For some time now I have been following a hot topic of public discourse in Israel—Hadarat Nashim, or the exclusion of women from the public sphere. Ultra-Orthodox Jews regard a man’s sexual attraction to a woman as a threat, while many of the secular appear to welcome the attraction as a drug that gives them vitality.
Srila Prabhupada often used the word lust when referring to sexual attraction. The more lust increases in a society, the Vedic literature tells us, the more its members will be attached to the body and its needs. Their selfishness will increase and gradually degrade them to the mode of ignorance, the root of many forms of injustice in modern society, including those in the religious sphere.
The fire of sexual passion may cause a person to cease to follow the path of religion and lose his or her faith in God. On account of this, it would seem that ultra-Orthodox considerations to exclude women from the public sphere have a rational basis. Women are an obstacle for the ultra-Orthodox man who wishes to calmly study religious teachings.
Women in Traditional Indian (Vedic) Culture
Srila Prabhupada traveled to the West in the sixties to teach Westerners the principles of bhakti, devotional service to God, as a way to return to the original principles of religion, develop love for God, and transcend the miseries of material existence. He also wanted to establish a culture that supports the bhakti path.
In traditional Indian culture, a modest woman faithful to her husband and family is an invaluable asset, not only to her own family but also to society as a whole. This tradition respects women, but also guards them from excessive exposure in the public sphere so they don’t attract the attention of men and distract their minds, intentionally or unintentionally. It also protects women from irresponsible men who might try to tempt them to give up their modesty and loyalty to their husbands and family and become objects to fulfill men’s selfish, materialistic needs.
When Srila Prabhupada left the traditional culture of India and traveled to the West, he saw that modern western society does not protect women as the Indian tradition does. He understood that in the modern situation, the solution is not the exclusion of women in the public sphere, but their inclusion while properly connected to spiritual culture and loyal to their husbands and families. That will make them satisfied within themselves and chaste and maternal toward men in general.
You Are Not the Body
Srila Prabhupada knew that religion must connect one to pure love of God. Otherwise, no religion can withstand the current of modern life and its products, including insatiable lust, neediness, and addictions. These reduce the human spirit, making it more and more materialistic.
The practice of bhakti-yoga begins with understanding the difference between oneself and one’s body and bodily designations based on race, sex, nationality, and so on. “You are not the body” is its starting point.
Anyone who correctly pursues the spiritual path and develops love for God gradually ceases to evaluate people based on their external body. A man will not see women as women but as souls, and a woman will not see men as men but as souls. In this way they decrease the tension between the sexes and its implications for society.
Without this release from bodily designations, religion is nothing but disguised materialism, which cannot truly liberate one from the shackles of lust. People under material illusion identify with the body and define themselves and others in that way—as Jews or Muslims, male or female, and so on—and are attracted or averse to others according to their material body. They cannot see the spiritual essence in everyone and every soul’s connection to God, a connection that transcends material designations and identifications.
Without seeing others as spiritual beings, it is not possible to curb lust. In a culture that denies the symptoms of lust, a person not free from identifying with an external designation will reveal his or her lust in a different way. He or she will be like someone who gives up smoking but does not treat the need for smoking and begins eating obsessively.
Lust and Loathing
The attempt of the ultra-Orthodox to protect themselves from lust by keeping a safe distance between men and women is not wrong, and should even be appreciated, as long as it does not become radical. I believe that what caused the public protest in Israel was not the exclusion of women per se, but the disgust and the verbal and physical violence that some ultra-Orthodox men have expressed towards women. According to the news, ultra-Orthodox men in the city of Beit Shemesh spit on an eight-year-old girl, insulted her, and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.
Extreme behavior such as violence towards the different, loathing of women, hatred for others, intolerance, and so on, are symptoms of something unresolved in one’s personality. The public expects a religious practitioner who seriously and properly follows the religious path to develop the qualities of a saintly person, a sadhu: “The symptoms of a sadhu are that he is tolerant, merciful, and friendly to all living entities. He has no enemies, he is peaceful, he abides by the scriptures, and all his characteristics are sublime. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.25.21)
A spiritually developed person does not despise others, but knows how to forgive, feel compassion, and provide spiritual inspiration. Such conduct from religious practitioners towards immodesty in the public sphere would certainly receive much appreciation among the more enlightened secular sector, and would uplift the entire public.
The Remedy for Lust
The ultimate solution to the problem of lust is a real connection with God. Only by devoting oneself to the satisfaction of the Lord can one be completely satisfied in oneself. This is a basic principle of bhakti-yoga. In such consciousness, we become free from a possessive mentality in which we want to use others for our selfish needs.
One who practices bhakti-yoga does not wish to enjoy or control others to satisfy his or her ego, but, as a loving servant of God, treats everyone—women or men, Jew or Arab, animal or plant—as creations of God and understands that satisfying God includes helping everyone come closer to God. Only in such consciousness can one eventually overcome the material false ego, the source and cause of lust. Collectively, this consciousness creates a healthier society, free from sexual obsessions.
A practitioner following the path of bhakti-yoga does not consider himself or herself free from lust, but is aware of the possibility of temporary weakness on the path to perfection, the path to complete freedom from lust. That’s why, outside of their service to God, men will be careful not to associate closely with women and women will be careful not to associate closely with men. Only by service to God is the practitioner of bhakti-yoga protected by God from lust, the number one enemy of spiritual life.
God’s Creation Is Perfect
Nothing in creation is essentially negative, nor should it be loathed. Everything comes from God and is therefore essentially positive. If treated properly, anything can produce great benefits.
Immodesty is not a reason for loathing, but for proper conduct. For a person sincerely striving to attain God, meeting with immodesty can serve as an indication of one’s heart and an encouragement for deeper spiritual practice and compassion for the immodest.
Sexual desire is within the heart; for a man, a woman is but an external indication of it. A man obsessed with lust might find even a female doll or silhouette provocative.
Unless one addresses the roots of lust in the heart, one’s religious or spiritual practice will be ineffective. Instead of pointing a blaming finger at women (or at seculars, or at non-Jews), maybe it’s time to raise questions about the nature of a religious practice that creates a public so given to lust, disgust, hatred, racism, and intolerance.
A society endowed with true wisdom knows how to employ women’s tremendous energy not only to bear children, but also, in full spiritual equality with men, to spiritually elevate the world while simultaneously safeguarding men from melting in the fire of lust.
—By Gunavatara Dasa
Gunavatara Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, has been publishing books and teaching Krishna consciousness in Israel since the late 1970s. He is married to Varshabhanavi Devi Dasi and contributes articles in Hebrew to www.yogaoflove.org.