Vanity thought #1638. Prabhu for all

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.

Vanity thought #1637. Mataji or Prabhu?

This is another popular debate related to women issues. I thought about addressing it for such long time that I forgot what I wanted to say or why it even matters. Well, one thing I remember – there seem to be no point to this debate at all.

Who started it and for what purpose? What do these people want? Nothing in particular, they just want to argue and feel the rash of the online battle. I’m speaking about both sides now. Of course they might answer exactly what they want if you ask them directly but after wading through hundreds and hundreds of opinions I came to the conclusion that they are not “goal oriented”, so to speak, they just want to talk about it.

When I started writing about Women: Masters or Mothers I read the Sun article with a Facebook review of it that quickly turned into “Prabhu or Mātājī” exchange and that was my starting point. It feels like a month has passed, I’ve read maybe a dozen of similar articles arguing for both sides, but that first one is probably the best case study of all. So, let’s see what it’s all about.

Here it is as it appeared on the Sun. The original can be looked up on Facebook, too, and it has slightly more comments, but Sun’s version is easier to read because Facebook requires you to click to unfold comment trees. Nothing substantial is missing, as far as I remember. It starts with a favorable review. “Govinda Dāsī” was the first to comment and for a while it wasn’t clear what she wanted to say exactly – she was just pulling the rank reminding the author, Phalinī Devi Dāsī, of her seniority and telling her that she is too young to know what it was really like in Prabhupāda’s time. That’s not a good start by any measure.

Govinda Dāsī’s second comment made it clearer – women turned to feminism in the 70s because men were abandoning them and couldn’t or didn’t want to support them. Young girls were consequently encouraged to get education because depending on their husbands was no longer a certainty. Women need safety, if it doesn’t come from men they’ll make their own arrangements, as I understand. Hard to argue with that because this was probably the biggest reason behind rise of feminism. The problem, however, is that every action in this world has its reasons, even Hitler had his reasons, but that doesn’t mean that all actions are beneficial. It’s useful to remember these reasons when assigning the blame but not very useful when contemplating our own choices in life.

Somebody jumped in with statistics that most divorces are initiated by women and many of them are “no fault” cases – when there’s nothing to blame the husband for but a woman simply says “I don’t want to be married to him any longer”. The stats were questioned initially but they are apparently correct, plus Śrīla Prabhupāda himself said that it’s women who are responsible for divorces. I remember reading it but I’m too lazy to look it up. Eventually everybody accepted it and someone moved on – by starting a personal attack on Govinda Dāsī. She said she wasn’t a feminist but some said that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck…

Govinda Dāsī kept her temper and said that women in ISKCON had the same problems – being left on their own without support and therefore needing to make their own arrangement. I’m sure it was very true in many cases but, as above, having reasons doesn’t make an action into a beneficial one. We should rather remember that in Kali yuga frictions appears out of the blue with no particular cause so blaming anyone in particular won’t be helpful.

The chatter then went on about this and that and Govinda Dāsī kept her cool. All she talked about was how everyone was preaching in whatever body they had and out of their love for Prabhupāda. Discrimination between men and women was introduced later when we got a number of sannyāsīs who suddenly couldn’t associate with female devotees anymore. I can understand why women didn’t welcome this development but what could have been done? Free mingling of men and women for the sake of preaching was not sustainable anyway.

Then a devotee (who publicly ditched his guru and continues criticizing him) came in and questioned Govinda Dāsī qualifications and told her straight that she is misrepresenting Śrīla Prabhupāda. Telling others how they don’t know philosophy is apparently his thing now. That’s when the hell starting breaking loose. Some said this was uncalled for, others took his side, and the post owner threatened to remove a woman who defended Govinda Dāsī from discussion. Suddenly it was assumed that Govinda Dāsī was against varṇāśrama. She said that in ten years of service in Prabhupāda’s presence there was absolutely not talk of women being fit only for cooking, cleaning, and making flower garlands and they all were encouraged to preach but the target was already painted – she was against varṇāśrama.

Preaching is more important than varṇāśrama, there’s nothing to argue with here, but it was too late and everyone opposing her transferred all his assumptions on her already. The post owner mentioned that Prabhupāda always sent women to preach along with their husbands as couples, not as traveling single females, but, as Govinda Dāsī said – when men left their wives women continued to preach as best as they could. What else could have happened? They didn’t have any choice, did they? If they had kids they had to raise on their own it still wouldn’t be a valid reason not to preach (and men’s fault). This set of female devotees didn’t start new careers, didn’t start businesses, didn’t join the army, didn’t do any of the things we reject feminism for. Too late, no one in that discussion listened.

These women didn’t know varṇāśrama, they didn’t grow in varṇāśrama, they lived in the western world where their first service to guru and Kṛṣṇa was preaching. The fact that we can read about ideal society in the books doesn’t change their reality. The critics somehow think that it should but all they want to is to hear their own voice. It’s nice and easy to pontificate on the importance of varṇāśrama but these female devotees had their lives to live and service to perform. Even from varṇāśrama’s own perspective it’s not women’s responsibility to set it up. It’s the men who failed to make proper arrangements, for their own valid reasons, but it’s the women who get all the blame for not living as ideal wives in an ideal society that doesn’t even exist.

As battle went on things were said and picked on. Someone said that female devotees taking on projects, meaning preaching projects, or leadership positions in ISKCON is against varṇāśrama and desires of Śrīla Prabhupāda. Seriously? Does it mean women can’t write books, arrange festivals or meetings, can’t speak to the public, can’t have male devotees as subordinates? I suppose it’s a very narrow reading of what women can and cannot do under varṇāśrama, especially if they are clearly capable.

On the other hand, Tulsi Gabbard is not an example of perfect preaching either. She is from a family of devotees but they were from a splinter group and her father publicly turned to Christianity since. In her public service she has to act as a congresswoman first and that means supporting issues like abortion if that’s what’s politically expedient. Apart from paying occasional tributes to Kṛṣṇa or Prabhupāda in her spare time there’s nothing that distinguishes her from her colleagues. By all counts she shouldn’t even be considered a preacher, just a politician who happens to be a devotee.

They talked a little more about Tulsi and Govinda Dāsī was forced to retreat to the safety of saṅkīrtana to diffuse tensions but it wasn’t accepted. Apparently the “house is on fire, put it out first, then take care of everything else” concept does not work anymore. Someone basically said that we can’t preach until we get varṇāśrama going. Hmm, just as yesterday the other side said they can’t preach until they get female gurus.

These are not real obstacles to preaching, of course, but everyone refers to it because it’s still the most common denominator in our society, the golden standard everyone accepts but hardly anyone follows. As I said, people just want to prove themselves right by any means necessary.

And what about Prabhu vs Mātājī? This was the point where this matter was finally brought up but I’m going to leave it for tomorrow.