To explore the issue of women’s liberation and the role of women in the Krsna consciousness movement, we interviewed Sitarani-devi dasi, a four-year member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. A native of Great Britain, she joined the movement in Australia and received initiation in 1979 from Srila Bhavananda Goswami Visnupada. She now lives in Philadelphia with her husband, Subhananda dasa, a senior editor of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
Back to Godhead: At a time when feminism and women’s liberation have become significant forces in society, questions often come up about the role of women in religions that are closely tied in to traditionally male-dominated cultures. Speaking from the viewpoint of Krsna consciousness and the culture it embodies—the Vedic, or Vaisnava, tradition—how would you respond to that concern?
Sitarani dasi: First let’s try to understand the core concern of the women’s liberation movement. If you look beyond the standard criticism that male-dominated society has failed to grant women social, political, or economic equality, you discover a concern that’s more basic, a deeper concern. I would say that, in the most basic sense, women are protesting that they’re not respected, more specifically that they are viewed as mere instruments of male gratification, as sex objects.
Our society is pervaded by a perception of women as sources of satisfaction—especially sexual satisfaction—for men. Images of attractive women are used in every conceivable manner to entice people to think, act, or consume in various ways. The gross or implied idea that women are meant for pleasing the senses of men pervades our culture. This is demeaning and insulting to any thoughtful woman. What is demeaning is that the woman herself—whether as a psychological being or a spiritual being—is not taken seriously. She becomes, in a sense, a nonperson. All that’s important is her body, as an exploitable commodity. And women are so conditioned by this that they accept it and are even flattered by it.
The root of the whole problem is what devotees call the “bodily” or material conception of life. Everyone thinks they’re their body, that the temporary, external, material body is the self. That’s an illusion. It’s the biggest illusion in materialistic society, and it underlies everything. When you identify with your body, you constantly try to control and extract pleasure out of various material objects, including the bodies of others. In that bodily illusion, a man seeks to enjoy a woman sexually, and he calls it “love.”
BTG: But isn’t the woman also in the bodily conception?
Sitarani dasi: Of course. And because she is, she’s caught in an ambivalent position: she doesn’t like the idea of being viewed as a sense object, but she does want to attract men, because that’s her conditioned feminine nature. Clothing and cosmetics are multibillion-dollar industries for an obvious reason. Women can’t claim to be merely passive victims of men’s lust. They themselves encourage that lust. So they have to accept the consequences.
The solution to the problem of male domination and exploitation is not for women to become dominators and exploiters—to compete for social, economic, and political supremacy. So-called supremacy can’t satisfy women any more than it satisfies men. It used to be that only high-powered male executives had ulcers and “burn-out.” Now high-powered female executives can also have ulcers and burnout. Is that such a sublime goal for women? For anybody?
BTG: Then what is the solution?
Sitarani dasi: Women themselves have to transcend the bodily conception of life and become liberated from the mundane social-sexual rat race. And of course men have to raise their consciousness. Spiritual life begins with the realization that one is not the material body but an eternal spiritual soul. The designations “male” and “female” refer only to the material body. So ultimately they have nothing to do with the soul, or self. The mere conception that “I am a man” or “I am a woman” is maya, illusion. And sexual attraction is a product of that illusion—an illusion that obviously affects both men and women.
A religion class at Rutgers University in Camden , New Jersey, hears from Sitarani about Krsna.
BTG: Why is sexual attraction an illusion?
Sitarani dasi: There’s a story that illustrates this point. Once a man fell in love with a beautiful woman and tried to seduce her. But because the woman was saintly, she refused his advances. When the man persisted, she told him that if he came to her home in one week’s time she would satisfy his desires. The man eagerly agreed.
So during that week the saintly woman took strong laxatives and emetics and continually passed stool and vomited everything she ate. And she stored all the loose stool and vomit in pots.
Within a week she turned thin, pale, and very ugly. So at the week’s end, when the lusty man arrived at her door, he didn’t recognize her. He asked the ugly woman standing at the door for the beautiful girl he desired, and she told him it was her, but he refused to believe her. Finally she convinced him that she was indeed the woman he had come to see but that for his pleasure she had separated “the ingredients of her beauty” and stored them in special pots. If he wished, she said, he could enjoy those “juices of beauty.”
He eagerly begged to see and enjoy those wonderful juices, so the woman led him into the room where the pots of stool and vomit were stored. When she opened the pots, naturally he was disgusted and bewildered. Then the saintly woman explained that this stool and vomit were the only missing ingredients of her beauty, and she enlightened him about the illusory nature of material, physical beauty. As a result, he came to his senses.
So, a man in higher consciousness doesn’t view a woman sexually. In Canakya Pandita’s famous definition of a jnani, a wise man, he says that a wise man views all women but his wife as his “mother.” The idea is that just as a man normally doesn’t think of his own mother as an object of sexual enjoyment, he should view all women as his mother so that he won’t look on them as instruments of selfish enjoyment. In our movement, it’s standard practice for men to address women as “mataji,” or “mother,” to cultivate this nonexploitative idea. It’s my personal experience that in Krsna consciousness a woman has real dignity, because she’s respected as a spiritual being.
The point is that men and women will never be able to deal with each other in a nonexploitative way until they give up viewing each other as objects of sense gratification. And they can do that only when they raise their consciousness to the spiritual level. And that’s only possible in a spiritually oriented society or community like that of Krsna consciousness.
BTG: Granting that ultimately we’re not male or female, aren’t we subject to the capacities and limitations of these bodies while we’re in them? In that sense, don’t you make some distinction, on the physical level, between men and women?
Sitarani dasi: Well, men and women are different, obviously. They’re physically different—women can bear children and men can’t. And psychologically women are different too.
BTG: Feminists argue that much of this psychological difference is simply a matter of social or cultural conditioning.
Sitarani dasi: Maybe so. But women still have their own conditioned nature, their own material psychology and the limitations that go with it. And one can either deny these limitations or one can overcome them through spiritual advancement. A woman who is genuinely after liberation tries to transcend her conditioned nature by cultivating spiritual knowledge. The solution to feminine limitation is not to cultivate masculinity, as some feminists do, but to cultivate spirituality.
BTG: What about the Vedic conception of the “protection of women,” the idea that a woman should be protected in childhood by her father, in her middle years by her husband, and in old age by her grown sons? Some women would naturally react defensively against the idea that women need to be under the “protection” of a man.
Sitarani dasi: This protection of women by men is not a matter of egoistic domination or exploitation, but of genuine care by loving relatives. Because women are physically weaker and more emotionally vulnerable than men, they benefit by being under the loving protection of men, such as their husbands. Whatever some feminists might claim, it’s natural for a woman to want a man to protect her and provide for her. That’s not to say that no woman is capable of self-reliance. But generally speaking a woman seeks the association and protection of a man.
We all know that women are emotionally more vulnerable than men. Because women want love and protection, they are easily taken advantage of by men who pose as “lovers” and eventually leave them. Women are left emotionally scarred by these kinds of experiences. When a young woman is cheated by a man she has placed her faith in and given her heart to, it’s difficult for her to place her faith again in another man. A woman who has been unchaste in her youth often finds it difficult to become chaste later on, when she’s married. So premarital sex as a way of life is definitely destructive of marital fidelity. We believe that for a healthy marriage and family life, a woman must be chaste and reserved, both before and during marriage.
This idea that a woman needs protection doesn’t imply disrespect for women. Quite the contrary. It implies respect and concern. Devotees respect women as valuable members of society not only for their own distinctive value as human beings but also for their contribution as wives and mothers. We don’t consider those functions to be insignificant. The quality of human society will to a large degree reflect the quality of the families people are raised in. Wifehood and motherhood are crucial social functions, so we don’t feel there’s anything demeaning about being a good wife or a good mother. Modern so-called women’s liberation means that an unprotected woman is sexually used by a man, becomes pregnant, and then has to beg money from the government so she can support her unwanted child or murder her child in the womb. Is that liberation?
BTG: Some women aren’t going to like the idea of male protection, because they’ve had bad experiences putting their trust in men.
Sitarani dasi: Yes, the whole idea becomes ludicrous if men aren’t materially and spiritually mature and capable of offering real protection. Most women have little experience in their own lives of being truly protected by men, so they’ll find this idea difficult to understand. And how can they have had that experience? To be able to offer sincere protection to a woman, a man must be beyond the material exploitative mentality. How many men in modern society are like that? Practically none. As far as lean see, that kind of pure mentality is possible only in a movement like Krsna consciousness.
The system of male protection can’t be artificially imposed. For a woman to submit herself to male protection—for her to want to do that—the man must be of very high character. The Vedic social system calls for a high level of morality, not only, of course, on the part of women but also on the part of men. If the husband is of low character, the Vedic scriptures say the chaste wife is not dutybound to associate with him or serve him.
Both men and women in Krsna consciousness must understand that the principle of male protection of women is not a matter of slavish submission but a lofty social principle and practice in the service of spiritual advancement. Protection must be based upon knowledge and compassion; otherwise the system won’t work.
BTG: Are women devotees in Krsna consciousness respected by the male devotees?
Sitarani dasi: Of course they are. A Vaisnava, a devotee, respects every living being as a part or a servant of Krsna, regardless of the external bodily form. A devotee respects even an ant, what to speak of a human being, and what to speak of a human being who has dedicated her life to the highest ideals of Krsna consciousness. So respect is naturally there. A few male devotees, it can be said, are a bit chauvinistic. But with maturity and spiritual advancement devotees mellow out.
BTG: What about the role of women in the marriage relationship? Although ISKCON women are not compelled to marry, most ultimately do. How do they integrate their marriage with their spiritual lives?
Sitarani dasi: In a Krsna conscious marriage, the husband and wife help each other advance in spiritual life. Our scriptures state that the wife shares in the spiritual assets of her husband. If the husband is spiritually advanced and the wife is chaste and faithful to her husband, she attains the same spiritual perfection as her husband. In Sanskrit, the husband is called pati-guru, “husband-guru,” because he acts as spiritual guide for the wife. The wife is referred to as dharma-patni, the man’s partner in religious life.
Sitarani and her husband, Subhananda, meditate at home by chanting the Hare Krsna mantra.
And it should also be pointed out that although the man is generally considered the spiritual guide to the wife, there are many instances, both in tradition and in our movement, where the wife is spiritually the stronger of the pair. I know of numerous cases in ISKCON where wives have either brought their husbands to the movement or helped their husbands overcome spiritual weakness within the movement, or where a husband fell away from Krsna consciousness and the wife stayed on in the movement and thrived.
The wife can be a real source of strength for the husband. The Srimad-Bhagavatam gives the analogy that just as the commander of a fort protects the fort from being conquered by invading plunderers, the wife protects the husband’s body from being conquered by material desires, which plunder the body. A spiritually strong wife can help the husband conquer sex desire.
In Krsna conscious marriage, both husband and wife work together to progress in spiritual life. Marriage is a religious sacrament because it’s dedicated to the service of the Lord. Krsna is the center of the relationship. In the ultimate issue, both parties’ attachment to Krsna is stronger than their attachment to each other. This kind of spiritual focus helps keep the relationship pure.
BTG: Can women attain the highest spiritual perfection in Krsna consciousness? Is there any sense at all in which women by their nature are restricted from the highest attainments?
Sitarani dasi: Absolutely not. Anyone who strictly follows the instructions of the spiritual master and the scripture is qualified to attain perfection in Krsna consciousness. There is no restriction of any kind.
BTG: Are there examples in the Krsna conscious tradition of great women devotees, saints, or spiritual leaders?
Sitarani dasi; There are many. In scriptures such as the Mahabharata and the Srimad-Bhagavatam, we find historical accounts of great saintly women like Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas; Gandhari, the ascetic wife of Dhrtarastra; Kunti, Krsna’s aunt; and Devahuti, the mother of the incarnation Kapiladeva. We’ve published a book, Teachings of Queen Kunti, which presents Srila Prabhupada’s commentary on Kunti-devi’s famous prayers to Lord Krsna. These are just a few examples.
BTG: What about women as ascetics, renunciants? Women often seem to be cast in the role of exalted wives and mothers at best, and sometimes as cumbersome material entanglements for men.
Sitarani dasi: The scriptures do say that women are generally less inclined toward asceticism than men, but that’s not to say that they shouldn’t strive for an ascetic ideal. The scriptures do describe women as a cause of material entanglement for men, and that’s true. But scripture balances that out by describing that men are also a material entanglement for women. As women are maya [illusion] for men, men are also maya for women, because they can provide only temporary protection. An enlightened woman realizes that ultimately she can depend only on the Supreme Lord, Krsna.
The idea is that as long as a man and woman are together for sense gratification, the woman is dangerous for the man, and the man is also dangerous for the woman. But if their attachment is transferred to Krsna, as it is in a proper spiritual marriage, both man and woman become Krsna conscious and attain complete liberation.
So, renunciation is not simply a man’s activity. In Vedic culture, when the husband leaves home in old age as a sannyasi, a renunciant, the wife also becomes a renunciant. She doesn’t leave home as the husband does. She lives under the care of her grown sons and sets a high example of austerity and saintliness for the entire family.
BTG: Does all this apply in the Krsna consciousness movement?
Sitarani dasi: In ISKCON, women have a greater opportunity for renunciation than was generally available in traditional Vedic society. In that society, a young woman would go straight from her father’s home to the home of her husband and would not become a renunciant until her old age, when her husband became a sannyasi. But when Srila Prabhupada arrived in America for the first time, he saw that in the West the great majority of young women spend a considerable time on their own before they marry. Many such “independent women” were attracted to his newly founded movement, so he created a brahmacarini-asrama, a situation in which unmarried women could live as celibates within the protection of the temple community, living the same ascetic, devotional life as the male disciples.
BTG: Although men and women seem to have an equal spiritual status in the temples, we see that the men and women eat, serve, and worship separately. Why?
Sitarani dasi: For the obvious reason that in a community largely consisting of male and female celibates, chastity has to be preserved by a healthy separation of the sexes. In the traditional Indian system, only men lived within the core asrama community. To make Krsna consciousness equally available to women, Srila Prabhupada welcomed women into the communities, but he made provisions for separate living arrangements and strict protocols so that the temple would stay pure and peaceful, undisturbed by illicit dealings between the sexes. The basis for the separation is not mutual dislike but mutual respect.
BTG: But doesn’t this separation lead to stereotyped roles for both men and women in the movement?
Sitarani dasi: As far as devotional service is concerned, you’ll find women engaged in all types of activities. There are no exclusively female vocations in the movement. Both men and women cook, clean, and raise children. And rather than remaining homebound, our women are strongly encouraged to be assertive as missionaries and preachers. There are many women active in the arts: painting, sculpture, music, and classical dance. Devotee women are active in publicity work, and they also lecture in high schools and colleges. Women are active and productive in all these areas.
BTG: Do you have any final comments?
Sitarani dasi: Yes. We sincerely invite all women who are interested in realizing their full potential as women, as human beings, and as spiritual entities to join us in Krsna consciousness. This is the real women’s liberation.