“Although rape is not legally allowed, it is a fact that a woman likes a man who is very expert at rape.” – A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami; Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.25.41, purport
Since the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012, much of India has been in an uproar over the “Delhi gang rape” and over sexual violence against women in general. During that same time ISKCON pundits have weighed in on the causes of rape and sexual assault, in nearly all cases by regurgitating the same old predictable, inane rhetoric – something, something, lust…something, something degraded material society…something, something Bollywood. More recently, sexual violence in India has even breached the cult bubble and affected victims within ISKCON itself, causing waves of outrage in addition to the regular pontification.
(For the record, sexual abuse has long been part of ISKCON. But perhaps it’s only recently that anyone wearing a dhoti has gotten publicly upset about it.)
In all this online clamor I have yet to see any of the followers of “Srila Prabhupada” present the so-called founder-acarya’s own views on rape. I wonder why? It’s certainly not because those views are obscure. The above quote from one of Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam purports is well known. If you stick around ISKCON long enough, you’re bound to be exposed to it.
Of course, ISKCON apologists are duty bound to deny how clearly reprehensible it is, and so they attempt to explain it away by saying that in this instance Prabhupada’s use of the word “rape” is meant to employ not the primary definition but rather a secondary, archaic definition. In the words of one defender of the faith, Prabhupada employed a definition “little used, or even considered obsolete.” Devotees of this ilk contend that what Prabhupada really meant to say was that women like to be seduced by aggressive men, “manly” men, and that when Prabhupada says “rape” he really means something like “romantic aggression.” It’s a convenient (though still not benign) interpretation, particularly if you want to defend the notion Prabhupada was perfect and completely transcendental.
But, aside from being convenient, this interpretation is illogical.
The first half of the offending sentence – “Although rape is not legally allowed…” – should be enough to make that clear. Seduction is not illegal. Sexual assault is.
Moreover, cross-referencing Prabhupada’s books and recorded statements tells us he used the word “rape” a total of thirty-two times. Setting aside the three times it’s used in the purport in question, that leaves twenty-nine. In every single one of those twenty-nine instances he used the word to mean precisely what you and I think of whenever we hear it: sexual assault. What are the chances that in this one instance he employed the “little used…obsolete” definition?
If for some reason you’re still not convinced, Prabhupada has provided us with his very own, very concise definition of the word: “Rape means without consent, sex.”
Let’s see his definition in context.
“Yes, that is law always. Rape means without consent, sex. Otherwise there is no rape. There was a rape case in Calcutta, and the lawyer was very intelligent. He some way or other made the woman admit, ‘Yes, I felt happiness.’ So he was released. ‘Here is consent.’ And that’s a fact. Because after all, sex – rape or no rape – they will feel some pleasure. So the lawyer by hook and crook made the woman agree, ‘Yes, I felt some pleasure.’ ‘Now, there is consent.’ So he was released. After all, it is an itching sensation. So either by force or by willingly, if there is itching, everyone feels relieved itching it. That’s a psychology. It is not that the women do not like rape. They like sometimes. They willingly. That is the psychology. Outwardly they show some displeasure, but inwardly they do not. This is the psychology.” – Morning walk, 11 May 1975, Perth
It’s indisputable. Prabhupada said women enjoy being raped. They find it pleasurable. They may protest, they may say No – they may fight for their lives – but they really like it.
“It is not that the women do not like rape. They like sometimes. They willingly. That is the psychology. Outwardly they show some displeasure, but inwardly they do not.”
And though the particular Bhagavatam purport at the start of this post tends to get the most attention, it’s not the only purport in which Prabhupada expresses the same sentiment. In the purport to the very next verse there’s this:
“When a husbandless woman is attacked by an aggressive man, she takes his action to be mercy.” – SB 4.25.42, purport
And in the next chapter we find this:
“Generally when a woman is attacked by a man – whether her husband or some other man – she enjoys the attack, being too lusty.” – SB 4.26.26, purport
(Remember, Prabhupada was also of the opinion that “the sexual appetite of a woman is nine times greater than that of a man.”)
Whenever quotes like these enter the public forum without being qualified or explained away but are instead left to be interpreted in the most literal, most obvious way, devotees will insist they’ve been “taken out of context.” This is another lazy defense of things clearly indefensible. (For one thing, what sort of context could possibly redeem statements like these?) To devotees, “in context” generally means presenting the entire paragraph or chapter or book or lecture or conversation that contains whatever offensive statement is being singled out. Like producing the haystack with the needle, it seems the hope is that in combing through the “context” we might be sufficiently distracted from what we’d objected to in the first place. Whatever the intention, the only “context” acceptable to followers of Prabhupada is whatever absolves him completely, of even the most obvious guilt. Real context is not at all their concern. As we’ve so far seen in this case, context only makes things worse.
In the interest of providing context, here are a few more things to consider.
In 1972, at the time this volume of Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam was published, marital rape was not considered a crime practically anywhere in the world. In fact, spousal rape was not outlawed in all fifty US states until 1993. And in England and Wales there existed a legal exemption for marital rape until that exemption was abolished in 1991. Sadly, spousal rape is still not considered a crime in many parts of the world, including the one place perhaps most relevant to this discussion: India.
I hope the pertinence of these facts is self-evident. If not, here’s more context.
On the strength of Prabhupada’s personal statements, his married male disciples have at times considered it permissible, even necessary, to use violence against their wives.
“Pet, like that. Dhol gunar sudra pasu and nari. Nari means woman. (laughs) Just see. He has classified the nari amongst these class, dhol, gunar, sudra, pasu, nari. Ihe sab sasan ke adhikari. Sasan ke adhikari means all these are subjected for punishment.” – Room conversation, 12 April 1969, New York
“So sasan ke adhikari means they should be punished. (laughs) Punished means, just like dhol [drum], when the, I mean to say, sound is not very hard, dag-dag, if you beat it on the border, then it comes to be nice tune. Similarly, pasu, animals, if you request ‘My dear dog, please do not go there.’ Hut! (laughter) ‘No, my dear dog. Hut!’ This is the way. Similarly, woman. If you become lenient, then she will be troublesome. So in India still, in villages, whenever there is some quarrel between husband wife, the husband beats and she is tamed.” – Room conversation, 12 April 1969, New York
Considering this, and considering again that during Prabhupada’s time it was not criminal for a husband to rape his wife, it’s only reasonable to doubt the harmlessness of Prabhupada’s statements about rape. Is it really any less reasonable to wonder if Prabhupada’s male disciples and grand-disciples have at any time taken their guru’s statements as license to force themselves on their wives (or even on other women)?
ISKCON devotees will insist that their founder was impeccably moral, that he repeatedly preached against “illicit sex,” and that he regarded all sex as illicit save sexual intercourse for “producing Krishna conscious children.” How, they wonder, could someone possibly misconstrue what should otherwise be perfectly clear?
Here’s some more context.
“At one time there was a devotee who came to Mayapur and then in Mayapur that devotee went to some local society girl over there, and the news spread among the devotee community and then they told Prabhupada. And then Prabhupada called the devotee and Prabhupada asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ He said, ‘I couldn’t control myself. I was too much tormented by lust.’ And Prabhupada said, ‘But you are married! Why did you have to go to a prostitute!?’ He said, ‘No Prabhupada, my wife wanted to follow the principle of no illicit sex so she refused and I didn’t want to force her.’”
Chaitanya Charan offers no source for this anecdote. Like so many un-documented stories that circulate about Prabhupada, there’s not much hope of knowing for sure whether or not this one is apocryphal. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume it’s true. It is after all within the realm of possibility, even plausibility; Prabhupada often referred to marriage in his society as a “license for sense gratification.” And though the publicized standard for an ISKCON marriage is to “engage in sex only for the purpose of procreation,” it should be obvious to anyone connected to reality that this standard is not met in all cases (perhaps not even in most cases). In this case Prabhupada is suggesting that his disciple not follow that standard. And he is doing so in spite of the desires of the man’s wife. Though he doesn’t explicitly instruct the husband to force his wife to have sex against her will, the implication is there, given the context.
Once again, isn’t it reasonable to imagine Prabhupada would allow his married male disciples to follow a cultural standard apparently so ingrained in Indian life that even quite recently India’s minister of Home Affairs has declined to take steps to criminalize marital rape, citing “the mindset of [Indian] society”? Though ISKCON devotees are loathe to admit it, their “Srila Prabhupada” was indisputably a product of his time and culture.
And his culture considered – and still considers – marital rape as being less than criminal.
But let’s speak more generally. When “Prabhupada was present” misogyny was on a global scale far more widespread, being in many cases and in many places socially acceptable. Prabhupada’s views on women were at that time not at all the exception to this general rule, despite his followers’ insistence he was in every way exceptional. Though ISKCON devotees refuse to see Prabhupada as a misogynist, they do so despite an outrageous number of misogynistic statements in his books and in his recorded statements (to say nothing of the example of his own life).
How did Prabhupada feel about women? The following is only a sample of what he had to say on the subject:
“As children are very prone to be misled, women are similarly very prone to degradation. Therefore, both children and women require protection by the elder members of the family. By being engaged in various religious practices, women will not be misled into adultery. According to Chanakya Pandit, women are generally not very intelligent and therefore not trustworthy.” – BG 1.40, purport
“Now, in the Manu-samhita it is clearly stated that a woman should not be given freedom. That does not mean that women are to be kept as slaves, but they are like children. The demons have now neglected such injunctions, and they think that women should be given as much freedom as men.” – BG 16.7, purport
“To understand Brahman is not the business of tiny brain. Alpha-medhasam. There are two Sanskrit words, alpa-medhasa and su-medhasa. Alpa-medhasa means having little brain substance. Physiologically, within the brain there are brain substance. It is found that the brain substance in man is found up to 64 ounce. They are very highly intellectual persons. And in woman the brain substance is not found more than 34 ounce. You’ll find, therefore, that there is no very great scientist, mathematician, philosopher, among women. You’ll never find because their brain substance cannot go. Artificially do not try to become equal with men. That is not allowed in the Vedic sastra. Na striyam svatantratam arhati. That is called sastra. You have to understand that woman is never given to be independence.” – Lecture on BG 16.7, 3 February 1975, Hawaii
“One American woman, was…She was speaking that ‘In India the woman are treated as slave. We don’t want.’ So I told her that it is better to become slave of one person than to slave of become hundreds. (laughter) The woman must become a slave. So instead of becoming slaves of so many persons, it is better to remain satisfied, a slave of one person…And our Vedic civilization says, nari-rupam pati-vratam: ‘The woman is beautiful when she remains as a slave to the husband.’ That is the beauty, not the personal beauty. How much she has learned to remain as a slave to the husband, that is Vedic civilization.” – Morning walk, 19 March 1976, Mayapur
Prabhupada: So far gurukula is concerned, that also, I have given program. They have given the name of “girls.” We are not going to do that.
Tamala Krishna: What is that?
Prabhupada: Girls. Boys and girls. That is dangerous.
Tamala Krishna: Gurukula.
Prabhupada: In that article.
Tamala Krishna: Oh, oh, oh.
Prabhupada: Girls should be completely separated from the very beginning. They are very dangerous.
Tamala Krishna: So we’re… I thought there were girls in Vrindavana now. They said that they’re going to have the girls’ gurukula behind the boys’ gurukula. Gopala was talking about that.
Prabhupada: No, no, no. No girls.
Tamala Krishna: It should be in another city or somewhere else.
Prabhupada: Yes. They should be taught how to sweep, how to stitch…
Tamala Krishna: Clean.
Prabhupada: …clean, cook, to be faithful to the husband.
Tamala Krishna: They don’t require a big school.
Prabhupada: No, no. That is mistake. They should be taught how to become obedient to the husband. – Morning conversation, 29 April 1977, Bombay
“People have become so degraded in this age that on the one hand they restrict polygamy and on the other hand they hunt for women in so many ways. Many business concerns publicly advertise that topless girls are available in this club or in that shop. Thus women have become instruments of sense enjoyment in modern society. The Vedas enjoin, however, that if a man has the propensity to enjoy more than one wife — as is sometimes the propensity for men in the higher social order, such as the brahmanas, kshatriyas and vaisyas, and even sometimes the sudras — he is allowed to marry more than one wife. Marriage means taking complete charge of a woman and living peacefully without debauchery. At the present moment, however, debauchery is unrestricted. Nonetheless, society makes a law that one should not marry more than one wife. This is typical of a demoniac society.” – SB 4.26.6, purport
“And it is recommended they should be married at very early age, then the wife will remain always chaste and devoted to her husband. At such young age, from the first night onwards, she can never for a moment forget him, being still child and unspoiled, therefore she becomes the perfect chaste wife, and in those times the wife was so much devoted to her husband that she would voluntarily die in the fire of his cremation, unable to live without him. Myself, I was very young when I got married, and my wife was 11 years only.” – Letter to Mr. Loy, 7 November 1972, Vrindavan
“Yes. That is psychological. They develop…Sex life, sex urge is there as soon as twelve years, thirteen years old, especially women. So therefore early marriage was sanctioned in India. Early marriage. Boy fifteen years, sixteen years, and girl twelve years. Not twelve years, ten years. I was married, my wife was eleven years. I was 22 years. She did not know what is sex, eleven years’ girl. Because Indian girls, they have no such opportunity of mixing with others. But after the first menstruation, the husband is ready. This is the system, Indian system.” – Room conversation, 15 August 1971, London
So, to summarize, in Prabhupada’s opinion women are “less intelligent,” owing in part to their anatomically inferior “brain substance.” They are “not trustworthy” and “should not be given freedom,” for a woman “is beautiful when she remains as a slave to the husband.” To that end, the education of women is a “mistake.” Instead they “should be taught to sweep, how to stitch, clean, cook, [and] be faithful to the husband.” The husband, meanwhile, can have as many wives as he likes, and those wives should be married to him at “ten years” or older, because “after the first menstruation, the husband is ready.”
By and large, present day defenders of ISKCON would prefer not to acknowledge their founder ever said (or did) any of these things. (Some devotees even insist Prabhupada was a sort of feminist – in the case of one devotee, the greatest feminist.)
As with all blemishes on the ISKCON body, the tendency in the society is to deny Prabhupada has anything to do with those blemishes – despite the constant declaration that Prabhupada himself said, “ISKCON is my body” – meanwhile insisting things like misogyny and child abuse are safely in the distant past.
Though there are far more safeguards in place in ISKCON now than there were in Prabhupada’s time, child abuse still rears its ugly head within the society from time to time. Misogyny, at least, is alive and well.
Some members of ISKCON are perfectly comfortable with their guru’s hatred of women, while others even celebrate it. Some of Prabhupada’s followers, on the strength of Prabhupada’s instructions and personal example, even publicly advocate for polygamy and child marriage. More “mainstream” ISKCON members will probably tell you that these other devotees are outliers. Maybe so, but then their founder too is on the fringe. In truth, ISKCON itself is an organization with deep-seated hatred for women. How else can you explain that the leaders of ISKCON have been arguing, unsuccessfully, for years over whether or not those devotees who happen to have a vagina instead of a penis could possibly be spiritually advanced enough to become gurus? Or that a significant number of the society’s members – leaders and rank-and-file alike – behave as if the world might end if it ever became commonplace to refer to female devotees as “prabhu,” master?
Meanwhile, in the real world outside of ISKCON’s alternate universe, public figures who express clearly offensive and illogical ideas about women and rape face real consequences. In 2013, an Israeli court judge, Nissim Yeshaya, resigned amidst outrage over his statement that some girls “enjoy being raped.” And in 2012, two political hopefuls trying to win seats in the US Senate had their campaigns obliterated with acts of verbal self-sabotage that consisted of separate but equally idiotic comments about rape. Todd Akin opined that victims of “legitimate rape” very rarely become pregnant, claiming that “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” And Richard Mourdock inadvertently made god himself a rapist when he said, “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.”
Fortunately for women everywhere, Mourdock is not ISKCON’s founder-acarya. Unfortunately for Mourdock – and Akin and Yeshaya for that matter – he is not ISKCON’s founder-acarya. If he were, he would be worshiped “as good as God” and lauded as the savior of the world, despite his reprehensible rhetoric. (Nonetheless, it’s still doubtful he could win an election in America.)
To know even a fraction of what “Srila Prabhupada” said about women and yet to maintain he’s a saint is, to be charitable, a bit of a paradox. The willingness to do so is easy enough to understand, though the capacity to do it is often baffling.