Part Five 4th September 2004 4

Shri Krishna Samhita and ISKCON's Future

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Shri Krishna Samhita and ISKCON's Future

There is a book written by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura titled Shri Krishna Samhita, and over time devotees within ISKCON are going to hear more about this book and its precepts. Shri Krishna Samhita is a critical historical analysis of Vedic literature, including the Srimad-Bhagavatam, using the academic techniques prevalent in the latter part of the 19th century. Devotees are going to hear more about it because it is being acclaimed by scholars on ISKCON's periphery and within ISKCON itself as providing an academic basis for strengthening the faith of its own members by reconciling Vedic texts with modern thought. As Tamal Krishna Goswami and Krishna Kshetra Prabhu in their essay "Re-Visioning ISKCON" declare, ". . . following the lead of nineteenth-century theologian Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838 - 1914) [9], ISKCON can reexamine its traditional texts and reappropriate them in ways consistent with modernity, discerning the symbolic through critical scholarship. "{[1]}. This is overtly a reference to Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura's work in Shri Krishna Samhita, which the footnote in the quoted declaration (the "[9]") confirms: "For the most authoritative work on Bhaktivinoda, see Shukavak 1999 [Hindu Encounter with Modernity: Kedaranath Datta Bhaktivinoda, Vaisnava Theologian. ]

In the same book (The Hare Krishna Movement), Shukavak N. Das has contributed a short essay, "Bhaktivinoda and Scriptural Literalism," that concisely explains this position. Before examining in more detail Shukavak's thesis, it might be helpful to start off with his own experience in explaining to devotees the adhunika vada, or "modern approach" to understanding shastra (scripture).

I once presented a summary of Bhaktivinoda's analysis of Vedic history from his Upakramanika to an audience of Chaitanya Vaishnavas. I stated Bhaktivinoda's view that the Bhagavata Purana might not be a work compiled by the Vedavyasa 5,000 years ago, as orthodox Vaishnava tradition teaches, but may be a work not older than 1,000 years, compiled by a southerner writing in the name of Vedavyasa. Bhaktivinoda had reached this conclusion by analyzing certain geographic and cultural aspects of the Bhagavata. . 28 He was voicing an opinion arrived at through the use of the techniques of the adhunika vada.

A suggestion such as this coming from a secular scholar steeped in western criticism would not be unusual and could be easily deflected, but coming from Bhaktivinoda, a teacher from within the tradition, it cast a spell of disbelief over my audience. Many doubts arose: perhaps Bhaktivinoda did not actually believe these things but used them as a "preaching tactic"; perhaps he wrote his work when he was young and still learning but later came to reject these views; or perhaps my understanding of his perceptive was incorrect.

I was approached by one respected participant who was greatly perplexed by the mere suggestion that Bhaktivinoda may have said that the Bhagavata was only 1,000 years old or that it was not written by the Vedavyasa. I realized that this individual was upset because I had challenged one of his most sacred beliefs concerning certain historical details about that work, I had challenged his basic faith as a whole. The internal and subjective perspective of the traditionalist will not give credence to material facts that do not support and nurture religious faith. {[2]}

Evident here is the challenge to the faith of those devotees who always understood the Srimad Bhagavatam to be written by the Srila Vyasadeva and 5,000 years old. ISKCON's founder Srila Prabhuapada quite explicitly affirms this age and authenticity of Srimad-Bhagavatam in his commentary on the same,

Some Mayavadi scholars argue that Srimad-Bhagavatam was not compiled by Sri Vyasadeva. And some of them suggest that this book is a modern creation written by someone named Vopadeva. In order to refute such meaningless arguments, Sri Sridhara Svami points out that there is reference to the Bhagavatam in many of the oldest Puranas. {[3]}

The big problem, of course, is the claim that the Bhagavatam is no more than 1,000 years and not written by Vyasadeva has its origin in Bhaktivinoda Thakura. Now we have a real crisis of authority on our hands: on the one hand, if we accept the authority of Srila Prabhupada's commentary (and for that matter Sridhara Swami's commentary which Lord Chaitanya also accepted), then we face the possibility that one of our stalwart acharyas (in this case Bhaktivinoda Thakura) has spoken something gravely wrong and offensive, and on the other hand if we are to accept the authority of Bhaktivinoda Thakura as quoted from Shri Krishna Samhita, then that significantly weakens our faith in the authority of Srila Prabhupada and other recognized acharyas. The fact that acharyas who are recognized as beyond fault can so contradict each other on points that are so critical to Gaudiya Vaishnava theology stands to permanently wreck faith in the whole enterprise of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology and practice. If no one can be accepted as an authority in Gaudiya Vaishnavism on account of such egregious contradiction, then loss of faith is a logical consequence.

Part of the problem is with how Shukavak (and others) present Bhaktivinoda Thakura's writings to Vaishnava audiences. Shukavak is convinced that the fact that Bhaktivinoda Thakura was a stalwart Vaishnava with great faith in Lord Chaitanya and Krishna and also wrote such things is self-evident proof that one can view the scriptures through the lens of adhunika vada (modern criticism of scripture) and yet maintain even a superlative faith in Vaishnavaism. Shukavak implicitly assumes that Bhaktivinoda Thakura actually held the views he penned in Shri Krishna Samhita. Is this assumption reasonable?

We can test this assumption with a counterfactual example. Let us say that Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura somehow reappeared in the 21st century and found out that, as Shukavak himself points out, that "his historiography is completely out of date. "{[4]} If his faith and devotion were to some extent a function of adhunika vada, then to the extent that current critical methods differed from the earlier methods on which his faith was in part based on could possibly result in some loss of faith. Since the underlying philosophical presumptions of modern historical criticism is not so much different than that of their 19th century predecessors, the differences arrived at by the older methods of historical criticism versus the newer methods probably would not be so different as to precipitate a crisis of faith. Nonetheless, fundamentally such methods rely on sense perception and inference, and the nature of conclusions solely based on these methods of understanding are thus subject to error--specifically the four defects of a conditioned soul. Today's trends in thinking and research over time often become discredited and quaint. An important philosophical point regarding adhunika vada, then, is that through adhunika vada one can never come to a correct, objective conclusion that is not subject to future revision; objective knowledge through this process is in theory unattainable. Adhunika vada thus cannot lead to higher knowledge about things which depend upon authority for understanding. (For that matter, there is plenty in the material world itself which defies the limited understanding of the human. ) Bhaktivinoda Thakura's superlative faith in Krishna, therefore, cannot be a product of adhunika vada because adhunika vada is subject to change, refutation and self-contradiction in the course of time.

Since Bhaktivinoda Thakura's faith cannot be dependent on adhunika vada, then we might well ask why he spoke it at all? Although Shukavak seems to hold a different view, the view that seems compatible with Bhaktivinoda's high faith can be found in his declared audience:

With folded hands I humbly submit to my respected readers who hold traditional views, that where my analysis opposes their long held beliefs, they should understand that my conclusions have been made for persons possessing appropriate qualifications. What I have said about dharma applies to everyone, but with regard to matters that are secondary to dharma, my conclusions are meant to produce benefits in the form of intellectual clarification only for qualified specialists. All the subjects I have outlined in the Introduction concerning time and history are based on the logical analysis of Shastra. Whether one accepts them or not, does not affect the final spiritual conclusions. History and time are phenomenal subject matters (artha-shastra) and when they are analyzed according to sound reasoning much good can be done for India. 22 {[5]}

So Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura's intended audience, as he himself explains, are those who have certain "qualification" (western educated people) and who also do not accept the traditional means of understanding shastra. Preaching through adhunika vada, then, is to bring the faithless to the point of developing some respect for the authority of the shastras. Srila Prabhupada himself often did this, sometimes he would refer to the dictionary for the definition of a word when preaching to westerners, sometimes he would quote current events and refer to scientific discoveries as he did in Easy Journey to Other Planets. The point of using examples and evidence in the course of preaching is to guide people in the direction of accepting Vedic authority. For example, when telling someone where the Sun is, we may refer them to a tree saying something like, "The Sun is in that tree over to your left. " Now, the sun is not really in the tree, but if you look in the direction of the tree you are also looking in the direction of the Sun. If in a few years time the tree is cut down, then some other point of reference, perhaps a house, needs to be used to point someone in the direction of the Sun. The tree or the house is to the Sun what adhunika vada is to Vedic authority. Just as these local and temporary points of reference such as the tree or the house appear for some time and then disappear, so also do materialistic theories about reality appear and disappear. However, their utility lies in their potential to bring us to the threshold of devotion. Bahunam janmanam ante jnanavan mam prapadyante vasudevam sarvam iti. . . . Bhaktivinoda Thakura's intent in presenting Shri Krishna Samhita, then, is to bring the faithless to the point of accepting some faith in shastra, for which he hopes that ". . . much good can be done for India. " Accepting something from shastra as true and good is better than accepting nothing at all.

Something needs to be said, however, about who might benefit from and who might be harmed by adhunika vada. After all, one man's food is another man's poison. The Puranas, for example, are categorized according to each of the three modes of nature. Some Puranas, such as the Bhagavata and Vishnu Puranas, are meant especially for those in the mode of goodness whereas other Puranas, such as the Shiva Purana, are meant for those predominated more by the modes of ignorance. A Vaishnava partaking of religious rituals mentioned in some parts of Vedic literature can result in that Vaishnava's progressive degradation, whereas those same rituals may gradually elevate someone who is to begin with very fallen. In the case of utilizing adhunika vada as a means to understand shastra, for someone without any faith in shastra at all this could be of great help.

By clearing misunderstood statements within Vedic literature from the path of understanding--statements modern people may find exceedingly quaint or superstitious--our faithless but nonetheless educated gentleman through adhunika-vada could come to appreciate some highly elevated precept such as rasa as being superior to other concepts of love as found in other religions. This is the beginning of faith, because if someone actually comes to respect and factually understand something proffered by Vedic authority (whether it is the guru or shastra), then that opens the door to accepting as true other things found in the Vedas which before would have been dismissed as rubbish. This is something like following a map on a journey. As we progress on our journey and encounter landmarks predicted by the map, our faith grows in the authority of the map. In the same way, as people discover things in Vedic literature that are true, their faith grows to encompass more things from the Vedas as true that, before, would have been dismissed as fantasy. The distinctive characteristic of this person is that he or she is gradually rising from a position of ignorance and disbelief to a position of knowledge and faith.

Besides the faithless becoming faithful through the agency of adhunika vada is the person who already has faith but who wishes to enhance or strengthen his faith through the agency of adhunika vada. Like the faithless but educated gentleman, our devotee seeker also has doubts but unlike those who are gradually rising from a faithless condition, the devotee already has some developed faith in shastra (otherwise, why else is he a devotee?) but is turning to worldly means (adhunika vada) to try to understand shastra. Using our map analogy to describe this, we can say that the devotee has lost some faith in his map and is turning to other means to find his way. Some things can shake our faith. Perhaps he has been chanting Hare Krishna for years yet does not perceive any tangible reduction in his material desires. Perhaps he had a fall down. We start to doubt, "The map no longer works. . . . " So instead our doubtful devotee gradually begins to replace Vedic authority with adhunika vada as an authority and comes to rely on it more and more. For this devotee there may be some satisfaction in the conclusions derived from adhunika vada, and because our devotee believes himself to be advancing in spiritual knowledge as a result of cultivating an understanding of shastra from a worldly standpoint, he gradually (and happily) looses access to the absolute and objective knowledge that was once available to him. It should be remembered that one of the defining characteristics of adhunika vada is that it can never produce an objective fact that can finally be accepted as it is and without possibility of future discredit. Devotees who use adhunika vada to enhance their own understanding of shastra, rather than simply as a means to enlighten the ignorant, will most likely see their faith and knowledge brought to the level of the audience Bhaktivinoda Thakura set out to enlighten.

Adhunika vada, then, is suitable only for people who are to begin with faithless and well steeped in a non-theistic world view. For devotees who try to improve their spiritual knowledge through adhunika vada, adhunika vada is just like poison. Devotees using academic methods such as historical criticism to evaluate facts and precepts of scripture will necessarily come to see their scriptures in a different way. In the west, this happened with Christianity:

If Christianity was supported and confirmed by objective science, then the Bible should be able to be subjected to the same historical analysis as the documents of any other religion. Scientific naturalism thus became the starting point for historical inquiry into the Bible. From that point of view, of course, the Scriptures looked very different than they did if viewed with the premise that they were revealed by God. The miracle stories, for instance, became embarrassments, rather than evidences. By modern critical standards historical reporting in Scripture looked inaccurate and fabricated. Particularly the Old Testament narratives, as well as many of the claims to authorship and dating, appeared implausible if the writings were viewed as simple products of the evolving faith of an ancient primitive people. {[6]}

What these [historical] methods meant for the Bible was that it would be treated, as was often said, just "like any other book. " Once this initial move was made, of course, one was on a scholarly track that would yield conclusions consistent with the premise, namely, that the Bible was a cultural product just like any other book. {[7]}

Substitute the term "Gaudiya Vaishnavism" for "Christianity" and "Srimad-Bhagavatam" for "Bible," and you have a pretty good description of the philosophical direction ISKCON is heading in, considering that, as mentioned in the beginning of this essay, some of ISKCON's leaders advocate turning such academic methodologies on shastra for the sake of "re-visioning" ISKCON.

End Notes

  1. Tamal Krishna Goswami, Krishna Kshetra Das, "Re-Visioning ISKCON", as printed in The Hare Krishna Movement, The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004. Page 418 - 419

  2. Shukavak N. Das "Bhaktivinoda and Scriptural Literalism", as printed in The Hare Krishna Movement, The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004. Page 104 - 05

  3. Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 1. 1. 1 purport

  4. Shukavak N. Das 2004. Page 104

  5. Ibid. Page 106

  6. George M. Marsden. The Soul of the American University, From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. Oxford University Press, New York, 1994. Page 174)

  7. Ibid. Page 207

Wroclaw, Poland
18 September 2004

Madhuvisa Prabhu remembers Srila Prabhupada

In video 4 of the Srila Prabhupada Memories series, HG Madhuvisa Prabhu recalls the following story from the old ISKCON LA temple at La Cienega Boulevard, circa 1968-9.

On this particular day there was a fire yajna. People were getting initiated. Srila Prabhupada was there. He was presiding over the yajna, as he did in those days. The temple was very full with people, and there was an Italian film-making crew at the temple at that time, and they were filming the whole thing. And if someone could get hold of that film it would be a historical piece of footage.

But Srila Prabhupada was there, and this one lady came, a Hindu lady came into the temple, and she was a guru to these Hindus. Her name was Syamadevi, and she ended up having an asrama right next to the Krsna Balarama Mandira in Vrndaban. But anyway, she came into the temple and she was sitting in the back of the temple, and they rolled out a carpet and she sat on the carpet and her disciples were older Hindu ladies and gentlemen. They sat around her.

And Srila Prabhupada was performing the yajna. So Srila Prabhupada, after he finished the yajna, he went up and got on the stage. And in those days we had Srila Prabhupada's vyasasana sitting right on the stage on the same level as the altar. Srila Prabhupada was having a kirtana, and he was playing his karatalas, and he was leading the kirtana and then he told someone else to lead, maybe it was Visnujana or someone like that.

so in those days the kirtanas were ecstatic, but they weren't uproarious, because of the dance step we used to do. We used to do the Swami Step. The Swami Step was a choreographed step that everybody would in coordination with one another dance. One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. The arms would be upraised like that. And we would all be chanting and dancing like that, a long line of devotees on either side, facing one another. And we're dancing back and forth, having kirtana.

So Srila Prabhupada, during the course of this kirtana, got up from his vyasasana and he was doing the Swami Step with us, like that, we were all doing the Swami Step. And then Srila Prabhupada did something that he had never done before. Nobody had ever experienced this before. Srila Prabhupada stopped doing the Swami Step and he started jumping up and down. We had never done this jumping up and down. No one ever knew about jumping up and down. We just knew the Swami Step and we were all happy doing the Swami Step. But now, Srila Prabhupada was jumping up and down. And it was the most amazing thing, because it seemed like the whole universe was rocking becase Srila Prabhupada started jumping up and down.

So we looked at each other and said, "Wow, Srila Prabhupada is jumping up and down. I guess we can jump up and down too!"

So it's never been the same since then. Kirtana has never been the same. The Swami Step is still there but its only done by very conservative devotees. Everybody likes to jump up and down and really get into the uproarious kirtana.

So Srila Prabhupada was jumping up and down, the devotees were jumping up and down, bouncing off the walls. It was fantastic.

So meanwhile, this lady, Syamadevi, she was there, and she was having kirtana, and one of her disciples opens a bag and gives her a little mrdanga. In those days, usually there was one mrdanga per temple. One mrdanga, and only certain devotees could play that mrdanga. Very good devotees who were good mrdanga players, who wouldn't drop it, put their hand through the end of it. So they had to be good mrdanga players and they had to be very concerned that the mrdanga didn't get damaged, because in those days we didn't have American-made plastic mrdangas. If a mrdanga got broken, you have to send off to India for it. It look a long time to get it. We didn't have to the import-export thing happening so proviciently in those days. But they pulled out a mrdanga, and small clay mrdanga, khol. And they gave it to her. And she started playing the mrdanga.

So we kind of stepped aside and she kind of moved her way up to the front. And Srila Prabhupada is jumping up and down dancing. All the devotees are dancing.

And she's playing this mrdanga, and she starts to dance. And she starts to float around like a butterfly, taking little small steps. She's an elderly lady, she's about 50 or 60, she's elderly. Very, very conservative, she's dancing around like a little butterfly with her sari over her hair, and she's playing the mrdanga like a gopi.

All the female devotees, now, alright! They were thinking she was a Vaisnava, she can play the mrdanga, she was dancing, and Prabhupada was obviously approving it. He was up there on the stage, jumping up and down.

So then Prabhupada jumps off the stage, and he's in with the devotees, amongst the devotees, jumping up and down, chanting Hare Krsna. And this lady, Syamadevi, she's playing the mrdanga, and she's dancing and the kirtana ends, and Srila Prabhupada says, "Now you lead. " So she starts to lead the kirtana.

Now, the women are really ecstatic. Now here's another precedent: "We can lead kirtana. We can jump, we can dance, we can play the mrdanga and now we can also lead kirtana. Because, yeah, this old lady is doing it, Prabhupada is approving it. He's allowing her to do it. "

So everybody was in total euphoria there. She lead the most melodious kirtana. It went on and on. Prabhupada was dancing, she was dancing. It built up, and it was the most fantastic experience that all the devotees cold have had.

So before the dust even settled from the kirtana, devotees are on the phone to New York: "Prabhupada's jumping!" "Prabhupada's jumping? What do you mean, he's jumping?" "You don't have to do the Swami Step anymore, Prabhupada's jumping up and down, kirtana was going on, Prabhupada was jumping, running up back and forth, jumping up and down. "

And Brahmananda was saying, "How do you do it? How do you jump?" He said, "You don't have to do, you just jump up and down, just be ecstatic. Just put your hands in the air and jump as high as you can do. "

So Brahmananda called Boston, Boston called Montreal. Within a matter of hours, the whole country was jumping. And like I said, kirtana's never been the same since that time.


Here's an eye-opening article by Krsna-kirti Prabhu (ISKCON Cultural Journal website, September 14, 2004).

Women Who Sleep With Their Gurus
A Krishna Conscious Perspective

Jessica Roemischer in the August-October issue of What Is Enlightenment ({}) writes a fascinating and timely piece titled "Women Who Sleep With Their Gurus . . . and why they love it. " (It seems to happen an awful lot doesn't it?) If it is any consolation to us beleaguered devotees in ISKCON who have either learned to live with it or are getting fed up, we aren't the only ones with celibate-caught-with-female-devotee problems--not by a long shot. Jessica's article is fascinating because she interviews ten women who have actually slept with their gurus (each of whom was officially celibate) and she herself had such an encounter with her spiritual teacher, a Zen master from Korea.

"How can women be victims when we want something?" said Mary, my former women's studies professor from college, who had since become a trusted friend and confidante. Infamous for defying prevailing feminist viewpoints, she was the first person I turned to when I decided to write this article on the subject of women who have been sexually involved with their spiritual teachers. And true to form, in her one short rhetorical question, Mary upended entirely the pervasive and unchallenged image of the innocent woman fallen victim to the abuse of authority.

"Enlightenment, security, spiritual power, and affirmation," she continued. "I mean, sex is a small price to pay. And whatever the extent of the flirtation or sexual involvement, you enter this relationship of intrigue, and you're the special daughter or the special wife. You experience 'number one life,' as they say in the Asian tradition. " It was hard to argue with her logic. Indeed, as I reflected more deeply on my own past with my Korean teacher, I knew she had captured the very essence of my experience.

(Jessica Roemischer. "Women Who Sleep With Their Gurus . . . and why they love it. " What Is Enlightenment. August - October 2004. Moksha Press, 2004. Page 88)

Now, this is a refreshing point of view: seeing women as actors who make choices instead of as victims who do not make choices. Second-wave feminism is so defined by the identity of vicitmhood that, until more babyboomers die off, it will probably be dominant for the next 15 to 20 more years. Note that Mary, the feminist professor, is identified as being "infamous for defying prevailing feminist viewpoints. " This new point of view, perhaps one that distinguishes third wave feminism from its predecessor, signals a new kind of thinking among western feminists, who grew up with freedoms their mothers couldn't take for granted. Harkening back to Aristophenes' Lysistrata, the Greek women, who decided to take matters into their own hands to end the Peloponnesian War by sex strike to force their husbands to make peace with Sparta, eventually realized that they too were in fact desperate for that which they withheld. What is, in a word, refreshing about this is we see here women who are seeking to understand themselves as women, not as androgynes.

Now, given the many sordid and scandalous details revealed about well-known gurus during the last two decades--Mary's was clearly a novel and controversial perspective, one that refocused attention on the woman's active role in these relationships. "We women do have a strong and unspoken investment in seeing ourselves as victims," I observed, "as unsuspecting agents or innocent players in an unfolding event beyond our control. " Mary agreed with me: "And that perspective has, in one form or another, become such a basic tenet of our time and culture, of our postmodern worldview, that we are often unaware of how much it has colored our perceptions at the most fundamental level. But it's time for women to go beyond that. Because if we are really honest with ourselves, in most cases, there's a lot more to the picture!"

(Ibid. Page 88)

It seems that the act of sincere spiritual seeking has to engender the idea that if one can actually seek an existence beyond the body, transcendence or what have you, then the self can rise above his or her body, nature and circumstances and make real choices. Transcendence means choice because at the stage of transcendence one is no longer bound by material constraints. Materialism, its antithesis, necessarily implies bondage, or lack of choice since one's material identity is created and controlled by external forces. (Prakrite kriyamanani gunai karmani sarvashah. . . ) The essence of dharma rests on choice, because without choice there can be no possibility of acting dharmically or adharmically (good and evil).

As one contact lead to another and I interviewed ten women who had been sexually involved with prominent and revered teachers, I discovered that this phenomenon has been more pervasive than I ever imagined. And not only that, it has been the product of age-old motivations and choices that have been surprisingly consistent as women became involved with their Hindu sages, Tibetan lamas, Indian yogis, Asian Zen masters, South American shamans, and the new generation of Western teachers who followed in these traditions. And that's not even to mention the untold numbers of rabbis, priests, ministers and therapists.

Considering the subject in light of my past experience and what these women shared with me, and illuminated by the insights and views of a noted anthropologist, a psychologist, a well-known author, and a feminist who I also consulted, I found myself compelled by a new and liberating perspective on this sensitive issue. "Plenty of exposes of corrupt gurus have already been done," I said to Mary in conclusion, "but what I'm really interested in is why we women almost always say yes. "

(Ibid. Page 88 - 89)

Good question! As Jessica pointed out before, it is just too easy to view these scandals according to the western, post-modern Zeitgeist, where all men in positions of power and authority are predators and all women are subordinate and (therefore) victims. Probably the most profound implication of Jessica's insight is that women can and do make choices--important ones--all the time. Once this is realized, then one can act on the platform of dharma. Of course, acting dharmically is no less available for the simple hearted and the uneducated. But for those who are by nature intellectuals, skeptics perhaps, the realization and understanding that one in fact makes choices is the gateway to freedom from the tendencies of one's body and one's circumstances. Choice means dharma, victimhood implies the life of animals, who have no choice but to act according to their nature.

"If your husband's a doctor, then you're special. If you're with Mick Jagger, you're special. If you're sleeping with your Tibetan lama, you're special. It's seen as a status symbol," explained Catherine over the phone one afternoon. "It gives you status, and it plays into women's sexual identity. Women identify themselves based on who they sleep with!" Having been the consort of a prominent Tibetan lama, Catherine was speaking from firsthand experience. And with this conversation, I entered headlong into a series of disarmingly candid and illuminating dialogues with women who have slept with their spiritual teachers.

"You want to align yourself with a man who has the kind of power you want. And in this case it's dharma power!" said Annie, a student and former lover of one of the most influential Japanese Zen masters to bring the Buddha's teachings, or dharma, to the West. Another woman, Linda, told me: "It was powerful to think that I was intimately involved with the principal disciple of one of the world's great Indian yogis. He was very charismatic and he had exceptional powers that not every human being was manifesting, which confirmed my belief that there was something more in the unseen world that was possible. What attracted me to him was that so many other people were attracted to him, because when others recognize a greatness in the person you're involved with, that affirms you even more. You think, 'Well, this says a lot about me,' whether it does or it doesn't. "

(Ibid. Page 89)

This phenomenon of women defining themselves through their relationship with their husband or lover is a natural tendency on which the system of varnasrama-dharma is based. Women assume the caste of their husbands on marriage because doing so is a natural consequence of the conjugal relationship.

"Now, woman is supposed to be assistant of man. If woman is faithful wife of the first-class man, then she also becomes first-class. If she is assistant of the second-class man then she is also second-class. If she is assistant of the third-class man, then she is also third-class. Because she is assistant, so, according to her husband, or protector, she becomes first, second, third, fourth. "

(Srila Prabhupada. Press Conference. July 9, 1975, Chicago)

We can see from this that the social system of varnashrama-dharma actually utilizes, embraces, the natural behavior of both men and women. If the natural tendency for women is to define themselves by whomever they sleep with, then that society which works with this natural propensity instead of against it will probably encounter less social disturbance than societies that disbelieve in this social arrangement. Another thing we find in this article that is also common to Vedic sociology is the understanding that women desire to have men who are at the top of society:

"Generally it is the ambition of a young girl to have a very handsome husband who is learned, clever, young and rich. "

(Srila Prabhupada. Sri Caitanya-caritamrita, Adi 14. 55 purport)

"Women love men who are at the top and have for at least four million years, and they continue to everywhere in the world," explained anthropologist and author Dr. Helen Fisher. . . . "In a study of thirty-seven societies, it's been established that women are attracted to men who have status, power, education, and resources. "

(WIE. page 90)

For women on the spiritual path, a relationship with our teacher adds an additional and ultimately compelling element to the long-standing benefits of becoming sexually involved with a powerful and influential man: spiritual capacity that I knew existed," said Leslie, who was in a relationship with a prominent American spiritual teacher. "So I thought, 'Wow, I can have this all together in one package: mentor, lover, father. ' I knew he favored women who were attractive, and that boosted whatever image I had about myself. All the attention made me feel special, like Radha--a spiritual goddess. I mean, this teacher had power; he had money. He was charismatic, and if you were the woman at his side, that had to mean something about you as well. "

(WIE. Page 90)

Urdhva mulam adah shakham. . . . , the material world is a perverted reflection of the spiritual world. The woman at Krishna's side, of course, is Radha, and aside from Her exalted qualities this fact must also say something important about Her. The fact that the material world is a perverted reflection of the spiritual reality also says something about a woman's status in the material world. Besides looks, women marry for money, power, and, it seems, enlightenment, so since this is a natural proclivity, one not ought to be ashamed about it. After all, we're in the material world, and as long as we are still materially conditioned, we are ksharah, or imperfect and subject to fault. So the Vedic system is that contact between men and women is allowed under certain restrictions. Those restrictions stipulate that it is religious for a woman to unite with a man of equal or higher social status but it is irreligious for a woman to unite with a man beneath her social status.

It appears from this verse that during the time of the Pandavas free contact between man and woman was allowed in certain conditions only. The higher-caste men, namely the brahmanas and ksatriyas, could accept a woman of the vaisya or the sudra community, but a man from the lower castes could not contact a woman of the higher caste. Even a ksatriya could not contact a woman of the brahmana caste. The wife of a brahmana is considered one of the seven mothers (namely one's own mother, the wife of the spiritual master or teacher, the wife of a brahmana, the wife of a king, the cow, the nurse, and the earth). Such contact between man and woman was known as uttama and adhama. Contact of a brahmana with a ksatriya woman is uttama, but the contact of a ksatriya with a brahmana woman is adhama and therefore condemned. A woman approaching a man for contact should never be refused, but at the same time the discretion as above mentioned may also be considered. Bhima was approached by Hidimbi from a community lower than the sudras, and Yayati refused to marry the daughter of Sukracarya because of Sukracarya's being a brahmana. Vyasadeva, a brahmana, was called to beget Pandu and Dhrtarastra. Satyavati belonged to a family of fishermen, but Parasara, a great brahmana, begot in her Vyasadeva. So there are so many examples of contacts with woman, but in all cases the contacts were not abominable nor were the results of such contacts bad. Contact between man and woman is natural, but that also must be carried out under regulative principles so that social consecration may not be disturbed or unwanted worthless population be increased for the unrest of the world.

(Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 1. 14. 42 purport)

The WIE article demonstrates that women have a natural preference for men who are of progressively higher status, and the social system of varnashrama-dharma, as nicely shown by Srila Prabhupada, appears to be based on this natural propensity. This suggests that varnashrama-dharma, in spite of all the bad publicity it has received both within and outside of ISKCON, can be more easily accepted and practiced than we are inclined to think. The biggest obstacle to implementing varnashram-dharma among us devotees is probably our own misconceptions of what varnashram-dharma is and what exactly is our own conditioned nature.

In her book Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers critiques some of the overreaching feminist viewpoints that have emerged during the last twenty or thirty years—particularly the view that women are, by and large, victims of male abuse and exploitation. From that perspective, she concurred with Dr. Fisher:

"Human psychology is just too complicated to be reduced to a simple power differential: woman equals victim equals oppressed. While it's true that the mentors have power," she said, "women have their own power to attract the mentor. So as much as there's the mentor-student dynamic, there's the male-female dynamic where there's known to be attraction. "

(WIE page 91)

This is similar to statements about women Bhishmadeva makes to Maharaja Yuddhisthira, while instructing Maharaja Yuddhisthira from his deathbed. In a purport Srila Prabhupada gives a synopsis of these instructions and remarks as follows:

As far as the women class are concerned, they are accepted as a power of inspiration for men. As such, women are more powerful than men. Mighty Julius Caesar was controlled by a Cleopatra. Such powerful women are controlled by shyness. Therefore, shyness is important for women. Once this control valve is loosened, women can create havoc in society by adultery. Adultery means production of unwanted children known as varna-sankara, who disturb the world.

(Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 1. 9. 27 purport)

The following testimonies from WIE emphatically make a similar point: women, no matter who the women are, have power over men, no matter who the men are.

. . . Many of the women I spoke with clearly articulated an awareness of their own sexual power and the ability they knew they had to attract men. "I think we all grow up with strategies that we've learned for feeling safe and secure in the world, and special," said Annie. "If you're born attractive, then you learn to use your femininity as a way of getting what you want. I was reasonably attractive and bright, and I knew from fairly early on that if there was someone who I really wanted to fall in love with me, I could bring it about. I'm very adaptable, and I knew how to match energies with people and adapt to a situation, so it wasn't hard to make my dharma instructor fall in love with me. "

"In my case," said Diane, "I have to tell you, there were several teachers, and all of them were different. I think the Buddhist was somewhat innocent, and to some degree, he knew his power. But he was also curious, because somewhere I pushed buttons in him. He wasn't a sexual being, and I helped him out with that. At the same time, he helped me spiritually. So, who do you blame? Of course, what it comes down to can be an abuse of power, absolutely, and it is up to the teacher to draw that line. And while I really do believe it is the teacher's responsibility to act appropriately, I think that as adults we all have a responsibility for our actions. I mean, he's human, too, right? And here's this young, little twenty-four-year-old babe-ette . . . What are you supposed to do? Really?

If we're honest with ourselves, seductiveness is second nature to women, and we begin cultivating our ability to attract surprisingly early in life. Some of my earliest, most vivid memories of attraction and seduction, at age fourteen, resulted in my first kiss—with the twenty-six-year-old handyman who took care of our home, shared my love of music, was physically desirable, and was older and experienced. And while it is true that he approached me, in a timeless moment I can remember like it was yesterday, what I now realize is that for months prior to that, I had been deeply intent on him. I expressed that intent in a myriad of ways—from making sure I bumped into him in whatever corner of the house he was working to sitting at the piano and playing melodies into the stillness of the afternoon, knowing he would hear them. At that young age, and even earlier, I instinctively knew how to pull him toward me, the way a young kitten instinctively knows how to hunt its prey. "

(WIE page 91 - 92)

According to Vedic wisdom, sexual attraction is a stumbling block on the path of self-realization. From the above reference it seems that these women, in whatever spiritual path they were pursuing, knew this. Nonetheless, the attraction between man and woman is so great that unless strong measures are taken to reduce the attraction, fall down is likely. Therefore we have that most famous of quotes from the Srimad-Bhagavatam, "One should not allow oneself to sit on the same seat even with one's own mother, sister or daughter, for the senses are so strong that even though one is very advanced in knowledge, he may be attracted by sex. " (Prabhuapda. Srimad-Bhagavatam 9. 19. 17) Being a gentleman does not alter this dynamic between a man and a woman:

Learning the etiquette of how to deal with women does not free one from sexual attraction. As specifically mentioned herewith, such attraction is possible even with one's mother, sister or daughter. Generally, of course, one is not sexually attracted to his mother, sister or daughter, but if one allows himself to sit very close to such a woman, one may be attracted. This is a psychological fact. It may be said that one is liable to be attracted if he is not very advanced in civilized life; however, as specifically mentioned here, vidvamsam api karsati: even if one is highly advanced, materially or spiritually, he may be attracted by lusty desires. The object of attraction may even be one's mother, sister or daughter. Therefore, one should be extremely careful in dealings with women.

(Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 9. 19. 17 purport)

The heads of the society in which Krishna and Maharaja Yuddhisthira appeared had many, many qualified and intelligent women. Yet we see that their society was not the androgynous utopia modern society claims as the social ideal. With so many intelligent, capable women of that time, you would think that if the ideal is to not discriminate against gender with regard to service (as in occupational duties), that Krishna, Yuddhisthira and others, after conquering the world, would have worked to create a feminist paradise on earth, with near equal numbers of women serving in important all manner of important positions in society. That did not happen; the Mahabharata simply did not have in the name of reestablishing dharma a feminist agenda. Instead we find that,

As we learn from the history of the Mahabharata, or "Greater India," the wives and daughters of the ruling class, the ksatriyas, knew the political game, but we never find that a woman was given the post of chief executive. This is in accordance with the injunctions of Manu-samhita, but unfortunately Manu-samhita is now being insulted, and the Aryans, the members of Vedic society, cannot do anything. Such is the nature of Kali-yuga.

(Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 10. 4. 5 purport)

So, we have a paradox before us: Many, many intelligent women lived in Krishna's society, yet those women, by mandate, seemingly occupied humble social roles. Is that not discrimination? Is that not unfair to the women even of that time in history? Why in the name of religion they should be denied equal opportunity to serve Krishna as per their desires? Aren't women also spirit souls--particularly Vaishnavis (Vaishnava women), who have realized their spiritual identity? If we presume that the leaders of society during Krishna's time were learned gentleman who knew all the principles and intricacies of dharma, then we have to rule out that the exclusion of women from certain occupations and professions was inherently and materially sexist and bigoted. Neither Krishna nor his associates were sexists. So, here are some reasons for the choice of those leaders to cultivate a society which, by all modern standards, would be considered backwards due to its gender discrimination:

Worldly duties and occupations, particularly the those duties prescribed by varnashrama-dharma, and spiritual life can be pursued side-by-side. The implications of this are that one can be in the lowest, most humble social position yet can simultaneously be a topmost devotee of Krishna. Haridas Thakura (born from a Muslim family) and Kabir (a cobbler) and were all recognized by society in India to this day as great devotees of Krishna, yet they remained within their social position (or even as social outcasts). On account of his being born in a Muslim family, Haridas Thakura could not enter the Jagannatha Temple in Puri to have darshan of Lord Jagannatha. Nonetheless, he was accepted by the Lord Himself, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, as being the acharya of chanting the Lord's Holy Names. The implications of this are that one can worship and develop one's pure love for the Lord irregardless of social or occupational status. As we have seen in the lives of these great saints, it is only the love that is considered by Krishna, not social or occupational position. (Sometimes, of course, material and spiritual life come into conflict with one another, but most people in general can do their worldly duties and simultaneously become self-realized by chanting Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. )

Yukta-vairagya, using a material thing in Krishna's service, was as valid then as it is now. However, not all things are as easily dovetailed in Krishna's service as are other things. For example, television can be used in Krishna's service, yet we find that many devotees who keep televisions tend to spend more time watching mundane programs than they spend time on quality hearing and chanting of Krishna's names or in reading sacred literature. Although we are Vaishnavas, the vast majority of us tend to be mixed Vaishnavas, not pure Vaishnavas. As our devotion to Krishna is still tainted by material desires and less-than-spiritual aspirations, there are plenty of things which reasonably can be used in Krishna's service but because of our own material conditioning should not be used. Thus, for the sake of elevating a society wherein most of the people were at best mixed Vaishnavas, there are some restrictions on what one can and cannot do. Some of those restrictions happen to limit the social and occupational roles of women. Although it is a fact that women in societies that implemented varnashram-dharma were for the most part limited to the domestic sphere, that limitation was chosen over the possibility of a society in which men and women have considerable latitude for intermingling.

So these regulative principles are there. So what is, what is the big plan behind these regulative principles? The big plan is: here is the attraction, pumsah striya mithuni-bhavam-to cut down this attraction between male and female. This is the big plan. Otherwise there is no need of the varnasrama.

(Srila Prabhupada. Lecture, Srimad-Bhagavatam 5. 5. 8, Vrindavan Oct 30, 1976.

Apparently, in Krishna's society, minimizing sex life was considered even more important than equal-opportunity-employment. This is Vedic civilization. Veda means knowledge, and so those things which put us in ignorance are counter productive to realizing the ideals of a Vedic civilization, namely the revival of our forgotten relationship with Krishna.

Great Vaishnavis like Kunti and Draupadi were unquestionably self-realized souls, so how do we explain their apparent restrictions to a subordinate and domestic social position? The reason they did this is because in any civilization, one must look out for others. Indeed, the symptom of a civilized person is that he or she considers others more important than one's self. So acting in ways which encourage others to do things which are not good for them is against the principles of Vedic civilization because of leading others to engage in ignorant behavior, or behavior that implicates one in ignorance. Not long ago my wife, one older woman who comes to our preaching center and I were traveling from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Denver, Colorado, for Janmastami. I was sitting in the back seat, the older woman was driving and my wife was sitting in front of me in the front passenger seat. The sun visor for the front passenger seat had a mirror in it, and my wife was looking back at me through the mirror, wiggling her fingers and giving me one of these "I-can-see-you" grins. I grinned back, but the woman with us who was driving noticed and openly lamented that she did not have some man in her life with which she can share cute smiles and side-long glances. So even we are self-realized or act religiously all the time, it is also important to act in such a way as to not incite lust in others. As we can see, even innocuous flirtation between a husband and wife in public can produce lust in others. The general behavior of people in modern society suggests that people are to a spiritually unhealthy degree interested in themselves more than others.

Finally, how do we explain the presence of women like Gangamata Goswamini in societies that implemented varnashrama dharma? Gangamata Goswamini at an early age accepted diksa from Haridas Pandita and lived for many years in Vrindavan as a renunciate practicing madhukara, or going from house-to-house begging only for as much as one needs and not more. Later when she went to Puri, she gave discourses on the Srimad-Bhagavatam that were so famous that people from far away would come to hear her speak. She also had many disciples in high social positions, like Maharaja Mukundadeva, the King of Puri. Why can't our Vaishnavis follow Gangamata Goswamini's example and become gurus and acharyas just like her? Why can't ISKCON be full of Gangamata Goswaminis liberating conditioned souls all over the world? If we would just give them the chance and change attitudes and enact laws in ISKCON that are "woman friendly," we might see an unprecedented spiritual renaissance the likes of which the world has never seen, right? We need to remember that Gangamata Goswamini was respected in a society that strictly followed varnashram-dharma, wherein women in general were relegated to the domestic sphere. The varnashram-society of East India at that time could give that respect to Gangamata Goswamini because factual spiritual knowledge was to some degree widely intact. She was recognized as a transcendentalist and not required by society to follow the ordinary course of life prescribed for women because she was steady in her renunciation and service to guru and Krishna. She did not require family maintenance, nor social security checks, nor did she require food, saris and ashram from institutional largesse. In all circumstances she practically depended on Krishna and remained steady in her determination, and therefore she could be identified as a liberated transcendentalist fixed in devotion and thus not required to follow the ordinary course of life prescribed for women by varnashrama society. This can be understood from the point of view of an ordinary woman who might try to imitate her. Let us say our imitator accepted a spiritual master, vows and a way of life similar to that of Gangamata Goswamini. After some days, or weeks or possibly months, our imitator would become dissatisfied with the life of madhukara and find for herself a more comfortable situation. If we need maintenance, even on the plea that ISKCON the institution owes it to us, then we had better implement and uphold the principles of varnashrama-dharma in our own lives--for our sake and for other's sake. (This is true both for men and women. ) Gangamata Goswamini, on the other hand, was recognized and honored as an uncommonly advanced sadhu (sadhvi) and excused from following the prescribed life for women because not only did she demonstrate a high level of renunciation, but she was also steady in her renunciation: mam ca yo 'vyabhicarena bhakti yogena sevate, sa gunan samatityetan brahma bhuyaya kalpate, "One who performs devotional service, unfailing in all circumstances, at once transcends the modes of material nature and comes to the level of brahman. " (Bhagavad-gita As It Is 14. 26) The varnashram society she appeared in could honor her because that society also had this spiritual knowledge.

The article, "Women Who Sleep With Their Gurus" in What Is Enlightenment magazine has a major shortcoming: namely that the authoress did not consult any theological authorities on this topic,

Considering the subject in light of my past experience and what these women shared with me, and illuminated by the insights and views of a noted anthropologist, a psychologist, a well-known author, and a feminist who I also consulted, I found myself compelled by a new and liberating perspective on this sensitive and confusing issue.

(WIE page 89)

She mentions Hindu sages, Tibetan lamas, Indian yogis, Asian Zen masters and South American shamans as having been involved in so many sordid trysts with young, female disciples, but never does she get their point of view. Perhaps it is because they are not women. But if there is a spiritual dimension to us, something that factually transcends the body, then why cannot men--particularly those who are spiritually advanced--also have a perspective that is correct and illuminates the original question she posed (why do women almost always say "yes")? Nor were holy books such as the Bhagavad-gita, the Bible, the Lotus Sutras or any other scripture consulted as to why this happens. At the end of her article Jennifer Roemischer discusses the feminist perspective, and her exploration of what could possibly alter the power differential between guru and (female) disciple ultimately centered on being more aware of the choice to also say "no" to a tryst with a spiritual teacher. There was also considerable discussion about more women taking up the mantle of guru and changing the power differential between men and women and, thus, the results of such encounters.

Choice seems to be the hallmark of third-wave feminism that distinguishes it from the implied victimhood of second-wave feminism, and it is the recognition of this choice that is hailed as a great gain for women. I agree that this characteristic of third-wave feminism is an improvement in the knowledge and consciousness of women who subscribe to the feminist ethos because without choice, there is no question of acting on the platform of dharma. However, feminism (whatever its wave) is still a material ideology, and because it is material, it lacks any criteria by which to adjudicate dharmic or adharmic action. From the vantage point of third-wave feminism, saying "yes" to a sexual relationship with one's guru could be just as good, enlightening and spiritually fulfilling as saying "no". Nonetheless, it is the "choice-consciousness" of third-wave feminism that makes for Western women who are more open to dharma and all it entails than were those who subscribed to older, more radical forms of feminism which affirmed their chronic victimhood.

Merve Kavakci, a former parliamentarian in Turkey who was ejected from Turkey's parliament for wearing the hijab (headscarf), has a refreshing view on choice that concurs with third-wave-feminism's "choice-ism":

Regrettably, Western feminists also fuel the common misunderstanding of Muslim women's motivations for wearing headscarves. , Western feminists also fuel the common misunderstanding of Muslim women's motivations for wearing headscarves. In late 2003, several dozen prominent Frenchwomen, including philosopher Elisabeth Badinter and writer Catherine Millet, sent an open letter to French President Jacquest Chirac, arguing that "the Islamic veil sends us all—Muslim and non-Muslim—back to a discrimination against women that is intolerable. " These thinkers link headscarves with suffering and conclude that they impede the personal growth and social development of women.

But such feminists make two significant mistakes. First, they fail to understand that, in some Muslim societies, gender inequalities have much less to do with the religious requirements of Islam than with old cultural traditions. If headscarves were inherently linked to female suffering, then women probably would have experienced particular hardships in the earliest days if Islam, during the life of the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century. Yet Muslim women of the time were prominent professional members of society. They experienced neither the brutality that Afghani women endured under the Taliban nor the repression that Saudi women still endure. Over time, though, equality deteriorated in the most of the Muslim world and women were coerced into more traditional household roles.

Second, Western feminist critics of the headscarf overlook its important religious value. The two other Abrahamic religious also originally mandated female covering. (Today, some Christian and Jewish women still opt to wear the headscarf. ) Mainstream Islamic tradition considers the headscarf an obligation for Muslim women because it conceals their physical allure. By covering themselves, Muslim women can be recognized not only for their religious beliefs but for their contributions to society as well; they can be judged for their intellect and not just their appearance.

Certainly, some Muslim women today are forced to cover themselves against their will. However, it is incorrect to claim that every woman that does so is necessarily coerced and oppressed. Muslim women everywhere must refute this all-too-prevalent Western misconception. For women who choose it, the headscarf is an indispensable part of their personal identity, one that should not be compromised. If Western feminists and other critics want to advance women's rights, they are better off honoring a woman's right to choose rather than trying to impose their prejudices on Muslims.

(Merve Kavakci. "Headscarf Heresy. For one Muslim woman, the headscarf is a matter of choice and dignity. " Foreign Policy May / June 2004. Page 67)

What does this all mean for us in ISKCON? If we're over fifty (or under fifty and still believe small doses of Gloria Steinem could help ISKCON) and think that things like arranged marriages or Vaishnavis covering their heads will be unwelcome by the men and women we preach to or has nothing to do with Krishna consciousness, then we're behind the times. Third-wave feminism is all about choice, so if we want to make the culture that comes with Krishna consciousness relevant to the younger women (and men) in today's world (including those who aren't Western by culture), then we have to present our social customs as a choice, along with sound reasons to back up those choices. As men and women find themselves more and more oppressed by secularism and come to the unambiguous conclusion that the happiness promised by sociologists, psychologists and other doyens of secular society are simply false promises, they will find what we have to offer a more refreshing, colorful, rational and truly spiritual alternative to the secular culture they grew up in. As devotees, we need to study more carefully varnashrama-dharma and the customs that have in part or fully evolved from it in order to understand how following varnashram-dharma is a rational choice for those who are serious about getting out of material existence and, hence, develop their full love for Krishna with minimal disturbance from the material energy.

Wroclaw, Poland
19 September 2004

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