In yesterday’s post I just got to the point where general discussion on gender roles in Kṛṣṇa consciousness turned to the long standing Prabhu vs Mātājī debate. To reiterate, on fresh reading the discourse participants barely listened to each other and instead valiantly fought for what they thought was right, ascribing their desired features to their opponents instead of trying to hear what they actually say.
It’s typical of exchanges in Kali yuga, on or off the internet, and it’s sad to see that devotees are not immune either. We are trying to make sense of the world we want to control and we are trying to make sense of Kṛṣṇa consciousness at the same time. We expect everything to be logical and we expect to feel safe in our knowledge. We also know that spiritual knowledge must be right and must always prevail so when we conflate it with impressions in our intelligence we become very defensive. Instead of spiritual knowledge being right we assume that whatever we have in our heads must be protected at all costs. Not standing up for our own interpretations is considered false humility, and so off we go telling others that they are wrong.
Sometimes they are, sometimes it’s us who are at fault, but it doesn’t matter because we are protecting our own desire to be in control and acting on this desire will always bring trouble, being right or wrong will not stop karma from working. Imagine what position we put Kṛṣṇa in by our constant appeals. He has to satisfy everybody who takes shelter in Him regardless of their misconceptions. He also has to uphold dharma. How does He manage keeping His devotees happy and content even when they are dead wrong? How does He stop falsehoods from affecting the innocents? I don’t know, that’s why He is God. How many lifetimes does it take for us to become mature and stop creating unnecessary disturbances for everybody? Kṛṣṇa is obviously very patient, too.
So, it was Govinda Dāsī herself who brought the subject of Prabhu vs Mātājī, and, in the heat of the moment, she didn’t do it very diplomatically. She said that this chapter in the book (Women: Masters or Mothers) was all wrong, Hari Śauri Prabhu, whose statement is quoted in support of “Mātājī”, wasn’t around in the early days and didn’t know much himself. If she’d just found the way to be less assertive, less dismissive and less offensive maybe the discourse would have reached an amicable resolution. As it was, however, people reacted with equal force and reconciliation had become impossible.
Devotees quickly rolled out quotes where Prabhupāda tells that women should be seen as mātājīs but Govinda Dāsī wasn’t finished. She referred to a 1968 meeting where it was decided to upgrade “Svamiji” to “Prabhupāda” for the first time because he was the chief Prabhu among many. This was defining moment as far as Govinda Dāsī’s memory is concerned. She was there and she remembers clearly that devotees were all Prabhu to one another and Prabhupāda was the one for all Prabhus to take shelter of. It wasn’t about being male or female, it was about our relationships with Prabhupāda, she said. We are all prabhus and he is our shelter Prabhu. “Mātājī” came later, Hari Śauri came later, and so he shouldn’t talk about something he wasn’t a witness to.
It so happens that we don’t have records of that actual meeting to check Govinda Dāsī’s recollection. I, personally, think that Prabhupāda was speaking of humanity as men, and women were included as a subset that didn’t deserve a separate consideration at the moment. No one thought of gender etiquette at the time and, besides, technically Govinda Dāsī’s interpretation is correct – we are all Prabhus and we all should treat each other as Prabhus. We should all see ourselves as servants and all other devotees as our masters.
I would also add that spiritually we don’t know what our gender are and male or female are only external forms. Externalities aside, we are all trying to be masters in this world and so we are all “Prabhus” in our delusion. It doesn’t matter what type of body we posses, we try to control the world in puruṣa bhāva all the same. So, either materially or spiritually, we all appear as masters either to ourselves or to others.
However, material considerations need to be observed, too, if only because we don’t see anything but material forms and material hierarchies, and material etiquette taught by Prabhupāda later on was that we should see all women except our wives as mothers. I don’t think he ever said that daughters should also be seen as daughters but it’s just common sense. You can’t look at your daughter as your mother, that would be crazy. The idea behind seeing women as mothers is to look at them as our masters rather than our subordinates or objects of our enjoyment. When we address women as Mātājī we accept her superiority and declare ourselves her eternally obliged servants. It’s the same as addressing them as Prabhus but with a suitable gender word.
I thought these things are pretty obvious but no one raised them on either side of the debate. It was all about whether books should be more important or whether we should respect the opinion of a senior female devotee (I’m not sure Govinda Dāsī would accept calling her Mātājī). Whether it’s about Indian culture or spiritual relationships, whether Prabhupāda meant what he said or just went alone with his disciples without disturbing their nascent devotion. I don’t think anyone actually changed his mind, that’s how these debates usually go.
What I want to stress once again is that there’s no end goal for either side in this argument. What do those who insist on Prabhu being legitimate address for a woman want? For all the ink spilled arguing about this I have been unable to find a clear statement of what is it they plan to achieve. They just go straight to proving themselves right instead.
Do they want all women to be addressed only as Prabhus? But there are clear instructions in our books that Mātājī is acceptable and desirable. Devotees who use Mātājī are not doing anything wrong. I haven’t seen anyone being chastised for using Mātājī either, so what’s the problem? Likewise, those who insist on using Mātājī only miss the occasions when Prabhupāda himself addressed his female disciples as Prabhus. So, if, for example, Mālati used to be called Prabhu by Prabhupāda himself, how can we tell her that she is wrong?
Just go and have a look at what appears to be an official ISKCON site – Srila Prabhupada on the Use of the Address “Prabhu”. There IS a precedent for it, we can’t ignore it and nothing good will come out of trying to ram our way through and declare a total defeat of the other position.
What’s interesting on that page is the concluding paragraph taken from one of Prabhupāda’s lectures. It’s meant to conclusively prove that we should all address each other as Prabhu regardless of gender. I suppose it’s meant to prove that, nowhere on the page it is clearly stated what they want, as I said earlier. Anyway, right in the middle of that “conclusive” paragraph there’s this declaration:
Therefore our system is to call another Vaishnava as prabhu. “Sir, you are prabhu, you are master.”
I don’t know what women who put that page together were thinking but, far from being genderless, there’s “SIR” right in that sentence. Prabhupāda was clearly talking about men there, not women. If our female devotees of the highest caliber couldn’t spot this “Sir” in their key evidence I don’t think we should give a lot of weight to the recollection from 1968 that Prabhupāda he didn’t mean “Prabhu” as an address for men but for women, too. It is just general practice to talk about humanity as “mankind” and do not separate women into a special category so that the speaker doesn’t get bogged in details and in selecting pronouns, or in that he/she nonsense demanded by modern PC culture.
Oh, and by the way – according to letters available online Prabhupāda never ever addressed his female disciples as mātājīs. This title was almost exclusively reserved for Indian benefactors of our movement. Only once or twice did Prabhupāda use “mataji” and only when referring to a third person, both times to Hansadutta’s wife. Here and here, both letters written on the same day. I don’t know if it changes anything but it’s an interesting tidbit anyway.