A Case Study: Yamuna Devi Dasi

Yamunā Devī Dāsī was maybe the best-known, highest regarded, and most loved among Śrīla Prabhupāda’s female disciples. She became famous for her singing, cooking, Deity worship, missionary work, deep sense of dedication to Śrīla Prabhupāda, and her many saintly qualities. According to her own account, Śrīla Prabhupāda so much appreciated her abilities that he once considered inducting her as a “half member” of the GBC. He told her: “I was planning that you and Govinda Dāsī would be as one Governing Board member – half.” She replied, “I don’t think this would be very successful, because I have a female body, and it simply wouldn’t work.” And Śrīla Prabhupāda agreed.

Her extensive biography reveals the struggles that she, like many of her godsisters, underwent during the first clumsy (if not harsh) attempts to institute within ISKCON some semblance of traditional gender roles.

Being a self-professedly “strong and independent young woman” (as quoted above), Yamunā derived many bittersweet lessons amid the conservative culture of India. One occurred in January 1971 during the Ardha Kumbha-melā in Allahabad. As had always been her habit, she sat close to Śrīla Prabhupāda during his morning lectures:

Throughout my early years of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, Śrīla Prabhupāda was so open and merciful to the ladies that we never felt the stricture of separation or division between us. So one morning this sannyasi brusquely approached me and said, “Yamunā, have you noticed where the other women are sitting?” I replied, “Yes, I have.” They were seated in the back. He then said, “You should be sitting back there with them, not in the front by Śrīla Prabhupāda.”

For the next two days, Yamunā sat in the back. Then Śrīla Prabhupāda called her and asked why she did not like to hear from him anymore.

I immediately burst into tears because I had no words to express how much I was appreciating his discourses on the life of Ajāmila. So I said, “I love to hear from you more than ever, Śrīla Prabhupāda. More than anything in the world, all I want is to hear from you.” Prabhupāda inquired, “So why aren’t you sitting where you usually sit?” I said, “A sannyasi told me that it was the etiquette that I sit far in the back with the ladies.” Prabhupāda was quiet. Then he said, “Yes, that is the etiquette.”

Significantly, although Śrīla Prabhupāda initially engaged Yamunā Devī Dāsī in active, outgoing services, after she left her husband and started a rural ashram he wrote to her:

Yes, you are right, women are generally after sense gratification. That is the disease. Chant twenty-four hours a day and don’t dress nicely to attract men. It is better that you don’t make a large program. Remain a humble program. In bhakti there is no grotesque program.

A humble program is better. We are doing all these grotesque programs to allure the masses. My Guru Mahārāja used to say that no one hears from a person coming from a humble, simple life. You remain always very humble.
Sītā Devī, Mother Lakṣmī, wife of Lord Rāmacandra, went to live with Vālmīki Muni in a cottage. Although she was a king’s daughter and a king’s wife, she preferred to live very humbly in the cottage of Vālmīki Muni with two sons in the absence of Rāmacandra. That should be the ideal example. Women when not with husband must live very very humbly and simple life.

Although in some ways Śrīla Prabhupāda encouraged Yamunā in establishing her ashram, he had reservations about it – which, however, he did not directly express to her, but instead did so via a letter sent (on the same day as the letter quoted above) to the GBC man of the area wherein her ashram was situated:

Regarding Yamunā and Dīna-tāriṇī, they want to live independently, that is the defect. A woman cannot live independent. According to the Vedic culture a woman is always to be protected by a man.

Privately, Śrīla Prabhupāda commented, “What can I do? They want to be independent.” As in several other cases, Śrīla Prabhupāda dealt with Yamunā Devī Dāsī according to her individual needs, and he recognized that some exceptional women can actually live as renunciants. Nevertheless, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s having made certain concessions does not undermine the fact that his overall social manifesto, meant to be implemented by his followers, is varṇāśrama-dharma with all that it entails, including the non-independence of women.

Reproduced with permission from the book Women: Masters and Mothers by Bhakti Vikasa Swami.