by His Holiness Bhakti Vikas Swami
(This article was written for publication on Dandavats.com but it has not been featured there.)
Disputes over gender roles are, of course, not unique to ISKCON. For several decades, certain Christian denominations have been racked and rent by gender wars, and sections of Islam and Judaism have also been affected.
What is perhaps unique in ISKCON, however, is a nigh taboo on the term “feminism” — maybe because Srila Prabhupada was so clearly against “women’s liberation,” or maybe because we consider ourselves to be too spiritual to be influenced by such mundane ideologies.
But let’s be clear what the issue is: feminism, the doctrine that human history has been unjustly dominated by men and that now women should get their fair rights, or more. Feminists particularly contend that religious tradition has upheld gender exploitation, and religious feminists seek to reinterpret scripture and tradition in light of feminist ideology.
Within Vaisnavism, feminists have discovered that, because the souls in the bodies of men and women are equal, there should be no social differences between them — even though generations of devotees before them understood that the souls in the bodies of men and women are equal but that indeed there should be social differences between them. It is not simply coincidental that this new perspective has arisen in tandem with secular feminism.
Feminists everywhere are busy and effective in changing every facet of civilization to fit their belief. Intrinsic to their politics is the gross condemnation of anyone who wishes to uphold traditional values. Feminists presume that male traditionalists simply wish to manipulate women, and that female traditionalists are dupes; both are enemies of humanity and deserve to be denigrated in the most graphic terms.
It might have been hoped that such rhetoric would not enter Vaisnava discourse on gender issues. But alas, it is not below the dignity of even the Dandavats website to publish the terms “taliban” and “patriarch” in relation to devotees who argue, with reference to guru, sadhu, and sastra, for traditional gender roles in Vaisnava society. (http://www.dandavats.com/?p=11120#comment-17118)
Such pejoratives more reflect Western conditioning than the sastra-caksu through which devotees are meant to see the world. Although to Westerners “Taliban” might seem a natural metaphor for “terrorist,” in certain countries there are many ordinary citizens who feel a comparable abhorrence toward Western governments who have devastated their homeland. Similarly, the scornful use of the term “patriarch” is loaded with the feminist ideology that is inculcated by the Western media.
Admittedly, the values of ISKCON’s traditionalists are extremely different from those of modern Western society. However, to therefore insinuate that such traditionalists are dangerous, nasty extremists (like the Taliban) is to assume a position closer to that of the modern West than to that of Srila Prabhupada, from whom ISKCON’s traditionalists imbibe what others see as their extremism. It is undeniable that Srila Prabhupada’s outlook on almost all social issues is extremely different to that which is widely accepted in Western society.
As Dr. J. Stillson Judah wrote in his 1974 book “Hare Krishna and the Counterculture”:
“‘The position of women in the Society may not appeal to Americans interested in women’s liberation. Swami Bhaktivedanta says that all women other than one’s wife are to be considered as one’s mother, and yet he regards them as prone to degradation, of little intelligence, and untrustworthy. They should not be given as much freedom as men, but should be treated like children; they should be protected all during their lives, by their fathers when young, later by their husbands, and in their old age, by their sons … This view is largely consonant with the traditional one found in the ancient Indian law books. Females may not become presidents of any temple, nor occupy positions of authority. They may do the cooking, help with the devotional services and maintenance of the temple and prepare the flower offerings for Krishna.”‘ (Judah, 1974:86)
How is it that Dr. Judah, who was a friend of Srila Prabhupada’s and of our movement, made such observations if they were not accurate? Moreover, Srila Prabhupada stated that he had read and approved of Judah’s book (see conversation, June 20, 1975). No doubt Srila Prabhupada would have expressed concern if he had felt misrepresented by Dr. Judah.
Srila Prabhupada made literally dozens of non-PC statements. For instance in the following conversation:
Prabhupada: So far gurukula is concerned, that also, I have given program. They have given the name of “girls.” We are not going to do that.
Tamala Krsna: What is that?
Prabhupada: Girls. Boys and girls. That is dangerous. Girls should be completely separated from the very beginning. They are very dangerous.
Tamala Krsna: So we’re… I thought there were girls in Vrndavana now. They said that they’re going to have the girls’ gurukula behind the boys’ gurukula. Gopala was talking about that.
Prabhupada: No, no, no. No girls.
Tamala Krsna: It should be in another city or somewhere else.
Prabhupada: Yes. They should be taught how to sweep, how to stitch, clean, cook, to be faithful to the husband.
Tamala Krsna: They don’t require a big school.
Prabhupada: No, no. That is mistake. They should be taught how to become obedient to the husband.
Tamala Krsna: Yeah, you won’t learn that in school.
Prabhupada: Little education, they can…
Tamala Krsna: Yeah. That they can get at home also.
Prabhupada: They should be stopped, this practice of prostitution. This is a very bad system in Europe and America. The boys and girls, they are educated, coeducation. From the very beginning of their life they become prostitutes. And they encourage. They distribute pills. I have seen the boys and girls dancing together, embracing, in the school film. That ruins the career. Both of them are ruined. That is very regrettable. Then you shall require this sterilization, pills, another big program. They are creating animal civilization, and when the animals are disturbing, they are trying to find out some other means. This is their program. First of all create animals. Then, when the animals behave like animals, then another program. Why do you create animal? Woman brahmacarini, this is artificial.
Tamala Krsna: In our centers, though, there are so many brahmacarinis, and even sometimes they’re encouraged to remain brahmacarini.
Prabhupada: That they cannot. As soon as they will find opportunity, they will become vyabhicarini [sexually deviated]. For woman, protection.
Tamala Krsna: So you don’t advocate this remaining sing…, these women remaining brahmacarinis.
Prabhupada: Therefore polygamy was allowed. Let them be taken care of, one husband, three wives. (April 29, 1977)
Mainstream Western thought would classify such statements of Srila Prabhupada as extremist, sexist, or maybe Talibanist. And it appears that members of ISKCON who acquiesce with mainstream Western thought think similarly about those devotees who maintain faith in such words of Srila Prabhupada.
What should we do with such statements? Expunge them from the Vedabase? Explain them as the eccentricity of an elderly Bengali gentleman? Or that they are merely the material, not spiritual, teachings of Srila Prabhupada and thus invalid? To simply ignore such statements is not an option because there are followers of Srila Prabhupada who take very seriously the principle “guru-mukha-padma-vakya cittete kariya aikya ara na kariha mane asa” and who will not very easily allow Srila Prabhupada’s words to be forgotten or recast in the light of various popular theories.
Undoubtedly, we have to consider carefully how to present and apply Srila Prabhupada’s teachings to a world that is not very open to them. But we are in danger of losing our connection with Srila Prabhupada if members of our own ranks adopt the prevailing dogmas of the misled civilization and employ them to attack those followers of Srila Prabhupada who are trying to uphold his message in its most pristine form.
 Where is the concession or compromise from the side of “conservatives” here? “Get educated but only be a mother and sister” – how is that different from the taliban/syrian type “She can own a car but cannot publicly drive it?”
And it is not that many women wouldn’t like to be protected and stay home, but protection is not their responsibility – putting the onus on them is very effeminate from the side of ‘patriarchs’…