Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gender-Specific Pronouns in Srila Prabhupada’s Books

(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.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A comment on some ISKCON leaders' struggle to define membership

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of a PowerPoint presentation arguing for certain standards for ISKCON membership. More recently, an ISKCON news site published some audio accompanying this presentation, along with some editorial comments. Perhaps against my better judgement, I posted a comment on this presentation.

I haven't had a chance to listen to the audio yet, but someone sent me Sivarama Swami's powerpoint presentation a couple of weeks ago. At the moment, I can only respond to that. Although I understand the perceived need to define membership, such definition should be in line with Srila Prabhupada's standard, as suggested by others here and elsewhere.

With regard to specifics of his presentation, I can share a couple of my initial, immediate responses to reading his ideas.

He suggests that membership requires accepting the GBC as one's "ultimate managerial and spiritual authority." What's the basis for such an assertion? Certainly not Srila Prabhupada's instruction. We know he told us that the GBC is the Society's ultimate managerial authority, but spiritual authority? Bullet Point One, and I'm already out.

He says that members must "be connected to ISKCON's line of authority." That reads to me as an empty claim. What does it even mean?

He writes that members may "only accept initiation from member of ISKCON." Well, I guess I'd be okay, if I hadn't already been excluded by Bullet Point One. But we might ask about the status of those serving in ISKCON who are initiated by preachers working outside the GBC's authority. Perhaps he means that they should be purged, however valuable their service may be and despite the fact that they follow all the other requirements. I'm not sure that's a good idea.

He says that members of ISKCON "do not divorce." It appears that certain members of the GBC, as well as other officers in the Society, be they local, regional, or international, must be exempt from this requirement.

He writes that "[t]he laws and bylaws of ISKCON determine devotees’ values and conduct in all aspects of their live; work (varna), social status (asrama) and spiritual practice and aspiration." I'm certainly further excluded, it seems. I have chosen for the last 40 years to shape my values and conduct according to guru, sadhu, and shastra. ISKCON's laws and bylaws change too frequently, and on the basis of too many factors other than guru, sadhu, and shastra, for me to take that seriously.

This strikes many devotees as an outline of a plan for further reducing ISKCON's membership and consequently its influence. I'm looking for a reason to disagree with that assessment. Can someone throw me a line?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sri Vyasa Puja: Celebrating the Spiritual Master's Appearance

nama om visnupadaya krsnapresthaya bhu-tale
srimate bhaktivedanta svamin iti namine

namaste sarasvate deve gauravani pracarine
nirvisesa sunyavadi pascatya desa-tarine

In our folly, we conditioned souls vacillate between two endeavors which can only end in frustration: exploitation and renunciation. You show us the futility of trying to exploit the resources of material nature and the senselessness of denying its existence. Out of your infinite, causeless mercy you have come to show us a third way of living. This third way is the path of surrender, of dedication to the Supreme Personality, Sri Krsna. We could compare these choices with possible responses to finding someone’s property lying in the street. We may pick it up and use it for ourselves, which is simply theft, or we may ignore it, not wanting to become implicated in someone else’s business, which is simply stupidity. But the third way, that of an honest, responsible person, is to pick the item up and return it to its rightful owner.

You have taught by your example how to act on the understanding that, as we learn from Bhagavad-gita, Krsna is the rightful beneficiary or enjoyer of all activity, the real proprietor of everything in existence, and the dearest friend of all beings. We express that understanding—that faith—through the sixfold process of surrender taught by Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu:
anukulyasya sankalpah pratikulyasya varjanam
raksisyaiti visvaso goptrtve varanam tatha
atma niksepa karpanye

Although these six aspects of surrender—accepting whatever favors spiritual culture, neglecting whatever doesn’t favor spiritual culture, feeling confident of Krsna’s protection, accepting Him as our exclusive maintainer, foregoing any sense of separate interest, and humility— may strike the less experienced as some grim spiritual practice, it’s nothing other than recognizing our own real nature as beings dependent on Krsna for everything. This dependence is much like that of a child’s dependence on a parent or a domestic animal’s on its owner. It’s just that natural, and it fosters love.

And, Srila Prabhupada, you showed us what it’s like to live a life of surrender. After all, it is your utter surrender to Krsna’s will and the service of sri guru that seems to account for the success of your mission. Sometimes we hear devotees speak of some grand plan you had as you embarked on the monumental task you inherited from your spiritual master. It appears from your own words, though, that the essence of that great plan was nothing more or less than utter surrender to Krsna, absolute dependence on Him for your success. We see that in the song you wrote on arriving at Boston Harbor, and we see it in your “Prayer to the Lotus Feet of Krsna,” written aboard the Jaladuta as you crossed the Atlantic. In both, your humility shows in your feeling of a lack of qualification for presenting Mahaprabhu’s gospel to us westerners. At Boston Harbor you wrote,
How will I make them understand this message of Krsna consciousness? I am very unfortunate, unqualified and the most fallen. Therefore I am seeking Your benediction so that I can convince them, for I am powerless to do so on my own. Somehow or other, O Lord, You have brought me here to speak about You. Now, my Lord, it is up to You to make me a success or failure as You like. . . . O Lord, I am just like a puppet in Your hands. So if You have brought me here to dance, then make me dance, make me dance, O Lord, make me dance as You like.

That’s your secret, your big plan: acknowledge that only Krsna can make this happen. And how might you induce Krsna to help you? Here is the measure of your devotion—you struck a bargain with Krsna. In your “Prayer to the Lotus Feet of Krsna,” addressing Krsna directly, you remind him that all good fortune is possible only by pleasing Srimati Radharani. If Krsna were to ensure the success of your mission, given to you by your spiritual master, who is an eternal associate of Radharani, you suggest, He may be able to gain Her favor.

In other words, surrender is really just another expression of ecstasy. You showed that further on several occasions, when you talked of Krsna’s playing with his cowherd-boy friends, and especially of their taking their lunch together at midday. You sometimes told us how the boys would steal each others’ lunches, including Krsna’s, and play keep-away with them. Ultimately, the other boys would end up with Krsna’s lunch and would enjoy the laddus and kacoris Mother Yasoda would pack for Him. “I just want to go back to the spiritual world,” you would say longingly, “and have laddus and kacoris with Krsna.”

Our charge—my charge—is to follow your example of utter dependence on Krsna and surrender, as Krsna says at the conclusion of Bhagavad-gita, without any other consideration. You have been beckoning me follow you in surrender, to make spiritual progress and sharing your gift my sole business, at least now, as my life draws near its end. I pray that I may be able to answer that call some time soon. Then, perhaps, I may some day become eligible to taste some of those laddus and kacoris.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Announcement for a New Web Site

A New Gaudiya Vaisnava Web Site for Ideas and Discussion

by Babhru das

We live in times best characterized by the need to define the spiritual, times ripe for the resurgence of metaphysics. Not only has science failed to retire the “why” questions that arise spontaneously in human consciousness, but philosophy has also thought-drained its well dry. Bridging the metaphysics of the East and the philosophical traditions of the West, we propose a return to active discourse between humanity and divinity, which is the essence of revelation. This holds far more potential for fulfilling humanity’s essential needs than unbridled intellectual exercise and the licensing of technology to change the nature of nature. In such dialogue, reason shines as an aspect of faith, and faith itself is the illuminating embrace of truth, rather than mere belief. Science, technology, and philosophy should all be harnessed—tied to revelation—in pursuit of improving the quality of life and knowing well the truth of material impermanence, which facilitate not only the betterment of our material conditions as long as they last, but our quest for enduring happiness as well.

Therefore, I am pleased to announce the launch of The Harmonist, a Web site dedicated to bridging the gap between East and West, between mind and spirit, between philosophy and revelation. The Harmonist publishes articles illuminating the philosophical conclusions of Gaudiya Vedanta, often by way of interfacing with other spiritual and philosophical traditions in a way that honors these traditions in their own right. It also publishes articles commenting on
issues of the day, both within the Gaudiya Vaisnava community and the world at large. It focuses as well on news articles relevant to the greater spiritual community and the importance of sustainable living, which it views as the best way of living in this world while pursuing transcendence.

The Harmonist seeks to both facilitate and take part in this discussion—the conversation that is the human response to revelation grounded in Vedanta. Our focus is also devotional Vedanta and the school of Sri Caitanya—Gaudiya Vedanta—in particular. We publish articles illuminating the philosophical conclusions of Gaudiya Vedanta, often by way of interfacing with other spiritual and philosophical traditions in a way that honors these traditions in their own right. We also publish articles commenting on issues of the day, both within the Gaudiya Vaisnava community and in the world at large. We focus as well on news articles relevant to the greater spiritual community and the importance of sustainable living, which we view as the best way of living in this world while pursuing transcendence.

In addition to articles, a classroom, videos, and comics, the Harmonist encourages lively discussion among members and visitors with a robust comments feature. Check out and join the discussion!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Considering Srila Prabhupada’s Mercy

(Note: This is an old article, maybe nine years old or so. I've published it elsewhere on the 'net, and it was used for a couple of years in ISKCON San Diego's Janmastami souvenir magazine. But I haven't shared it here before, so here goes.)

About 500 years ago, Lord Krishna personally appeared as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the place of the avatar for the age of Kali. Lord Chaitanya had two purposes for coming: to experience first-hand the bliss of serving Krishna and to spread pure love for Krishna, which is very rare. Writing about Lord Chaitanya’s plan for making His mercy widely available, Srila Krishna das Kaviraja Gosvami says, “sri-krishna-chaitanya-daya karaha vichara, vichara karile chitte pabe chamatkara: If you are indeed interested in logic and argument, kindly apply it to the mercy of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. If you do so, you will find it to be strikingly wonderful.”

Actually, Lord Chaitanya revolutionized vaishnavism. He took Krishna consciousness into the streets when He inaugurated the congregational chanting of Krishna’s holy names and deputed bands of devotees to widely preach the glories of sankirtana and pure devotional service. He Himself traveled all over India preaching Krishna consciousness. He specifically deputed Lord Nityananda to preach in Bengal. Whereas Lord Chaitanya’s direct followers came mostly from the higher social classes, Lord Nityananda made absolutely no distinction. He approached and anyone and everyone, as demonstrated in His pastime with Jagai and Madhai, and implored them to take up devotional service to Krishna accompanied by chanting Hare Krishna.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Srila Saccidanana Bhaktivinoda Thakura saw that Lord Chaitanya’s teachings had become distorted in several ways and had fallen into disrepute. He conceived a dynamic plan to spread the glories of devotional service to everyone around the world. Part of his program was a modern approach to presenting Krishna consciousness. He presented the philosophy of Srimad-Bhagavatam in a way that even those who were influenced by modern Western philosophies, both in India and abroad, could appreciate it.

Essential to Bhaktivinoda’s revolutionary view was the understanding that Lord Chaitanya was not exaggerating when He said that His name would be sung in every town and village around the world. Bhaktivinoda wrote in his monthly journal Sajjana-tosani, “Sriman Mahaprabhu did not descend with His associates to deliver a certain number of human beings in the land of India, but rather His purpose was to deliver and uplift all living beings in all countries of the world by practicing the eternal religion of all souls.” He quoted a verse from Chaitanya-bhagavata in which the Lord predicted, “My name will be preached in all the countries and towns that exist throughout the world.” Bhaktivinoda Thakura then expressed his heart’s desire: “There are many kinds of religion in the world, and among all of them the highest development of religion is the congregational chanting of the Supreme Lord’s divine names. Of this there is no doubt. Alas! When will that day come when greatly fortunate souls in countries such as England, France, Russia, Prussia, and America will take up banners, kettle drums, mridangas and karatalas and thus cause the ecstatic waves of Harinama-kirtana and the singing of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Holy Name to rise in the streets of their towns and cities? O when will that day come, when pure and transcendental Vaisnava-prema will be the only religion of all souls and all tiny sectarian religions will meet in the unlimited and universal religion of Vaisnavism as rivers merge into the great ocean? O when will that day come?”

Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s plan for propagating Krishna consciousness also included reviving a scientific daivi-varnashrama system to help make society more conducive to spiritual culture. He passed this vision of preaching Krishna consciousness to his son and siksa disciple, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who extended Bhaktivinoda’s revolution by taking concrete steps to reinstitute varnashrama-dharma. Asserting that vaishnavas are as good as brahmanas, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati gave his disciples the sacred thread at initiation, regardless of their family lineage. He also reintroduced the ashrama of tridandi-sannyasa to Gaudiya vaishnavism. Moreover, he created an organized institution for systematically propagating Krishna consciousness and trained his disciples to aggressively confront all forms of false religion.

Throughout his preaching career, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati exhorted everyone he met to help spread Krishna consciousness to the entire world. His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada recounted that when he first met his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta immediately challenged him and his friends, as educated young men familiar with English, to take Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mission seriously and teach it to those who spoke English. In his last days, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati told his disciples to, above all, work cooperatively to continue and expand the systematic preaching he had begun, following Bhaktivinoda’s instructions.

Among Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s many disciples who were working to spread Lord Chaitanya’s message as broadly as they could, Srila Prabhupada worked steadily toward further extending this transcendental revolution. We know now how he persisted over the years to satisfy Bhaktivinoda’s and Bhaktisiddhanta’s desire for systematically making Krishna consciousness available to everyone everywhere in the world. He worked with his Godbrothers for decades, published Back to Godhead single-handedly and distributed it himself, wrote Easy Journey to Other Planets, translated Srimad-Bhagavatam, and coaxed Sumati Morarji to give him passage on a freighter to New York, where he arrived practically penniless at the age of 70.

After suffering two heart attacks on the ship, Srila Prabhupada struggled in New York to distribute his books and establish the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He worked tirelessly for twelve years to translate, publish, and distribute many authentic Vedic literatures, establish temples on every continent except Antarctica, and train thousands of disciples to carry on his work.

In 1976, while Srila Prabhupada was staying in Honolulu, some friends of mine spent a night in the temple’s front yard. Unable to sleep, they stayed up until mangala-arati chanting japa and watching the window of Srila Prabhupada’s room. He was up all night working on his books, occasionally stopping to chant devotional bhajans with his harmonium. Although he was almost 80 years old, he worked through the night to satisfy the desires of his spiritual master and Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Looking back, one of Srila Prabhupada’s prominent Godbrothers, Srila B. R. Sridhar Maharaja, concluded that Srila Prabhupada had been personally empowered by Lord Nityananda to give Krishna consciousness to everyone everywhere in the world. After reading the poems Srila Prabhupada had written aboard the Jaladuta and on his arrival at Boston Harbor, he reasoned that Srila Prabhupada had emptied himself of all desires except to spread Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s message. And very much like Lord Nityananda, who gave anyone he encountered the most valuable treasure of the chanting of Hare Krishna in exchange for only a little faith, Srila Prabhupada freely distributed the holy name of Krishna to anyone who showed even enough faith to stop and listen for a moment. Lord Nityananda distributed what amounted to free samples of the highest spiritual realization, confident that those who tried the sample would want to buy his product, possibly becoming steady customers. Srila Prabhupada also gave out free samples of harinama, advertising it with the slogan, “Chant Hare Krishna, and your life will be sublime.” Consequently, millions who tried it became at least lifetime customers, if not distributors.

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had implored his disciples to work vigorously to spread Krishna consciousness everywhere, thus satisfying the desires of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Bhaktivinoda Thakura. “The line of Bhaktivinoda will never be closed,” he wrote. “With even more enthusiasm you should become engaged in preaching the desire of Bhaktivinoda’s heart.” He also figuratively exhorted all his disciples to “be prepared to shed two hundred gallons of blood for the nourishment of the spiritual corpus of every individual of this world.”

Considering objectively what Srila Prabhupada did in his lifetime, we can safely conclude that he set the perfect example of sacrificing everything to satisfy Krishna. It’s clear that he understood the revolutionary desires of Lord Chaitanya, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura and worked to bring about what Srimad-Bhagavatam calls “a revolution in the impious lives of this world’s misdirected civilization.” Anyone who uses logic and argument to consider the mercy of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada will certainly find it strikingly wonderful.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What I did on my summer vacation

As many of you probably know, I spent much of last year at Audarya, Tripurari Maharaja's ashram in California, and at Madhuvan, his ashram in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica. One of the things I worked on while there was an essay bringing together the external evidence we have about Srila Prabhupada's internal life. It turned into a rather long piece, and it was great fun to write.

This essay gives us access to the diverse indications given by Srila Prabhupada by which we may understand his love for Krishna.

  • Intimate stories from disciples
  • The realizations of sadhus
  • Signs from Srila Prabhupada's life
  • Srila Prabhupada's own statements.
We are offering this chance to follow the trail of Srila Prabhupada's spiritual passion and glimpse his innermost desire free online in two versions, one you can read online and one you can download as a pdf. If you find it interesting, feel free to share it with anyone you think might also find it interesting.

You may find this essay at, where you'll be given the choice to either read it online or download it. Have fun, and feel free to leave comments.

I hope you’ll find it enlivening and thought provoking. And fun!