chayeva yasya bhuvanani bibharti durga
icchanurupam api yasya ca cestate sa
govindam adi-purusam tam aham bhajami
“The external potency, maya, who is of the nature of the shadow of the cit [spiritual] potency, is worshiped by all people as Durga, the creating, preserving and destroying agency of this mundane world. I adore the primeval Lord Govinda, in accordance with whose will Durga conducts herself.” Brahma-samhita 5.44
Material nature, the external energy of the Supreme Lord, is also known as Durga, or the female energy that protects the great fort of this universe. The word Durga means “fort.” This universe is just like a great fort in which all the conditioned souls are kept, and they cannot leave it unless they are liberated by the mercy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Durga is a confidential maidservant of Krishna, but she has to punish the conditioned souls by keeping them in this material world. How does she do this? Lord Krishna Himself explains her foremost technique: “Just try to understand the mighty strength of My maya in the shape of a woman, who by the mere movement of her eyebrows can keep even the greatest conquerors of the world under her grip” (SB 3.31.38). Maya or Durga’s fort has many insurmountable walls, and for men the most insurmountable of them is their attraction to women. Of course, in actuality we are neither men nor women, for these designations refer only to the outer dress, the body. We are all actually Krishna’s servants. However, heterosexual men in conditioned life are imprisoned in the fort of this material world by the form and behavior of beautiful women.
For devotees in Krishna consciousness, this is the familiar dark aspect of femininity, but it is not the only aspect. In fact it is the secondary, inferior aspect of this powerful energy. Srila Prabhupada explains that “Laksmi has two features: maya [or Durga] and the goddess of fortune; the same Laksmi according to position. Just like a government has got two departments: criminal department and civil department. So the government is the same, but there are two departments. This maya is criminal department, and Vaikuntha is civil department. Vaikuntha means there is no anxiety, and maya means always anxiety” (SB 5.6.6 lecture 11/28/76). Today I’d like to explore with you the idea of restoring the force of femininity to its true sublime beauty.
- Femininity and the Grihastha Asrama
In our traditional spiritual culture, girls were raised to become agents of Laksmi rather than Durga. These pure, vivacious, innocent, shy, and inwardly powerful young women were always welcome members of society because they, as Laksmidevi’s servants, evoked the presence of Narayana for Laksmiji never leaves His side. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Kumaris, or unmarried girls untouched by the hand of any member of the opposite sex, are auspicious members of society. . . When thus protected, women as a class remain an always auspicious source of energy to man” (SB 4.21.4 purport). Kumaris did not manipulate or seduce or project hidden agendas onto anyone or anything. Being pure in eating, sleeping, fearing, and mating, they were pure in action. Being pure in action, they were pure in mind. And to the extent they were pure in mind, they desired to serve God. The core value of the kumaris was their desire to serve God.
When these kumaris married their homes became a fortress, but unlike Durga’s fortress, which keeps conditioned souls in the material world, theirs protected conditioned souls from Durga’s influence. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The bodily senses are considered plunderers of the fort of the body. The wife is supposed to be the commander of the fort, and therefore whenever there is an attack on the body by the senses, it is the wife who protects the body from being smashed” (SB 3.14.20). And: “One who is situated in household life and who systematically conquers his mind and five sense organs is like a king in his fortress who conquers his powerful enemies . . . The senses are considered very powerful enemies. As a king in a strong fortress can conquer powerful enemies, so a householder in grihastha-asrama, household life, can conquer the lusty desires of youth and be very secure when he takes vanaprastha and sannyasa” (SB 5.1.18).
Thus in the traditional grihastha asrama the husband protects the wife by keeping her and the family safe, spiritually on track, and provided for. Such a gentle man awakens and clarifies his wife’s spiritual strength. And the wife also protects her husband and family from their own moods, excesses, vulnerabilities and other dangers of the inner world. Qualified women are essential for the success of the grihastha asrama. And a strong grihastha asrama is essential for the success of varnasrama dharma. And varnasrama dharma is necessary so that human society can progress back home, back to Godhead. “There are four social orders for cooperation in the endeavor for liberation from material existence. The orders of brahmacarya, or pious student life, household life with a wife, retired life and renounced life all depend for successful advancement on the householder who lives with a wife” (SB 3.14.18). If the family unit is healthy, then society is healthy; when the family falls apart, society falls apart.
A Krishna conscious wife can remind her Krishna conscious husband of the best that is in him. She sees and can show him his own self-worth, as he shows her hers. Her surrender inspires his greatness and his greatness inspires her surrender. As his masculine spirit is evoked, her feminine one is; cared for and cared about, she is his solace and inspiration. Both her emotions and his spirit are honored and gradually husband and wife mature in spiritual realization.
- Femininity and the Four Asramas
Without being trained in the purifying asrama of bramacharya, or celibate student life, a young man may become a womanizer—seeing women only as objects of his sensual desires. Or, by improper brahmachari training, he may become a woman hater—aware not of the positive feminine qualities a woman embodies but only of the distraction her body is to him. Lacking honesty and honor, this ill-fated brahmachari blames women for his own weakness. When such a person later enters the renounced order of sannyasa (generally he avoids the grihastha asrama), he is a repository of unrealized knowledge, he is unable to establish heartfelt relationships, and, although vacuous inwardly, outwardly he stubbornly refuses to see his own shortcomings. The very qualities that he needs to grow—femininity—he ignores or harshly condemns.
However, with proper brahmachari training a young man recognizes the dignity of femininity. In other words, he realizes and acknowledges the intrinsic worth of feminine qualities like mildness, compassion, warmth, tenderness, patience, kindness, tolerance, understanding of others, and nurturing.
When this brahmachari enters the grihastha asrama, his dominating male ego is tempered by his wife’s precious qualities of femininity. And as he matures he gradually internalizes those exalted feminine qualities. His realizations and humility increase during his decades in the grihastha asrama, while his sensuality decreases until it becomes nil and he enters the vanaprastha stage. Finally, when he accepts the renounced order of sannyasa, he has fully recognized and developed his own inner feminine life—of forgiveness, softness, nurturing, relatedness—and does not rely on his former wife to offer hers. (Although it is the exception, it should be noted that there are highly conscious men who can become mature sannyasis without the interim grihastha-vanaprastha experience.) Such a secure renouncer is not threatened by a woman’s power but on the contrary, evokes it in Krishna consciousness by his dynamic Krishna conscious words and deeds. As he travels and is an example of Krishna consciousness, women other than his wife (whom he no longer sees) may respect and encourage him, and he in turn, respects and encourages them. When he sees men as well as women remembering and acting in their glorious position as servants of Srila Prabhupada, he, as a man of goodwill, is filled with happiness.
For an example of this mature stage of sannyasa we can remember how our Founder-Acarya was as hard as a thunderbolt (his masculine side)—kicking with boots on the heads of materialistic scientists, Mayavadis, pseudo-Christians, and sahajiyas; and when time, place and circumstance warranted it, he was also as soft as a rose (the feminine side)—having nurturing, loving exchanges with his followers, including women, children, and men. In fact, in the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself, Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, we also see an example of masculine and feminine qualities: on one side He defeated the logicians, the impersonalists, the Buddhists, and the ruffians, and on the other side He tasted Radharani’s love for Krishna. In Her mood He swooned at the sight of Jagannatha and at the sound of the Lord’s holy name. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Srimati Radharani is a tenderhearted feminine counterpart of the supreme whole, resembling the perfectional stage of the worldly feminine nature” (SB 2.3.23 purport).
It is the will of Radha and Krishna that each of us, every woman, child, and man, in every varna and asrama, be happy, whole, and successful. The unspoken belief that someone’s else’s success limits or threatens mine fails to allow others to shine and to allow me to shine fully too. Another’s Krishna conscious success never robs you and me of this possibility. Quite the opposite. Their success is our success, if we allow ourselves to applaud instead of criticize. As eternal parts and parcels of Krishna originally we are all beautiful and powerful and strong. We deserve love and acceptance and support. We would all be glorious if we could only express who we are, for we are, each one of us, a portion of the Lord.
- Feminine and Masculine Values
Both men and women have both masculine and feminine qualities, the masculine qualities usually predominating in men (with the feminine side subordinate), and feminine ones in women (with the masculine side subordinate). It’s important to note that both qualities have assets and weaknesses which complement each other, and so, by the arrangement of the Lord, both are necessary for a balanced, healthy life in individuals, families, communities, and society. For example, a masculine asset is the power of analysis; a feminine weakness is a proneness to be misled. A weakness on the masculine side is insensitivity; a strength on the feminine side, soft-heartedness. Srila Prabhupada comments, “Women in general are unable to speculate like philosophers, but they are blessed by the Lord because they believe at once in the superiority and almightiness of the Lord, and thus they offer obeisances without reservation” (SB 1.8.20 purport). Srila Prabhupada also points out that philosophy without religion is mental speculation (the masculine side), while religion without philosophy is sentiment (the feminine). Both philosophy and religion are required. And either men or women can be too influenced by one or the other and thus overcome by either dry erudition or fanaticism. Balance is essential.
Overemphasis on masculine qualities such as rational analysis, authority, control, competition, and power causes us, both men and women, to demean the softness, simplicity, and weakness of the feminine. By neglecting and denigrating these gentle and humbling aspects in each of us, by making the feminine seem trivial, our lives become progressively more rigid, sterile, inert, and empty. We unconsciously allow authority to eclipse feeling, prestige and adoration to eclipse warmth and authenticity. The feminine qualities of nurturing and compassion perish when pitted against the masculine lust for power. Our most noble spiritual path, when denied feminine values, degenerates to a prideful quest for distinction. And that quest destroys relationships and evokes hypocrisy rather than devotion.
Similarly, achievements created at the cost of our capacity for feeling, warmth, contentment, and serenity have limited value. If we invalidate the spiritual feminine principle it may be so destroyed that even women will lose touch with it. It is time to bravely and without sensuality affirm the feminine, to heal the wounds of our spiritual woman and at the same time contribute to the healing of our children and our society. Let us move from a place of arrogant weakness to one of humble strength.
The more brusque of men will cast off this appeal as sentiment and remain fixed in their ways. Yet credit is due them, for often their service has seen millions of books distributed, has seen thousands of devotees initiated, and has fathered hundreds of temples. But without their nurturing mother, without feminine tenderness, these offspring are not whole. They are imbalanced. To become healthy we must allow the feminine to reclaim its natural place. A child is comforted when father and mother are present. Let us all be comforted by the masculine and feminine working together.
- Femininity and Children
In a letter to Arundhati dated July 30th,1972, Srila Prabhupada wrote: “For you, child-worship is more important than deity-worship. If you cannot spend time with him [your son], then stop the duties of pujari. . . These children are given to us by Krishna, they are Vaisnavas and we must be very careful to protect them. These are not ordinary children, they are Vaikuntha children, and we are very fortunate we can give them chance to advance further in Krishna Consciousness. That is very great responsibility, do not neglect it or be confused. Your duty is very clear.”
What could be more important for the future of our world than that we raise happy and well-adjusted, empowered children? If the relationship between parents—especially the mother—and children is the relationship Krishna intended it to be, then children will grow up to know that neither money nor fame nor prestige nor power is nearly as important as a life lived for a noble purpose. And there is no greater nobility than to live in Krishna consciousness, that is, with knowledge, with renunciation, with respect for all living things, and with a mood of devotion to the Lord. The best possible heritage for a child is this clean consciousness. “To become a pure devotee of Lord Krishna, two things are very much essential, namely having a chance to be born in the family of a devotee and having the blessings of a bona fide spiritual master” (SB 2.4.1 purport).
Parents who attempt to raise their children in Krishna consciousness are doing an incredibly difficult and demanding service which requires—especially of the mother—almost endless selflessness, patience, deep listening, and understanding. Perhaps only they know the physical, emotional, and spiritual energy it takes to do this service well. Perhaps raising a happy Krishna conscious child takes at least as much focus, sensitivity, and intelligence as any other service. Children who receive respect and patience learn to respect and be patient. Such loved children find their own spiritual strength and genius. The personalities of their mothers are the space that prepares them psychologically and spiritually to become Krishna conscious.
We did not create our children; Krishna did. And it’s primarily their mothers who supervise their development; the children are their own beings and their mother gives them the environment to realize themselves. Who among us dares to minimize a mother’s service to our society?
5. Femininity and Women Today—Part I
Although we may be oblivious of it, it is a documented fact that expectations have an extraordinary influence on us. Children who are told that they are underperfomers underperform. Men who are told that they are inferior lose their self-esteem. So, logically, what do you suppose happens to women who are told that they are less intelligent, lusty, envious, untrustworthy sense gratifiers with fox-like hearts? Such expectations draw out the Durga in a woman, defeat her, and stifle her confidence and good intentions. She herself will wonder about her integrity and character. Every time a woman is denied an opportunity because she is a woman, every time she’s told she’s not good enough because she’s a woman, that’s she’s an agent of maya, she is massacred; her feminine strength is denied and her spiritual potential squelched. Such denials and negativity have poisoned our past and toxify the present.
By contrast, tell women that among them Krishna is “fame, fortune, fine speech, memory, intelligence, steadfastness and patience” (Bg 10.34) and the power of such positive expectations will draw out those qualities. Tell them that they are the natural repository of warmth, kindness, caring, relatedness, nurturing, compassion, gentleness, forgiveness, love, and devotion, and these will blossom forth from within them. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Women in general, being very simple at heart, can very easily take to Krishna consciousness, and when they develop love of Krishna they can easily get liberation from the clutches of maya, which are very difficult for even so-called intelligent and learned men to surpass” (KB Ch 23). Do not ignore the feminine; do not tear her down. Help her a little and she will fly. Her life is meant to be used in the service of the greatest and most holy cause.
When women are reading and chanting, hearing, inquiring, speaking, and following Srila Prabhupada in spirit; when they are offering their mind, body, and words in the service of Krishna they are a great blessing to this spiritual movement and to the world.
With this in mind I propose that the women in our society be forevermore seen as agents of Laksmidevi rather than Durga. Even if women, individually or collectively, are presently unworthy of this vision, simply by being seen in this way the vestiges of Durga that dwell within them will soften, melt, and finally be Laksmi-ized. The Krishna conscious wisdom of the Vaisnavas and Vaisnavis, their patience, their courtesy and respect will evoke Laksmi-like behavior in women. With Laksmi-Narayana’s illuminating presence, Durga will exit.
6. Femininity and Women Today—Part II
It is often women themselves who make the world even harder for other women, perhaps in their attempt to survive in our imbalanced world. These women may take one of two stances: in one they say, “I am strong like a man. I view the feminine as weak and unworthy, unnecessary and unimportant; it is the masculine that is glamorous and meaningful.” To such a woman, feminine Krishna conscious emotion is a weakness; masculine lack of emotion is a strength. Thus she repudiates feeling or love and finds a masculine niche for her feminine powers. But this woman who succeeds at the expense of her Krishna conscious tenderness does not succeed. Her denial of spiritual emotion through suppression or withdrawal is a weak move, not a courageous one.
Krishna Himself values Krishna conscious emotion. He says, “When I was away from Draupadi, she cried with the words ‘He Govinda!.’ This call for Me has put Me in her debt, and that indebtedness is gradually increasing in My heart” (NoD Ch 21). So, Krishna conscious feelings are not less important than achievements, and a woman who honors her feelings for Krishna and Srila Prabhupada and their teachings will find others also honoring them. After all is said and done, our final goal is the most sublime of all possible feelings: to love Krishna unconditionally.
The second stance a woman may take says, “I am in a traditional woman’s role as a housewife, mother, cook, seamstress, etc., and all other women should also be in a traditional role.” Thus she holds back women who desire unconventional services, even though these women feel drawn to those nontraditional roles and are qualified for them. In the same mood, this second type of woman insists that women should not stand near the Deities in the temple room, sing for Them, or give lectures, even though Srila Prabhupada himself gave directions otherwise. When Srila Prabhupada first established the Governing Body Commission (GBC), he personally appointed two women—Govinda dasi and Yamuna—to be on it. And he often asked his women disciples, like Malati, Hemavati, Kausala, and Yamuna, to speak and to sing. There is also precedent from the Srimad Bhagavatam for women to precede men: “Suta Goswami said: Thereafter the Pandavas, desiring to deliver water to the dead relatives who had desired it, went to the Ganges with Draupadi. The ladies walked in front” (SB 1.8.1).
In response to these two stances, let us say this: when Krishna conscious women go into the world to serve Srila Prabhupada with an authentic balance of intelligence with compassion, every woman can show her support, extend her generosity and her enthusiasm. There cannot be too many glorious women, whether in the home or out. Our society is crying for them. These glorious women can only help us. They treat others with dignity; without compromise they respect themselves and they respect others. They honor each and every devotee. In their association our hearts are harmonized and uplifted. Let us seriously support others reaching for unmotivated, uninterrupted devotional service to the Supreme Lord, whether their reach is from the home or temple or community or society.
And in response to these stances, let us also say this: devotees encourage Krishna consciousness in one another. We’re meant to do this and it increases the Krishna consciousness within us. We fail in our deepest responsibility to Krishna and to ourselves each time we discourage the Krishna conscious efforts of another devotee or allow ourselves to become discouraged in our Krishna conscious efforts. Our joy in seeing a Vaisnavi doing the service she desires for the pleasure of the Lord demonstrates our willingness to relinquish the petty and negative preoccupations that stand in the way of our Krishna consciousness. This beautiful, positive attitude lifts a heavy burden from our minds and hearts and allows a more joyful life to emerge.
When a woman touches the magnificent spiritual possibilities within herself, the internal and external forces that would limit those possibilities hold less and less sway over her. When she is very clear that she wants to be glorious for Srila Prabhupada’s pleasure, and that she has permission to be femininely powerful in Krishna consciousness, she will be so. And we will all benefit.
7. Femininity and Aging
Age is magnificent if we take our spiritual lives seriously. In age we can reflect with joy on the richness of the life we have lived. What we have experienced, all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past, and no power on earth can take this wealth from us. Instead of the uncertain future that youth face, we have the reality of a lifetime of growth in devotion behind us.
The longer we live, the more time we have to pursue the things that make life meaningful. The older we get the more buoyant we become—from fewer anxieties, from more realizations, and from shedding meaningless things and negative preoccupations. We become not harder with age but softer, more gentle. We are blessed with quieting senses, a clear mind, and steady intelligence.
While sannyasis travel to preach the science of Krishna consciousness, mature Krishna conscious women—perhaps grandmothers now—remain in the community to exemplify and pass on the eternal family tradition of Krishna consciousness. The children of the community naturally imbibe the Krishna conscious mood of these enlightened ladies; the kumaris become wise from their wisdom; the brahmacharis respect them without sensual innuendos, the grihasthas feel blessed by their sobering, joyful presence. And on their side, these ladies, who form the foundation of the community, know that they have gained the greatest gain, Krishna consciousness.
In his purport to text 27 of chapter nine in the First Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada writes: “As far as the women class are concerned, they are accepted as a power of inspiration for men. As such, women are more powerful than men.”
In other words, that which inspires a person is more powerful than the person. Therefore, as Srila Prabhupada says, women are more powerful than men. The pages of Srimad Bhagavatam and Mahabharata offer ample examples of this: due to Devahuti’s feminine power, Kardama Muni was inspired to create an incredibly magnificent palace in the sky; due to Sukanya’s feminine power, Cyavana Muni transformed his aged, deformed body into that of a young man; due to Gandhari’s feminine power, her eldest son, Duryodhana, received a body impervious to weapons. Due to Savitri’s feminine power, her husband Satyavan was rescued from death. Due to Cintamini’s inspiration, Bilvamangala Thakur gave up material life and completely devoted himself to Krishna. Due to the inspiration of Sudama Brahmana’s wife, Sudama Brahmana went to Dwaraka and was reunited with his friend, Krishna. This is the example of the Krishna conscious masculine-feminine dynamic: the Krishna conscious husband cares for his Krishna conscious wife and she inspires him in Krishna consciousness. Srila Prabhupada says, “The protection of women maintains the chastity of society, by which we can get a good generation for peace, tranquility and progress of life” (SB 1.8.5 purport).
However, we may note with caution that Krishna conscious feminine power can create havoc in the lives of those who lack Krishna consciousness: the unscrupulous Kauravas perished due to their dishonoring Draupadi.
Honor femininity. Failing to do so has created and will continue to create havoc. Failing to do so inspires edicts instead of dialogues, resolutions instead of relationships, indifference instead of intimacy. This failing costs us our laksmi, our members, and our enthusiasm. It renders us unable to represent Srila Prabhupada and to attract Radha Krishna. Our external achievements, however grandiose, ring hollow.
Want each woman to grow, more each passing day, into the person Krishna would have her be. Enthuse her to be inspired by Laksmi. Remind her of her worth. She is a servant from the spiritual world. In her heart lies Krishna. And she is here to love Him. Help her lay down her false ego that she might be used as a connecting link between this material world and the spiritual one. Help her take responsibility for her own state of mind; remind her that, whatever the circumstances, she is not a victim, but a heroine. Help her become true to her principles and loyalties, and to expect the causeless mercy of Krishna.
We are all souls that have nothing to do with the physical world; we are nonmaterial, nonphysical. We are God’s precious parts, meant to do His service. From following the regulative principles and from the daily spiritual practices of japa meditation, reading, associating with devotees, honoring prasad, and engaging in all other varieties of devotional service, our spirituality is revived. At that time we—women, children, and men—will regain our normal position in the Lord’s pleasure-giving, feminine potency.