(I wrote this note some time ago for a BBT Web site dedicated to discussing contentious issues in Srila Prabhupada's books.)
From time to time we hear, or hear about, complaints regarding Srila Prabhupada’s use of gender-specific words as if they were generic. We find this throughout Srila Prabhupada’s conversations and books. For example, in his introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is he writes, “The purpose of Bhagavad-gita is to deliver mankind from the nescience of material existence. Every man is in difficulty in so many ways, as Arjuna also was in difficulty in having to fight the Battle of Kurukshetra.” In his translation of Bhagavad-gita 3.23 he has Lord Krishna say, “For if I ever failed to engage in carefully performing prescribed duties, O Partha, certainly all men would follow My path.” And in another place in the introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is Srila Prabhupada writes, “For instance, a child may think that an automobile is quite wonderful to be able to run without a horse or other animal pulling it, but a sane man knows the nature of the automobile’s engineering arrangement. He always knows that behind the machinery there is a man, a driver. Similarly, the Supreme Lord is the driver under whose direction everything is working.”
What we see here is typical of Srila Prabhupada’s writing and speaking throughout his preaching career. He consistently used man as a generic term for person, regardless of gender, mankind for the whole of human beings, and masculine pronouns such as he and his as generic. This raises the question in many minds today whether Srila Prabhupada’s language is sexist, whether it reflects a sexist attitude in the author, and whether it perpetuates sexism among his followers. And it makes some wonder further how someone who lives on the transcendental platform and preaches the equal vision (sama-darshanah) Lord Krishna teaches in Bhagavad-gita could be unaware of the effects such sexist language might have on the minds of readers. Actually, this narrow slice of the gender issue should be an easy one for Srila Prabhupada’s thoughtful followers to deal with. Compared with some of Srila Prabhupada’s comments about women’s relative intelligence, place in society, etc., this hardly seems a substantive issue.
Until very recently, some time in the 1970s and more prominently in the 1980s, such usages were accepted as conventional and standard. Srila Prabhupada grew up in Victorian and Edwardian India in the late 19th and early 20th century, and was educated, as we know, at Scottish Church College in Calcutta. There he received a prestigious British education, studying English, Sanskrit, and Philosophy. We would expect, then, that he certainly learned the conventions of spoken and written English then current. And we see evidence of this in the poetry and essays he wrote as a young disciple, especially in the poem and speech he offered on Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura’s Vyasa-puja in 1935.
And just what was standard in those days, not only in India but throughout the English-speaking world? Since the earliest recorded uses of English until the last 25or 30 years of the 20th century, what we consider masculine personal pronouns (he, him, himself, his) were used generically and were accepted as referring to any person of either sex. This was especially the case after indefinite pronouns such as anyone, someone, anybody, etc. The same was the case for words such as man, mankind, and words ending in –man. In Old English, man’s principal meaning was “human.” Wer and wyf were the gender-distinct words, “a man” and “a woman,” respectively. The language, alive and fluid as it is, changed through Middle English and modern English, but this is where man comes from. This is how Srila Prabhupada learned English in the early 20th century, and it’s how his disciples learned English in the middle of the 20th century.
These conventions came into question in the middle of the 20th century with the rise of feminist ideas, at first in academia, then in the broader society. The problem is the ambiguity that has arisen in the evolving use of man sometimes for “the human species” and sometimes for “male humans,” and a perception of excluding female humans from any discussion using man generically. Similar problems arose regarding generic use of masculine pronouns. As academics discussed these issues in conference papers, articles, and books, they also brought the issues to their students in the colleges and universities where they taught. Publication of Miller and Swift’s Handbook of Nonsexist Language in 1980 brought these issues to the public and helped many both articulate and understand the arguments. Many even today see the issue as “political correctness” (a term I personally abhor for a catalog of reasons) run amok; nevertheless, the innumerable discussions over the years have drawn new attention to language’s power to both influence and reflect the way we think and feel.
So should readers consider Srila Prabhupada’s use of so-called generic masculine words as sexist? If so, we would also have to judge the writing of some iconic feminist writers as sexist, too. Here’s Mary Wollstonecraft, considered by many the mother of modern feminism, at the beginning of her landmark essay, Vindication of the Rights of Women: "In what does man’s preeminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than the whole; in Reason."
More recently, Virginia Woolf wrote such things as “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.” It would be awkward to accuse such writers of promoting or acquiescing to any notions of male dominance. What explains these constructions is convention: at the time these writers wrote these words, it was simply the standard to refer to human beings generically in such terms.
Because this was the standard for so much of the history of English, most usage experts suggest that we simply accept that this was the case and judge the writers’ intentions somewhat generously. Here’s how Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, a contributor to The Chicago Manual of Style and editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, says it:
Those committed to nonsexist usage ought to adopt a statute of limitations that goes something like this: in quoted matter dating from before 1980, passages containing bland sexism – such as the use of the generic he or of chairman – can be quoted in good conscience because in those days the notions of gender-inclusiveness were different from today’s notions.
So how might we deal with the criticism we may hear of an apparent inclination to male dominance in Srila Prabhupada’s speech and writing, at least as evidenced by his grammar? Those who are concerned about expressing gender-inclusiveness in a way that educated people today may appreciate it should feel free to deliberately use gender-neutral language in their own writing. It should, however, be done gracefully, not in ways that are obtrusive or call attention to themselves. (I have edited a couple of books by a sannyasi godbrother who does consider today’s conventions, and with considerable grace. And I tried to bring a similar graceful awareness of gender issues to the writing of the more than 6,000 college and university students to whom I’ve taught writing over the last couple of decades.) At the same time, we should be able to quote such passages as this topic addresses confidently. And just understanding a little of the history of these things may help us deal with any apparent disjuncture with the manners of our own time. If we understand that history and have firm faith in the equal vision we see in Srila Prabhupada’s character, it shouldn’t be hard to help others understand it as well. If they then honestly consider the contributions he has made to the world’s spiritual progress, they will no doubt find it strikingly wonderful.