What is the bhakti perspective on feminism – not the man-bashing extreme feminism, but the equal opportunity for women feminism?
Transcribed by: Raji Nachiappan
Question: What is the bhakti perspective on feminism – not the man-bashing extreme feminism, but the equal opportunity for women feminism?
Answer: Bhakti wisdom is inclusive. It gives everyone an opportunity to grow. We understand that we are souls, every soul is equally a part of God and every soul is dear to God.
In bhakti, God is revealed to be Krishna and the soul that is the dearest to him, we could say is female, his female consort, Radha. She gets the opportunity to be the closest to him. Therefore, without going too much into theological intricacies, let us analyze how does this philosophical principle of the soul’s spiritual equality translate into gender dynamics?
There is not a one standard formula. If we look at the epics themselves, we will see significant difference in the overall character of Ramayana’s Sita and Mahabharatha’s Draupadi. Sita is much more tolerant and sacrificial, a symbol of strength in tolerating adversity. In contrast, Draupadi is much more firebrand. She raises her voice against atrocities, takes a position for dharma even when her husbands and other elders are silent. She does not hesitate to speak her mind. Both women are considered extraordinarily virtuous, despite their radical difference in personalities.
Hence, is there one way in which all women work? Not necessarily. The essential principle in bhakti is that one’s spiritual growth should be harmonious with one’s material nature. Whatever is one’s psychophysical nature, that should be channelled in such a way that at the very least it does not obstruct one’s spiritual growth rather it aids and energizes it.
For example, if someone has lifelong lived close to nature with simplicity and if they are now put in midst of urban complexity, then they might find it very difficult to performing bhakti in an urban setting. Similarly, if somebody has lived lifelong in comforts of urban society and moved to a simple rural setting, then they may also find it very difficult to perform bhakti.
Similar principle applies to when it comes to the role of women in society. The material nature of a woman should be harmonised with the spiritual purpose. Let us see how exactly this can be done?
There are two broad categories:
i. One category is where a woman has grown in a predominantly traditional society (traditional here has neither a positive or a negative connotation) where there are well-defined gender roles. By her upbringing and disposition, if she is best suited to carry on those traditional gender roles, then there is no need to force her to adopt non-traditional gender roles to perform services. Srila Prabhupada also encouraged that those with a traditional upbringing serve in a traditional way.
ii. Other category is where a woman has grown in a more westernized setting. Such women by their upbringing and social culture are trained to be equal to men in every way. Srila Prabhupada was accommodating to such differences. He was even resourceful enough and as a result engaged such ladies in services accordingly. He did not suppress their energy by insisting that they conform to traditional gender roles.
Bhakti principles operate not just according to the individual nature but also according to the social culture. For example, Lord Chaitanya’s followers in Bengal wrote their books in Bengali whereas his followers in Vrindavan like the Gosvamis wrote their literature primarily in Sanskrit because in Vrindavan, not many people would understand Bengali.
For bhakti principles to stay relevant, they have to be applied according to the context. How a soul in a female body will be engaged in a service will be shaped not just by the individual nature but also by social culture. Therefore, if a society is very contemporarily oriented, then for a woman to play traditional gender roles will be almost impossible. Hence, in such situation it will be vital that they be given the opportunity to serve in the society they are presently in. The key thing is to give everyone the opportunity to practice according to the situation they are in.
Can women do all things men can do? It is not so much a matter of whether they can or cannot. There are physical differences and those cannot be denied. We cannot take extreme positions and claim that there are no biological differences. Not just biological, psychological differences are also there. Equality is always an appealing principle, but how equality is translated into reality requires a lot of serious thought. In the name of equality for women, do we want to equalise men and women doing laborious and physically demanding tasks? Not necessarily. Rather than sticking to the literalistic meaning of equality if we focus on the presence of opportunity that is compatible with one’s psychophysical nature then that is most realistic. Within our individual nature and social culture, we can take the initiative to find out how best we can serve Krishna. We can also try to associate with those devotees who understand our need for a particular kind of space and who also provide us that space. Then we can move forward progressively.
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