Connecting The Dots: Patriarchy Across Cultures

by Tapati
  

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Hare Krishna temple in St. Louis, 1975. Tapati is in the center front row in a blue print sari.

When a friend referred me to the blog “No Longer Quivering,” she knew why I would resonate with the posts I found there. Like me, she had once belonged to the Hare Krishna Movement, though years after my own involvement. We immediately saw many parallels between the lives of Christian women following the Quiverfull teachings. Vyckie and Laura described their past lives in ways that sounded like many of the young Hare Krishna women of the seventies that I knew. I had the same “aha” moment as I’d had when I read Carolyn Jessop’s book Escape about the FLDS women in Colorado City, Arizona.

It seemed to me then that the mechanisms that control women easily transcend the surface differences in beliefs and culture. Anywhere you find a rigidly controlled social and religious system, you see women in modest dress behaving in a subservient manner and spending the bulk of their time rearing children with limited access to money of their own. You also fail to see women in roles of authority within the church or temple structure. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the real goal of any such organization is in fact the control of women in order to elevate the men to unparalleled authority and power.

 
 Tapati pregnant L

There I am, pregnant with my first child at age 19, wearing the all-purpose sari.

Like fundamentalist Christian women who follow the Quiverfull ideas, we Hare Krishna women were isolated from those who didn’t share our beliefs. The sole exception to our isolation was engaging in preaching activities: chanting and dancing on the street with the congregation, selling books (if we were single), or talking to visitors at the Sunday feast programs. In all of these activities we were not so much talking with outsiders (whom we referred to as “karmis” or those under the laws of karma) as talking at them. Our children were sent to religious boarding schools called gurukulas so they wouldn’t be influenced by karmi society.

The Hare Krishna movement is an offshoot of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a Hindu sect in India who worship God as Krishna. Our founder was trying to train us to be the Brahmins (priest caste) of the West. We followed stringent rules for conduct and mode of dress. For women, this meant wearing saris, covering our hair and going down to our ankles. We never looked men in the eyes and addressed them only when absolutely necessary. Husbands were seen as guru, or teacher, and had complete authority over us. Unlike QF/P women, we were not expected to have lots of children although we didn’t use birth control. We were expected to be celibate within marriage unless we were trying to conceive. Like QF/P women, we were aspiring to an ideal of womanhood laid out in scriptures from another time and place.

Men were informed that the highest standard for them was complete celibacy so as not to be distracted from their devotion to God. If they could not keep to this standard, they could then marry. Marriage was referred to as being “the dark well of householder life.” This was often referenced in morning classes given by men who had taken a lifelong vow of celibacy.

You might imagine, then, that any man who married was suddenly demoted a huge step in the social pecking order! His wife was a visible symbol of his fallen status, unable to control his desire for a sexual outlet. Children branded him yet again as fallen, even if the celibate men secretly envied him. In the social hierarchy, married men ranked only just above women and children. Most of the men in high positions were celibate males, with a few notable exceptions. To gain back some respect, married men often behaved publicly as if they were not at all attached to their wives and children.

These tensions often led to verbal abuse and domestic violence. My own marriage was both verbally and physically abusive, especially after I got pregnant with our first child. At this early point in the movement, there was no procedure for appealing for protection from violence. We were in a stage of idealizing the movement and each other, and in our minds everything was perfect and beautiful. If we were suffering we tried to put on a happy face and represent Krishna and our spiritual leader as best we could. We saw this as our duty, much as the QF/P women of today do.

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During a brief separation from my husband, I am truly happy to celebrate my son Lakshmana’s first birthday.

Some interpreted various passages of our scriptures as supporting physical discipline of wives by their husbands. We heard that there were three things you could beat: a mrdanga (drum), a dog, and your wife. Quotes from scripture were often used to justify the status and abuse of women. In Bhagavad Gita As It Is¹, Chapter 9, Verse 32, Krishna states: “O son of Pritha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birth–women, vaisyas, as well as sudras–can approach the supreme destination”. Elsewhere in a commentary on another verse Bhaktivedanta writes:

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. Children are not given freedom, but that does not mean that they are kept as slaves…a woman should be given protection at every stage of life.These kinds of statements resulted in women not being taken seriously as the intelligent adults they were, but treated more like children. The one time I tried to speak up about my abuse, I was told that I should be “more surrendered” to my husband and not disagree with him anymore.

It is my hope that women in other restrictive, fundamentalist traditions will begin to see the connections and question the beliefs that constrict their lives. I am glad to have left my abusive first marriage and my life in the Hare Krishna Movement. I’ve never regretted my decision to leave, and neither have my children.

 1. Prabhupada, A. C. Bhaktivendanta Swami 1972 Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. New York: Collier Books
 
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 In May of this year I visited my daughter and new granddaughter, Zaman.


Tapati McDaniels is a freelance writer who started a forum designed to meet the needs of former Hare Krishna devotees at http://www.gaudiya-repercussions.com/ . She is working on a memoir and her personal blog can be found at http://tapati.livejournal.com/ .

 
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