Photo Credits: Nina Paley Sita and Rama
An article entitled “When the Husband is Not a Devotee,” written by Sundari Radhika Dasi for The Eight Petals newsletter and published on ISKCON News recently, caused a firestorm of controversy.
The article, which you can read along with its comments here, posed the question, “What if a woman is married to a man who is not a devotee?” The author—who qualified her answer by stating that it assumed “the husband is a normal man and not a homicidal maniac”—then went on to state that “all women have just one duty or dharma in this world—to serve her husband.” This she referred to as “stri-dharma.”
Sundari Radhika says in her article that any husband, whether he is “qualified” or not, is a direct representative of Krishna and the wife should serve him no matter what. She even goes so far as to say, “If the husband wants her to serve him meat, alcohol, sex, etc, she should serve him,” thus seeming to give men leeway to do whatever they want.
While some readers commenting on the article agreed with elements of it, most found it immature, unrealistic, and imbalanced.
For a more balanced view on the subject, ISKCON News approached Krsnanandini Dasi, who along with her husband Tariq Ziyad is a member of the Grihasta Vision Team (GVT), a group of certified marriage and family therapists dedicated to the health of ISKCON devotee marriages.
Prevention is Better than Cure
One of the GVT’s strongest recommendations, which Krsnanandini advocates before anything else, is that both female and male devotees do everything they can before marriage to make sure they get a partner who is compatible with them in Krishna consciousness and in everything else in life. This eliminates the kind of
husband, and difficulties with him, that Sundari Radhika talks about in her article.
As they say, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’
“We like to encourage devotees to get at least ten to twelve hours of pre-marital education with qualified marriage and family educators who themselves have healthy Krishna conscious marriages,” Krsnanandini says. “Examine what both of your motives are, what your goals are, and look realistically at your expectations of each other. What roles do you see yourselves playing? For instance, the traditional role of a wife may be to cook, clean and do the laundry, but what if she works full-time just like the man? It’s also important to learn good communication and conflict resolution skills, to deal with some of the baggage that both people bring from their families of origin, and even to discuss how you will manage your finances.”
A Mature Approach
Of course, there may be cases where such a ‘prepared marriage’ is not possible—for instance, if an already-married woman becomes a devotee, and her husband does not.
It’s important to find the right advice from a mature devotee who truly cares about your welfare in this kind of situation, as illustrated by an example Krsnanandini gives, which shows that there is sometimes still a shocking lack of understanding about our philosophy even in today’s ISKCON.
“I recently introduced a new devotee to Krishna consciousness,” Krsnanandini says. “She was so excited, studying and learning about the philosophy, and finally went to stay at an ISKCON temple. While she was there, however, one of the devotees told her that she would have to leave her husband in order to be a real devotee!”
Close to tears, the woman called Krsnanandini, who advised her to be careful with devotees who were sincere but lacked understanding. She then reminded her that her husband was a good man who supported her being a devotee, even though he had not chosen to be one himself; and that they had a good relationship.
“To me, this is a very good, healthy and favorable situation for you to continue practicing Krishna consciousness in,” Krsnanandini said. “And if you continue to be a good wife and a good example, your husband may gradually feel more and more inclined to appreciate some of the things that you’re doing to become a more purified person.”
At these words, the woman felt hopeful.
The same mature approach is recommended for cases where there are problems in marriages where both partners are devotees.
“There was one Vaishnava couple whom I worked with as a marriage and family educator, where one spouse didn’t want to have sex anymore, and the other was not quite able to do that,” Krsnanandini says. “Both, however, were sincere devotees trying to make progress in spiritual life. So should the spouse that doesn’t want to have sex leave? No! They should see this as something Krishna wants them to work out together, to help each other.”
Even in a situation where an already-married woman becomes a devotee, and her husband is completely unfavorable and unsupportive, Krsnanandini would recommend working on the relationship, rather than any hasty separation. We should see our service to our husbands and wives as devotional service which pleases the Lord, and be careful not to simply quit the marriage any time there’s a problem.
“A Chaste Woman is Advised Not to Agree to Serve Such a Husband”
However, disagreeing with Sundari Radhika’s perspective that a wife should serve her husband no matter what, the Vedas say that all acts must be performed according to ‘desa, kala, patra’—time, place and circumstance. ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada cited this many times in conversations and in his purports such as that to Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.14.34.
“With mature, intelligent consideration, we should figure out how to properly apply scriptural principles in our particular situation,” Krsnanandini says. “Prabhupada often said that details can be adjusted or changed, but principles cannot. When a devotee asked him, ‘How do we know the difference between a principle and a detail?’ he thought for a moment and then replied, ‘It requires some intelligence.’ So Prabhupada wanted us to use our intelligence, rather than to follow blindly.”
Thus, the scriptural injunction—in Krishna consciousness as well as across most spiritual paths—is that once one gets married, one should not get divorced.
“However, if our spouse—in this case, the husband—perpetuates repeated and prolonged instances of degraded and immoral conduct that renders the devotee wife unable to continue her service to Krishna,” says Krsnanandini, “Then she can separate from that man.”
For Vaishnavas in the Chaitanya tradition, Sanatana-Dharma—or reconnecting the conditioned soul with Krishna—trumps all other types of dharma, including stri-dharma.
Thus, while we respect stri-dharma, the overarching question in everything we do should be “What is most advantageous to my making progress in Krishna consciousness?”
In this connection, the Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, 15.265, clearly states, “When a husband is fallen, one’s relationship with him must be given up.”
In the purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.11.28, Srila Prabhupada gives a direct answer to Sundari Radhika’s claim that “If the husband wants her to serve him meat, alcohol, sex, etc, she should serve him.” Prabhupada writes, “A chaste woman is advised not to agree to serve such a husband. It is not that a chaste woman should be like a slave while her husband is naradhama, the lowest of men.”
In the Chaitanya Charitamrita, the great devotee Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya says, “Inform my daughter Sathi to abandon her relationship with her husband because he has fallen down. When the husband falls down, it is the wife’s duty to relinquish the relationship.”
Krsnanandini reminds us that of course, separation such as this should never be done lightly, but only after very deep reflection, consideration, and advice from elders in the community that one trusts and respects.
“Men Want their Wife to be Sita, But they Don’t Want to be Rama.”
Interestingly, in his purport to the Chaitanya Charitamrita verse about Sarvabhauma’s daughter, Prabhupada quotes Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.5.18: “One cannot be a husband if he cannot liberate his dependents from inevitable death.” Prabhupada also states that “If a person is not in Krishna consciousness and is bereft of spiritual power, he cannot protect his wife from the path of repeated birth and death. Consequently such a person cannot be accepted as a husband.”
Prabhupada also writes in the Srimad Bhagavatam 4.26.17: “Actually, the woman must always be protected by her husband. We always speak of the Goddess of Fortune as being placed on the chest of Narayana. In other words, the wife must remain embraced by her husband. Thus she becomes beloved and well protected.”
This shows that the husband also has a very serious duty to protect and serve his wife. It does not endorse a one-sided, unhealthy relationship as Sundari Radhika seems to do in her article, with comments such as this one: “The wife should not be rude, critical or fight with the husband, as this would be greater than any sin he may possess. His faults should be dealt with by his superiors or equals, not by his subordinate (his wife).”
“There tends to be so much expectation of the woman,” says Krsnanandini. “But what is the expectation of the man? If you want a healthy Krishna conscious marriage, you need both a good wife, and the kind of husband that the wife can respect and appreciate. As ISKCON guru Radhanath Swami says, ‘Men want their wife to be Sita, but they don’t want to be Rama.’”
In a healthy relationship, Krsnanandini explains, the wife wants to serve the husband, and the husband wants to serve the wife—service is a mutual expression of love. In the ancient text Ramayana, when Lord Rama was banished from his kingdom to the forest, he wanted his wife Sita to stay behind, out of concern that the forest life would be too hard for her. But when she insisted that she wanted come with him, he honored her desire. Meanwhile, when Sita was kidnapped by the handsome and powerful Ravana, she remained faithful to Rama. And he literally crossed oceans and destroyed armies to protect her.
In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Kardama Muni and his wife Devahuti are also cited as the ideal husband and wife. Devahuti, a princess, devotedly served her husband Kardama, who was an ascetic, to the point where she forgot about her own needs and became thin and malnourished. Wanting to serve her in return, Kardama gave her the family—nine children—and security that she wanted, creating no less than a flying city for her with palaces, gardens, and maidservants! This kind of reciprocation makes for a healthy, loving marriage.
Steer Clear of Misconceptions with Mature Guidance
Finally, in responding to Sundari Radhika’s article, it is important to discuss her citing of Srila Prabhupada’s sister, Pishima, as an example of why women should serve their husbands no matter what kind of a person they are.
According to the article, Pishima’s husband was “a rogue, meat eater, he drank alcohol, he was a woman-hunter, spending money on gambling, etc.” The article then states that when Pishima asked Prabhupada what to do, “he advised her to do what she learned from her mother—to serve her husband, and to pray to Sri Krishna for the best interest of her husband. And not to argue with her husband.” According to the article, this was successful, and eventually Pishima’s husband changed his ways.
In her own words, the author also says that Prabhupada “didn’t advise her to divorce her husband, or to complain to various women’s ministries about him.”
Using this story out of context, and along with such personal commentary, is dangerous, and seems to insinuate that women should stay in an abusive situation and not get help.
“Both Srila Prabhupada and his sister Pishima were pure devotees,” says Krsnanandini. “If a great soul is able to stay with a fallen husband and triumph, that doesn’t mean we should copy them. We are directed by the scriptures to follow the example of pure devotees in the sense of their service to the Lord—but never to imitate them. As Prabhupada said, Lord Shiva can drink an ocean of poison, but we cannot, and so we should not try to copy him.”
Krsnanandini warns that we cannot artificially see our sister suffering in an abusive relationship and say “It’s okay, they’re doing their dharma.” When we are taught to be concerned about an animal being tortured, how can we sit idly by while one of our fellow devotees is tortured? That is not Krishna consciousness.
“And no one should stay in a dangerous or abusive relationship without seeking the help of other Vaishnavas who are concerned about their welfare,” Krsnanandini adds. “Ministries like Vaishnavas CARE and the ISKCON Women’s Ministry are there for devotees to reach out to. And they exist because unfortunately the issue of women being abused even in our own movement still exists.”
Thus devotees who are looking to have healthy Krishna conscious marriages should steer clear of misconceptions about the philosophy by taking the guidance of mature, qualified persons. The Grihasta Vision Team, for instance, consists entirely of senior devotee couples who have been in successful marriages for a long time and who are also certified marriage and family educators.
The Team offers an in-depth seminar on relationship skills called Strengthening the Bonds that Free Us, as well as one-on-one services such as pre-marital education to couples, both in person and over the phone. Next year, they will release Heart and Soul Connections, an honest, practical and spiritually grounded book on how to have healthy, joyous marriages in Krishna consciousness. They also travel to different communities to train couples in how to become mentor marriage educators in their own community.
“The other day, my husband and I were at the Sunday Feast in ISKCON Chicago, and at least three couples came up to us and thanked us, telling us that a seminar we gave seven years ago helped them so much!” says Krsnanandini. “So both such education, and healthy discussions like the one Sundari Radhika’s article inspired, are very effective in assisting devotees to navigate good, Krishna conscious relationships.