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Women in ISKCON in Prabhupada’s Times - Part One

By: for on March 3, 2017

"Women devotees were on one side of the temple room, men devotees on the other side, during kirtanas as well as classes and japa."

(This is Part One of a historical record written by Jyotirmayi Dasi in 1998.)

From about 1965 up to 1974, when Srila Prabhupada had to get less and less involved in temple management because of translating work and the tremendous increase of disciples and temples, the women devotees’ situation changed very little from what Srila Prabhupada had originally established. From 1974 their situation started to significantly deteriorate and got worse very fast until it reached its paroxysm before Srila Prabhupada’s departure.

When Prabhupada decided to accept women in the movement, he did so according to the reasoning he himself quotes in the Chaitanya Charitamrta, M.L., Ch. 23 purport of verse 105: “To broadcast the cult of Krishna Consciousness, one has to learn the possibility of renunciation in terms of country, time and candidate…..He must avoid the principle of niyamagraha, that is, he should not try to perform the impossible. What is possible in one country may not be possible in another. The acarya’s duty is to accept the essence of devotional service. There may be a little change here and a little change there as far as yukta-vairagya (proper renunciation) is concerned…The essence of devotional service must be taken into consideration, and not the outward paraphernalia… A Vaishnava is immediately purified, provided he follows the rules and regulations of his bonafide spiritual master. It is not necessary that the rules and regulations followed in India be exactly the same as those in Europe, America and other Western countries. Simply imitating without effect is called niyamagraha. Not following the regulative principles but instead living extravagantly is also called niyamagraha… We should not follow regulative principles without an effect, nor should we fail to accept the regulative principles. What is required is a special technique according to country, time and candidate….”

Srila Prabhupada followed this reasoning concerning not only the acceptation of women in the ashramas but also lots of other subject matters, such as the practice of renunciation, which is being dealt with in the quotation, preaching methods, only a partial introduction of Vedic culture, Deity worship, etc…. Everything that he introduced or did not introduce was deeply thought about and very carefully and logically analyzed. When he was asked, several years later, if he would have preferred to establish the movement differently, he answered that if it were to be done again he would do it exactly the same way.

Despite the fact that he had been criticized several times in India because of all the changes he was introducing, Srila Prabhupada kept them and justified his position regarding the women devotees once more in the Chaitanya Charitamrta A.L. ch. 7, purport of verses 32 and 38. “An acarya who comes for the service of the Lord cannot be expected to conform to a stereotype, for he must find the ways and means by which Krishna Consciousness may be spread. Sometimes jealous persons criticize the Krishna Consciousness movement because it engages equally both boys and girls in distribution of love of Godhead. Not knowing that boys and girls in countries like Europe and America mix very freely, these fools and rascals criticize the boys and girls in Krishna Consciousness for intermingling. But these rascals should consider that one cannot suddenly change a community’s social customs. However, since both boys and girls are being trained to become preachers those girls are not ordinary girls but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Krishna Consciousness. Therefore to engage both boys and girls in fully transcendental activities is a policy intended to spread the Krishna Consciousness movement… The results of this are wonderful. Both men and women are preaching the gospel of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Lord Krishna with redoubled strength… Therefore it is a principle that a preacher must strictly follow the rules and regulations laid down in the shastras yet at the same time devise a means by which the preaching work to reclaim the fallen may go with full force.”

By accepting women in the temples and giving them the brahmacarini status, Prabhupada was not pretending: he gave them all the same rights and duties of the brahmacaris in the guru’s ashrama. The same thing applied when he gave them Brahman initiation. The women devotees had exactly the same spiritual activities, the same tasks, the same possibilities to progress spiritually and they were entitled to the same respect. At that time everything was done according to the abilities and the spiritual advancement of a person and not according to sex. Prabhupada did not make any distinction.

* Women, as well as men, accompanied Prabhupada when he was traveling and served him as secretaries, as did Arundhati, or served him personally as did Janaki.

* Women led kirtana’s: Jamuna, Kausalya, Lilavati were amongst the best.

* They gave classes and public lectures. The most renowned was Jadurani who was endowed with great erudition.

* Women were in charge of the Deities and performed public aratis. Jamuna, Shilavati, Rukmini, and Mandakini were the most famous.

* Men and women circumambulated Tulasi together without mixing, forming a circle separated in two halves, one half for the men, the other half for the women.

* Women paid dandavats to Prabhupada.

* Women offered garlands to Prabhupada personally or to his picture.

* Women performed aratis to Prabhupada’s picture on his vyasasana during Guru-puja.

* Women devotees were on one side of the temple room, men devotees on the other side, during kirtanas as well as classes and japa.

* During Guru-puja, men and women offered flowers simultaneously to Prabhupada, forming two lines, and women as well as men paid their obeisance ‘s in front of the vyasasana.

* When Srila Prabhupada was personally present, women as well as men could stand next to him. * During Harinamas (called at that time sankirtanas), Prabhupada had asked that the women stand between two groups of men, one in front and one behind so that they could be protected.

* Women wrote articles in magazines. Prabhupada personally asked Bibhavati who had been a journalist previously, to do so.

* As far as the service of temple president was concerned, Srila Prabhupada included husband and wife; he recommended that they be father and mother of the devotees they were in charge of.

* Women were doing things in front of Srila Prabhupada himself that later on they were forbidden to do: Jamuna was leading kirtans in front of him, Himavati gave public conferences, Jyotirmayi and Rukmini performed arati in front of him.

* Women had access to important responsibilities: Jadurani was in charge of the BBT (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust) painting department, Jamuna or Govinda dasi were proposed as the GBC (Governing Body Commissioners) by Prabhupada, Kausalya organized pandals, Varanasi was temple commander, Jyotirmayi BBT chief translator, etc.

* The grhasta status was very respected. Prabhupada was very proud of his couples who were opening temples together.

* Men and women chanted japa together in the temple room during the morning program.

 To be continued...

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