“’Dear child, You live long just to protect us.’ While they were blessing child Krishna in this way, they offered a mixture of turmeric powder with oil, yogurt, milk and water. They not only sprinkled this mixture on the body of child Krishna but on all other persons who were present there.” (Women of Vrindavana celebrating Krishna’s birth, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 5)
Piety is exhibited in a variety of ways; there is no singular behavior that exclusively indicates the high level of understanding a person possesses. Knowledge of the Absolute Truth is difficult to take in and understand; hence those who are able to grasp this highest wisdom are deemed intelligent and worthy of returning to the eternal spiritual kingdom in the afterlife. It is the basic Vedic tenet that one’s consciousness at the time of death determines the circumstances of their next life. Indeed, this is a basic law of spiritual science, the discipline that focuses on the inner workings of the driving force of matter, spirit. The soul remains forever alive, but due to the different outer coverings it assumes, we tend to think in terms of life and death. When one is in full knowledge of the differences between body and soul, the individual’s relationship to the Supreme Absolute Truth – the ever-existing, incomprehensibly powerful Supreme Lord – they become eligible for emancipation, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. While acquiring knowledge pertaining to spiritual matters is certainly helpful, it is more beneficial to actually live one’s life based off the tenets of spirituality. In this way, even those who are not outwardly recognized as teachers, preachers, and religious men, can still prove to be the greatest exponents of the sublime engagement of devotional service, the religion of love. No one group better exhibits the effectiveness of teaching-by-action than do the Vaishnava women, the single-most praiseworthy collection of individuals to have ever roamed this earth.
Why make the distinction between men and women? Moreover, what is so special about a Vaishnava? The Vedas are the ancient truths of life, spiritual and material, that emanate from India. While their collective teachings are commonly known as the Hindu faith, the truths found within are not sectarian in the least bit. Rather, “Veda” is simply a Sanskrit word for knowledge. Since the human being is meant to inquire about the Absolute Truth – that higher authority who is beyond duality and free from the influences of time and space – the term “Veda” naturally refers to spirituality, or more accurately, sanatana-dharma. One’s occupational duty, the activities they are naturally inclined to perform based off their essential characteristic, is their dharma. “Sanatana” is a word that means “without beginning and without end”. Therefore, spirituality, those activities which seek to connect individual spirit with Supreme Spirit, is our inherent and ever-existing duty.
The Absolute Truth is a singular entity who kindly expands Himself into many non-different forms for the benefit of the individual souls. Each non-different form allows for the worship of God in a mood specific to the adherent’s taste. Of all the different divine forms, the original is known by the name of Krishna. He is described as such because of His all-attractive nature. While Krishna is exquisitely beautiful and the provider of sublime sweetness, His immediate expansion of Lord Vishnu is generally more opulent and thus suited for those who prefer to worship God with a reverential attitude. Is there any other way to worship God? Contrary to the image of a fearful, aged, or angry God, the Supreme Lord is meant to be the supreme pleasure giver to those seeking pleasure, the individual life forms roaming in this and innumerable other universes. Since Vishnu and Krishna are the same entity, devotees of either personality are referred to as Vaishnavas. There will always be minor squabbles and debates as to which personality is superior and original, but at the end of the day, such talk is merely an indication of the great affection felt towards the individual’s specific divine object of worship.
Since the Vedas represent the supreme system of knowledge, the prescriptions they provide for societal maintenance are aimed at helping the individual souls remain committed to their dharma. Not all the prescriptions apply to every single person, for there are varying levels of intelligence and different desires based on the type of body assumed, one’s age, and the specific time period of creation they inhabit. There are generally different dharmas, or specific rule sets, for men and women. It is not that there is any difference in the spiritual makeup of either gender, but rather, there are different qualities inherent to the body types. The men are deemed to be stronger, and thus the enjoyers, while the women are deemed to be more suited towards caretaking, raising families, and beautifying external objects. Women are taken to be the enjoyed. Again, there are always exceptions to these natural inclinations, but the Vedic prescriptions are aimed at providing the most streamlined set of rules and regulations that allow for a peaceful coexistence between both genders.
“Actually, the cultivation of knowledge or renunciation, which are favorable for achieving a footing in Krishna consciousness, may be accepted in the beginning, but ultimately they may also come to be rejected, for devotional service is dependent on nothing other than the sentiment or desire for such service.” (Shrila Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 14)
The men are deemed to be generally more advanced in knowledge-acquiring capabilities. It is certainly understandable that some would take offense to such a statement, but there are certain caveats that must be noted. For starters, this generalization applies simply to empirical knowledge, and not to devotion to God or the purification of one’s consciousness. While it is certainly nice to acquire a higher level of intelligence, it doesn’t necessarily equate to advancement in spiritual life. Enhanced knowledge of material affairs can often divert one’s attention towards building bombs, investigating areas of material science that only further increase the necessity demands put on the gross body, and developing theories which deny the existence of God. In this way, one’s increased knowledge actually hurts them in the end. In fact, the nadir of material existence, the last snare of maya’s influence, is when man thinks that He is God, for this is the root cause behind the conditioned living entity’s fall down to the material world and their subsequent repetition of birth and death.
Due to the differences between men and women, there are different dharmas, or occupational duties prescribed. One’s ultimate dharma, or natural characteristic, never changes. The soul is the same regardless of the particular life form, so this means that one’s natural loving propensity always remains. The subordinate dharmas, the specific prescribed regulations pertaining to material life, are put into place so as to allow the natural loving propensity to be purified and directed at the proper entity. In the conditioned state, the living entity directs their love towards friends, family, countrymen, pets, the down-trodden, and the material senses. Dharma allows for the gradual diversion of the loving propensity towards the Supreme Spirit, the ultimate pleasure-giver, Lord Krishna.
Based on the different dharmas prescribed, men generally take to learning about the Vedas and women take to raising children and maintaining the family. It should be noted that the job of a homemaker is one of the most difficult occupations there is. Unlike an office job, there is no time off in maintaining a household. There is no clocking in or out; one is always on the job. In the traditional Vedic system, men take to learning about the Vedas, and when they are old enough, they marry a suitable girl. In the marriage institution, known as the grihastha-ashrama, the wife worships the husband as her primary deity, and the husband worships Lord Vishnu. Since both parties are performing their duties properly, there is an equality of purpose that results and a oneness in outcome. The husband is simply the via-medium to the Lord, so through kindly serving her husband, the chaste and devoted wife is actually serving Vishnu.
“Anyone who quits his body, at the end of life, remembering Me, attains immediately to My nature; and there is no doubt of this.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.5)
The aim of life is to alter one’s consciousness to the point where they are always thinking about Krishna, Vishnu, or any other non-different expansion of the Divine. When this consciousness is fully matured at the time of death, the conditioned soul immediately becomes liberated. At that time, they return to the imperishable spiritual realm, wherefrom they never have to return. When one is already Krishna conscious during their time on earth, it is natural for them to take to preaching. This is an outgrowth of their acquired intelligence. Learning the differences between spirit and matter and the nature of the Absolute Truth are certainly beneficial to the person receiving the information, but it is even better if the same truths are then distributed throughout society to those who are sincerely interested in returning to the spiritual world.
The Vaishnava’s primary instruction is that one should take up devotional acts, or bhakti-yoga, and purify their consciousness. The quintessential act of bhakti is the regular chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Along with abstention from basic sins such as meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication, one can very quickly make progress in spiritual life. The more one practices bhakti, the more their knowledge of spirituality increases. Since they are in direct connection with Krishna, they naturally start to see His influence in everything. When a person sees Krishna in everything and everyone, their vision is perfect.
Bhakti is actually so powerful that it is not dependent on education, caste, or gender. Moreover, one doesn’t necessarily have to be a preacher to be in perfect union with the Supreme Lord. Generally, the preachers of the Vaishnava tradition have been males who took instruction from their spiritual master, or guru. The guru is considered a direct representative of the Supreme Lord because he took instruction from his own guru, who in turn was taught by his own spiritual master. Ascending the chain of preceptors all the way to the top, you eventually reach Krishna. Interestingly enough, there is another chain of disciplic succession, or sampradaya, which consists entirely of women. This spiritual tradition is often overlooked, but its influence and effectiveness in imbibing God consciousness cannot be denied. This tradition belongs to the Vaishnava women, those purified souls who embody bhakti in all their thoughts, words, and deeds.
The best way to understand the workings of this sampradaya is to study the example of an ideal Vaishnava family. Say that we have a husband who is a devotee of Krishna and a wife who is chaste and abiding by the principles of the Vedas. While the husband performs his own religious duties, along with whatever occupational duties he has, the wife takes charge of managing the household affairs. In addition to taking care of the children, she will make sure to perform arati regularly, worship the deity, prepare nice foodstuffs to be offered to the Lord, and maintain the general appearance of the household. She will also receive guests nicely and feed them sumptuous Krishna prasadam.
Continuing with this example, let’s say that the couple has two children, one male and one female. When the male grows up and gets married, the newlyweds will likely live with the husband’s parents. In this instance, the duties of the mother expand, as she now has a new member of the family in the daughter-in-law. The mother will teach the daughter-in-law everything she knows about religion, i.e. bhakti-yoga. She will teach the new wife how to take care of her husband, the household, guests, and most importantly, the Supreme Lord. This same information will be taught to the daughter of the mother prior to her marriage. This way, when she gets married, she will take the traditions learned from her mother to her new family.
As time goes on, the same traditions get passed from generation to generation, from mothers to their daughters and daughters-in-law. At this point one may question where the knowledge of spirituality belonging to the original wife, the matriarch of the family, came from. After all, if she was never educated by a guru, wherefrom did she learn who God was, what He looked like, and what prayers to offer Him? The original spiritual master of the world is Krishna, but through His different incarnations that appeared on earth in the ancient past, a very nice system of religious tradition was started. The exalted women of the Vedic tradition such as Sita Devi, Kunti Devi, Mother Yashoda, and countless others ensured that the subtle sampradaya, the unseen disciplic succession of family tradition, remained intact. The behavior of these exalted women has been documented in sacred texts like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavata Purana, so anyone can learn from their examples today.
“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion-at that time I descend Myself.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.7)
But as we all know, sometimes traditions get broken. New movements crop up all the time, and their appeal is that they are modern and forward thinking. “Reject the outdated models of the past” is the outcry of the social evolutionists. When the influence of these concocted systems of dharma is very strong, the Supreme Lord often comes Himself to reinstitute the real principles of religion. In other instances, He empowers exalted living entities, divine preachers, to spread the gospel of loving service to the Lord. These preachers are the supreme welfare workers, for their message is not limited to any specific group of people. The Vedic scholars, those who take to strictly studying Vedanta philosophy, often believe that Vedic wisdom is not meant for the less intelligent or that Vedic wisdom can’t be understood by everyone. In this day and age, however, the most exalted preacher, Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a direct incarnation of Krishna, taught the essence of the Vedas through the chanting of Krishna’s names. Through preaching bhakti-yoga, Lord Chaitanya allowed Vedic wisdom to be available to everyone.
Another exalted expounder of bhakti was Goswami Tulsidas, a prolific poet, writer, and all-around saintly person. Through writing beautiful poetry in praise of Lord Rama, a celebrated incarnation of Vishnu, Tulsidas spread the glories of God and bhakti-yoga throughout India. Though the popularity of his poetry increased very rapidly, people often misunderstand his intentions and his belief system. One of the more common misconceptions is that Tulsidas somehow didn’t like women or that he was against the female gender. One can find random quotes here and there, many of which are simply references to Vedic statements, that seem to support this claim, but Tulsidas was actually one of the greatest teachers of women, empowering them with the sword of transcendental knowledge acquired through the hearing process. He singlehandedly kept alive and strengthened the subtle sampradaya of the Vaishnava women. He taught housewives and young girls all about Lord Rama through his poetry, which was often sung in a formalized setting. In this way, people could learn high Vedic concepts through music. In India, in the not too distant past, one could meet many married women who grew up to be illiterate. Because they were married at a young age, they never attended school. Yet through knowledge acquired from the hymns of Tulsidas, they could still run circles around others in the knowledge department as it related to the pastimes and glories of Shri Rama, Lakshmana, Janaki, and Hanuman. Lord Rama is a non-different form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lakshmana is His younger brother, Janaki [Sita Devi] His wife, and Hanuman His most dear friend and servant.
Though it’s nice to be familiar with theoretical knowledge pertaining to spirituality, it’s more beneficial to practically apply these concepts in one’s daily life. This is precisely the way the women of the Vedic tradition behave. They not only chant the Ramayana, Hanuman Chalisa, and other Vaishnava poems glorifying the Lord and His devotees, but they live Krishna consciousness; they worship the Supreme Lord through their activities. They ensure that the family is well-protected and maintained and that the husband is kept happy. Not only does this practice ensure a stable family, but it leads to the betterment of society. When children are well-cared for and looked after in the home, they will grow up to be good citizens. When Krishna’s name is always glorified in the home, children can’t help but grow up to be Krishna conscious. They in turn will pass on the same tradition to their children.
While we may not all become great expounders of the high philosophy exclusive to the Vedas, we can adjust our activities in such a way that we are living Krishna consciousness. This is the example set by the exalted Vaishnava women, the keepers of the faith. Though they may be considered unintelligent in the material estimation, they are lacking nothing in respect to the highest knowledge. They have proved to be one of the strongest traditions of spiritual education the world has ever seen. Through the power of the holy names of the Lord found in the sacred hymns of the most benevolent Vaishnava saints, this wonderful tradition will hopefully continue forever. By taking to devotional service, any family can become strengthened for many generations. Devotional service is self-illuminating, so anyone who regularly engages in activities such as chanting, hearing, and remembering, will surely acquire all the good qualities possessed by one who is in full Krishna consciousness. Just as the ordinary trees lining the path to heaven become objects of worship due to their association with God, any individual, regardless of their outward appearance, becomes worshipable and the source of supreme knowledge by chanting the Lord’s names.