What is the role of women in Srila Prabhupada’s preaching mission?

It may  not be known to everybody that initially Srila Prabhupada wanted to follow the classical Vedic system which doesn’t permit women to live directly in the temple. It is understood that women can practice Krsna consciousness while being sheltered by their family members and their husbands in their homes, having the temple as their place of worship.

That didn’t work for Srila Prabhupada in context with the western “culture”. The girls coming and serving and joining in increasing numbers had no home to go to when they began to practice Krsna consciousness. And so Srila Prabhupada did something which earned Him criticism even from his godbrothers. He allowed girls to come and reside in the temple, He personally got them married, and He invented the word “brahmacarini” for those who were not married yet.

Further, He did something which was never done before: he put women directly in the preaching field. And what an asset they turned out to be!

Especially in the female oriented western society, the voice of a woman is often heard as much as that of a man. Srila Prabhupada’s “women” did indeed have something to say.

When I joined this movement in 1972, everybody was engaged in book distribution. Consequently any girl who joined ended up with books on the street as well. The yatra I joined consisted only of brahmacarinis and brahmacaris. The only grhasta in the temple was the president and GBC who was considered entirely transcendental:-) His wife was an amazing cook and very strict leader of the new bhaktins. (Yes, women can be leaders…for women!:-)

During her presence in the yatra the matajis were actually far better trained than the brahmacaris. They were great cooks and great book distributors. After her departure a vacuum was created and a question was raised that along the new GBC who will take care of this modest army of travelling sankirtan girls.

The finger ended up being pointed at me. Due to my at that time dormant varna propensities I, as the sankirtan leader, was unaware what I was getting into when I once met a confused mataji standing in front of a shopping window during another raging distribution marathon, and staring into. I passed by, swinging my half empty book bag, laughing and shouting “Haribol!”

She woke up as if she had been in coma and turned red and disappeared around the corner with her books. Few minutes later I found her again standing on the same corner, staring at the floor, obviously in need to talk to me.(Amazing how women know how to look while not looking and how to speak without speaking:-)

I stopped and she asked me if it would be possible for her and her party to join us for the morning lecture. I wasn’t sure if this was possible, but seeing her condition and the pile of books in her hand, I agreed.

A revolution followed. The rest of my sankirtan party, who met me in the evening in the van, was outraged when I informed them that the next morning we may have some guests in our hotel room “just for the lecture”. We were a crew of passionate brahmacaris all between twenty and twenty five years old, who thought that soon due to our fierce book distribution we may well end up taking sannyasa and joining the Rasa- lila! Their comment was:”But then there will be these long hairs everywhere in the room!” As if hotel rooms were free of hairs.

And so the next morning quietly and perfectly on time a crew of four matajis entered our room, sat down in the corner and listened. They exited as quietly as they came. The rest of the week went smoothly; we were prosecuted by the German police as usual, and reached our quotas of books being distributed as usual.

On Sunday, while packing the car in the temple, in preparation for the coming week, I was called into the temple president’s office. He said:”I heard that you met the matajis last week”. I replied instantly that the incident had been “accidental”, fearing my brahmacarya image to be damaged.

“That’s O.K., that’s O.K,” said the temple president.”Sit down”.

“Listen”, he continued, “we have debts”,(somehow the “debt mantra” followed me through all the years I went on sankirtan)

“And we have four sankirtan parties with matajis who are quite in maya. As a matter of fact they hardly distributed anything. So why don’t you take these four vans next week? They can simply follow you. Give some lectures, tell them where to distribute…and that’s all.”

I was alarmed.”But what about the rest of my party? I already had a revolution in the van just because of one single lecture!”

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it” was the answer. I was allowed to take one brahmacari with me as a “body guard” and then I was asked to leave.

I selected the most fanatical one I could find, a very special devotee who was so antagonistic to women that he didn’t allow them to even come close to him. (Well, he got married later on too:-)

And so I looked at the back mirror of my van on Monday morning and I saw four other vans pulling out of the parking lot of the temple, following my car. I was already aware that at least regarding on one point management will be easier: the matajis were far cleaner in their habits than the brahmacaris, having their vans spotlessly washed and prepared. After a short lecture we went out, following a distribution schedule which started at 9 A.M. and ended at 7 P.M. That wasn’t anything unusual those days.

The result came almost instantly. I had to quickly speed up with my distribution to not end up being embarrassed by this little brahmacarini army. One can make a simple calculation how many books were distributed a week just from these five vans as each devotee distributed a minimum of 400 books each. That’s eighteen devotees total times four hundred!

What I saw, from a distance, couldn’t ever be copied by any man. These girls were so intense in their distribution that no man could oppose them. Regardless of their size they ended up being submerged in the crowd of people, only to surface to hit their “targets”.

One of their smiles instantly dissolved the false ego of any macho-man. Just to illustrate this: I saw a small mataji suddenly stopping a rather fat German man who just exited his Mercedes car. It’s exactly these kind of men who were never approached by me as I expected them to hiss the traditional “get lost” curse in my direction. But being caught completely by surprise this man stopped, turned red in his face and stared at our little heroin. I couldn’t hear what she was saying and so I came closer. Confused the man finally pulled out his purse and looked for some money. Holding his purse open, our sankirtan lady did something I thought devotees never did: she simply took the purse out of his hand and while smiling she started to pull the bank notes out.”Look!” she smiled.”Here is the brown one and here is the green one!”

The man stood there hypnotized, simply watching his money disappear. Finally the empty purse was returned to him with an even bigger smile. For his tolerance he was rewarded with a big pile of books which was pushed into his hands. As if he was waking up from a dream, he regained his consciousness and tried to finally voice his last protest:”But at least I need some money for petrol, I have to tank my car!”The mataji smiled again and patted him gently on his big German beer belly.

“Walking is healthy” she said and left. The man smiled in agreement, put the books in his car and walked away mildly shaking his head. My only thought was:”I could never do that!”

That weekend four vans full of entirely ecstatic matajis returned to the temple. They found themselves jumping sky high in the roaring kirtan in a rather non-orthodox way. My faith was set by providence. The temple president only had one comment for me: “One week more”.

And so “one week” became a regular one month a year for many years to follow. I tried to point out mildly that I have no plans to leave my brahmacarya vows, sharing my worries with the local GBC who was ready to support my sankirtan service any time.

I told him:”I feel like an illustration of the story where a donkey is controlled by its master who sits on him and holds a carrot being tied to a string on front of his mouth. In this way the donkey, thinking to reach the carrot, keeps on walking. I told him:”travelling with these brahmacarinis makes me feel like that carrot. (We both knew by that time that women work best in the presence of a man). His answer was simple:”It’s all right, just make sure that the carrot doesn’t get eaten”.

I never stopped wondering how I, the brahmacari who actually had a scandal free record, got himself into this situation. Years later I could understand more and more that all this was far from being accidental. After fifteen years I came to see that it was better that I operate in the managerial and preaching field from a more safe position, the position of a grhasta.

I preached with my wife, sent to me by her spiritual master, intensely for fourteen years and I never came to regret that. She was indeed a good preaching friend. The combination of a married couple preaching together is a very powerful one as most of the bhakti candidates of today are coming from an already established grhasta type of situation.

But I never lost my deepest respect for any brahmacari or brahmacarini who gave whatever they could to Srila Prabhupada’s mission. I saw these girls crying in despair when maya tested them and I saw them being drowned in ecstasy. After all, Lord Caitanya is distributing His mercy indiscriminately and equally. Even years later, meeting some of these heroines who, as  married women carried their offspring around, when asked none of them denied that those days were the best days of their lives.

The fact that on some occasions they were later turned into “collection machines” in the process of ambitiously establishing temples and projects which they hardly ever took part in, was a regretful development which today fortunately is rarely observed. Today, nobody can be convinced that anything outside of distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books, His prasadam and the Holy Name can be called “sankirtan”.

There is a difference between sankirtan and money collection “sankirtan”. Much of the funds these girls collected with dubious paraphernalia was not properly used. I believe that since they served their authorities with faith and devotion, Krsna blessed them nevertheless. But I also believe that it was due to the fact that the leaders who continued with these absurdities in Srila Prabhupada’s absence despite all the warnings issued from Him not to contaminate pure book distribution with money making schemes, using all kinds of criminal methods and all kinds of variety of useless paraphernalia to extract the maximum money from conditioned had to accept their reactions. I believe that their conscious denial of Srila Prabhupada’s warnings contributed to their fall down.

And so even more today any mataji contributing to Srila Prabhupada’s mission by distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books or living exemplary lives of chaste wives, or both, are respect-commanding examples of how living in female body can be brought to perfection. Some of these chaste matajis who tolerate the shortcomings of their devotee husbands and stick to their vows are known to me and I can only offer to them my respectful obeisances.

May they be followed by other women who seek progress in Krsna consciousness. There is far more to be said on this point.

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