada said like children, although as someone said today, not three year old children. Even if one thinks that one could see women in this way, we see practically that when all the parents in ISKCON bring their children to the temple they bring them to the front of the temple, they make all arrangements for the children to be happy to see the deities, they accept all personal discomfort for the comfort of their children. So even if one wants to see things this way, what are the implications?
Before we open this up for questions and discussion, I would like to first of all express my great, deep gratitude to the women who are organising this process. So to sum up, I am personally very convinced, and I think on very good grounds, that this is historically, in an incalculable way, proving ISKCON, in many ways saving ISKCON. I think that this process is bringing ISKCON to the point of finally becoming an adult movement, where we have young people but it is actually a mature movement. If we want to talk about families, I mean my own family I came from - my material family - it's my mother that really keeps things together. She's the one that's on the phone and, you know, we've got to go to this place for this holiday, she still does it. I can see that there's no question that if my mother wasn't there the family would not have the same sense of family. So perhaps as a final point I would like to point out real ways, not abstract, but general points such as if you respect women then you can come to the brahma-bhuta platform and so on and so forth. But women make a real contribution. Half of what it means to be a society is the women in it, so if we don't engage the women and encourage them properly we will never really have a society. We will have a somewhat dysfunctional and incomplete society like we have now. I think perhaps one of the reasons our society still is, in some ways, dysfunctional as a society is because of the lack of women's roles. I didn't come from a matriarchal background yet still my mother played a very strong role in my personal upbringing and plays a very strong role in keeping the family together, in the mundane sense of the term, and if she wasn't there it wouldn't really be a family the way it is now. And I think ISKCON cannot become a family, we cannot realise that we are a family, we cannot be functional as a movement unless the women are there, unless the women actually have their important role to play.
In my own ashram - many of you come to visit there over by Wilshire and Roberts where I live - one experience I repeatedly have, not only there but everywhere I've lived, is that if I just depend on the brahmacaris I'm going to live in a dump. There would be no flowers, there would be no cleanliness and half the time it won't be such great prasadam. Not that I want to limit the women's roles to these things. I've always believed women can do everything if that's what their natural inclination is. I know that one Godsister of mine I met in England, who's nature is to sort of always complain, was complaining to me that when she used to work under me back in the 70's when Prabhupada was there and we were working together producing books, that I just treated her like everyone else, that is, we were all just soldiers, and I should have treated her more like a woman. What I mean to say is that my personal conception has always been that we're all soldiers in Lord Caitanya's army, everyone should just do what they have to do, so in my opinion women can do anything that Krishna inspires them to do and I don't think there are any limits to it. I mean a woman can save the world if a woman turns out to be the greatest devotee of the Lord, the greatest preacher, which is possible. If in Prabhupada's service some woman saves the world, that's fine with me. I have no problem with it. It's not that I hope a man saves the world. I want to make that clear, that the women can do anything that Krishna inspires them to do. In 1975 when Prabhupada was discussing the academic program that we're now trying to carry out some devotee man asked, 'Is this only for men or do women also participate?', and Prabhupada was surprised by the question. He said, 'Why not, what's the problem? Of course it's the women, just not cats and dogs'.
So, even though women can do anything it's still crystal clear to me that in my own ashram, if the women aren't there doing service it's basically going to be a filthy mess, in many ways the women civilise the ashram and create the proper atmosphere for spiritual life, an atmosphere for spiritual advancement. The lack of women in prominent positions in ISKCON, the lack of women being empowered by us in ISKCON, I think has very much impoverished ISKCON's movement in many serious ways, has made it dysfunctional, has in many ways obstructed the spiritual advancement of the men what to speak of what it's done to the women. I see this project the women are carrying out now, and it really is the women, we're here now just to participate but really the credit goes to the women, as actually a major renaissance within ISKCON, and that's why I'm pushing it so hard because it's the right thing to do. I think that the movement is at the present time, in many ways, stuck in the mud and cannot move forward unless this process of empowering the women actually becomes successful. So thank you very much.