Worshipful Women

A common complaint that is voiced in the modern world is that religions are structures by which a privileged group subjugates those who are in some way different. In this brief article we see that true spiritual experience in general, and the Gaudiya Vaishnava experience in particular, moves in a very different direction.

By Srila Sridhara Maharaja

According to the varnasrama system, generally the sudras (laboring class) and ladies are not allowed direct participation in the higher religious functions. Only indirect participation is allowed for them, and they also do not get the sacred thread. Yet a brahmana boy can be found touching the feet of his mother!

The mother will not touch the deity of Narayana, but her son who is worshiping Narayana is touching her feet and taking her feet dust. Such a position is there in the varnasrama system. Women are generally considered unfit or below the standard of engaging in direct service to the Lord, but in the Vaishnava conception there is no such strictness about that.

In my youth some sort of disregard grew in my mind about the lady section: “I must keep far away from them; they are untouchable.” But that notion was amended by my aunt in this way: she noted my nature, my conduct, and once affectionately remarked to me, “Oh, don’t you know that ladies represent Laksmidevi? They belong to the same section, and in them the qualities of sacrifice and submission are very clearly visible, so they should be respected. They should be respected, and the aggressive male nature is to be viewed unfavorably. The feminine ego-conception is an ideal of a very noble type wherein sacrifice, the devotional aspect, is very prominent. Ladies are not aggressors; they are sacrifice personified. Whereas the male nature – that is aggressive.”

Gradually that idea came to me and I learned to appreciate Sita, Draupadi, and so many others, especially the supreme example shown by the gopis. The standard established by the has shown that self-forgetfulness, self-sacrifice, and self-surrender reaches its zenith, its highest conception, in the lady aspect. The passive aspect holds the highest position: that viewpoint came gradually and caused a turnabout within my mind.

Madhura rasa, consorthood, is the highest position, and within Srimati Radharani we find the greatest degree of sacrifice and affection. The males are the aggressors; they are responsible for all the difficulties and troubles, not the ladies. That we possess the aggressive nature of a male is the disease in us. Gradually that perception developed from inside, and ultimately I found that when the female nature is pure and in connection with the supreme of vatsalya rasa and madhura rasa, it holds the highest position in the topmost realm. And our aspiration is for engagement in the service of Srimati Radharani.

The position of Sri Radha is that of the highest service to Krishna, and Radha dasyam has been considered by Mahaprabhu to be the highest attainment. Vasudeva Ghosa says:

(yadi) gaura na haita, tabe ki haita
kemane dharitam de’
radhara mahima premarasasima
jagate janata ke?

Who could disclose this holy, divine fact if Sri Gauranga did not personally appear on this Earth? Who could let us know, who could inform us that the highest servitor is Radharani? But Gauranga did come, and he clearly showed that the highest conception of service is to be engaged in the service of that highest, negative potency.


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27 Responses to Worshipful Women

  1. Such a position is there in the varnasrama system. Women are generally considered unfit or below the standard of engaging in direct service to the Lord, but in the Vaishnava conception there is no such strictness about that.

    It appears that Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and Srila Sridhar Maharaja agree on this point about the female devotees engaging in arcana.

  2. What a nice article!

    It is so unfortunate that in many Vaisnava circles women are still perceived rather as obstacles for spiritual advancement for the men then spiritual souls looking for God. 🙁

  3. Nice article! It is refreshing to see the balanced perspective on women expressed by Srila Sridhara Maharaja. It is even more refreshing to see him admit to his initial prejudice towards women and explain how he deepend his understanding of this issue.

    SSM: ” The males are the aggressors; they are responsible for all the difficulties and troubles, not the ladies. That we possess the aggressive nature of a male is the disease in us.”
    That is certainly true also with respect to our movement.

    • Thankfully—and thanks to Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja—I am not a member of “our movement.”

      • Yes, I should have been more specific – “That is certainly true also with respect to ISKCON”.

        To be fair, ISKCON has changed quite a bit in that regard, even as women still have a long way to go towards realizing their natural potential and achieving proper respect.

        • Respect is not something that has to be achieved. Or better stated, women should not have to prove to men that they are worthy of respect, rather men will have to prove they are worthy of the privileges they have been given in this tradition. In my opinion, respect should be given across the board, to all genders, sexes, and orientations, until proven undeserved. Privileges..those must be earned.

          • Protecting women is the most foolish nonsense I have ever heard and it is propagated in many religions! First of all, women are not in need of that much protection. Furthermore, it is men’s job to control themselves… we should not put women aside to help men control their own sexual and aggressive appetites!!! That’s their own damn jobs. Furthermore, what about women’s need to regulate lust? That must be irrelevant? Put them way in the back to watch all the men dancing. It is so ridiculous that it makes me furious. Are we in the Victorian era still? I wrote an article for CHAKRA I think many years ago (9?) called “Women in Back”. It was about this.

            Some devotees say, we do not see women advance too much in Krsna Consciousness. I wanna say, “Well, that is the nature of oppression isn’t it? A self-fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore… would you recognize it if it was blazing in front of you anyway?!?!?!?!?! Or would it threaten your belief in your superiority….?”

            I apologize for the tone. I know I am preaching to the choir.

          • Education is the best protection.

        • It is amazing that in 2010 female devotees are still not allowed on the altar in some places. I guess that shows how cumbersome the institution really is when it doesn’t have a leader. It seems like a no brainer at this point.

          • Syama Gopala das

            It still blows me that in some temples in the West women have to stand in the back or men and women are on different sides… I mean aren’t we drawing more attention to differences that way instead of having service to the deity as the center of attention?

          • SSM, from the article:

            Such a position is there in the varnasrama system. Women are generally considered unfit or below the standard of engaging in direct service to the Lord, but in the Vaishnava conception there is no such strictness about that.

            Srila Sridhar Maharaj’s critique of varnasrama-dharma and the Vaisnava transcendence of it, as well as some of these comments brought Gaura-lila to mind. One eager woman desiring to have darsana of Lord Jagannatha climbed garuda-stambha, putting her foot on Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s shoulder. Seeing this disrespect of his master (a sannyasi), Mahaprabhu’s servant Govinda dragged the woman down to chastise her:

            CC Antya 14.26: Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu said to Govinda, “O adi-vasya [uncivilized man], do not forbid this woman to climb the Garuda-stambha. Let her see Lord Jagannatha to her satisfaction.”

            CC Antya 14.27: When the woman came to her senses, however, she quickly climbed back down to the ground and, seeing Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, immediately begged at His lotus feet for forgiveness.

            CC Antya 14.28: Seeing the woman’s eagerness, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu said, “Lord Jagannatha has not bestowed so much eagerness upon Me.

            CC Antya 14.29: “She has fully absorbed her body, mind and life in Lord Jagannatha. Therefore she was unaware that she was putting her foot on My shoulder.

            CC Antya 14.30: “Alas! How fortunate this woman is! I pray at her feet that she favor Me with her great eagerness to see Lord Jagannatha.”

          • It still blows me that in some temples in the West women have to stand in the back or men and women are on different sides…

            Not only in the West. This habit spreads in Indian Iskcon temples as well.

            Last time when I was in Mayapur Chandrodaya Mandir there were guards dressed in khaki with long sticks watching out that ladies do not dance too close to men.
            During the arati I was first standing in front of Panchatattva Deities and then I wanted to and see Radha Madhava. Crowd gathered before Narasingadeva so the path in front of the altar was empty…

            But I was forbidden to go this way! “This is only for the men, go to the back of the temple. That`s for your protection”. Being “protected” this way I ended up fighting my way through the crowd of men in the back! 😆

          • Just see the behavior of our Mahaprabhu, who sees bhakti over birth, future (ideal) over past (karma).
            It is quite ironic to consider that according to a varnasrama system a man born in a mleccha or otherwise “western” family would have no social standing in comparison to a dvija-patni (brahmin’s wife). Any man following Mahaprabhu would do well to follow his example above and put himself at the back of the line when it comes to bhakti.

          • Gaura-vijaya:

            I think the restrictions or no restrictions, sex desire is a strong force

            Sexual attraction needs to be kept in mind, but never at the expense of bhakti. After all, people will become sexually attracted to each other in any random situation if their consciousness and desires are focused in that way. I don’t think we need to fear it in the temple room.
            At least in a temple if opportunity is given without restriction for participation in bhakti, consciousness has the opportunity to be elevated. Certainly a front/back division of the sexes is unfair. Many (if not all) Iskcon temples in the U.S. at least divide the sexes side by side. While I get the idea (offering equal opportunity), I’m still inclined to feel that making an apparent division can potentially increase bodily consciousness and supress the growth of appreciation for bhakti beyond the body. In this example of Mahaprabhu, the woman’s bhakti was calling her towards the deity. The strength of bhakti pushed her across the line of social etiquette. That is a good thing. And I think that proportionate to an observers development in bhakti, that enthusiasm of a bhakta will be appreciated.

            The examples you speak of, teacher/student relations, are not actually a large list. They are very rare occurances when you consider how many millions of children go to how many thousands of schools, with so many teachers… The number of abuse cases like this are insignificant, and it really says something about how strong the desire is in that person that despite the natural pressures of society and all implications, still a few pursue such acts. Taking that example into a temple and easing the division between the sexes and focusing on bhakti, I don’t think there would be any significant increase in attraction between the sexes. I think that is present anyway, and culture (western or eastern) naturally inhibits promiscuity in such an environment; a place of worship. I don’t think artificially imposed segregation is contributing to making the environment “safer” against promiscuity. Just my opinion…

        • The main idea was to separate the opposite sexes, but unfortunately it was done in a way that led men to take advantage of their position.
          I think the restrictions or no restrictions, sex desire is a strong force and in today’s time any type of segregation is not feasible. Though we have seen that large list of cases of high school teachers having intercourse with their students or yogis/gurus having relations with women once they are in close proximity, I am not sure that strict avoidance is a solution either (seeing the hypocrisy in so called strict churches or gurukuls).
          Though CM is liberal in this particular dealing, he was pretty strict in some places (not even touching a form of a woman accidently). I think all the time the emphasis is on the strength of sex desire to take one over completely and the need to be careful. How this principle has been used to subjugate and exploit woman is unfortunate. But the principle of the futility of sexual attraction holds still, though equally for men and women, not just for women. I am far from removed from the attraction, so it perhaps be a self-preaching effort.

          • Yes it is true that Mahaprabhu was very strict. But maybe this was just for the sake of maintaining the respect of the society, thereby keeping them receptive to his message. At the present time in most places in the world the strict separation of men and women may have the opposite effect. If one enters the temple for the first time in America, she might be so disturbed to see women and men separated she will not hear the message of Mahaprabhu. I think it is easy to see how the opposite might have been the case more than 500 years ago in Bengal. If a member of that society were to enter the sanga of Mahaprabhu’s associates and see men and women all mixed up they might have been disturbed by that.

          • I agree with you Atmananda and Madan Gopal. I was just trying to point out the principle. Perhaps in India equal division can still be employed in rural areas in consideration of the culture for the “time” being. And in cities and in the west they can do with no division because as such it complicates rather than facilitates the situation. Anyway, I am still struggling with sex desire and I must say segregation or no segregation, I have failed nonetheless. Just have to focus on bhakti 🙂

  4. Beautiful article!!

  5. Vikram Ramsoondur

    Verily, a highly commendable and digestible piece, and one very much in tune with the sensibilities of the times. Srila Sridhara Maharaja shows with this article yet again that he was one of the most, if not the most, original thinker in the entire Gaudiya Matha. On the question of prominent historical female figures in the bhakti tradition, the link below opens on an interesting write-up that merits perusing in my opinion. Jagadananda Prabhu has done a really good job in putting this together, as he customarily does with most of his essays.

    http://www.gaudiya.com/pdf/Women_Saints_in_Gaudiya_Vaishnavism.pdf

  6. As was mentioned last week on Sridhara Maharaja’s disappearance day, so nice to read this and see his humility — speaking honestly about his initial perceptions and then being big enough to change his mind when presented with a different perspective. An excellent example for us to follow.

  7. Syamasundara Dasa

    And yet, as I was reading it, I could almost hear a voice saying:”This is still implying that women should bend down to the aggressiveness of men, they should sacrifice their value, and as long as they do that, they are glorious.
    Sure, especially from the spiritual point of view, self-sacrifice and submissiveness are very valuable qualities that help curb our undeserved purusha-bhava, but I don’t know about the Vedas saying that women are unqualified. Examples like Kausalya performing a sacrifice and all kinds of women taking positions of teachers and leaders when the time called for it are more in tune with the Vedas’ approach that, if one is qualified for a job, he or she can do it.

    • I agree Kaikeyi even fought alongside Dasaratha. Then we have sages like Gargi who are female. Certainly they are less in number, but they are present meaning that if they are qualified they must be given a chance. In today’s time there are less women in mathematics than men, but some of them are even better than men and they are accepted.

  8. In a CD lecture of Guru Maharaj, I remember a point made about how religions are often viewed from the perspective of if they make living in the world easier, or valued on if they make the world a better place; but the path of Bhakti on the other hand ultimately reveals the world for what it is and is not meant to help us survive here but remove us from the washer and dryer of Samsara. (so to speak)
    Such a position is there in the varnasrama system. Women are generally considered unfit or below the standard of engaging in direct service to the Lord, but in the Vaishnava conception there is no such strictness about that.
    Are women seen ‘below’ in the varnasrama system, because it was a system created by men? Or who made the varnasrama system?
    Also is it that in the Vaishnava conception this view does not apply because male and female are material constructs, and it’s the Self that is the whole point?
    They belong to the same section, and in them the qualities of sacrifice and submission are very clearly visible, so they should be respected. They should be respected, and the aggressive male nature is to be viewed unfavorably. The feminine ego-conception is an ideal of a very noble type wherein sacrifice, the devotional aspect, is very prominent. Ladies are not aggressors; they are sacrifice personified. Whereas the male nature
    I understand this is an article that is a fresh perspective on equality of the sexes on the spiritual path, but I can’t help thinking from a material feminist perspective that why the terms submissive and passive automatically are related to being a woman and men are aggressive. Ug.

    Thanks

    • Or who made the varnasrama system

      In Sri Bhagavad-Gita Krishna takes credit as the creator of the Varnashrama system and that he is also aloof from it.

      I understand this is an article that is a fresh perspective on equality of the sexes on the spiritual path, but I can’t help thinking from a material feminist perspective that why the terms submissive and passive automatically are related to being a woman and men are aggressive. Ug.

      Perhaps the natures of men and women are much less clearly defined now than they were in ancient times.

    • These gender distinctions are generalities only. Men are generally more aggressive and women are generally more submissive, but at the same time there are always plenty of exceptions to this, even in Vedic times and among the Devas. Devotees need to remember this, otherwise their conception of gender becomes hardened and fundamentalist.

      I was actually very impressed by the article, especially considering the time in which it was likely written.

    • There are indeed scores and scores of differences between men and women. For one, men tend to think linearly – “A” plus “B” equals “C”. But women tend to think contextually – “A” plus “B” plus “B1” plus “B2” plus “C”, etc., taking into account many more aspects of a situation than a typical man. Because of a woman’s traditional role of seeing to the satisfaction of the needs of each and every one of her family members, even if those needs lie in apparent opposite positions between the members, she is given gifts of increased sensitivity, empathy, and “conflict negotiation” – these gifts given to her by the Supreme Lord so that she may fulfill her duty in this lifetime. Men have other duties and are given gifts, as well, to be able to carry out their prescribed duties. To be true to a material feminist position, we should rejoice in our God-given abilities that come with this female body and stop thinking that those that come with the male body are any great prize and that what they get to do is BETTER than what we get to do. Honor women by honoring the differences, not by equating us with men.

      Spiritual life is within – Krishna is within our very heart – we are already standing on the altar. There is no one in front of us blocking our view of the Lord – no one but the illusory self to which we cling.

      • While I agree with you on some of your points, especially that the altar is within and that no man actually stands between you and Krishna, it is important to mention that this kind of reasoning can lead to socio-religious complacency. This reasoning you share is a significant contribution to the esoteric side of what we pursue as it suggests that what is happening internally can be quite distinct from that which is happening externally. It is also one of the ways that the ill treatment of women is rationalized in the community.

        As a homosexual I will often shift over to the women’s side of temples because the oppressive division activates a lot of emotion and I want to fight it. Additionally, the divisions were never designed to help people like me, in fact they were designed in complete oblivion of people like me. It is sad to see that so many women do not defy these systems that are in place. Of course, it is something like a self-fulfilling process as there must be a result to so many years of being told one is inferior. Additionally, I imagine only certain people will join a faith that explicitly states women are inferior to men.

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