Sexism, Prejudice, and Vedic Culture

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“Those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birth — women, vaiśyas [merchants] and śūdras [workers] — can attain the supreme destination.”

– Krsna in Bhagavad Gita (9.32)

This text supplies arguments for and against sexism and prejudice in Vedic culture. Here are the two very most important points overall:

  • In Bhakti Yoga, the highness or lowness of ones social status is not a factor
  • By Bhakti Yoga, the person of lowest social rank becomes higher than the person of highest social rank.

I have not really been intimately “in” ISKCON (etc) for about a decade. I noticed that significant improvements have been made regarding sexism since then, though I am sure more improvements can always be made. Last time I was significantly on the inside of ISKCON there were still rather severe problems with sexism. So it is not only that people who are upset with Hare Krsna’s for being sexist have problems and need to be educated. We Hare Krsna’s also have problems and we need to be educated.

The same things which educate us will also educate those upset with us. I think the two bullet points above would solve all the social mistakes within ISKCON (etc) and also correctly educate onlookers and peripheral persons about what we are really trying to be all about, and they wouldn’t mistake us as a “sexist” group.

Difficult Points
There are some points about Vedic society brought out by this text of Gita, which are difficult to swallow in this regard:

  • There does exist social distinctions between women and men
  • There are no such thing as women being of the four varnas and ashramas, it is only for men. Women obtain varna practically as a result of who they marry.
    • This point is not entirely true – as we will find that when a brahman lady marries a kshatriya, the child is considered a hybrid. Therefore the caste of the woman does have some independant status.
  • There does exist social distinctions between various types of men.

Different Roles for Men and Women
It would just be lying to ourselves to say that men and women are not given social roles in Vedic society that our modern standards identify as “stereotypical.” The first counterargument to this is:

  • Modern society sucks. The majority of people in it are miserable and constantly stressed out. So, who really cares if modern society identifies something as being negative or backwards. Modern society is no role model against which other societies should have to measure up.

The second reply is:

  • Women and men are vastly different. Of course they should play different roles. There should also be some escape valve for individuals who do not fit the normal gender role to express themselves.

Believe it or not, in my opinion, ancient Vedic society was sensitive to this and did provide outlets for persons who did not fit the normal mold. I think that since Vedic society became mixed with Moghul and Victorian British society that has crumbled and disappeared from the India we know today.

Do Women Have Varna?
There are technicalities about Varnas and Ashramas and then there are essential facts about it. Elsewhere in the Gita and throughout all the Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas the statement is highly clear that every human being regardless of gender is permeated by the three modes of nature in varying combinations and thus acts in habitual ways that can be classified into four broad groups: shudra (employees), vaishya (bosses, money-makers), kshatriya (leaders, governers), brahmana (thinkers). In this sense both men and women belong to the four varnas.

Then there is the technicality of varna, the practicality of it. The first part of this practicality is that women raise children. I know this may not tally with modern society’s view of what is politically correct, but it does tally with common sense. Women have breasts, men do not. Therefore by physiological nature women raise young children, men do not. You can replace breasts with a milk bottle, but physiology affects mentality. This is why hormones affect both the way you feel and the way you look. Women do not just have breasts, they have distinctly profound emotional bosoms as well. They have inner natures that are better suited than men for raising children.

Does this mean that dads ignore children? No! I am a dad, and I really, really love my kids and am very, very motherly towards them. Still even at my most motherly I would hardly think to make nice sandwhiches for them, wake up in the middle of the night to check their blankets, etc. etc. all sorts of things that my wife naturally thinks about constantly even without trying to be “motherly.”

Are there some men who are even more motherly than me!? Yes, I hope so! I am not trying to define everyone. As I said, society always has to provide routes for people who do not fit the majority status quo. This does not mean however, that we must ignore or denigrate what is true for the vast majority. Of course individuals vary significantly. The point here, however, is that what is difficult for men to achieve even when they are particularly feminine is difficult for women to avoid even when they are particularly masculine. A case in point is the talent for raising young children well.

Since women as a group are extremely more qualified to raise children, that is primarily what they do, regardless of what varna they are. Therefore they are not branded as brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas, shudras, etc. Why? Because they do not do the practical work of brahmanas, kshatriyas, etc. The men do the practical activities of their varnas. The women – regardless of their varna – educate and raise their children.

When varna is is said to apply to everyone, regardless of gender, the context is the essential internal effect of varna. When varna is said to be only a distinction among men (as the case with this text) the context is the practical external expression of varna. The former is a psychological and spiritual context, the later is a practical and social context.

All Men are Created Different
All men are created equal, certainly! Vedic culture certainly fully embraces that. But it is also true that all men are created different. Some are thinkers, some are managers, some are money makers, some are workers. Therefore men are differentiated in Vedic society by their varna.

The Important Social Role of Bhakti (Devotion)
Bhakti-Yoga is one among three primary spiritual paths in Vedic culture, but it is not normally rarefied and extracted as a pure entity except in very unusual cases of practitioners who are extremely elevated in bhakti – such as the Rupanuga Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya. Normally, bhakti, jnana and karma are like three strands of a single braid. They are interwoven into every aspect of Vedic culture and become blended.

The point of mentioning that is to say that Bhakti permeates all aspects of Vedic culture; therefore discussing the implications of Bhakti Yoga on the social roles of Vedic culture is not pertinent only discussing only to rare and specialized applications of Vedic culture (as would be the case in a modern Rupanuga social organization such as ISKCON or similar groups). Since bhakti is integral to all parts of Vedic culture, discussing the social implication of bhakti is pertinent to Vedic culture in total; and absolutely essential for bhakti-centric social groups.

As we began by saying, there are two important points about the social impact of bhakti:

  • In Bhakti Yoga, the highness or lowness of ones social status is not a factor
  • By Bhakti Yoga, the person of lowest social rank becomes higher than the person of highest social rank.

Without deference to bhakti yoga, therefore, Vedic society becomes a prison for its citizens, with a few citizens sitting on top exploiting and denigrating the rest. Vedic culture keeps at the forefront of its consideration the truth that love is more important than anything. “Bhakti” means love. Those who possess love are therefore regarded highly in Vedic society, regardless of what their social status is. (Again, by “Vedic” I am pointing to pre-British and pre-Moghul India at least).

Those who posses love for the Supreme are held in supreme regard, again, regardless of their social status. Thus a person with strongly developed pure love for Godhead will always be recognized by the vast majority of “vedic” citizens as being eminently worthy of respect and even worship – a “guru” regardless of this person’s caste, gender, race, etc!

To forbid a person from being a guru based on a social consideration such as caste or gender is a mistake. To forbid persons of certain castes or races from entering temples is also a big mistake. There is no simpler or plainer way to put it.

Now, I have to finish up the topic – by referring to the MOST IMPORTANT thing.

A person who really does have love, is humble by their very nature! Love is always humble because love always makes oneself less important than ones beloved. Thus humility is a pre-requisite for love, and this cannot be circumvented or altered.

Let’s say there is a person from a “lower” social rung, who is clamoring that “hey, I deserve your respect! you are mistreating me for considering me lower than you! I love god!!! Therefore you should respect me!” – Is that person being humble?

Since they are not being humble, is their any substance in their claim to be worthy of respect? Since they are not being humble is there any validity to their claim that they are full of love for the divine? No, a person who clamors for respect is the least deserving of all to receive it! The person who avoids respect is actually the one whom we should worship and revere.

Therefore we should welcome evaluations of ourselves that make us appear lower than others. This improves our humility. If we improve our humility we improve our love, and if we improve our love we can improve our love of the divine. Only this makes a person truly satisfied and happy.

Respect is a bread made of styrofoam and devoid of nutrition. Divine love, on the other hand, is a sumptuous feast of nourishment and bliss.


Saraswati ist the Hindu Goddess of learning, s...
Sarasvati - Goddess of Intelligence and Learning

In addition or response to what I wrote previously, one may ask: “OK, people have different roles, I can accept that. But what makes one role ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than another? Why is raising children a ‘lower’ social role?”

I believe the answer spells itself out like this: The more primarily important to the correct outcome, the ‘higher’ is the role of that component. Brahmanas are thinkers so they are most important (‘highest’), they establish philosophical understanding and educate adults. Lower than brahmanas are kshatriyas, the rulers. They are high up in society because the enforce the moral codes passed down by the brahmanas. They enforce these upon adults. The adults, specifically the women, then pass on knowledge and morality to children. They are the next highest in the Vedic social ladder. All three are “higher” than vaishyas and shudras, because these two groups are just concerned with carrying out the practical affairs of society – not in directing those affairs in a meaningful and fulfilling way. The vaishyas just manage the fuel of society (money, food, economy) and the shudras just work for the vaishyas to to physically create the fuel.

So Brahmanas and Vaishyas are socially “higher” than women, Vaishyas and Shudras because they are the ones who educate the adults who educate the children.

This, of course is a consideration of practical social roles, nothing to do with personal merit – which is measured not by social role by by (1) selflessness – karma, (2) learning – jnana, and (3) devotion – bhakti.

Second Addendum

An old well-wishing friend of mine, Catherine Ghosh (a.k.a. Krishna Kanta), alerted me to a subtlety in the English translation of the Sanskrit for this verse. She points out that the Sanskrit identifies FOUR types of persons, not three. I researched this with Vishvanath Chakravarti Thakur’s commentary on the text, and considered A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s commentary as well and came to realize agreement with her.

The common idea of this verse is to read it like this: “By devotion to me, people of sinful birth (for example: Women, Vaishyas and Shudras) are not at all barred from attaining the highest goal.”

The correct reading of this verse, however, is: “By devotion to me, neither people of sinful birth, nor women, vaishyas, or shudras, are in no way barred from attaining the highest goal.”

The point is that the verse itentifies four persons:

  • Papa-yonih – Those who are “uncivilized”, completely outside the Vedic social system.
  • Women – who are barred from most rituals due to their regular impurity from menstruation, and who are barred from most philosophical paths due to their strong emotional nature.
  • Vaishyas – who constantly tell lies to make profit.
  • Shudras – who are superficial and not thoughtful.

Vedic culture does prohibit or inhibit all of these people are barred from making significant spiritual progress by the paths of karma and jnana. But Krishna does not in any way prohibit or inhibit them from making full progress to the absolute highest spiritual realizations via the path of bhakti – divine love.