Women Who Sleep With Their Gurus, a Krishna Conscious Perspective
Jessica Roemischer in the August-October issue of What Is Enlightenment (www.wie.org) writes a fascinating and timely piece titled "Women Who Sleep With Their Gurus . . . and why they love it." (It seems to happen an awful lot doesn't it?) If it is any consolation to us beleaguered devotees in ISKCON who have either learned to live with it or are getting fed up, we aren't the only ones with celibate-caught-with-female-devotee problems--not by a long shot. Jessica's article is fascinating because she interviews ten women who have actually slept with their gurus (each of whom was officially celibate) and she herself had such an encounter with her spiritual teacher, a Zen master from Korea.
"How can women be victims when we want something?" said Mary, my former women's studies professor from college, who had since become a trusted friend and confidante. Infamous for defying prevailing feminist viewpoints, she was the first person I turned to when I decided to write this article on the subject of women who have been sexually involved with their spiritual teachers. And true to form, in her one short rhetorical question, Mary upended entirely the pervasive and unchallenged image of the innocent woman fallen victim to the abuse of authority. "Enlightenment, security, spiritual power, and affirmation," she continued. "I mean, sex is a small price to pay. And whatever the extent of the flirtation or sexual involvement, you enter this relationship of intrigue, and you're the special daughter or the special wife. You experience 'number one life,' as they say in the Asian tradition." It was hard to argue with her logic. Indeed, as I reflected more deeply on my own past with my Korean teacher, I knew she had captured the very essence of my experience.
(Jessica Roemischer. "Women Who Sleep With Their Gurus . . . and why they love it." What Is Enlightenment. August - October 2004. Moksha Press, 2004. Page 88)
Now, this is a refreshing point of view: seeing women as actors who make choices instead of as victims who do not make choices. Second-wave feminism is so defined by the identity of vicitmhood that, until more babyboomers die off, it will probably be dominant for the next 15 to 20 more years. Note that Mary, the feminist professor, is identified as being "infamous for defying prevailing feminist viewpoints." This new point of view, perhaps one that distinguishes third wave feminism from its predecessor, signals a new kind of thinking among western feminists, who grew up with freedoms their mothers couldn't take for granted. Harkening back to Aristophenes' Lysistrata, the Greek women, who decided to take matters into their own hands to end the Peloponnesian War by sex strike to force their husbands to make peace with Sparta, eventually realized that they too were in fact desperate for that which they withheld. What is, in a word, refreshing about this is we see here women who are seeking to understand themselves as women, not as androgynes.
Now, given the many sordid and scandalous details revealed about well-known gurus during the last two decades--Mary's was clearly a novel and controversial perspective, one that refocused attention on the woman's active role in these relationships. "We women do have a strong and unspoken investment in seeing ourselves as victims," I observed, "as unsuspecting agents or innocent players in an unfolding event beyond our control." Mary agreed with me: "And that perspective has, in one form or another, become such a basic tenet of our time and culture, of our postmodern worldview, that we are often unaware of how much it has colored our perceptions at the most fundamental level. But it's time for women to go beyond that. Because if we are really honest with ourselves, in most cases, there's a lot more to the picture!"
(Ibid. Page 88)
It seems that the act of sincere spiritual seeking has to engender the idea that if one can actually seek an existence beyond the body, transcendence or what have you, then the self can rise above his or her body, nature and circumstances and make real choices. Transcendence means choice because at the stage of transcendence one is no longer bound by material constraints. Materialism, its antithesis, necessarily implies bondage, or lack of choice since one's material identity is created and controlled by external forces. (Prakrite kriyamanani gunai karmani sarvashah...) The essence of dharma rests on choice, because without choice there can be no possibility of acting dharmically or adharmically (good and evil).
As one contact lead to another and I interviewed ten women who had been sexually involved with prominent and revered teachers, I discovered that this phenomenon has been more pervasive than I ever imagined. And not only that, it has been the product of age-old motivations and choices that have been surprisingly consistent as women became involved with their Hindu sages, Tibetan lamas, Indian yogis, Asian Zen masters, South American shamans, and the new generation of Western teachers who followed in these traditions. And that's not even to mention the untold numbers of rabbis, priests, ministers and therapists.
Considering the subject in light of my past experience and what these women shared with me, and illuminated by the insights and views of a noted anthropologist, a psychologist, a well-known author, and a feminist who I also consulted, I found myself compelled by a new and liberating perspective on this sensitive issue. "Plenty of exposés of corrupt gurus have already been done," I said to Mary in conclusion, "but what I'm really interested in is why we women almost always say yes."
(Ibid. Page 88 - 89)
Good question! As Jessica pointed out before, it is just too easy to view these scandals according to the western, post-modern Zeitgeist, where all men in positions of power and authority are predators and all women are subordinate and (therefore) victims. Probably the most profound implication of Jessica's insight is that women can and do make choices--important ones--all the time. Once this is realized, then one can act on the platform of dharma. Of course, acting dharmically is no less available for the simple hearted and the uneducated. But for those who are by nature intellectuals, skeptics perhaps, the realization and understanding that one in fact makes choices is the gateway to freedom from the tendencies of one's body and one's circumstances. Choice means dharma, victimhood implies the life of animals, who have no choice but to act according to their nature.
"If your husband's a doctor, then you're special. If you're with Mick Jagger, you're special. If you're sleeping with your Tibetan lama, you're special. It's seen as a status symbol," explained Catherine* over the phone one afternoon. "It gives you status, and it plays into women's sexual identity. Women identify themselves based on who they sleep with!" Having been the consort of a prominent Tibetan lama, Catherine was speaking from firsthand experience. And with this conversation, I entered headlong into a series of disarmingly candid and illuminating dialogues with women who have slept with their spiritual teachers.
"You want to align yourself with a man who has the kind of power you want. And in this case it's dharma power!" said Annie, a student and former lover of one of the most influential Japanese Zen masters to bring the Buddha's teachings, or dharma, to the West. Another woman, Linda, told me: "It was powerful to think that I was intimately involved with the principal disciple of one of the world's great Indian yogis. He was very charismatic and he had exceptional powers that not every human being was manifesting, which confirmed my belief that there was something more in the unseen world that was possible. What attracted me to him was that so many other people were attracted to him, because when others recognize a greatness in the person you're involved with, that affirms you even more. You think, 'Well, this says a lot about me,' whether it does or it doesn't."
(Ibid. Page 89)
This phenomenon of women defining themselves through their relationship with their husband or lover is a natural tendency on which the system of varnasrama-dharma is based. Women assume the caste of their husbands on marriage because doing so is a natural consequence of the conjugal relationship.
Now, woman is supposed to be assistant of man. If woman is faithful wife of the first-class man, then she also becomes first-class. If she is assistant of the second-class man then she is also second-class. If she is assistant of the third-class man, then she is also third-class. Because she is assistant, so, according to her husband, or protector, she becomes first, second, third, fourth."
(Srila Prabhupada. Press Conference. July 9, 1975, Chicago)
We can see from this that the social system of varnashrama-dharma actually utilizes, embraces, the natural behavior of both men and women. If the natural tendency for women is to define themselves by whomever they sleep with, then that society which works with this natural propensity instead of against it will probably encounter less social disturbance than societies that disbelieve in this social arrangement. Another thing we find in this article that is also common to Vedic sociology is the understanding that women desire to have men who are at the top of society: "Generally it is the ambition of a young girl to have a very handsome husband who is learned, clever, young and rich." (Srila Prabhupada. Sri Caitanya-caritamrita, Adi 14.55 purport) "Women love men who are at the top and have for at least four million years, and they continue to everywhere in the world," explained anthropologist and author Dr. Helen Fisher.... "In a study of thirty-seven societies, it's been established that women are attracted to men who have status, power, education, and resources." (WIE. Page 90)
For women on the spiritual path, a relationship with our teacher adds an additional and ultimately compelling element to the long-standing benefits of becoming sexually involved with a powerful and influential man: spiritual capacity that I knew existed," said Leslie, who was in a relationship with a prominent American spiritual teacher. "So I thought, 'Wow, I can have this all together in one package: mentor, lover, father.' I knew he favored women who were attractive, and that boosted whatever image I had about myself. All the attention made me feel special, like Radha--a spiritual goddess. I mean, this teacher had power; he had money. He was charismatic, and if you were the woman at his side, that had to mean something about you as well."
(WIE. Page 90)
Urdhva mulam adah shakham...., the material world is a perverted reflection of the spiritual world. The woman at Krishna's side, of course, is Radha, and aside from Her exalted qualities this fact must also say something important about Her. The fact that the material world is a perverted reflection of the spiritual reality also says something about a woman's status in the material world. Besides looks, women marry for money, power, and, it seems, enlightenment, so since this is a natural proclivity, one not ought to be ashamed about it. After all, we're in the material world, and as long as we are still materially conditioned, we are ksharah, or imperfect and subject to fault. So the Vedic system is that contact between men and women is allowed under certain restrictions. Those restrictions stipulate that it is religious for a woman to unite with a man of equal or higher social status but it is irreligious for a woman to unite with a man beneath her social status.
It appears from this verse that during the time of the Pandavas free contact between man and woman was allowed in certain conditions only. The higher-caste men, namely the brahmanas and ksatriyas, could accept a woman of the vaisya or the sudra community, but a man from the lower castes could not contact a woman of the higher caste. Even a ksatriya could not contact a woman of the brahmana caste. The wife of a brahmana is considered one of the seven mothers (namely one's own mother, the wife of the spiritual master or teacher, the wife of a brahmana, the wife of a king, the cow, the nurse, and the earth). Such contact between man and woman was known as uttama and adhama. Contact of a brahmana with a ksatriya woman is uttama, but the contact of a ksatriya with a brahmana woman is adhama and therefore condemned. A woman approaching a man for contact should never be refused, but at the same time the discretion as above mentioned may also be considered. Bhima was approached by Hidimbi from a community lower than the sudras, and Yayati refused to marry the daughter of Sukracarya because of Sukracarya's being a brahmana. Vyasadeva, a brahmana, was called to beget Pandu and Dhrtarastra. Satyavati belonged to a family of fishermen, but Parasara, a great brahmana, begot in her Vyasadeva. So there are so many examples of contacts with woman, but in all cases the contacts were not abominable nor were the results of such contacts bad. Contact between man and woman is natural, but that also must be carried out under regulative principles so that social consecration may not be disturbed or unwanted worthless population be increased for the unrest of the world.
(Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.14.42 purport)
The WIE article demonstrates that women have a natural preference for men who are of progressively higher status, and the social system of varnashrama-dharma, as nicely shown by Srila Prabhupada, appears to be based on this natural propensity. This suggests that varnashrama-dharma, in spite of all the bad publicity it has received both within and outside of ISKCON, can be more easily accepted and practiced than we are inclined to think. The biggest obstacle to implementing varnashram-dharma among us devotees is probably our own misconceptions of what varnashram-dharma is and what exactly is our own conditioned nature.
In her book Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers critiques some of the overreaching feminist viewpoints that have emerged during the last twenty or thirty years—particularly the view that women are, by and large, victims of male abuse and exploitation. From that perspective, she concurred with Dr. Fisher: "Human psychology is just too complicated to be reduced to a simple power differential: woman equals victim equals oppressed. While it's true that the mentors have power," she said, "women have their own power to attract the mentor. So as much as there's the mentor-student dynamic, there's the male-female dynamic where there's known to be attraction."
(WIE page 91)
This is similar to statements about women Bhishmadeva makes to Maharaja Yuddhisthira, while instructing Maharaja Yuddhisthira from his deathbed. In a purport Srila Prabhupada gives a synopsis of these instructions and remarks as follows (bolding added):
As far as the women class are concerned, they are accepted as a power of inspiration for men. As such, women are more powerful than men. Mighty Julius Caesar was controlled by a Cleopatra. Such powerful women are controlled by shyness. Therefore, shyness is important for women. Once this control valve is loosened, women can create havoc in society by adultery. Adultery means production of unwanted children known as varna-sankara, who disturb the world.
(Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.9.27 purport)
The following testimonies from WIE emphatically make a similar point: women, no matter who the women are, have power over men, no matter who the men are.
...Many of the women I spoke with clearly articulated an awareness of their own sexual power and the ability they knew they had to attract men. "I think we all grow up with strategies that we've learned for feeling safe and secure in the world, and special," said Annie. "If you're born attractive, then you learn to use your femininity as a way of getting what you want. I was reasonably attractive and bright, and I knew from fairly early on that if there was someone who I really wanted to fall in love with me, I could bring it about. I'm very adaptable, and I knew how to match energies with people and adapt to a situation, so it wasn't hard to make my dharma instructor fall in love with me."
"In my case," said Diane, "I have to tell you, there were several teachers, and all of them were different. I think the Buddhist was somewhat innocent, and to some degree, he knew his power. But he was also curious, because somewhere I pushed buttons in him. He wasn't a sexual being, and I helped him out with that. At the same time, he helped me spiritually. So, who do you blame? Of course, what it comes down to can be an abuse of power, absolutely, and it is up to the teacher to draw that line. And while I really do believe it is the teacher's responsibility to act appropriately, I think that as adults we all have a responsibility for our actions. I mean, he's human, too, right? And here's this young, little twenty-four-year-old babe-ette . . . What are you supposed to do? Really?
If we're honest with ourselves, seductiveness is second nature to women, and we begin cultivating our ability to attract surprisingly early in life. Some of my earliest, most vivid memories of attraction and seduction, at age fourteen, resulted in my first kiss—with the twenty-six-year-old handyman who took care of our home, shared my love of music, was physically desirable, and was older and experienced. And while it is true that he approached me, in a timeless moment I can remember like it was yesterday, what I now realize is that for months prior to that, I had been deeply intent on him. I expressed that intent in a myriad of ways—from making sure I bumped into him in whatever corner of the house he was working to sitting at the piano and playing melodies into the stillness of the afternoon, knowing he would hear them. At that young age, and even earlier, I instinctively knew how to pull him toward me, the way a young kitten instinctively knows how to hunt its prey."
(WIE page 91 - 92)
According to Vedic wisdom, sexual attraction is a stumbling block on the path of self-realization. From the above reference it seems that these women, in whatever spiritual path they were pursuing, knew this. Nonetheless, the attraction between man and woman is so great that unless strong measures are taken to reduce the attraction, fall down is likely. Therefore we have that most famous of quotes from the Srimad-Bhagavatam, "One should not allow oneself to sit on the same seat even with one's own mother, sister or daughter, for the senses are so strong that even though one is very advanced in knowledge, he may be attracted by sex." (Prabhuapda. Srimad-Bhagavatam 9.19.17) Being a gentleman does not alter this dynamic between a man and a woman:
Learning the etiquette of how to deal with women does not free one from sexual attraction. As specifically mentioned herewith, such attraction is possible even with one's mother, sister or daughter. Generally, of course, one is not sexually attracted to his mother, sister or daughter, but if one allows himself to sit very close to such a woman, one may be attracted. This is a psychological fact. It may be said that one is liable to be attracted if he is not very advanced in civilized life; however, as specifically mentioned here, vidvamsam api karsati: even if one is highly advanced, materially or spiritually, he may be attracted by lusty desires. The object of attraction may even be one's mother, sister or daughter. Therefore, one should be extremely careful in dealings with women.
(Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 9.19.17 purport)
The heads of the society in which Krishna and Maharaja Yuddhisthira appeared had many, many qualified and intelligent women. Yet we see that their society was not the androgynous utopia modern society claims as the social ideal. With so many intelligent, capable women of that time, you would think that if the ideal is to not discriminate against gender with regard to service (as in occupational duties), that Krishna, Yuddhisthira and others, after conquering the world, would have worked to create a feminist paradise on earth, with near equal numbers of women serving in important all manner of important positions in society. That did not happen; the Mahabharata simply did not have in the name of reestablishing dharma a feminist agenda. Instead we find that,
As we learn from the history of the Mahabharata, or "Greater India," the wives and daughters of the ruling class, the ksatriyas, knew the political game, but we never find that a woman was given the post of chief executive. This is in accordance with the injunctions of Manu-samhita, but unfortunately Manu-samhita is now being insulted, and the Aryans, the members of Vedic society, cannot do anything. Such is the nature of Kali-yuga.
(Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.4.5 purport)
So, we have a paradox before us: Many, many intelligent women lived in Krishna's society, yet those women, by mandate, seemingly occupied humble social roles. Is that not discrimination? Is that not unfair to the women even of that time in history? Why in the name of religion they should be denied equal opportunity to serve Krishna as per their desires? Aren't women also spirit souls--particularly Vaishnavis (Vaishnava women), who have realized their spiritual identity? If we presume that the leaders of society during Krishna's time were learned gentleman who knew all the principles and intricacies of dharma, then we have to rule out that the exclusion of women from certain occupations and professions was inherently and materially sexist and bigoted. Neither Krishna nor his associates were sexists. So, here are some reasons for the choice of those leaders to cultivate a society which, by all modern standards, would be considered backwards due to its gender discrimination:
- Worldly duties and occupations, particularly the those duties prescribed by varnashrama-dharma, and spiritual life can be pursued side-by-side. The implications of this are that one can be in the lowest, most humble social position yet can simultaneously be a topmost devotee of Krishna. Haridas Thakura (born from a Muslim family) and Kabir (a cobbler) and were all recognized by society in India to this day as great devotees of Krishna, yet they remained within their social position (or even as social outcasts). On account of his being born in a Muslim family, Haridas Thakura could not enter the Jagannatha Temple in Puri to have darshan of Lord Jagannatha. Nonetheless, he was accepted by the Lord Himself, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, as being the acharya of chanting the Lord's Holy Names. The implications of this are that one can worship and develop one's pure love for the Lord irregardless of social or occupational status. As we have seen in the lives of these great saints, it is only the love that is considered by Krishna, not social or occupational position. (Sometimes, of course, material and spiritual life come into conflict with one another, but most people in general can do their worldly duties and simultaneously become self-realized by chanting Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.)
- Yukta-vairagya, using a material thing in Krishna's service, was as valid then as it is now. However, not all things are as easily dovetailed in Krishna's service as are other things. For example, television can be used in Krishna's service, yet we find that many devotees who keep televisions tend to spend more time watching mundane programs than they spend time on quality hearing and chanting of Krishna's names or in reading sacred literature. Although we are Vaishnavas, the vast majority of us tend to be mixed Vaishnavas, not pure Vaishnavas. As our devotion to Krishna is still tainted by material desires and less-than-spiritual aspirations, there are plenty of things which reasonably can be used in Krishna's service but because of our own material conditioning should not be used. Thus, for the sake of elevating a society wherein most of the people were at best mixed Vaishnavas, there are some restrictions on what one can and cannot do. Some of those restrictions happen to limit the social and occupational roles of women. Although it is a fact that women in societies that implemented varnashram-dharma were for the most part limited to the domestic sphere, that limitation was chosen over the possibility of a society in which men and women have considerable latitude for intermingling.
So these regulative principles are there. So what is, what is the big plan behind these regulative principles? The big plan is: here is the attraction, pumsah striya mithuni-bhavam-to cut down this attraction between male and female. This is the big plan. Otherwise there is no need of the varnasrama.
(Srila Prabhupada. Lecture, Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.5.8, Vrindavan Oct 30, 1976. [bolding added])
Apparently, in Krishna's society, minimizing sex life was considered even more important than equal-opportunity-employment. This is Vedic civilization. Veda means knowledge, and so those things which put us in ignorance are counter productive to realizing the ideals of a Vedic civilization, namely the revival of our forgotten relationship with Krishna.
Great Vaishnavis like Kunti and Draupadi were unquestionably self-realized souls, so how do we explain their apparent restrictions to a subordinate and domestic social position? The reason they did this is because in any civilization, one must look out for others. Indeed, the symptom of a civilized person is that he or she considers others more important than one's self. So acting in ways which encourage others to do things which are not good for them is against the principles of Vedic civilization because of leading others to engage in ignorant behavior, or behavior that implicates one in ignorance. Not long ago my wife, one older woman who comes to our preaching center and I were travelling from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Denver, Colorado, for Janmastami. I was sitting in the back seat, the older woman was driving and my wife was sitting in front of me in the front passenger seat. The sun visor for the front passenger seat had a mirror in it, and my wife was looking back at me through the mirror, wiggling her fingers and giving me one of these "I-can-see-you" grins. I grinned back, but the woman with us who was driving noticed and openly lamented that she did not have some man in her life with which she can share cute smiles and side-long glances. So even we are self-realized or act religiously all the time, it is also important to act in such a way as to not incite lust in others. As we can see, even innocuous flirtation between a husband and wife in public can produce lust in others. The general behavior of people in modern society suggests that people are to a spiritually unhealthy degree interested in themselves more than others.
Finally, how do we explain the presence of women like Gangamata Goswamini in societies that implemented varnashrama dharma? Gangamata Goswamini at an early age accepted diksa from Haridas Pandita and lived for many years in Vrindavan as a renunciate practicing madhukara, or going from house-to-house begging only for as much as one needs and not more. Later when she went to Puri, she gave discourses on the Srimad-Bhagavatam that were so famous that people from far away would come to hear her speak. She also had many disciples in high social positions, like Maharaja Mukundadeva, the King of Puri. Why can't our Vaishnavis follow Gangamata Goswamini's example and become gurus and acharyas just like her? Why can't ISKCON be full of Gangamata Goswaminis liberating conditioned souls all over the world? If we would just give them the chance and change attitudes and enact laws in ISKCON that are "woman friendly," we might see an unprecedented spiritual renaisance the likes of which the world has never seen, right? We need to remember that Gangamata Goswamini was respected in a society that strictly followed varnashram-dharma, wherein women in general were relegated to the domestic sphere. The varnashram-society of East India at that time could give that respect to Gangamata Goswamini because factual spiritual knowledge was to some degree widely intact. She was recognized as a transcendentalist and not required by society to follow the ordinary course of life prescribed for women because she was steady in her renunciation and service to guru and Krishna. She did not require family maintenance, nor social security checks, nor did she require food, saris and ashram from institutional largesse. In all circumstances she practically depended on Krishna and remained steady in her determination, and therefore she could be identified as a liberated transcendentalist fixed in devotion and thus not required to follow the ordinary course of life prescribed for women by varnashrama society. This can be understood from the point of view of an ordinary woman who might try to imitate her. Let us say our imitator accepted a spiritual master, vows and a way of life similar to that of Gangamata Goswamini. After some days, or weeks or possibly months, our imitator would become dissatisfied with the life of madhukara and find for herself a more comfortable situation. If we need maintenance, even on the plea that ISKCON the institution owes it to us, then we had better implement and uphold the principles of varnashrama-dharma in our own lives--for our sake and for other's sake. (This is true both for men and women.) Gangamata Goswamini, on the other hand, was recognized and honored as an uncommonly advanced sadhu (sadhvi) and excused from following the prescribed life for women because not only did she demonstrate a high level of renunciation, but she was also steady in her renunciation: mam ca yo 'vyabhicarena bhakti yogena sevate, sa gunan samatityetan brahma bhuyaya kalpate, "One who performs devotional service, unfailing in all circumstances, at once transcends the modes of material nature and comes to the level of brahman." (Bhagavad-gita As It Is 14.26) The varnashram society she appeared in could honor her because that society also had this spiritual knowledge.
The article, "Women Who Sleep With Their Gurus" in What Is Enlightenment magazine has a major shortcoming: namely that the authoress did not consult any theological authorities on this topic,
Considering the subject in light of my past experience and what these women shared with me, and illuminated by the insights and views of a noted anthropologist, a psychologist, a well-known author, and a feminist who I also consulted, I found myself compelled by a new and liberating perspective on this sensitive and confusing issue.
(WIE page 89)
She mentions Hindu sages, Tibetan lamas, Indian yogis, Asian Zen masters and South American shamans as having been involved in so many sordid trysts with young, female disciples, but never does she get their point of view. Perhaps it is because they are not women. But if there is a spiritual dimension to us, something that factually transcends the body, then why cannot men--particularly those who are spiritually advanced--also have a perspective that is correct and illuminates the original question she posed (why do women almost always say "yes")? Nor were holy books such as the Bhagavad-gita, the Bible, the Lotus Sutras or any other scripture consulted as to why this happens. At the end of her article Jennifer Roemischer discusses the feminist perspective, and her exploration of what could possibly alter the power differential between guru and (female) disciple ultimately centered on being more aware of the choice to also say "no" to a tryst with a spiritual teacher. There was also considerable discussion about more women taking up the mantle of guru and changing the power differential between men and women and, thus, the results of such encounters.
Choice seems to be the hallmark of third-wave feminism that distinguishes it from the implied victimhood of second-wave feminism, and it is the recognition of this choice that is hailed as a great gain for women. I agree that this characteristic of third-wave feminism is an improvement in the knowledge and consciousness of women who subscribe to the feminist ethos because without choice, there is no question of acting on the platform of dharma. However, feminism (whatever its wave) is still a material ideology, and because it is material, it lacks any criteria by which to adjudicate dharmic or adharmic action. From the vantage point of third-wave feminism, saying "yes" to a sexual relationship with one's guru could be just as good, enlightening and spiritually fulfilling as saying "no". Nonetheless, it is the "choice-consciousness" of third-wave feminism that makes for Western women who are more open to dharma and all it entails than were those who subscribed to older, more radical forms of feminism which affirmed their chronic victimhood.
Merve Kavakci, a former parliamentarian in Turkey who was ejected from Turkey's parliament for wearing the hijab (headscarf), has a refreshing view on choice that concurs with third-wave-feminism's "choice-ism":
Regrettably, Western feminists also fuel the common misunderstanding of Muslim women's motivations for wearing headscarves., Western feminists also fuel the common misunderstanding of Muslim women's motivations for wearing headscarves. In late 2003, several dozen prominent Frenchwomen, including philosopher Elisabeth Badinter and writer Catherine Millet, sent an open letter to French President Jacquest Chirac, arguing that "the Islamic veil sends us all—Muslim and non-Muslim—back to a discrimination against women that is intolerable." These thinkers link headscarves with suffering and conclude that they impede the personal growth and social development of women.
But such feminists make tow significant mistakes. First, they fail to understand that, in some Muslim societies, gender inequalities have much less to do with the religious requirements of Islam than with old cultural traditions. If headscarves were inherently linked to female suffering, then women probably would have experienced particular hardships in the earliest days if Islam, during the life of the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century. Yet Muslim women of the time were prominent professional members of society. They experienced neither the brutality that Afghani women endured under the Taliban nor the repression that Saudi women still endure. Over time, though, equality deteriorated in the most of the Muslim world and women were coerced into more traditional household roles.
Second, Western feminist critics of the headscarf overlook its important religious value. The two other Abrahamic religious also originally mandated female covering. (Today, some Christian and Jewish women still opt to wear the headscarf.) Mainstream Islamic tradition considers the headscarf an obligation for Muslim women because it conceals their physical allure. By covering themselves, Muslim women can be recognized not only for their religious beliefs but for their contributions to society as well; they can be judged for their intellect and not just their appearance.
Certainly, some Muslim women today are forced to cover themselves against their will. However, it is incorrect to claim that every woman that does so is necessarily coerced and oppressed. Muslim women everywhere must refute this all-too-prevalent Western misconception. For women who choose it, the headscarf is an indispensable part of their personal identity, one that should not be compromised. If Western feminists and other critics want to advance women's rights, they are better off honoring a woman's right to choose rather than trying to impose their prejudices on Muslims.
(Merve Kavakci. "Headscarf Heresy. For one Muslim woman, the headscarf is a matter of choice and dignity." Foreign Policy May / June 2004. Page 67)
What does this all mean for us in ISKCON? If we're over fifty (or under fifty and still believe small doses of Gloria Steinem could help ISKCON) and think that things like arranged marriages or Vaishnavis covering their heads will be unwelcome by the men and women we preach to or has nothing to do with Krishna consciousness, then we're behind the times. Third-wave feminism is all about choice, so if we want to make the culture that comes with Krishna consciousness relevant to the younger women (and men) in today's world (including those who aren't Western by culture), then we have to present our social customs as a choice, along with sound reasons to back up those choices. As men and women find themselves more and more oppressed by secularism and come to the unambiguous conclusion that the happiness promised by sociologists, psychologists and other doyens of secular society are simply false promises, they will find what we have to offer a more refreshing, colorful, rational and truly spiritual alternative to the secular culture they grew up in. As devotees, we need to study more carefully varnashrama-dharma and the customs that have in part or fully evolved from it in order to understand how following varnashram-dharma is a rational choice for those who are serious about getting out of material existence and, hence, develop their full love for Krishna with minimal disturbance from the material energy.