A few days later I wound up with Mark and Dave in the girl’s wing again – this time to watch some type of hippie movie. A hippie girl in her third year of school was there and within minutes we spontaneously decided that we were boy- and girl-friend. I wound up watching the movie with my head in her lap.
Thus, the three musketeers expanded to four: Marianne joining Dave, Mark and myself as the hippie-Krishna-vegetarian-philosophers of Cal Poly.
My mom and dad seemed to love Marianne; I think they were pretty relieved that I was finally showing some slightly normal social behavior. She majored in Horticulture and lived alone in a small house in that section of campus. Hanging out in the greenhouses with her, I realized that plants and gardening made me feel very calm and centered. Being a recovered alcoholic, Marianne was totally into my straightedge schtick. She would come to Inside Out shows, frightened at first, but smiling from ear to ear most of the time once she got used to it. And she was a full blown later-day hippie so she was totally into my guitar playing and fascination with Hare Krishna. She would often come to the Krishna temple with me.
She was smart and eagerly took to reading Prabhupāda’s Bhagavad-Gītā, until she came across something she really didn’t like towards the end of the first chapter. Prabhupāda’s translation of the verse itself:
When irreligion is prominent in the family, O Kṛṣṇa, the women of the family become polluted, and from the degradation of womanhood, O descendant of Vṛṣṇi, comes unwanted progeny.
And, in his comment on the verse:
As children are very prone to be misled, women are similarly very prone to degradation. Therefore, both children and women require protection by the elder members of the family… According to Cāṇakya Paṇḍita, women are generally not very intelligent and therefore not trustworthy.
“What the hell, Vic?” She protested. “I know Prabhupāda is supposed to be enlightened and everything, but this is just sexist. Women are like children? Women have to be ‘protected’ like children? Women are not very intelligent? What? What is all this?”
I didn’t like the sound of this stuff either, but I was hooked on Krishna and knew there had to be some way to resolve this in a sensible, acceptable way. I brought up some other sections of Gītā that describe wise people as those who see everyone equally. “So this must not mean that women are inferior. They are just different from men.”
“Yeah,” she retorted, “different in that men are adults but women are like children and need to be ‘protected’ from themselves. If that’s not inferior, Vic, what is?”
I groped for some way to make sense of it, “Maybe women are more easily misled and deceived because they are more naturally trusting and loving than men?”
“Then why does Prabhupāda explain it by saying ‘women are generally not very intelligent’? It’s obvious that he thinks we are not intelligent,” she said. “We are ‘like children’, so have to be ‘protected’ so we don’t have our way and degrade society by having sex with everyone and making unwanted children. Come on, Vic, that is completely out-of-touch with the real world. And, it’s blatant sexism!”
Ever since I was old enough to think straight, I saw sexism as one of the ugliest, stupidest things in existence, so I just couldn’t accept the idea that the founder of the Hare Krishna movement was actually sexist. The fault must lie with us, I thought, with how we interpret his words.
I sat down and tried to work through it. “The Vedas talk about different kinds of intelligence,” I said, slowly. “The most important kind is the intellect that discriminates between the soul and the body. When Prabhupāda says that women are ‘less intelligent’ he is talking about this type of intelligence, not school-intelligence or practical-intelligence.”
“Do you think women are less intelligent then men in discriminating between body and soul?” she asked.
“Well, in this day and age,” I said, “I think everyone is less intelligent in that way. Prabhupāda says that, too. But, in previous ages, maybe women were less intelligent – in that way. I think that’s just natural, because women are the ones who have children, and they have to have strong attachment and love for their children, the products of their body, otherwise they wouldn’t take very good care of the kids, or even want to have kids, and the human race would be in danger of extinction.”
She looked at me sideways, trying not to show her frustration.
“Or maybe its some other kind of intelligence,” I offered, “some left-brained type of thing.”
She took a deep breath. “Even if that’s what Prabhupāda really means,” she said, “its definitely not what the Hare Krishna’s think Prabhupāda means.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Oh, come on!” she replied. “How many times have you gone to the temple? Have you ever seen a woman up on the altar? Have you ever seen women doing the kīrtan chanting? Have you ever seen a woman give the class? No, the women are always stuck in the back of the room like black people sent to the back of the bus!”
Shit. There was no arguing with that.
The next Sunday I went to the Los Angeles temple alone and approached a female devotee at random. She was maybe ten years older than me at most, with a very simple sort of beauty without hairdo or makeup.
“In Bhagavad Gītā,” I asked, “Prabhupāda says women are not very intelligent and therefore have to be protected. Do you believe that?”
To my complete surprise, she not only accepted the idea but was completely in favor of it. “Oh yes!” she declared, “Women are less intelligent then men! We are nine times more lusty and nine times more attached to our bodies than men are. That’s why we are so obsessed with dressing nice and looking pretty.”
I couldn’t tell if this was really happening or if I was hallucinating. She seemed to actually relish the opportunity to declare her inferiority, and was completely unfazed and unimpressed with the disbelief and shock written all over my face.
“So,” I asked, slowly and incredulously, “You’re less intelligent than I am? Even though you are a devotee?”
“Probably!” she said, and burst out laughing.
Maybe she noticed I wasn’t laughing and instead was on the verge of tears. “Well,” she offered, “Prabhupāda did say that devotee women are not less-intelligent like ordinary women.”
“Then why don’t women ever give class in the temple?” I asked.
“Well, devotee women are not less intelligent like ordinary women, but we are less intelligent than devotee men.”
What logic! I just stared at her and kept blinking, as if she might disappear between blinks and prove this whole thing a bad dream.
She compassionately leaned a bit towards me, “You’re brainwashed by the propaganda of the women’s lib’ers,” she explained patiently. “Woman’s liberation is a cheat invented by men. It claims to give women freedom and equality, but actually it only gives women the so-called freedom to be equally exploited by anyone and everyone. In Vedic society women are protected from exploitation, first by their father, then by their husband, and finally by their sons.”
I had nothing else to say. She pointed out the temple doors to a sliding glass door in the building across the street and explained that she lived in that apartment, and was very happy serving her husband there.
I left quietly – exhausted, confused, and disappointed – and dedicated the next few weeks to trying to make all of this make sense. Despite all of what my high school Advanced Placement teachers had praised as “uniquely sharp analytical abilities” I couldn’t reach any resolution beyond what I had reached in the original conversation with Marianne. Certainly there were ways to understand Prabhupada’s comments in a non-sexist manner, and it was even easier to see the enlightened egalitarianism in the original texts he was translating (since he gave word-for-word translations of every Sanskrit text – something I always really admired and benefitted from), but as for the Hare Krishna’s themselves… it was practically impossible not to ascertain their (somewhat eager) acceptance of sexism.
This was the first time I was forced to see that Hare Krishna World wasn’t utopia. But I was in love with Hare Krishna, really, so I decided there was too much good in it to let this one black spot ruin the whole thing for me. Like a “less-intelligent” woman in love with a flawed man, I chose to believe that, if I stuck with them, I would one day be able to help the Hare Krishna’s see Prabhupāda’s words in ways that weren’t so… well, weren’t so ignorant. Certainly there must be many devotees like the woman I had spoken to, who would dismiss any such understandings in preference for the sadomasochistic thrill of sexism, but, out of gratitude to Prabhupāda I felt I should stick with it for the long term and try to do my part to improve it.
– Excerpt from the first draft of
Train-Wrecks and Transcendence:
A Collision of Hardcore and Hare Krishna
by Vraja Kishor dās