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Ethics & Devotion

A lecture before The National Seminar on Values and Ethics in Business, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India, given on April 20, 2000.

Before coming here today I was considering how it is that a group of professors and professional businessmen would invite a shaven-headed renunciant dressed in simple dhoti and kurta, with no money of his own and no business experience, to be the chairman of the first session of this seminar. Why would you spend your valuable time unless there was some practical and profitable reason? You must be considering that the spiritual conception of ethics has practical value in today’s business world. Here we’ll discuss the spiritual conception of ethics from a most practical perspective, as presented by the famous son of Orissa Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura.

Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838-1914) was the great theologian who first presented the teachings of Caitanya Mahaprabhu in a modern context. His pioneering efforts have manifested today as the Hare Krishna movement, which is being spread worldwide by ISKCON, or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. In a discussion on ethics it is significant to analyze the work of ISKCON. The cultural and philosophical teachings of ISKCON have inspired millions of people all over the world to reject immoral behavior and embrace a saintly way of life.

Ethical Systems

The term ethics refers to the systems of moral behavior accepted by individuals or groups. Different mature individuals will have different conceptions of what kinds of behavior are right and what kinds are wrong. Such conceptions of right and wrong define different ethical systems. As leaders of society we need to know which ethical systems are valuable in a progressive society and which are not, and those which are valuable should be promoted. Bhaktivinoda Thakura has offered a scientific conception of ethics and morality based on the Vedic literature, which states that a truly progressive society is one that discourages its members from exploiting others.

Societies that adopt ethical systems based on materialistic conceptions cannot be progressive because they cannot be free of exploitation. To establish this, Bhaktivinoda has described four categories of materialists:

  1. Those who have no ethics and no faith in God: immoral materialists.
  2. Those with ethics but no faith in God: non-theistic moralists.
  3. Those with ethics based on faith in God, but who give more importance to morality than they do to God: theistic moralists.
  4. Those who engage in immoral behavior while posing as theists: pretenders.

Immoral Materialists

Those who follow no ethical system are the lowest of human beings. They are the primitive peoples and the hedonistic modern man. Indeed, such human beings are on the same level as animals. Bhaktivinoda describes the attitude of the hedonists: “They consider that this variegated universe is simply a chance combination of atoms and molecules with no creator. Any belief in God or the soul is simply blind faith and gross superstition. As we only live once, a person should try to enjoy as much as possible.”

With his far-seeing vision, Bhaktivinoda Thakura perfectly described the popular idea embraced by many today that life is simply a chance combination of chemicals with no intrinsic purpose. With such a conception there is no particular need to honor or respect others. Is it any wonder that a great ethical crisis has risen and sprouted into an increase of violent crimes and corruption?

Non-Theistic Materialists

Next, Bhaktivinoda describes that higher than the immoral materialists are the non-theistic moralists who accept some ethical system but are not concerned with God. Describing the view of the non-theistic moralists, he has written:

Being more intelligent, the moralist can easily defeat the immoral materialist. He says: “Oh brother, I respect what you say but I cannot accept your self- motivated actions. They are not at all good. You are seeking out happiness in life, but without morals how can there be happiness? Do not think that your life is everything! Consider society as well. Rules which can increase the happiness of the human being in society are advisable. That is called morality. Gaining happiness through morality makes man superior to animals. It is necessary for man to accept individual suffering where it will give happiness to society. That is called selfless morality, and it is the only path for man. You must cultivate all the positive sentiments such as love, friendship and compassion in order to increase the over- all happiness of society. By doing this, violence, hatred and other evil tendencies will not be able to contaminate the heart. Universal love is universal happiness. Take up ways of increasing this happiness.” Positivists such as Compte and Mill, Socialists such as Herbert Spencer, as well as lay Buddhists and Atheists firmly believe this philosophy.

The non-theistic moralists are superior to the immoral materialists, but they are still selfishly motivated. Although they follow the ethical and moral rules of society, they do so to avoid public censure, imprisonment, or execution. A businessman may adopt ethical principles just to ensure plentiful customers, or a politician may accept ethical principles to attract followers. This is a more intelligent position than that of the immoral materialist, as there is concern for long-term enjoyment rather than just immediate gratification. However, since there is still an underlying selfishness, a non-theistic moralist is likely to exploit others as soon as he or she thinks there will be no adverse reaction.

Included in this category are the mundane philanthropists who engage in work for the physical, mental, or emotional well- being of others. Because they are unable to appreciate the objects of their compassion as anything more than dull chemicals, the “good deeds” of such “selfless” moral materialists are invariably motivated for their own enjoyment, either subtle or gross. In actuality their “selflessness” is only a fashade, for their actions are motivated by the desire to have the satisfaction of thinking of themselves as, or being well known as, greatly pious persons.

The Scorpion And The Camel

The ethics of the non-theistic moralists are compared to those of the scorpion who once requested a favor from a camel. The scorpion wanted to cross a deep river but could not find any way to do so. Seeing a camel nearby, the scorpion approached him and asked the camel to carry him across. The camel refused, saying, “You will sting me.”

“No, no. I am an ethical scorpion. I promise I won’t sting you.”

The camel agreed and, taking the scorpion on his hump, began crossing the river. Halfway across, the scorpion suddenly stung the camel.

“Why did you do that?” the camel asked. “Now we will both die.”

“What can I say?” the scorpion replied. “It’s my nature.”

Similarly, although the non-theistic moralists try to live an ethical life, because their concept of the meaning of life is limited to dull matter any ethical behavior they adopt is selfishly motivated and quickly discarded.

Although they speak about universal love and brotherhood, the non-theistic moralists, like their immoral brothers, are unable to appreciate others as anything more than dull matter. Their perception is limited to the external body, and the relationships they form with others are similarly skin- deep—shallow, short-lived, and ultimately prone towards exploitation. Since they identify themselves as temporary matter, there is no reason for them to perform truly selfless acts. The best social message the non-theistic moralists can offer is, “You are just a bag of chemicals and molecules that somehow just appeared and has no intrinsic meaning. Other persons are also only bags of chemicals and molecules—but you should be nice to them.”

The natural reply will be, “Why should I be nice?”

“Because it’s the good thing to do, and if you don’t you’ll go to jail.”

Since the basic motivation of the ethical behavior of atheists is to avoid public censure, is it any surprise that as soon as they think they have an opportunity to gain some illicit advantage without getting caught they will do so?


More fixed in ethical conduct and hence superior to the non- theistic moralist is the theist. The theist is dissatisfied with the mechanistic concept of life offered by the non- theist. Bhaktivinoda describes the thinking of the theist as follows:

If consciousness arises by some special process through combination of atoms, there should be some evidence of this somewhere in the universe. There should be some example of this in human history. Man is produced from the womb of a mother. Nowhere is any other process observed. In spite of the growth of material science, nothing otherwise has yet been observed. Someone may argue that man has arisen by a chance combination of matter, and later man has adopted this particular process of birth from the womb. However, the succeeding events should be similar to the first event. Even now we should observe at least a few conscious entities arising by chance combination of matter. Therefore it can only be logically concluded that the first mother and father must have arisen from the supreme consciousness.

When the materialist becomes dissatisfied with the mechanistic idea that consciousness is simply a chance combination of chemicals, and thereby concludes that life must be something anti-material or spiritual, he comes to the platform of theism.

Bhaktivinoda points out many ways in which belief in God contributes to moral conduct:

  1. Even is someone has a strong sense of moral values, still the senses are often so strong that even great moralists are defeated. If the opportunity arises to enjoy immorally in secret, belief in God will act as a preventative measure. God can see what man cannot. One who thinks like that will be unable to secretly perform acts contrary to morality.
  2. Everyone will accept that faith in God produces a greater tendency to perform pious acts than morality alone.
  3. If God exists, then by faith in Him so much is gained. If He does not exist, believing in Him is harmless. On the other hand, if God does exist, to not have faith in Him is harmful.
  4. By belief in God, the tendency toward righteousness grows quickly in the mind.
  5. By faith in God, compassion and tolerance become stronger.
  6. By belief in God, one is more eager to perform selfless action.
  7. By belief in God, acceptance of afterlife arises, and man cannot be disappointed by any event in life.

Morality More Important

Bhaktivinoda states that among the theists, most are materialistic. He describes a group called the theistic moralists who worship God with some degree of faith, but who give more importance to their conception of morality than they do to God. Some of them believe there is no harm in imagining a God, worshiping him with faith, and then abandoning that worship when good conduct is achieved. Others believe that by performing worship of the Lord and acting ethically, the Lord will be pleased and will grant one’s material desires.

Either subtly or grossly, the worship of the theistic moralists is selfishly motivated. Although they consider themselves worshipers of God, they are not much interested in God’s form, personality, activities, or desires, but instead are interested only in what they can gain through worshiping Him.

Bhaktivinoda compares the relationship between the theistic moralists and God to the temporary meeting of travelers at an inn. When morning comes and the travelers leave for their separate destinations, the relationship is forgotten. Theistic moralists worship the Lord not out of devotion but simply because they think it to be the proper thing to do, which will result in their happiness.

Being motivated in this way, materialistic theistic moralists are still in the realm of selfishness. Although they conceive of their ethical behavior as being harmless to others, because they are not on the platform of spiritual vision they are unable to maintain impartial dealings and will inevitably fall prey to exploiting others.

In describing different types of acti-vities aimed at human welfare, Bhaktivinoda has stated in his Sajjana Toshani magazine: “Showing kindness to the soul is the best welfare work of all. By such kindness one attempts to save a person from all worldly sufferings by giving him devotion to Lord Krishna.”

Because the theistic moralists are not functioning on the spiritual platform, their ethical systems will never be able to alleviate all the worldly sufferings of the living entities; hence they are unable to completely serve society. They will always fall prey to narrow biases based on bodily, social, or religious differences. In actuality, their relationship with others is much like their relationship with God: as superficial as travelers meeting at an inn.

Although there is some partial social benefit from the ethics of the theistic moralists, because there is no spiritual bliss in the mechanical worship they perform there is every chance that they will either give up their theism or else adopt the ways of the cheating pretender.


The next class are those who engage in immoral behavior while posing as theists. Bhaktivinoda has described them as pretenders. He says:

Although the pretenders do not accept the eternal nature of devotion, they wear the dress and markings of a believer. They have their own motives, which any honest person would decry. Cheating everyone, they pave the way for a world of sin. Undiscerning people, allured by their external appearance, take up the same path and end up rejecting God. They may have beautiful tilaka, devotional dress, chant the name of Krishna, appear detached from the world, and give attractive speeches, but secretly they harbor desire for wealth and women. Many such persons exist.

Bhaktivinoda has compared such pretenders to the cat and the crane. Once some mice came and said, “Have you heard the news? The cat has become a saint. He is now wearing tilaka and neck beads. He is chanting and has become a vegetarian.” Thinking in this way, the mice gave up their fear of the cat. But when the mice started to come nearby, the cat gave up his pretense and pounced on them.

Similarly, the crane stands motionless on one foot for hours at a time, and thus looks like a great yogi. His real motivation, though, is to catch fish. As soon as a fish comes near, he abandons his saintly demeanor and gobbles it up.

Bhaktivinoda has said, “There is no worse association in the world than such pretenders. It is better to associate with immoral atheists than to associate with them. … Only if one gives up the association of crooked hypocrites can he honestly engage in devotional service. Honest worship is the only way to attain Krishna’s mercy.”

By presenting themselves as saintly and concerned for others, the pretenders sometimes gain positions of trust and responsibility in even spiritually-minded societies. But because their real motivation is to exploit others to satisfy their own subtle or gross pleasures, they are the worst enemies of society.

The Devotees

Devotees who are situated on the platform of pure love of God see their beloved Lord everywhere and see everything, moving and non-moving, in connection with God. From such a platform, to offer respect to all living entities regardless of material bodily designations is quite natural and genuine, and thus on this platform alone can one be free from the propensity to exploit others.

The Bhagavata Purana explains that even though one may follow religious ethics for some time, without genuine devotion to the Lord the subtle desires in the heart, which are the roots of immoral tendencies, are not destroyed and will rise again. Only pure devotion can remove all immoral tendencies. This is described in the Bhagavata:

kecit kevalaya bhaktya
agham dhunvanti kartsnyena
niharam iva bhaskarah

“Only a rare person who has adopted complete, unalloyed devotional service to the Supreme Lord Vasudeva, Krishna, can uproot the weeds of sinful actions with no possibility that they will revive. He can do this simply by discharging devotional service, just as the sun can immediately dissipate fog by its rays.”

Moral Behavior?

One problem arises in our discussion of morality. Sometimes, understanding the moral behavior of devo-tees is difficult. A good example is the activities of Krishna’s most exalted devotees, the gopis of Vrindavana, who would leave their homes and husbands in the middle of the night to meet with Krishna. To accept such behavior as saintly is difficult for many persons. On several occasions Srila Prabhupada described the apparent contradiction between morality and the behavior of the gopis:

Any activities that are spiritual are all-good, and any activities that are material are all-bad. This is the difference between spiritual and material. The so-called morality and goodness of the material world is bad, but in the spiritual world even so-called immorality is good. This we must understand. For example, to dance with the wives of others at the dead of night is immoral, at least according to the Vedic civilization. Even today in India, a young woman will never be allowed to go to a young man at the dead of night to dance with him. But we find in Srimad-Bhagavatam that as soon as the gopis, the young cowherd girls of Vrindavana, heard Krishna’s flute, they immediately came to dance with Him. Now according to material conceptions this is immoral, but from the spiritual point of view this is in accord with the greatest morality. Caitanya Mahaprabhu therefore said, ramya kacid upasana vraja-vadhu- vargena ya kal-pita: “There is no better mode of worship than that which was conceived by the vraja- vadhus, the damsels of Vrindavana.”

The gopis superficially seem to transgress the codes of mundane morali-ty. This perpetually puzzles mundane moralists. … The reason the Lord displays the rasa-lila is es-sentially to induce all the fallen souls to give up their diseased morality and religiosity, and to attract them to the kingdom of God to enjoy the reality. A person who actually understands what the rasa-lila is will certainly hate to indulge in mundane sex life. For the realized soul, hearing the Lord’s rasa-lila through the proper channel will result in complete abstinence from material sexual pleasure.

Our standard of morality and immorality is to see whether Krishna is satisfied. If Krishna is satisfied, then it is morality. If Krishna is dissatisfied, then it is immoral.

According to Bhaktivinoda, the best ethical system is that which is based on the awareness that all others are part of the Supreme Lord and meant to give pleasure to Him alone. Any system that gives prominence to the fulfillment of one’s own selfish desires will ultimately be exploitative and thus harmful to the progress of society.

These are some of the practical teachings of Bhaktivinoda Thakura on the topic of ethics. I hope that the respected and learned persons of this assembly will consider them deeply.

A Sanctified Union

Devotee couples know from the start that their life together has a spiritual purpose.
In my mother’s wedding photo, she holds a thin bunch of flowers as if she wished to hide it somewhere. The Town Hall marriage chamber resembles a waiting room of an old- fashioned office. My parents, in their everyday attire of poor college students, look blissful but embarrassed, as if they cannot fully comprehend what is happening: Are we really married? What now? Get out and go back to our classes, or what?

In those times—the sixties—the young Polish intelligentsia took pride in abandoning the old rites of the Catholic tradition. Under Communist influence, marriage was thought of as merely a formality, a matter of signatures. Twelve years later, my parents placed their signatures on a divorce document.

I’m remembering this as I leaf through my own wedding album. In the background I can see my mother’s face. Touched, she is watching as my husband and I throw grains into the sacrificial fire, while a devotee softly explains to her the meaning of the rituals.

In my childhood, I used to wrap myself in a window curtain and dream I was wearing a beautiful silk dress, so long that I would have to lift it with both hands when stepping up the stairs. Soon enough, life forced me to admit I wasn’t a fairy-tale princess. But now my old dream was to be fulfilled at, of all places, a Hare Krishna temple—the same temple where I’d learned every day that I’m not my female body and not meant to be the center of attraction. A wedding ceremony was to be performed for two persons striving to understand that the attachment between man and woman is a trap of maya (illusion), and that our real family is Krishna’s family in the spiritual world.

Krishna consciousness is both idealistic and practical. It makes the highest perfection—love of God—accessible to people with various natures and inclinations. Celibacy and absolute dedication to spiritual practice are encouraged and praised, and so is a sincere desire to pursue Krishna consciousness in married life. Devotees wishing to create a family can have their material needs fulfilled while getting unlimited opportunities to keep Krishna in the center.

Devotee families have their own unique offering to make to Krishna. Theirs is not an inferior brand of spirituality. Nor is marital happiness something shameful, as was often believed in the medieval ages of Christianity. God does not envy our enjoyment. But if we want our happiness to last, it has to be built on the principle of serving Krishna’s enjoyment, because we are all His servants and cannot have lasting enjoyment by acting against our nature.

Lasting Impressions

The night before my wedding, the devotee who would be dressing the temple Deities the next morning asked me which clothing I most liked seeing the Deities dressed in. I felt touched: she wanted to help me appreciate and remember our Deities on that special day.

Until recently, in all traditional societies, religious rituals accompanied major transitions in life, such as being born, taking up education, or getting married. The Vedic scriptures call those rituals samskaras, or purifying rites. Samskara means “impression,” like ruts in soft clay or a riverbed. The purpose of samskara is to create a deep, lasting impression in the mind of the person for whom it is performed. The impression will channel the stream of the person’s thoughts and emotions in a way conducive to spiritual advancement. On the social level, samskaras help clarify for members of the society their place in it: their rights, duties, progress. Psychologically, samskaras aid the development of one’s sense of identity, purpose, and fulfillment in life.

The vivaha-samskara (wedding rite) offers an excellent opportunity to spiritualize thoughts, emotions, and commitments that accompany being united with one’s chosen partner. A Vaishnava wedding (a wedding of devotees of Krishna) is not only a colorful, joyful ceremony but also a source of devotional inspiration for years to come. When difficulties arise in the relationship, we may ask ourselves, “How did I get into this situation? Why did I marry this person?” Then the mind will go back to the wedding day and automatically remember Lord Krishna, His devotees, and His loving service.

Sanctioning a relationship by a Vaishnava wedding is not all it takes to make a marriage successful. And one can even undergo this meaningful ceremony thoughtlessly. One person will meditate on the ritual’s essential meaning, while another may be preoccupied worrying about a pimple. The foundation for a good marriage is laid long before, beginning from childhood. Proper motives for entering the relationship are essential. A senior devotee, married for many years, once told me, “If we are honest and respect each other, Krishna can make our marriage like soft grasses, and if we are cheaters, He can make it like a swamp.”

Still, the Vaishnava wedding ceremony helps the couple take their first step together in harmony with each other and with God. Even if the partners have already lived together before accepting Krishna consciousness, undergoing the vivaha- samskara can deepen their relationship and make it more satisfying. It helps the couple realize, “We are together not because it somehow happened this way, not by mistake, not in a passing episode of blind passion. The life we share is sanctified and meaningful, an important aspect of our spiritual life. Any little effort to make our relationship pleasing to Krishna goes to our eternal benefit.”

Another photo: a woman devotee leads me to the temple. In my gorgeous red silk sari, with ornaments and flower wreaths in my hair, I’m nervous. What will my dear one think of me? “The princess! Ridiculous!”

Prayers for Success

Next moment, I’m inside. As sweet sounds of Hare Krishna chanting envelop me, suddenly the anxiety goes away. The bridegroom and I approach the altar and stand before the Deities. Mentally, we offer Them a prayer we have prepared:

“Our dear Radha and Krishna, O Divine Couple, please accept us. Please teach us to serve You and not try to imitate You. If You think we can help each other grow in love and devotion to You, then let this marriage ceremony be auspiciously performed under Your merciful glance. May we never forget this ceremony. Then our relationship will stand the test of time. May our parents, who are blessing us now, never feel sorrow remembering our wedding.”

Then I offer my own prayer:

“O Srimati Radharani, so beautifully decorated with ornaments and flowers, smiling with such simplicity and kindness, You are the real princess. I am happy standing before You in humble submission. The desire of my childhood has now melted away.”

An Alternative to Nondevotional Schooling

Hundreds of Krishna conscious centers now dot the world, and sincere devotees live in thousands of other communities. Still, ISKCON has only about thirty schools for all its children. In previous columns, I’ve talked about some of the reasons for our slow development in education, as well as plans for growth. But talk of the future does little for parents who must address the need for Krishna conscious schooling today.

Many parents have given up hope of finding a Krishna conscious school for their children and are sending them to nondevotee schools. Judging from letters I receive, quite a few parents find this solution unsatisfying. I don’t blame them.

Here’s the biggest secret in the teaching world: The main purpose of education is not to give students knowledge and skills—it’s to put across to the next generation the culture and values of this one.

That’s why the values and character of the teacher are all-important. In devotional service, association is everything. Lord Caitanya advised devotees to avoid the association of nondevotees. How then can we neglect applying that instruction to our children? Every devotee child has the right to be educated by another devotee. Our duty as parents is to give them that chance.

Till we pull together a well-developed ISKCON school system, an increasingly popular alternative is home education.

Who should try home education?“I don’t have the time.”“I don’t have the money.”

Home schooling is for parents who want to take direct responsibility for their child’s education. The decision often comes down to this: “There’s no Krishna conscious school nearby, and I can’t bear sending my child to a school with nonspiritual values. So I’ll teach my kids myself.” If you’re willing to take the steps needed, you can do a good job of teaching—and comply with local laws.

But since most of us were educated in institutions, home education paradoxically seems foreign to us. Here are a few concerns, along with some short answers:

You’ll have to sacrifice some time. Raising children always takes time and effort. But a good teaching program need not monopolize your time. You can organize teaching to fit your schedule. Parents in the same community may even team up and share the teaching.

What you’ll need for home schooling costs less than sending your child to a private school (including most ISKCON schools). Of course, nothing is as cheap as a “free” public school. But there you pay by losing control of your child’s educational destiny. (British readers: What you call a “public school” is what Americans call a “private school.”)

“I’m not competent.”

Many packaged home-school curriculums are designed for inexperienced parents. In the beginning, most parents should probably use one of these. After a few years of experience, you’ll feel confident enough to be more flexible. Don’t be afraid to ask help from those who’ve been doing home schooling longer.

I want my child to get a quality education.”

A real “quality education” is one that helps your child develop spiritual values and strength of character. It’s one that helps your child become Krishna conscious and free from material existence. Apart from that, many home programs are accredited. With some planning and diligence, your child can go on to any program of higher education.

Growing Children in the Garden

For a devotee, gardening means raising crops to offer Krishna. Of all the things we grow in the garden—fruits, flowers, vegetables—I think the best “crop” is our children. Parents, children, and gardens go perfectly together. The combination of love, fun, and work in the friendly environment of the garden ensures that whatever the children learn there they’ll remember in a treasured way.

In the garden, parents can entertain even the youngest toddlers. Let them use their dump trucks to deliver seeds, their toy shovels and wheel barrows to deliver compost or mulch. To keep children from stepping on new plants, I hill up all the rows so the children can easily see them and step over them—or jump over them. What four-year-old doesn’t love to jump and jump? If you make it so children can see the rows, they are free to run in the garden and make it a game not to touch the rows.

Teach children that gardening is fun. Be sensitive to their attention spans and size limits. When you give a child his or her own rows to care for, make sure the rows are very short—that way weeding is easy. And because children take pride in working with their own tools, it’s good to invest in tools their size.

As a child grows, his garden patch can grow along with him. Start by making the plot twice as long and twice as wide as the child’s height. As children get older, give them no more than they can work in one hour.

A garden is the ideal place to share lessons of Krishna consciousness. Show your child how the soul is present in every living entity, including plants. Plants can talk, but in their own way. Wilted plants are saying, “I’m thirsty! Please, give me some water.” Small scraggly plants are saying, “Help, the weeds are trying to choke me to death—save me!” Pale plants are saying, “I’m hungry! Please, give me some manure.”

Children easily develop an appreciation for manure. They know that Krishna loves the cows because they are friendly and playful and provide many benefits. People become strong by drinking milk, and plants become strong when you feed them manure. Encourage children’s pride in their work. Relatives and visitors who tour the garden are usually a good source of praise for fledgling green thumbs. Take pictures of children working in the garden during different stages and make a small book of the photos. If the children like to color or sketch, have them make pictures of the garden as it grows and changes.

In early spring you can start your own plants indoors. Peat pellets are good for kids to work with. You can also show them how to make their own evenly spaced seed tape. Unroll a long sheet of toilet paper. Have the child dab it every inch or so with a dot of wet flour-paste and press a seed into every dot. Allow the whole long sheet to dry. Roll it up carefully. Later on the child can dig a shallow trench, unroll the seed tape, and cover it with a thin layer of soil. In the moist earth, the paste and toilet paper will disintegrate, leaving only the child’s perfectly spaced row of seedlings.

As soon as the weather begins to warm up, build a compost pile with cow manure, forest leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps (no fat, please). Children can see how Krishna has arranged that by some things decaying and decomposing, nutrients are recycled so that new plants can grow lush and strong.

If you are imaginative, you can turn work into play, but still get the job done. Make a bean teepee village. Plant your corn in a spiraling circle. Plant flowers among your vegetables. Marigolds help repel insects and hide young brassicas from greedy ground hogs. Nasturtium flowers (and leaves) can be offered to Krishna in salads.

These are just a few ways you can turn gardening into a form of devotional service your children will love. When Krishna and Balarama go to the forest with their friends to tend cows, their work is actually play. Similarly, successful gardening for kids and parents mixes play with work in such a way that no one can tell for sure which is which.

How Should We Educate Our Children

We want our children to get an education, so we send them off to school—kindergarten through twelfth grade and then on through college. We want them to acquire all the information they need to become successful adults. We also expect our schools to properly enculturate our children, turning them into upstanding citizens and fine human beings who will inter-act acceptably with other educated adults.

But what is actually happening in the schools today? I was astonished recently to come across a comparison of the top seven disciplinary problems confronting schools in 1940 and those confronting schools today, compiled by the California Federation of Police and the California Department of Education.

Top Disciplinary Problems in 1940

  1. Talking
  2. Chewing gum
  3. Making noise
  4. Running in the halls
  5. Getting out of line
  6. Wearing improper clothing
  7. Not putting paper in the wastebasket

Top Disciplinary Problems Today

  1. Drug abuse
  2. Alcohol abuse
  3. Pregnancy

Shocking, isn’t it? Yet when we understand that the primary purpose of traditional education is to socialize children, it’s not so surprising. In school, children learn and practice the value system of the dominant local culture. The top problems in schools today, therefore, undoubtedly reflect the problems of the dominant local culture.

How have things run amuck? According to the Bhagavad- gita, the problem is that people falsely conceive of the body as the self. Because of this misconception, they try their best to manipulate the material energy to get what they consider to be the most out of life. For persons in bodily consciousness, this means sensual and mental pleasures. These may appear dazzling and refined when one comes into the realm of M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s, but they are based on a misconception nonetheless. And, as in a mathematical equation, when the first assumption is wrong, everything that follows will also be wrong.

So what is real education? What is real knowledge? And how do we help our children obtain these things? In Vedic times children were given the skills they needed for their occupation. But most importantly, their teachers instilled in them admirable qualities like truthfulness, piety, and self- control. Having these qualities, people naturally performed their duties, and society was peaceful. The atmosphere was thus suitable for spiritual practices, allowing everyone the opportunity to progress toward the real goal of life—liberation from repeated birth and death in the material world.

This, then, is what is missing today—understanding the goal of human life. The Vedas tell us that the human body is awarded to the living entity only rarely, and that it is a fit boat for crossing over the ocean of nescience. Unless we can deliver our dependents from the cycle of birth and death, the Srimad-Bhagavatam says, we should not become parents. We have to understand what a rare opportunity our children have to get out of this ocean of suffering once and for all. Our real obligation is to help our children achieve liberation. Education that leads them to this end is real education.

Kick Out Darwin

The doctrine Of evolution is difficult to hide from. It is so pervasive in textbooks of science, geography, history, and literature that the reader, numbed by repetition, hardly notices the constant drone.

Our children need help to remain awake to spiritual life amidst this sleepy cloud of propaganda. We need to teach them the truth. And we need to show them, clearly and specifically, how evolutionists are lying.

Does it really matter? Is it important for our children to know the origin of life and the universe? Perhaps they can be clear about spiritual life without bothering to think about Darwin one way or the other.

But can they? In most standard modern versions, evolution links tightly with the outlook that all order, law, and life come about by chance. But spiritual life means connecting with the Supreme Spirit, Krishna, who is a person directing the cosmos and giving the seed of life.

Also inherent in most of today’s evolutionary views is the notion that life is a complicated organization of matter. But spiritual life begins when one understands that the self, the essential living being, is irreducibly spirit, always distinct from matter.

Therefore, we need to teach the truth. The order and law of this world are everywhere. For young children, we give simple analogies. “See the white line in the middle of the street?” We show them. “That means there is a government. I may not see the mayor or the governor or the president, but this line is proof that they exist. In the same way, the cycle of seasons and the intricate design of a plant are proofs of an intelligent creator.”

Materialistic evolutionists scoff at proving God by design. What of injustice and suffering, they ask? Did God design these?

“Yes,” we tell our children, “just as the government—made up of people—has designed the prison and court system.”

The problems posed by the materialists become an indication of God when resolved by explanations of karma and reincarnation.

In such ways, whether informally as opportunities arise or as part of a planned curriculum of science and social studies, we can teach young children to see Krishna in His creation.

We also need to teach the difference between life and matter.

The love of a cat for her kittens, the urge for survival that sends the ant over what to him is a hundred miles for a grain of sugar—these are constant signs that life is other than matter. The inability of a machine, even a computer, to become aware of its own existence tells the child that consciousness does not arise from a complex combination of matter. Rather, just as I, a conscious being, operate a computer, so I operate this body. My computer will never write this article by itself.

Srila Prabhupada’s books brim with evidence for God and the soul. Daily in-depth study of his books will awaken children’s true vision. They will see that behind the veil of maya is the face of the Supreme Lord.

We need to protect our impressionable and vulnerable children from the evolutionists’ propaganda machine. Films, television programs, textbooks, and science museums often conform to evolutionary doctrine unquestioningly. Exposure to these, especially frequent exposure, may draw the blind of darkness over the window of our children’s knowledge.

But how can we combat the evolutionists’ propaganda? When the child matures in the realm of intellectual and reasoning ability, we must systematically attack the unsound premises of evolution while giving evidence for the existence of Krishna and the soul.

Our first argument is that the bodily machine of even the simplest life form cannot arise from a chance combination of matter, any more than an explosion in a printing shop could bring into existence a dictionary or the works of Shakespeare.

Second, even if somehow the external body of a living being could spring forth from random material processes, the body cannot work without the soul. An airplane is built by intelligent people, not by a tornado in a junk yard. But however an airplane is built, it needs a pilot. Otherwise, it can sit on the runway for thousands of years without flying. Despite a machine’s complex technology, it still needs a living being to push the buttons.

In this way, we can explain that the symptoms exhibited by living beings—from the plant to the ant to human beings—indicate the presence of a “driver,” the soul. And as soon as this driver leaves, the body dies and decays.

Evolutionists say that life came originally from matter and that all species have gradually developed from the first life form. Practically speaking, that’s what evolutionists must say. Why? Because they’d never convince us that advanced life forms arose from matter. We’d never believe that giraffes appeared suddenly from a pond. Evolutionists would be a laughing stock if they asserted that each species developed independently in its present form from chance molecular collisions.

Yet how strong is the evidence for gradual evolution?At the chemical level, we can point out that scientists have failed to show how matter could by chance alone pull together even one protein needed for life. Going further down the supposed evolutionary line, we can show our children that crucial evidence for evolution is lacking in the fossil record, that mutations are generally harmful and do not change one species into another, and that intermediate forms of organs would be nonfunctional and therefore hinder rather than enhance the survival of their owner. We can give specific examples from the evolutionists’ bag of so-called proofs and show how they are irrelevant or distorted.

Finally, it’s helpful to expose children to mysteries scientists can’t explain. We can study well-documented instances of psychic ability and out-of-body experiences that support the conclusion that the mind is more than the brain. While we don’t rely on such empirical evidence or put full faith in what is sometimes sensationalism, a carefully chosen study of the most solid evidence can help a child know that many of the inexplicable occurrences described in the Vedas are still happening today.

For most of us, to refute evolutionist propaganda entirely from our own understanding and knowledge would be difficult. So I suggest some books and videos that can help structure an educational program, whether at home or at school. There are certainly many other useful resources, and I would be glad to hear of other suggestions. As Srila Prabhupada told us, “The more we kick out Darwin, the more we advance in spiritual consciousness.”

The following are books and videos I suggest for students at least thirteen years old. (Younger children may be able to grasp at least the basic ideas.) The materials not produced by ISKCON are quite valuable. They may not present a complete view of the soul and God, but they do a good job of dismantling evolution and establishing theism, at least in a general way. Please keep in mind, of course, that they may put forth some minor points with which we disagree.


Life Comes from Life, Srila Prabhupada (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 3764 Watseka Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90034).

Human Evolution, video, Sadaputa Dasa (Bhaktivedanta Institute, P.O. Box 99584, San Diego, CA 92169).

Darwin’s Secret Identity, David Webb (Available from Krishna Culture, P.O. Box 12380, Philadelphia, PA 19119).


“Mysteries of the Unexplained,” Reader’s Digest, 1982. Often available through bookstores, it probes into such diverse topics as bizarre coincidence, unusual rain (frogs, nuts), inexplicable astronomical occurences, UFOs, psychic ability, spontaneous human combustion, miracles, monsters, and evidence for advanced ancient civilizations (including a reference to the Vedic brahmastra weapon). Each section includes only well-documented cases. The official scientific explanation is offered and then placed into doubt.

The following are available from Master Books, Creation Resource, P.O. Box 1606, El Cajon, CA 92022; (800) 999- 3777:

Understanding Genesis, Unit One: Creation: Facts and Bias, video, Ken Ham. This is excellent for preachers. Showing how our assumptions affect what we see, it throws doubt on the supposed authority of science. Some slight sectarian references.

Origins: Creation or Evolution, Richard Bliss. Simple and clear, this is the best general textbook I know of. It contains some slight references to a young Earth. No sectarian religious content.

Origin of Life: Evolution/Creation, Richard Bliss and Gary Parker. This only covers whether or not life could have first arisen spontaneously from matter. Easy to understand. Slightly nods to the idea that life is simply a complex organization of matter. No sectarian religious content.

Understanding Genesis, Unit Four: What’s Wrong With Evolution, video, Gary Parker. Shows that one species cannot evolve into another. Some slight sectarian references.

Back to Genesis: Is Life Just Chemistry?, video, Michael Girouard. Explains why life cannot originate by chance from matter. Deals with Stanley Miller’s experiment and various aspects of initial creation. Some slight sectarian references.

What’s a Child to Read?

Parents often write and ask for advice about reading material for their children. They want to expose their children to as much Krishna consciousness as possible (and limit their exposure to materialism), but run into several practical problems, especially: (1) there is a shortage of good Krishna conscious books for children, and (2) many kids will read almost anything they can get their hands on.

So parents wonder what they can do to see that their children’s reading fosters Krishna consciousness. How can we exercise reasonable guidance without being oppressive? And, perhaps more important, how can we teach children discrimination when they read?

By discrimination I mean looking into something deeply enough to understand how it will influence one’s thinking and life. I mean going beyond the superficial mindset modern society conditions us to—a mindset in which most problems can be solved within the thirty minutes of an average television show, in which buying toys can give one true satisfaction, in which there’s no clear right and wrong, no one knows the Absolute Truth, and where the best we can do is come up with our own reality.

Since most of our children are exposed hundreds of times a day to the full force of corporate marketing and political/social propaganda, gross and subtle, we must teach them how to discriminate beyond the superficial and oversimplified.

The first step toward insuring that your kid reads acceptable books is this: before you give your child a book, read it yourself. Too often I’ve seen parents and teachers turn children loose in the library to select whatever appeals to them, not realizing that many innocent-looking books subvert the values they’re trying to teach them at home or in school.

Here are a few points to consider when evaluating a book:

  1. Theme. Stories are meant to be enjoyable. But most stories also teach something, even though the author may not directly say what it is. The plot, characters, conflicts, and outcome usually support one main idea, often philosophical or moral. This theme is the essence of a book. Parents should ascertain whether or not a book’s theme is compatible with a God-centered, Krishna conscious view of life.
  2. Heroes. Children naturally identify with the heroes or main characters of a story. When you look at a book, ask yourself: will you be satisfied seeing your children grow up emulating the qualities of those characters? You’ll rarely find characters who closely resemble devotees. But at least you can look for those who demonstrate good moral behavior, appreciation for God and His representatives, respect for authority, and so on.
  3. Morality. The best we can expect from many books is that they will teach children to behave morally. Look for books that show a clear sense of right and wrong, ultimately having its roots in the laws of God. Avoid books that push “situation ethics,” where there is no absolute right and wrong and everyone must come up with his or her own standards of morality for every situation.
  4. Good and evil. In the Vedic conception of drama, a work should have a happy ending where good is rewarded and evil punished. This leaves the reader with a sense of satisfaction and a feeling of faith in the purpose of life. Books without happy endings often leave children feeling empty, wondering if there is any order and justice in life.
  5. Wisdom. Does the book show respect for knowledge and wisdom? Does it treat spiritually-minded characters favorably, or as “naive sentimentalists”?
  6. View of God. Does the author present God as impersonal, either directly or indirectly? Does he or she hint that perhaps God is not there—or that if He is, He has no influence on the world’s affairs? Does the book equate service to man with service to God? We need books that do better than that.
  7. View of Religion. What is the author’s attitude toward religion? Writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often portrayed religion unfavorably. They were struggling to expose religious institutions that were rife with corruption and foolishness, and sentimental followers who allowed themselves to be exploited in the name of spirituality.
  8. Humanism. Humanism pervades modern society. It is so much a part of Western education that we may not recognize it, even when it’s blatant.

Roughly, humanism means faith that the intellect of man is sufficient to solve all problems for the individual and society. Man can achieve anything he puts his mind and efforts to. Humanism exalts man’s supposed superiority over nature and the irrelevance of God’s will and influence. It makes man the measure of all things.

If a book pushes humanism, avoid it.

In summary, the main question should be, “What benefit will my child get from reading this book?” Does it emphasize spiritual values or give good moral guidance? Is it well-written literature? Does it offer useful information or ideas? Does it reinforce Krishna conscious principles or values?

Schools should take the evaluation process one step further. As mentioned above, we must teach our children to evaluate books themselves—to look beyond the surface and judge for themselves the value of what they read, hear, and watch.

Prosperity in Perspective

Krishna encourages us to work for a living and, at the same time, to work on solving life’s real problems.

Once, in South India, a reporter asked Srila Prabhupada. “Sir, are you a monist or a dualist?” Sensing his pseudo intellectual tone. Srila Prabhupada responded quickly with reference to Bhagavad-gita. “What is the point of discussing such things? … Krishna says, annad bhavanti bhutani. (Anna) means ‘grains.’ The people have no grains. Grains are produced from the rains, and rains from sacrifice. So perform sacrifice.” The point: Even while pursuing self-realization, we must solve our economic problems.

In Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna encourages Arjuna to fight as a kshatriya (soldier) as part of Lord Krishna’s system of yajna, or sacrifice. Lord Krishna then describes sacrifice as anena prasavishyadhvam, “making one more and more prosperous.” and esha vo’ stv ishta-kama- dhuk, “bestowing upon you everything desirable for living happily and achieving liberation.”

Though dharma, one’s occupation as prescribed in the Vedas, brings prosperity, without spiritual guidance we tend to see economic development alone as life’s goal. As Jesus Christ warns. “What profiteth a man if he gains the whole world but loses his eternal soul?”

The limitations of the happiness we attain by economic, social, or political adjustment become even more clear when we understand the real problems of our life. For example, one Indian friend of mine became preoccupied with immigrating to America. Seeing his chances to be slim, he became distracted from his business. So I asked him to read the verse from Bhagavad-gita in which Lord Krishna says, janma- mrityu-jara-vyadhi-duhkha-doshanudarshanam: “The man in knowledge sees that the real problems in life are birth, death, old age, and disease.” I then asked him to think about these questions: Will living in America make you immune from heart disease and cancer? Don’t Americans also grow old and die? Later in the week he confided to me how silly it was for him to have thought that a geographical adjustment could actually solve his real problems.

But the solutions to those real problems are not so easily discerned. In Bhagavad-gita. Arjuna faces a great dilemma: if he fights to win the kingdom, he must vanquish those loved ones with whom he wishes to enjoy his royalty, but if he renounces the war, he not only forfeits his income but neglects his religious duty as a kshatriya. The depressing prospects give him an important realization: “I can find no means to drive away this grief which is drying up my senses. I will not be able to dispel it even if I win a prosperous, unrivaled kingdom on earth with sovereignty like the demigods in heaven.” In response, Lord Krishna speaks Bhagavad-gita to show that the perplexities of life can be dispelled by transcendental knowledge.

Any one of us, like Arjuna, can be led from perplexity to enlightenment by the guidance of Bhagavad-gita, while those guided only by economic ambitions are led to illusion. The Vedic histories are full of examples of men living under such illusion, and modern life gives us more examples every day. My youth brings two instances to mind.

While visiting my family during my third year at the university. I heard a news report about the industrialist Howard Hughes. America’s wealthiest man. He had mysteriously isolated himself from public view for more than ten years. Fearful of disease, he had confined himself to a small suite of sterile rooms in his mansion, touching the outside world only through his servant, who, dressed in white clothes and surgical gloves, brought Mr. Hughes his carefully cooked meals three times a day. But now Mr. Hughes had died of influenza. Somehow the wry comments of the newscaster revealed that he, too, realized how foolish were Mr. Hughes’s efforts to conquer disease and thwart death.

The other incident took place while I was living at our Hare Krishna center in Dallas, Texas. One day I went with another devotee to the nearby estate of the oil baron H. L. Hunt to offer him our edition of Bhagavad-gita As It Is. But his security arrangements were elaborate, and although our intentions were good, his guards rebuffed us at the gate. Unfortunately, his security men could not rebuff death. He died unexpectedly one week later.

But riches aren’t necessarily evil, for utility alone determines value. For example, a knife can be used as a deadly weapon or as a craftsman’s tool. Similarly, our busy activities may now distract us from spirituality, but Bhagavad-gita teaches us how to channel those same activities so that they help us solve the problems of life. Lord Krishna therefore instructs Arjuna, “Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away. and whatever austerities you perform—do that, O son of Kunti as an offering to Me. In this way you will be freed from bondage to work and its auspicious and inauspicious results.”

Here’s how material resources can assist spiritual development: A blind man can’t see. and a lame man can’t walk. But the blind man can carry the lame man on his back, and together they can see and walk. Similarly, we can best solve the problems of life, both individual and collective, when our material assets are guided by spiritual eyes.

Srila Prabhupada described India as lame, for although she has great spiritual vision, she is economically weak. On the other hand, the more developed countries are blind because although wealthy, they lack guidance and vision. Srila Prabhupada preached, therefore, that the resources of the industrialized countries, used according to the spiritual insights of India, could solve the problems of the world.

He also put this principle into practice. With funds from his Western disciples, Srila Prabhupada organized the printing of more than 100 million copies of Bhagavad-gita As It Is in forty languages and arranged to distribute these books of wisdom all over the world.

Beyond Sexism, Beyond Tokenism

This exchange between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and a reporter took place in Philadelphia during July of 1975.

Reporter: The Krishna consciousness movement has been what some would consider sexist, because certain propensities for women have been defined, by the devotees or the Vedic scriptures—I’m not sure which—and I wondered if you would comment on that. The allegation is not necessarily that the movement is against women, but that it defines inferior roles for them by their natural traits.

Srila Prabhupada: We give equal roles spiritually. Materially, one person is an assistant, another person is a manager. How can you avoid this? Everyone will be a manager, nobody will be an assistant’ Can you achieve equality materially’ Materially one person is a parent, another is a child; one is an assistant, another is a manager; one is a woman, another is a man. How can you stop this? But spiritually they are all equal.

Reporter: So then what is happening materially is unimportant?

Srila Prabhupada: The thing is that when you come to the spiritual platform, when you see the spirit soul within everyone—then that is equality. For instance, you are differently dressed, in a red blouse, and I am differently dressed. This difference must be there. There are so many men and women—and they are differently dressed. You cannot say they are equal with respect to their dress.

But within the dress—as spiritual beings—they are all the same. In Bhagavad gita Lord Krishna says that through spiritual vision, we can see a learned scholar, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and even a dog-eater as equals. And yet materially, how can they be equal?

If I invite a learned scholar and ask him, “Please sit down with this dog,” will he be pleased? He will feel insulted. I may see that within the dog there is a spirit soul and within the learned scholar there is a spirit soul. But if I say, “Oh, you may be a learned scholar and you may think the dog is just a dog, but I see you as equals,” that will be an insult. So the fact is that we cannot disturb the divergent material situation, but at the same time we have to understand what the situation is spiritually.

Artificially, on the platform of the material body, you may make man and woman equal, but actually it is not a fact.

In one place in the Bhagavad-gita, the Supreme Personality of Godhead says that one who has spiritual vision sees everyone as equal. And yet in another place the Supreme Lord says, strishu dushtasu varshneya jayate varna- sankarah: unless you protect women, low-class men will seduce them, and society will be burdened with unwanted children. Just take this “women’s liberation”—it is simply a trick by the men. Now the men can have free prostitutes, that’s all. And once a man makes a woman pregnant, he can go away and let her choose between begging support from the government or killing her child … abortion. You may not like to hear it, but “women’s liberation” means that the men have tricked you. So to make progress toward the end of spiritual realization, we must make some slight material distinction: women must be protected.

If we were actually discriminating against women, then how could it be that in our temple we are enjoying together? We are enjoying because actually we are equal—on the spiritual platform. We do not say, “You are a woman. Oh, you cannot become a devotee.” No. We welcome everyone. We request everyone, “Come to the spiritual platform. Then everything will be nice.” When one is spiritually realized, he knows that spiritually there is no distinction between himself and anyone else—and so he becomes happy. In the material conception, one person is always trying to take another person’s position. But in the spiritual conception there is no more hankering and no more lamentation, because everyone understands that spiritually we are one.

Here at our temple you can see it practically: the boy is dancing, the father is dancing, the black is dancing, the white is dancing, the young are dancing, the old are dancing. You can see it practically. The woman is dancing, the man is dancing—everyone is dancing. They are not dancing artificially, like dogs. They are dancing out of spiritual ecstasy. This is the spiritual platform, the “dancing platform.” They are dancing naturally, spontaneously, because they are realizing God, because they are in relationship with God. They are feeling the ecstasy that “we are all servants of Krishna “

And this is despite any material distinctions. A man’s bodily structure and a woman’s bodily structure are different. How can you say they are equal? If a man and a woman are equal materially, then why doesn’t the man also become pregnant? The distinction is there by nature. Sometimes people think that I am making the distinction, but the distinction is already there. But despite this distinction, when the man and the woman think in connection with Krishna—“I am a spirit soul; my function into serve God”—then they are equal.

Our proposition is that artificially we should not try to make equality. That will be a failure. It is already a failure. For instance, in London I saw a woman police officer. So I was joking with her: “If I capture your hand and snatch you, what will you do? You will simply cry. So what is the use of your being a police officer?” A police officer requires bodily strength. If there is some hooligan, he can give him a slap or catch him; but what will a woman do? So we say, “Be practical.” Artificial equality will not endure.

We are all equal, undoubtedly, because we are all spirit souls. Asmin dehe: within everyone’s material body there is a spirit soul. That we have to understand first of all, and then if we cultivate knowledge and understanding on that platform of spirit soul, then we shall feel equal and there will be no disturbance. Everyone will be peaceful. That is wanted. We are stressing this point—that if you say artificially that we are equal, it will not have any effect. But when you understand that we are equal spiritually, that will be beneficial. That will bring peace and happiness all over the world.

Great Vaishnava Women

An address to members of the International Network of Women and Religion (INWAR) at their headquarters in New York City.

I’ll begin by defining two words: Vaishnava and women. A Vaishnava is a devotee of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, more personally known as Vishnu or Krishna. In India this term is quite common, and there are millions who follow the path of Vaishnavism. Ultimately, Vaishnava refers to the natural state of the soul, since all living beings are constitutionally related to God in a mood of loving devotion.

The second word, although more familiar, is more difficult to define when used with the word Vaishnava. The man/woman dichotomy relates to the body, whereas the “Vaishnava” designation refers to the nature of the soul. In one sense, a Vaishnava is not really a man or a woman, and so reference to “women Vaishnavas” or “male Vaishnavas” is inaccurate.

For the sake of common parlance, however, it is practical—if not downright necessary—to acknowledge the bodily distinctions that exist within the material world. After all, a woman can serve God (i.e., act as a Vaishnava) by having children, for example, whereas a man cannot. So while women and men are spiritually equal, they may serve God in different ways. Worldly differences can thus be acknowledged and should be used in divine service. In this sense, then, we may rightly speak of “women Vaishnavas.”

Women in Vedic Culture

For a clear understanding of Vaishnava women and the activities that led them to greatness, we look to ancient India’s Vedic literature, the spiritual classics upon which Vaishnava dharma rests. In the earliest Vedic texts, we find that the woman was mainly seen as the wife or mother. The emphasis was on her place in the home, and her work was given divine status. Her religious duty was to maintain the spiritual environment of the home and to raise children as devotees of the highest order. This she could do only if her own spiritual practices were strong and if her meditations were profound. Guidelines are given in the scriptures that can assure perfection on this path.

It might be asked why the woman rather than the man was given the service of homemaker. One answer offered by the Vedic texts is that since the child came from her body, she would naturally take very seriously the service of raising the child in God consciousness. She also could not bear to be away from her child—flesh other flesh. The husband had a less difficult time going out—away from the child—and making a living. The wife, in general, felt more comfortable at home. It was natural and pleasing. Both parties, playing their respective roles, served to create a spiritual atmosphere within the household. Especially when they both learned to see their roles as service to Krishna. In this sense, the roles are absolute—the roles they play are equal in that they are merely different ways to serve the Supreme.

The Vedic epic Ramayana explains the social hierarchy that existed within the spiritual home: strinam bharta hi daivatam. That is to say, the husband is the guru for the wife, even as the wife is theory for the child and the spiritual master is the guru for the husband. In other words, in the Vedic household everyone had a spiritual authority, and in this way social sanity was maintained and everyone in the family could progress toward the ultimate goal of life: spiritual realization.

There were, however, exceptions to the traditional roles of men and women, and as we delineate the great Vaishnava women throughout history, we will elucidate upon the ascetic tradition that made clear the spiritual equality between men and women.

It should be noted that the greatest Vaishnava of all time is Srimati Radharani, who is female. She, of course, is also known as a manifestation of the Supreme and so does not really figure into our discussion.

Among the women described in the Vedic literature, the most important for her representation of ideal womanhood is Sitadevi, the wife of Lord Ramacandra. She embodies all of the qualities to be found in the ideal Vedic wife. Although goddesses such as Parvati and Lakshmi-devi, and other heroines from the Vedic literature such as Savitri and Damayanti are also good examples, it is Sita who is particularly remembered as the ideal in conventional Vedic womanhood. Indeed, even today one hears the Indian mother tell her daughter. “Be like Sitadevi.”

Great Women Vaishnavas

Vedic culture gave rise to many great women. In addition to Sitadevi there were the likes of Draupadi, Kunti, and Gandhari. The great women of the Vedic period are often considered prehistorical personalities, many of them gracing the earth more than five thousand years ago. Since that period is now shrouded in antiquity, and since many of the stories surrounding their lives are often confused with mythological tales. I will restrict my discussion to women Vaishnavas within the last five hundred years.


Sachidevi appeared in Bengal in the mid-fifteenth century. Playing the role of the perfect mother and wife, she was glorified as the mother of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and the wife of Jagannatha Mishra. Sri Chaitanya, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, is a combined manifestation of Radha and Krishna.

Sachidevi was the daughter of a well-known Bengali family that migrated from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and settled in Navadvipa. Her father, Nilambara Cakravarti was a very influential man because of his knowledge of astrology and the Vedic scriptures.

After marrying Jagannatha Mishra, Sachidevi went through great austerities as a mother. In fact she lost eight female children during successive pregnancies, and she wept in anticipation of further offspring. Sachidevi’s next child was a boy—Vishvarupa, who survived. Some years later, she gave birth to Sri Chaitanya. But while little Nimai (as Chaitanya was called in His youth) was still an infant Vishvarupa renounced the world and became an ascetic. This brought untold regret to Sachi, for now Vishvarupa would no longer bring joy to the Mishra household. He would now wander the countryside, preaching and visiting temples in service to the Lord.

Jagannatha Mishra did not survive the trauma of Vishvarupa’s renunciation. Sachi, however, managed to carry on, and she resolved to raise little Nimai to the best of her ability.

Because of the purity and intensity of her devotion, her aspirations for her last surviving child would be more than fulfilled. As Nimai grew He developed exceptional features, profound scholarship, and a devotional attitude. His concealed divinity began to blossom, as the scriptures had predicted it would.

But Sachi’s domestic happiness was short-lived, for at the age of twenty-four Sri Chaitanya, too, became a renunciant, following in the footsteps of His brother, Vishvarupa. Despite this final blow to her hope of familial bliss, Sachi’s perseverance as a devotee remained unscathed.

Sri Chaitanya, in fact, had asked for His mother’s permission to lead the life of a renunciant in service to God. Although it was difficult for her, she nonetheless relented, the only stipulation being that He make His headquarters in nearby Jagannatha Puri, so she would regularly hear news of His activities.

Although Sri Chaitanya’s renunciation is remembered as a pivotal event in the history of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Sachidevi’s renunciation is glorified in the annals of Vaishnava history as unbounded. For in allowing the Lord—her son—to live the life of an ascetic, she made the ultimate sacrifice. According to the Lord’s desire, she agreed to worship Him in separation. Sad thus experienced the highest, most esoteric relationship with the Lord, and Vaishnavas throughout the world seek to emulate her uncompromising devotion.


If Sachidevi was the perfect mother, Vishnupriya was the perfect wife. Lakshmi-devi, Sri Chaitanya’s first wife, died prematurely when she was bitten by a snake. Mother Sachi then pleaded with her divine son to remarry. He did, and the bride was Vishnupriya, daughter of the aristocratic Sanatana Mishra, a well-known politician.

When Sri Chaitanya soon left to pursue the life of an ascetic. Vishnupriya made the same commitment and sacrifice as did Sachidevi. Vishnupriya, however, also had to take care of Sachi, who was now becoming old and infirm.

Vishnupriya spent as much time with the name of God as with her beloved mother-in-law, and her reputation soon grew as a prominent ascetic in the Gaudiya Vaishnava line.

It is said that she would set aside one grain of rice each time she would chant the Hare Krishna mantra 108 times. When her utterances of the name were complete for a particular day, she would boil the accumulated rice and take that—and only that—as her daily meal.

As her austerities and exemplary behavior became known within the Vaishnava community, she was glorified for being the model of a chaste wife and also for being an ascetic of the mystical tradition. This made her a leader in the Vaishnava community.


Important women Vaishnavas soon took leading roles in Lord Chaitanya’s movement and even assumed the position of guru. One of the more prominent woman gurus was Jahnavadevi, wife of Nityananda Prabhu. Sri Chaitanya’s intimate associate and plenary expansion.

When Nityananda Prabhu married the two daughters of Sarakhala Suryadasa Pandita, the entire Vaishnava community was overcome with ecstasy, for the two girls were extremely pious and were known as great Vaishnavas. The younger wife, Vasudha, gave birth to two children: a boy, Virabhadra; and a girl, Gangadevi.

The young Vasudha soon passed away, however, and Jahnavadevi resolved to raise her sister’s children. In addition, she adopted a boy named Ramacandra. So Jahnavadevi spent much of her youth taking care of the three children, making sure they became great devotees.

Virabhadra, especially, grew to be a leader in the Vaishnava community, and when he accepted Jahnavadevi (his stepmother) as his guru, many prominent Vaishnavas did so as well.

Much of Jahnavadevi’s fame began as a result of her relationship with Nityananda Prabhu. But her activities soon revealed her greatness, and she was respected as a superlative Vaishnava on her own merit.

Her devotion to the famous Gopinatha Deity of Lord Krishna was so intense that this endeared her to the pious and impious alike. By her example she showed how to perform Deity worship and devote one’s life to spiritual pursuits. She even presided over huge Vaishnava festivals and gave initiation to men and women alike. It was Jahnavadevi, too, who had the insight to keep close contact with the Goswamis of Vrindavana, Lord Chaitanya’s chief followers there. In this way she sought to keep solidarity and unification between the branches of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in Bengal and in Vrindavana (Uttar Pradesh). The cohesive form of Gaudiya Vaishnavism that exists today is largely a result of her efforts.

One other phenomenon in the life of Jahnavadevi is pertinent to our discussion. Devotion to her mission and purpose became so strong that in her own lifetime a deity was made other, and this was to be placed alongside the Gopinatha Deity, who was the object of her veneration. A council was convened in Jaipur to decide the propriety of placing her deity next to Lord Gopinatha. The king of Jaipur and the assembled Vaishnavas decided unanimously that the deity should be established, and it was indeed placed next to Gopinatha within Jahnavadevi’s lifetime. Such a distinguished honor is uncommon among Vaishnava men and women alike.

Hemlata and Gangamata Goswami

In the next generation after Sri Chaitanya and Nityananda Prabhu (1600s or as late as the 1700s), many great female Vaishnavas followed the example of Jahnavadevi, two of the most prominent being Hemlata and Gangamata Goswami.

Not much is known about Hemlata Thakurani. She was the eldest daughter of Srinivasa Acarya and had many disciples, both men and women. She was a mystic of the highest order and developed a profound sense of love for God.

Gangamata Goswami, on the other hand, is written about quite often in the pages of Gaudiya Vaishnava history, especially in the historical records of the Nityananda-vamsha (from which she descends). Her guru was Haridasa Pandita, a disciple of Anantacarya, who was a follower of Jahnavadevi. In this way, her disciplic descent is traced to Nityananda Prabhu.

She was the daughter of King Naresha Narayana of Puntaya, of the Rajsahi district of Bengal. Unlike most great women Vaishnavas, even the mystics, Gangamata never married, and so she was given the title “Goswami” (“controller of the senses”) for her strict celibacy and profound wisdom. She did not take formal sannyasa (the renounced order of life in the Vedic social system), for she felt that the scriptures recommend sannyasa solely for men. But in spirit she adopted this path and so received the title “Goswami.”

The Deity of her heart was Madana Gopala, and she worshiped this form of Krishna with great devotion. In her youth, she studied in Vrindavana, and after many years she moved to Jagannatha Puri, where she lived at the ruins of what was formerly the house of the great scholar Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya. The Bhattacarya had been a prominent disciple of Sri Chaitanya, and although his house was now, almost two hundred years later, merely a run-down facsimile of its former self, Gangamata stayed there for the spiritual inspiration it bestowed.

At that house she found the sacred Damodara-shila (a Deity of Krishna in the form of a stone) once worshiped by Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya himself. She worshiped this Deity with the same intensity with which she had worshiped Madana Gopala in Vrindavana.

Mukundadeva Maharaja, the king of Puri once came to hear her recite Srimad-Bhagavatam, the sacred scripture of the Vaishnavas. He was so taken by her pure recitation and her elaborate explanations that he became her disciple and encouraged much of Puri to do the same. He financed a special temple to be built for her, and she became one of the prominent Vaishnavas of Orissa.


I have given only some preliminary examples of great women Vaishnavas. Nonetheless, we have seen examples of a great Vaishnava mother, a wife, mystics, celibates, and gurus. In short, the Vaishnava tradition has established precedents for women to assert themselves and distinguish themselves as outstanding Vaishnavas, both in traditional roles more commonly ascribed to women and in very independent roles that would perhaps be the envy of men.

Great women Vaishnavas have existed throughout the ages. and they have demonstrated that the qualities of leadership, scholarship, intelligence, wisdom, and devotion are affairs of the heart and mind, irrespective of sex.

Thank you very much. Are there any questions?

Question: I enjoyed the lecture very much. But I feel that feminists in general will be slighted. You’ve described the positive elements in the milieu with which you’re familiar—Vaishnavism, the Hare Krishna religion. But don’t the women of even that tradition feel exploited? Aren’t they still the product of a male-dominated society?

Satyaraja: There may very well be ample justification for the dissatisfaction of the feminists. Perhaps they have indeed been oppressed and exploited by a male-dominated society. Let us not forget, however, that it is a materialistic society in which this takes place. Exploitation is a symptom of selfishness. And selfishness is a symptom of the bodily concept of life. My contention is this: It is this bodily concept of life that is at the heart of materialistic thinking, and it is this rather than male domination that creates the exploitative mentality.

Q:I see.

S:Yes. If one identifies himself or herself as nothing more than a material body, the external self becomes of central interest—more important than the person within. Bodily differences are accentuated. Spiritual unity is overlooked. It would seem that the solution to exploitation—the major problem facing the feminists—is to obliterate materialism, not sexism. Sexist thinking is a symptom of the disease—the disease is materialism!

Q:OK, but the great women Vaishnavas whom you’ve mentioned and, more important, the rank-and-file women who follow Vedic culture—how have they risen beyond exploitation?

S:I’ve explained that already: by rising beyond the bodily concept of life. Men and women will rise beyond exploitation to the degree that they rise beyond the bodily concept and become established in the self—the actual, spiritual self.

Q:But devotees do not live in a vacuum! They may rise beyond the bodily concept, but they are still subjected to the exploitation of those who haven’t attained that level.

S:I see what you’re getting at. It’s actually a very good point On the other hand, a woman who pursues spirituality is protected by her discipline and the strictures of her religious tradition. She can never be exploited—even by members of society still on a lower level—because she never engages in sinful activity. Especially if she’s not engaging in illicit sex—who can exploit her?

Actually, she plays a leading and honored role within the social parameters of her family and community. In short, she avoids exploitation by being thoroughly devoted to God, Krishna, and she thus sees a spiritual equality, not a contrived material one. She knows that she is spiritually equal.

She feels that feminism betrays a narrow understanding of the purpose of existence, that it is predicated on competition between men and women. She knows that the only competition worth pursuing is between a person and his or her own conditioning. She has a role to play in her service to God, and it is this which concerns her—not some petty squabble about bodily differences.

So, in answer to your question, no, women who adhere to Vedic or Vaishnava practice do not feel exploited. To the degree that they are accomplished in Krishna conscious realization, they transcend the ability to be or feel exploited. In fact, they are unable to be exploited, because they give no room for exploitation. You must submit to materialistic life in order to be exploited. And a dedicated devotee will never do that.

Q:But do devotee women have equal positions? I mean, do they ever take service from men?

S:Not if they’re advanced. You see, according to Manu’s Dharma-shastra, there is a hierarchy, and in Vedic culture all members happily followed the system for social sanity. Everyone played his or her role. Everyone had an authority, and everyone was subordinate to someone else. In this way, one learned submission, culminating in submission to God. But the Vaishnava tradition added something special, an underlying and esoteric message of the scriptures: the true devotee wishes to be the servant of the servant of the servant of Krishna.

So, in actuality, you have material culture in reverse. Not “Who is serving me?” but “Who can I serve?” This is the devotees’ motto. So advanced devotees desire to be the menial servant not the master. And in this way they develop humility before God.

Incidentally, just so you don’t think I’m simply skirting the issue with some abstract philosophy. I will tell you that advanced devotees do accept service from novices, and in this way a novice can make advancement on the spiritual path. This holds true for both men and women. Many of the great women I mentioned in my lecture were gurus of both men and women and consequently accepted service. You see. Vaishnavism is not at all sexist Not really. But you must get beyond superficiality. In the ultimate analysis it is not gender but spiritual advancement that is the criterion.

Q:Do you believe that men and women are inherently different? OK. granted men and women are spiritually equal, but you alluded to bodily differences, and this is certainly true. What about more subtle qualities, though? How are we different on the subtle level? For instance, do you give credence to the theory about the right and left sides of the brain?*

S:Why not? I think that the research in this area leaves a great deal to be desired, but the basic premise is reasonable. In the Bhagavad-gita, for example, it is said that speech, memory, intelligence, faithfulness, and patience are feminine qualities. Is this sexist? These are admirable qualities. And this information is being confirmed by research into the right and left sides of the brain. There is scientific evidence that certain subtle functions of the brain are more characteristic of women than of men.

Q:Oh, come on! Men and women are perfectly equal, at least mentally. We have the same potential. Bodily differences I can give you. But subtle, mental differences? That’s going too far. It’s just an old wives’ tale. Or should I say an old men’s tale. [Laughter.]

S:I can appreciate your concern. To acknowledge mental and intellectual differences can lead to exploitation. But don’t misunderstand me. I am saying that our mental and intellectual faculties are equal, but that our mental and intellectual forte may vary from body to body. Just the forte. Just our point of emphasis. This can be and is heavily influenced by the kind of body we have.

I’m not merely giving you some dogmatic rhetoric. These ideas have been substantiated by some of the leading physicists and psychoanalysts in the world. For example, Dr. Georgene Seward, professor emeritus at Columbia University, has written two fascinating books on this subject: Sex and the Social Order and Psychotherapy and Culture Conflict. Have you seen these books?

Q: No.

S:I suggest you research your subject before you discuss it. These books were the landmark scientific publications that proved once and for all that “cerebral asymmetry” definitely exists between men and women. Dr. Seward, by the way, is a woman. So I don’t think you can call this “an old men’s tale.” [Laughter.]

You see, in our search for perfect egalitarianism, we are terribly afraid to admit that there are differences between sexes, or races, or nationalities, or living beings of any group at all. Somehow the possibility that physical or psychological differences of any sort exist strikes fear that this will be equated with superiority or inferiority of certain groups. But the denial that differences exist, whether biological or otherwise, only leads to absurdities. Indeed, it is the denial of our own humanity. We cannot respect differences among people unless we first admit them. This is not sexism or racism—it is merely common sense.


  • Bhakti-ratnakara, Narahari Cakravarti.
  • Chaitanya-bhagavata, Vrindavana dasa Thakura.
  • Chaitanya-caritamrita, Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami.
  • Prema-vilasa, Nityananda dasa.