How do we understand Srila Prabhupada’s statements on rape?
Recently a quote of Srila Prabhupada on rape went viral. How do we understand this statement?
Statement by Anuttam Prabhu, ISKCON Communication Director:
Recent media coverage has brought the world’s attention to the horrors of abuse and rape of women. The film “India’s Daughter” tells the story of the terrible rape and murder of a woman in New Delhi in 2012, and demonstrates the urgent need for increased activism against criminals—and perhaps cultures—that perpetrate, promote, or foment such crimes. ISKCON strongly condemns any violence against women and advocates that care and protection for women is one of the essential qualities of a civilized society.
In the effort to address social sources of the abuse of women and the misogyny that sometimes accompanies it, a few have selectively quoted from the writings and conversations of Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), the founder-acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), to suggest that his teachings lead to the exploitation of women. A quote regarding rape has been widely circulated the last few days and will be addressed below. First some facts:
1. Srila Prabhupada, who spread the Vaishnava tradition, or monotheistic devotional Vedic (Hindu) teachings, to the west in 1965, was noted for providing full facilities and opportunities for women within his organization. In India—against the social norm of the day—Srila Prabhupada regularly arranged for women to be the primary speakers and leaders of kirtan/chanting sessions at large ISKCON sponsored public events.
2. Unlike the standards of many orthodox Hindu traditions, Srila Prabhupada formally initiated women into the Krishna movement and accorded them with the same rights and privileges as men. He often remarked that in his movement, women “are as good as their brothers”.
3. In ISKCON in Prabhupada’s time and today—unlike many Hindu, and even Christian, Muslim and other religious communities—women perform the full functions of priests, pujaris, temple presidents, and also sit on ISKCON’s highest ecclesiastical body, its Governing Body Commission. For example, women serve as Community Presidents at ISKCON’s Washington, D.C. community, and at Alachua, Florida, the largest ISKCON community in North America.
4. Direct testimonies of women disciples of Srila Prabhupada who personally interacted with him consistently document his concern, respect, and grandfatherly care of his female followers.
Regarding Srila Prabhupada’s recently circulated quotes on rape, it should be understood that Srila Prabhupada was born in Calcutta, India in 1896 and raised in Victorian India. His use of the English language was founded in that era, and the words he uses and the meaning of those words should be seen in that context.
His statement that women “like to be raped,” is questionable, if not horrific, using today’s connotation of rape, that is, forced sexual intercourse against one’s will and often at
knifepoint or gunpoint. However, the word rape in the context of Prabhupada’s 19th Century English has a much different meaning. According to the Chambers English Dictionary, rape had several different connotations in the past.
“Rape rap, (noun) rapine, plunder, seizure (obsolete); unlawful sexual intercourse (by force) with another person without that person’s consent; violation, despoliation,— verb transitive to seize and carry off (obsolete); to commit rape upon; to ravish or transport, as with delight (obsolete); to violate, despoil. (adjective) ra’ping tearing prey (heraldry); ravishing, delighting (obsolete).”
Of relevance within this definition is the historical, or “obsolete” meaning to “ravish or transport, as with delight,” or “ravishing, delighting.” With this understanding, Prabhupada’s comments make more sense.
Any casual viewer of modern movies or novels sees such a psychology played out in story after love story, where women are portrayed as delighting in men’s attention, and seeking to be swept off their feet, in their paramours’ ravishing embrace.
This is far from the misperception of thinking that Srila Prabhupada meant that women wish to be raped in the current violent connotation of rape. In fact, Prabhupada taught that civilized communities protect and provide for women as an essential test of decency and morality.
Just one of many examples of the need for men to not abuse women is given in his book “Dharma—The Way of Transcendence” where he writes: “Indeed, human life is meant for self-control. The more you control yourself, the more perfect a human being you become, and the more you allow your senses to run loose, the more of an animal you are.”
Dr. Thomas J. Hopkins, Professor of Religious Studies (Emeritus) at Franklin and Marshall College wrote about Srila Prabhupada: “He was a genuine holy person with enormous integrity and compassion, and he had a powerful impact on those who met him. He never claimed authority and respect for himself; what he said and did was always in the name of Krishna [God].”
Understanding the historical facts of how Srila Prabhupada respected and cared for women, his use of language in the proper context, and the appreciation he drew from scholars who studied his life and work, helps us to understand the reality of this saintly person’s nature and intentions.
Statement by Vishaka Devi, author of many books on Vedic wisdom:
While my husband remained in Los Angeles editing a documentary film, as a photographer I was part of Prabhupada’s personal entourage when he traveled in America during the summers of 1974 and 1975. Prabhupada’s Bhaktivedanta Book Trust paid for my airline tickets, my camera, my film, and arranged for all my accommodations and meals.
From the moment I’d met Srila Prabhupada, all I’d experienced—and continued to experience while traveling with him—was his encouragement. He evoked in me a spirit of voluntary, enthusiastic service. He generated an atmosphere of fresh challenge, and I enthusiastically agreed to rise and meet it. He drew out my spontaneous loving spirit of sacrificing my energy for God, Krishna. He appreciated my efforts. He wanted me to be all I could be for Krishna. I never sensed a smidgen of male chauvinism or misogyny, superiority or self-righteousness, hubris or haughtiness in him. Neither a whiff of desire to exploit, oppress or repress women or anyone else.
Regarding the recent concerns over Srila Prabhupada’s statements on rape, I recall my god sister telling me, “During a brief stay over in Delhi, my husband was Prabhupada’s secretary and I was his cook. We were on a rooftop where Prabhupada, while getting a massage, was reading mail that had accumulated during our travels. I was preparing lunch in a corner of the roof. Prabhupada, holding a letter in his hand, called me over and with tears in his eyes told me that Saradiya had been raped by five men (this was in Trinidad where she had gone with her husband to open a center). Srila Prabhupada was visibly distressed over this unfortunate incident.” Hardly the reaction of someone who views women as inferior or thinks that they like to be raped.
Let no one be under the misimpression that Srila Prabhupada in any way condoned rape in any form. This idea is thoroughly and completely mistaken.
Statement by HH Jayadvaita Maharaj:
Now, the question on the table is not whether SP *condones* rape. Nowhere does he say he does. By modern community standards, his sexual standards are conservative or ultra-conservative: “No sex outside of marriage.” “See every woman but your wife as being like your mother.” No “boyfriend and girlfriend.” No dating. “Women should always be protected.”
So what *is* the question? It seems to be the rather narrow issue of whether women “sometimes” (SP’s word) enjoy rape.
Okay, no one is willing to argue that women enjoy being mugged and beaten and raped. But do women sometimes enjoy protesting “No, no!” and having a man insist, “Yes! Yes!”?
A generally understood answer is “yes.” The open question is: When is “no” a genuine refusal, and when is it a come-on, a part of the game?
That is not a settled question. Even psychologists, sociologists, and courts of law sometimes have a hard time drawing a clear line.
That aside, when SP refers to the clever lawyer who got his client acquitted by arguing that the woman enjoyed pleasure, is SP saying that women should be fair game — open targets for rape — because they “want it”? Hardly.
And, clinically speaking, that women sometimes feel sexual pleasure during rape is well established. Even when they feel utterly disgusted by the experience, they sometimes feel sexual arousal and even orgasm:
According to the clinical literature, instances of this are likely to be underreported. And the victim may feel conflicted, confused, and even guilty because she simultaneously hated the experience yet felt sexually
stimulated and aroused.
So Srila Prabhupada’s lay psychological observation that women during rape “sometimes enjoy pleasure” seems reasonably consistent with modern psychological understanding — or at least not terribly far off.
So then again: What’s the point that so upsets us?
From Srila Prabhupada’s perspective, even the ordinary, socially approved instances of sexual intercourse that go on regularly on all but the most conservative college campuses constitute a form of reprehensible exploitation of young women.
So when reading the “notorious” purport, the casting of SP in a stereotypical “anti-woman” role seems hasty and unwarranted. Our understanding would benefit from a more thoughtful, better-contextualized reading.