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Women in ISKCON in Prabhupada's Time: Part Four

By: for vaishnaviministry.org on March 24, 2017
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Women Leading Kirtans and Bhajanas 

“An important apparent contradiction comes from a statement in the scriptures that a sannyasi and a brahmacari should not hear a woman’s voice. But Srila Prabhupada had men and women chant japa together, women led kirtans in the temple and in public engagements, and the women gave classes.

* Srila Prabhupada had Yamuna (one of our best singers) lead kirtans in front of crowds of guests and devotees, which included of course sannyasis and brahmacaris.

* Yamuna, Lilavati, Kausalya, and later Parijata, Jyotirmayi and many others used to routinely lead kirtans.

* “I want to organize a women kirtan party singing the Gita-Gan. Can you help me?” (letter to Gargamuni Maharaja, 1974)

* In France, when he noticed that Jyotirmayi could pronounce the Sanskrit better than others (she had been taught by Nitai, his personal sanskrit secretary), Srila Prabhupada said that from then on, she should lead the recitation of the sanskrit verses before class. (Jyotirmayi, 1972)

* During his massage Prabhupada heard a letter from Jayasacinandana in Los Angeles written on behalf of a group of brahmacaris. In every ISKCON temple of the world the assembled devotees offer their obeisances to the Deities in the morning as the Govindam prayers loudly play. George Harrison recorded it, and Yamuna sings the mantras. Disturbed by this custom, Jaysacinandana quoted Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur (as well as Srila Prabhupada) that if a brahmacari hears and is attracted to a woman’s singing, it is a subtle fall down. “In light of this, he wrote, many of the brahmacaris approached the temple president to see if it would be possible that when the Deities are greeted in the morning, instead of listening to Gurudasa Maharaja’s former wife singing the Brahma-samhita prayers, we could listen to Your Divine Grace rather than hear a woman sing.” He did not want to change the tape because it has been a standard thing in ISKCON since 1970. “So requested by many devotees, I am inquiring from Your Divine Grace if we could play a tape recording of your singing instead of a woman when the Deities of Rukmini Dvarkadhisha are greeted in the morning. I am sure that all the devotees would be enlivened to hear you instead of electric guitars, the London symphonic orchestra, etc., etc……”

Prabhupada was not pleased. He said that constantly changing things is “our Western disease.” His reply was short and direct. “No! You have made some discovery. All along you have been hearing the recording of Yamuna dasi and now you want to change. It is not ordinary singing, it is not concert. Many people are singing, so it is not bad. Just like Sankirtana. I approve of it. Here in the Krishna-Balarama temple we are hearing the same recording every morning. So if it is good here, why not there?” (Hari Sauri, Dec 1975, Vrndavan, “A Transcendental Diary.”)

Women’s Advancement 

* For a long period of time, women in ISKCON have been considered unfit for real spiritual advancement. Their only hope was to become men in their next life and start spiritual life from that point.

* “Regarding your question, yes woman can certainly reach the perfectional stage of devotion to Krishna.” (letter to Krishna Devi, 1969)

* Srila Prabhupada said about Yamuna in the early 70’s that she had reached the stage of bhava.

* “In the Bhagavad-gita we find that women are also equally competent like the men in the matter of Krishna consciousness movement.” (letter to Himavati, 1969)

* We are Vaishnavas. We are not concerned with male of female position in life. That is simply bodily concept of life. It is not spiritual. Whether one is male or female, it does not matter, simply chant Hare Krishna and follow the four regulative principles and your life will be perfect.” (letter to Jennifer, 1975)

* It is not that women should only produce children, but they are meant for advancing in devotion.” (letter to Jayatirtha, 1975)

Women As Dangerous For Men 

Many men in the movement have used various scriptural statements on women’s faults to rebuke and humiliate them, hinder their service and advancement, or even try to drive them out of the movement.

* When Srila Prabhupada first said in a class that for a man, association with a woman is dangerous because she makes him lose control over his senses, the male devotees started acting very nastily with the women of that particular temple. The ladies expressed their pain to Prabhupada who then called in all the men and said: “I was talking of materialistic women, not of the women of the movement. These are angels.”

* Srila Prabhupada also said in another instance: “When we talk of women, we do not talk about those of our movement because by associating with these women, if they are Krishna Conscious, you will be liberated.” (Madhavananda)

* A disciple of Swami Narayana said to Srila Prabhupada: “My spiritual master said to avoid all women and to never go where there are women.” Srila Prabhupada laughed and said: “That is impossible, there are women everywhere.” Then, coming back to the temple and watching two women devotees bow down to him, he said: “By associating with these women, you will be purified.” (Madhavananda)

* On various occasions, brahmacaris complained to Srila Prabhupada that they were agitated by the presence of women in the temple, and Srila Prabhupada replied that if they could not restrain their senses, they should go live alone in the forest.

* “Regarding the disturbance made by the women devotees, they are also living beings. They also come to Krishna. So consciously I cannot deny them. If our male members, the brahmacaris and sannyasis, if they become steady in Krishna Consciousness, there is not problem. It is the duty of the male members to be very steady and cautious.” (letter to Gargamuni Swami, 1975)

Women’s Wellbeing 

For years men were always given the best facilities (as far as living quarters, chanting japa, sitting places in a van or at festivals, prasad, etc.) while the women got what was left. But Srila Prabhupada was always concerned that the women be well protected and taken care of.

* During the Gaura Purnima festival in Vrndavana, Yamuna fell sick. Srila Prabhupada had her stay with him until she got better. (Yamuna)

* In 1974, Palika lived in India with Prabhupada, her husband having taken sannyasa. While she was taking care of Prabhupada in his office, Srila Prabhupada noticed that her sari had a hole and said, “I am going to buy a sari. Yours is all torn.” As she protested, he continued: “Your husband Bhavananda has now taken sannyasa; therefore I shall give you some money.” (Dinatarine) * Srila Prabhupada was informed that there was no running water in the women’s living quarters in Bombay for a long time, as the plumbing needed repairs. Srila Prabhupada called in the leaders and said: “You are always talking of big big things and you do not see that these simple things are being taken care of.”

* Srila Prabhupada wanted that for Sankirtana (chanting in the street), women stay in the middle to be protected.

Women’s Level of Intelligence 

Srila Prabhupada’s statement and the scriptures’ statements about the women being less intelligent has brought a lot of misunderstanding and men’s ruthless behavior towards women. But what does “less intelligent” exactly mean?

* kalau sudra sambhavat: in the age of Kali, everyone is sudra. In the Vedic times, women were considered on the same level as vaisyas and sudras. The brahmanas and ksatriyas of those days were so elevated that women were no doubt on an inferior level. But in Kali-yuga, men have degraded to the level of the women, everyone being sudra, and cannot pose themselves as highly superior anymore.

* In Bhagavad-gita (3, 42–43), Krishna says: “The working senses are superior to dull matter, mind is higher than the senses, intelligence is still higher than the mind, and he (soul) is even higher than the intelligence….one should steady the mind by deliberate intelligence.” According to this definition, an intelligent person is one who is able to control the mind with his intelligence. The mind’s activities are thinking, feeling, willing. Therefore it can be concluded that a woman is less intelligent because she has harder time to control her emotions than a man. But it does not mean that a woman is totally deprived of most intelligence, as it has unfortunately often been established in the movement. It is not that one goes from the most intelligent man down to the most stupid, and then only comes the most intelligent women down to the most stupid. If we rate men and women’s intelligence on a scale, it is not that man’s intelligence occupies the highest section and women’s the lowest, but rather, the two overlap. Of course, it is certainly true that if one takes the most intelligent men in the world and the most intelligent women, the men might be on a higher level than the women.”

*There are various facets of intelligence- intelligence as controller of the mind, material intelligence, spiritual intelligence — and various definitions. Srila Prabhupada once defined it as “sharp memory and good discrimination.” The following examples illustrate its different meanings:

* Srila Prabhupada said to a lady disciple: “Well, if you think you are a woman that means you are less intelligent, because you are suppose to understand that you are a spirit soul and that your real identity is transcendental to these bodily designations.” (Sadaputa)

* When Srila Prabhupada was asked if Jyotirmayi should finish her studies in ethnology (study of religions and cultures) in order to teach Vaisnavism in the universities, he answered, “Yes, she is very intelligent girl, she can do it.” (Yogesvara)

* “Another examination will be held sometime in 1971 on the 4 books, Bhagavad-gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, Teachings Of Lord Chaitanya and the Nectar of Devotion. One who will pass this examination will be awarded the title Bhakti-vedanta. I want that all my spiritual sons and daughters will inherit this title of Bhakti-vedanta, so that the family transcendental diploma will continue through the generations. Those possessing the title of Bhakti-vedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples. Maybe by 1975 all my disciples will be allowed to initiate and increase the number of generations. That is my program.” (letter to Hamsadutta, 1968)

* “Regarding your questions about the examination to be given, the girls will also be able to take these. In Krishna Consciousness there is no distinction between girls and boys. The girls also may become preachers if they are able.” (letter to Himavati, 1969)

* “Now I see that in our Society the girls are more intelligent than the boys.” (Letter to Krishna Devi, 1970)

Women As Preachers

For many years, women have been forbidden to give classes to all devotees in the temple room, to give Sunday lectures to guests, whereas those were common practices from the beginning of the movement to about 1973–74.

* “Regarding lecturing by women devotees: I have informed you that in the service of the Lord there is no distinction of caste, or creed, color or sex…… We require a person who is in knowledge of Krishna, that is the only qualification of a person speaking. It does not matter what he is. Materially a woman may be less intelligent than a man, but spiritually everyone is pure soul. In the absolute plane there is no gradation of higher and lower. If a woman can lecture nicely and to the point, we should hear her carefully. That is our philosophy. But if a man can speak better than a woman, the man should be given the first preference…” (letter to Jaya Govinda, 1968)

* “Jadurani has now become a nice preacher, I have report from Satsvarupa that she gives lectures very nicely. If we open a pavilion, I shall take Jadurani also at that time so she will deliver nice lectures.” (letter to Mahapurusa, 1968.)

* “So far as girls or boys lecturing in the morning, that does not make any difference. Either girl or boy devotee may deliver lecture if they choose to do. We have no such distinction of bodily designations, male or female. Krishna Consciousness is on the spiritual platform. As such, anyone who is a devotee of the Lord, following in this line of disciplic succession, can deliver lecture on the teachings of Bhagavad-gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, etc.” (letter to Syama Dasi, 1968)

*Srila Prabhupada had Himavati give public lectures in front of crowds of people in India.

* From 1973–74, when stopping women from giving classes began to spread from temple to temple, country to country, different women went to Prabhupada for help.

* “You can also keep giving Bhagavatam class if you like. Women in our movement can also preach very nicely. Actually male and female bodies, these are just outward designations; Lord Chaitanya said that whether one is brahmana or whatever he may be, if he knows the science of Krishna, then he is to be accepted as guru.” (letter to Malati, 1974)

*Excerpt from a conversation about varnashrama dharma between Srila Prabhupada, Yogesvara, and Jyotirmayi, 1974, France.

SP: Woman is to help her husband.

JM: So the duty of the brahmana is to preach. It is to learn the philosophy.

SP: Yes, to learn and to preach.

JM: And to teach the philosophy. So in our movement, the women have always preached philosophy, given classes, given lectures.

SP: Oh yes, oh yes. With the husband. She is always helping hand to hand the husband…. Assistant.

JM: Does that mean that the girls should not give lectures and not give classes?

SP: Why not? If she is a brahmana’s wife, she can give lecture.

JM: Jadurani, for example, now she is no longer with her husband anymore., but she is giving classes, she is giving lectures. So is that good?

SP: Yes, yes. Why not? This varnashrama dharma, woman is according to the husband. That’s all. Jadurani is suppose to be a brahmana’s wife, her husband has taken sannyasa, so she can preach.

JM: So women can preach. They can give classes. They can give lectures.

SP: Oh yes.

* After receiving the confirmation from Srila Prabhupada, Jyotirmayi went on giving classes in France. But the pressure from the American men became stronger and stronger (such as telling the brahmacaris not to attend the classes), and Jyotirmayi wrote to Prabhupada for his renewed support. At that time, Srila Prabhupada did not write his letters himself anymore but dictated his answers to his secretary. As it happened that both Jyotirmayi and Bhagavan had written to Prabhupada at that time, each for a particular question, Srila Prabhupada had his secretary Brahmananda answer them both a common letter. The letter that Srila Prabhupada sent was confirming her right to give classes in the temple. (Jyotirmayi)

Householder Life and Sannyasa 

As women were being demeaned, householder men and householder life were also heavily put down, to the point that householders were in great numbers trying to convince Prabhupada to give them sannyasa.

* “Regarding your separation from Nandarani, nothing should be done artificially. Nandarani is no different from you. She also seeks Krishna Consciousness. Your household life is not repugnant. It is favorable. Do not separate artificially. When everyone is engaged in Krishna ‘s service, there is no question of maya. I have got good estimation about Nandarani.” (letter to Dayananda)

* “If you have taken a wife for grhastha life, why are you neglecting? That is not Vaishnava. Vaishnava means he is very much responsible, and if he is householder, then he must be responsible. I cannot give sannyasa to any devotee who has not proven himself to be responsible in all respects. Better you prove yourself first by being ideal householder and forget all this nonsense.” (letter to Mahatma, 1972)

* This taking sannyasa should not be a whimsical proposition, and should not be an excuse for becoming irresponsible, have no responsibility as grhastha, brahmacari, etc.” (letter to Danavir, 1973)

* “We are suppose to take husband or wife as eternal companion or assistant in Krishna Conscious service, and there is promise never to separate. Of course if there is any instance of very advanced disciples, married couple, and they have agreed that the husband shall now take sannyasa or renounced order of life, being mutually very happy by that arrangement, then there is ground for such separation. But even in those cases there is no question of separation, the husband, even he is sannyasa, he must be certain his wife will be taken care of nicely and protected in his absence. Now so many cases are there of unhappiness by the wife who has been abandoned by her husband against her wishes. So how can I sanction such thing? ….But if it becomes so easy for me to get married and then leave my wife, under excuse of married life being an impediment to my own spiritual progress, that will not be very good at all. That is misunderstanding of what is advancement in spiritual life.” (letter to Madhukara, 1975)

Conclusion

If I usually write “many men” and not just “men,” it is that a certain number of them, especially amongst householders, objected against the way women were being treated. But their effort to protect the women was always quickly stopped as they ended up being ridiculed by their godbrothers calling them “henpecked husbands.”

The arguments presented here, as well as the anecdotes and letters referred to, are certainly already known to and approved by most of the devotees who have sincerely and objectively tried to understand the matter of women in ISKCON. I have only tried to compile as many of them as possible in a structured way to inform those who never thought the matter over and those who are reluctant to make the necessary changes, being adverse or insufficiently convinced.

Many of the wrongs done to women for so many years have now been corrected and ISKCON women have recovered some of their rights. Unfortunately, they have been rehabilitated only to higher or lesser degrees according to the different leaders in different places. Much is still to be done for men to fully recognize women’s dignity, and for women to again assume that dignity everywhere. Hare Krishna.

Proposal for Re-Establishing ISKCON Women in Their Spiritual Rights

1) Many of the rights taken away from women have been given back to them for a number of years now, to a different degrees in various temples. Again, they are allowed to write articles, perform Deity worship, give classes in the temple, take on various posts of responsibilities previously forbidden to women. (Gurukula headmistress, head pujari, photographer, member of temple administration or national council, etc.). Respect and proper behavior towards women has also come back within ISKCON to a certain extent. Harikesa Swami for example had a memo written to protect women from improper behavior on the part of the men and leaders. Here are some excerpts:

* Whenever prasadam is served, it must be served simultaneously to both the men and women…This is especially true at festivals. Sufficient sized rooms should be allotted to the men and women for taking prasadam. The women should not be made to wait till after the men eat.

* It is a mental concoction to strictly call men “Prabhu” and women “Mataji.”However, calling the ladies “Mataji” is a sign of respect since everyone should respect their mother. It is a very respectful term and should be used in that way. If one uses the term “Mata” in a derogatory sense, then he is using it wrongly. Neither does calling someone “Prabhu” imply automatically that they are superior to a lady. Someone shall be known as higher or lower according to their spiritual status, not according to their gender or social opinion.

* The women should be given equal facilities in the temple. It is not that the men are given a lot of room to live in but the women must be cramped up in their quarters. Both should have proper place to live and both should get equal medical facilities and health care when sick. This principle of equality should be extrapolated into all areas of temple life. All practical considerations should be examined in this light and where there is discrimination, it should be abolished.

* If a women is a temple president, temple commander, Sankirtana leader or department head, she should be respected by the other devotees, either male or female. Anyone who is a leader in ISKCON has the authority of ISKCON behind them and should be respected. We should not tolerate that some male member of ISKCON will disrespect some female temple president simply because she is female. There must be respect of this position.

* No guru, sannyasi or preacher may speak in a derogatory way about women in classes or in discussions amongst men. They must maintain this spirit of respect between men and women. This does not mean, however, that we should not repeat the message of the shastras or what we have heard from Srila Prabhupada regarding the dangers of association between men and women. Rather, this means that there should be no statements wherein the devotee women are seen as lower than the devotee men, and therefore treated improperly. (Memo to the National Council of Germany, from Harikesha Swami, GBC, January 1994)

2) There are very positive improvements but still more has to be done. And these improvements should not be limited to only some temples or some zones, but to the whole movement. To attain this goal, the re-establishment should be one of the prime objectives of the GBC board as it concerns (children included) half of the population of ISKCON.

In addition to what has been instituted by Harikesha Swami, in his zone, here is a list of further situations to be corrected in our movement to bring back Srila Prabhupada’s original ISKCON.

* Men and women should both face the Deities again, each on one side of the temple room during kirtans.

* Men and women should both face the speaker of the Bhagavatam or Bhagavad-gita class again, each on one side of the temple room.

* During festivals, both men and women should face the stage, each on one side.

* During special celebrations, both men and women should be invited to sing and talk on stage, both on one side.

* During guru-puja and Vyasa-puja, women should be again allowed to offer obeisances in front of the vyasasana and not anymore obliged to offer them in the back of the temple.

* While offering flowers to Srila Prabhupada during guru-puja, there should be as in the past two lines, one of men, one of women, presenting simultaneously the petals. Out of the two lines, one man goes, then a woman, and so on.

* The same should be done for offering ghee lamps during the month of Damodara.

* Japa should again be chanted by both men and women in the temple room, sitting down in front of the Deities, men and women each on their side.

* During public preaching programs, men should be on side, women on the other side.

* While chanting in the streets, both men and women in turn should give a short speech.

* During Tulasi worship in the temple room, there should be as in the past only one Tulasi for everyone, both men and women devotees.

* New devotee men should be taught to avoid intimate associate with women (except of course their own wife), but they should not be taught to hate and humiliate women devotees.

* As much as men should be taught to respect women as mothers, women should be taught to respect women as mothers, women should be taught to see the men as sons.

* Women should be taught to respect each other and not feel contempt for each other. *

During festivals, while bathing the Deities, pushing Their swing or reading an offering to Srila Prabhupada, first all the senior men and women should go, then younger men and women; not all the men, then all the women.

* As much as both men and women are taught how to distribute books on Sankirtan, both men and women should equally be taught how to give classes and public lectures.

* Women able to lead kirtans and bhajans with real devotion and art should be allowed to do so.

* Women should be allowed as before to perform mangala-arati as well as 7 o’clock arati.

I surely have not covered everything in this list but at least a good part of the problems women have had to face since about 1973, when Srila Prabhupada could not personally oversee ISKCON’s management anymore.

3) Because of bad habits acquired for so many years, what was so natural and simple for devotees at the beginning with Srila Prabhupada will be very difficult to institute again now. Most devotees having not known anything else since the time they joined, will not want to change their ways, thinking that doing so will be maya. And this attitude will come from women as much as from men. Changing back to the way it was will also be accepted more easily by leaders, by old and advanced devotees than by the mass of devotees. Some will oppose strongly, some will be enthusiastic, and some won’t dare. It will therefore be necessary for the leaders to free the minds of the devotees all over again, in a very practical way.

* Temple presidents should have regular ista-ghosthi’s where all these points will be thoroughly discussed until all objections will be defeated, everything clarified and understood, and finally the mentalities changed.

Example 1: It will be objected that some temple rooms are too narrow for men and women to be side by side. Some of our temples in the past were also small and narrow, still there was no problem, just a small space was left between the two lines of men and women, but no one ever sat or stood in the reserved space.

Example 2: Some women will object that they cannot be shy if they come up front. Women in the past were never considered immodest by Prabhupada because of standing in front of the Deities and meditating on Them. So, if Prabhupada did feel that way, do they think they know better than Prabhupada how a woman should behave in Krishna Consciousness?

* Temple presidents, GBC’s and heads of departments should see to the application of the reformation of the women’s condition day to day.

Example: Stop the men from pushing the women back to the end of the temple room by progressively dancing more and more to their side and on the space left between them and the altar.

Example: Not give in to the blackmailing of some men such as: “If a woman gives class, I won’t attend.”

*Experienced lecturers should teach the women how to give class and prepare it: proper state of mind, adequate reason for giving class, how to develop erudition, how to capture the attention of the audience, etc. As they never had the chance to practice progressively as the men did, they can start with easier classes such as Chaitanya-Charitamrta classes or readings of Prabhupada Lilamrta (where there is a lot of reading with just a few comments). Once they feel more at ease, they will begin Bhagavad-gita classes, then Bhagavatam classes when they feel ready. Often, there are no weekly lists of who gives classes, who offers guru-puja arati. Just anyone who feels like it goes up.

Women won’t dare to just go up like that. There should therefore be weekly lists so they may know when it is their turn, especially for classes. Women will not give a spontaneous class as they have no practice. It is better anyway for most devotees to prepare their classes to really teach philosophy to their audience.

* Women are so used to sitting passively back in class, that they have often lost proper behavior. They often go in and out, lean against the wall, sew or do other things rather than really listen and participate actively, let their children move about noisily. They must be taught again adequate behavior in class, respect of the speaker and the listeners. Those who just listen, have no children or services should sit in the front. Those with children or service should sit in the back of the other women. Being side by side with men, the young children will more easily disturb the men, and they should therefore be better controlled by their mothers. Srila Prabhupada always wanted the children to behave properly in the temple room. (*6)

4) Recovering Srila Prabhupada’s sprit, as far as devotee women are concerned, is of the utmost importance for our movement even though many may not be conscious of it.

* To advance spiritually, women need examples, just as men have sannyasis, GBC men, gurus, temple leaders. If older women are allowed to express their realizations and knowledge through classes, their devotion through kirtans and take great responsibilities for their spiritual master, younger women will see them as examples to follow and will advance more and more. * When on the contrary, they are trained to see all women as unadvanced, unintelligent, incapable, etc., having no female example to admire and follow, being unable to imitate men, as their services and association are forbidden to them, they often despise other women and become sexually attracted to advanced men devotees, either grossly or subtly. That is how the phenomenon of “groupies” takes place, and how men leaders fall down.

* Immature men think that despising women and putting them down, “keeping them in their place,” proves their own worth. In reality, in societies where men are truly confident of their own worth, women are not merely tolerated, they are valued. Their opinions are listened to with respect, they are given their rightful place in shaping the society in which they live.

* Not only has the prejudicial, hurtful behavior towards women stopped many men and women from joining our movement, but it has made us fail to attract, or made us lose, the interest and support of educated thoughtful seekers of spiritual truth.

* Whatever progress the movement has made since Prabhupada’ s arrival is been due at least as much to the efforts of women as of men assisting him. But the women having been kept away from almost all decision making and superior responsibilities since 1973, the problems and chaotic situations which have befallen ISKCON since cannot be attributed to them, but to the men only. Maybe listening to what the older advanced women had to say would have helped to avoid many blunders.

*Some of the valid positions we have on controversial issues, such as abortion, divorce, sex, birth control, women, children, lose a lot of their impact and are much less convincing in large measure because of their being presented by men instead of women, to whom these issues mainly belong.

* Srila Prabhupada built the movement on the foundation of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s unique contribution. No one is to be excluded from the Sankirtana movement, regardless of gender, race, religion, age, social status, or any material distinction. 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. By not following in his footsteps and trying to overstep his decisions, we bring a universal spirituality to the level of a sect, with no contribution to make to the vital issues of our time.

* As we celebrate Srila Prabhupada’s Centennial, the world prepares to celebrate the new millennium. Those who wish to see Prabhupada truly honored this year will acknowledge the universality of his message and its relevance to a world in transition, a world in which the role and contribution of women will continue to increase in size and scope. Hare Krishna.

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