Gender Crisis Among Prabhus
Posted August 9, 2009
How fascinating that one single word can spark such contention. The lecture Calling Women 'Prabhu' (link) seems to have flared up a new manifestation of the old gender issues within ISKCON. A later article entitled Prabhu Issue Will Not Go Away even promises a long-term quarrel. Italy had its Capulet-Montague, the USA had its Hatfield-McCoy, and ISKCON apparently has its own never-ending feud. I trust that it is not the case here, but could it be that some male devotees cannot bring themselves to address women as "prabhus" due to bodily-based prejudice?
The original lecture focused on the men's perspective, namely what ISKCON men should call women and men, while the question of how women are to address everyone is ignored. Overlooking roughly half of the audience is a disconcerting omission.
I was surprised to read that calling women "prabhu" is a new introduction. When I joined in 1974, at least in the Canadian & US Pacific Northwest, we called everyone by their first names informally, but used the term "prabhu" for both men and women when we felt the need to be more formal. Thus, calling women "prabhu" is not new at all. The terms "mata", "mother", or "mataji" were used as well, but not between women since there is assumingly no need to rise above physical attraction. I agree that there are recent introductions, such as the terms used to refer to groups ("the prabhus and the matajis").
Even more surprising is the fact that the lecture refers to the fact that Srila Prabhupada did call women "prabhu" on occasion, but then goes on to argue that it is incorrect to do so. While the grammatical issues have been put to rest by Hrdayananda Maharaja, a Sanskrit scholar, the vedic culture arguments are still subject to debate. Some of Srila Prabhupada's actions did seemingly defy certain principles of vedic culture, such as the restriction on sannyasis crossing the ocean and the notion of a brahmacarini asram. The very relationship of guru-disciple surely favors taking our cues from his example rather than from Indian culture. Visakha dasi posted several examples of Srila Prabhupada addressing women as "prabhu". Why would Srila Prabhupada address his own female disciples as "prabhu", who were truly not his masters, if not to teach us by his example to be humble to all devotees, regardless of nationality, gender or race?
Finally, I am concerned about Sivarama Swami's statement that he will not allow the practice of men calling women "prabhu" in his zone. With all due respect, is it within a GBC's managerial or ecclesiastical purview to regulate devotees' vocabulary? Is there a compelling reason to ban the usage of a word the way Srila Prabhupada used it?
One point we can all agree on: real respect for the devotees is more important than words. A Persian proverb says that what is in the heart will come out on the tongue. It seems that the first place to cultivate respect for all is in the heart.