My last newsletter was posted on Dandavats and some devotees felt that I had wrongly interpreted Prabhupada’s statement that divorce is primarily the woman’s fault when I stated that I find men equally responsible, if not more so, for many of our divorces. This newsletter sheds further light on this topic. I explain the nature of male and female psychology in order to clarify and expand upon the meaning of Prabhupada’s statement that divorce is usually the woman’s fault in a way that will help men be better husbands.
I thank all of those who questioned my understanding and for giving me the opportunity to explain myself further.
Protect and Provide
If a case of illicit sex between a man and an unmarried woman were brought before Prabhupada, he never blamed the woman. He said it is the man’s fault because the man is supposed to be strong and intelligent, and that a woman naturally and innocently follows a man.
A man’s role is to protect and provide. Protection and exploitation are opposites. So if a woman went along with a man’s sexual aggression, Prabhupada wouldn’t blame her. Why? Because the man is supposed to guide her, take care of her, and look out for her. He provides material, emotional and spiritual security to the woman.
The woman’s nature is to follow and her role is to receive this protection and security. This nature of a woman works well for her when she has a good man to follow. Then the marriage works well. Manu says that when the woman is pleased, the entire home is full of light. Or, as we say today, “When mama ain’t happy, nobody is happy!”
To make married life work well, a man must know what it means to be male and a husband, and also understand the inherent nature of a female and wife. Many problems will be avoided if he clearly understands these. When a man doesn’t properly fulfill his role as a husband, it is often because he is withholding the giving, protection and emotional support a woman requires to be satisfied.
Act Like a Man
A woman wants to be married to a man who acts like a man. Much of a woman’s value and self-esteem come from her husband. If he doesn’t value her, she will tend to not only feel unloved – but even to feel unworthy. So, when he is kind and considerate, she naturally reflects this. When he is not, it causes her to be upset or sad.
A good husband knows this and thus deals with his wife in ways that help her. Therefore, he is careful to be nice and respectful. In addition, he knows that he must be compassionate, forgiving, and patiently deal with her difficulties and shortcomings. So he tries to be encouraging, appreciative and uplifting. When he does all this, she naturally reflects his positive attitude, and becomes happy and productive. Women want and need their husband’s support. That is why a good husband gives his wife what she needs. This is his duty.
That womanly weakness is usually the cause of divorce needs to be considered and understood in light of the above realities of male and female roles and nature. Yes, a woman shouldn’t be fickle, weak, or intolerant. Even if her husband is critical, condescending or cold, she should be patient with him. But when Prabhupada asked his female disciples to tolerate their husbands’ limitations, he was certainly not encouraging his male disciples to nurture their own limitations. Moreover, it is much more difficult for a woman to tolerate a bad husband than it is for a real man to tolerate a bad wife. So if a man expects a woman to tolerate his inability to be a real man, and his wife is consequently unhappy – or even goes away in some circumstances – he should accept some responsibility for his share of the problem. If she does go away, he should think, “Would this have happened if she were married to a better husband?”
I am not justifying divorce or condoning women who leave their husbands. As Prabhupada said, divorce doesn’t exist in Manu Samhita; it is a modern invention. However, we live in modern times and divorce samskaras are unfortunately alive and well in the hearts of many. Understanding this, and knowing how much Prabhupada did not want divorce to exist in Iskcon, an intelligent husband should ensure that his wife is happy, knowing that an unhappy wife is much more prone to consider divorce.
Be Hard on Yourself and Tolerant of Others
Some men have high expectations from their wives. But it is better that men have high expectations for themselves as husbands, and that they expect much less from their wives than they give to their wives. A good example to follow in this regard is Kardama Muni who eventually gave to his wife Devahuti all the opulence that she was accustomed to having as a princess.
A strong man should not require the same level of attention that his wife needs. It is nice if he gets it, but his self-esteem is not dependent on it. When a man complains that he doesn’t get enough respect, understanding, or encouragement, he is complaining that he is not getting the very things his wife needs to be happy, stable and productive. When he is unhappy that he doesn’t get these and when he can’t be enthusiastic without them, he is not behaving like a man.
Therefore, if the husband is to be the guru of the family, he should give to his wife and children no matter how much or little they give back. When the husband is not enthusiastic to give because he feels that his wife and kids are not reciprocating, he is not acting in a male role. (Of course, I am not saying it is okay for a wife to not be respectful to her husband). Wives have a difficult time with husbands who are easily offended or insulted, or who blame their wives for their personal mistakes and failings. Rather than condemn their wives for their own problems, men should pray to guru and Krsna to help themselves in becoming strong.
A wise husband realizes that Krsna gave him the ability to be more easily satisfied, and to sacrifice personal comforts, conveniences, and desires in a way that is sometimes difficult for women to do. So a husband can put his wife’s needs and desires before his own, knowing that she often needs him to do this. In other words, he does what is required to make her happy, knowing that when she is happy, “the house is bright.” To try to make a house bright without making a woman happy doesn’t work.
Still, many men don’t acknowledge or accept this, even despite the many years of unhappy married life that results from avoiding this reality. However, when a man understands this, and serves his wife in this way, she naturally reciprocates in kind. This is why I made the point in my last newsletter that men should not make it difficult for women to be good wives.
Cyavana Muni is Not Our Role Model
If a man wants to make his wife happy, compliments and appreciation are one of the best ways to do it. At the same time, he must avoid derogatory statements, criticism and sarcasm. Such behavior puts out the light in household life. A good husband gives encouragement, not criticism, because he knows this is what his wife needs and wants, and this is what will make her happy. Prabhupada constantly encouraged us. It gave us life. It works the same way in grihastha life. If a man feels he will only give honor, respect and appreciation to his wife if she gives it to him, or if he simply expects to be honored, respected and appreciated without him giving these back to his wife, then he is not a man in the true sense of being male.
Now I hear some of you saying, “If what you are saying is true, then you are saying Cyavana is not a real man. And it would follow that Sukanya, his wife, wouldn’t be happy with him.”
If you want to get married, or stay happily married, don’t have the same disposition as Cyavana. The message of the story of Sukanya and Cyavana is not that it is okay to be arrogant or intolerant. The message is for women to tolerate their husband’s faults, not that husbands should demand this of their wives. Of course, if a man is as exalted as Cyavana, it certainly makes it easier for a wife to be submissive and follow him despite his faults. But many men demand that their wives be like Sukanya without having the exalted nature of Cyavana. If you expect your wife to treat you like a guru, then you will have to act like one.
Regarding the issue of modern women, to expect to find a wife of Sukanya’s caliber, although women should strive to follow her example, is rare today. My advice in this article is meant to deal with the realities that the average man and woman face in creating a peaceful marriage. (Prabhupada said “get married and live peacefully together.”)
Let’s say a man’s wife falls far short of Sukanya and he would like her to improve. A smart husband knows that if he wants his wife to change, he will need to change himself. If he tries to change her with his critical words, then he is no longer in the male role of giving support. This shows a lack of sensitivity, and this damages his wife’s self-confidence and sense of self-worth. A good husband understands that to change himself, he will need to pray, be self-reflective, and confront personal problems. In other words, he works on himself rather than on her. Just as Prabhupada said that women need to know how to win over their husbands through service, submission and a pleasing temperament, men should also know how to win over their wives.
The following story well illustrates how a husband’s behavior towards his wife influences her and determines her own behavior towards him. The story, although from the Jewish tradition and told by Rabbi Shalom Arush, depicts male and female psychology that remains unchanged across contexts.
I Can’t Live Unless My Wife Dies
A rich miser once came to his Rabbi, saying that he wanted his wife to die. The Rabbi was shocked and said: “God forbid. Why?” The man then related his long tale of suffering. He described how cruel his wife was to him, how she humiliated him, tormented him and maltreated him, to the point that the Rabbi had to agree with him – from the picture the miser painted, he really was living with a monster and not a wife. Once he finished his story, he repeated his request for the Rabbi’s help to somehow make his wife die. He said that he simply couldn’t carry on living like this.
The Rabbi asked him why he couldn’t just get a divorce and then live happily alone. But the man replied that divorce wouldn’t be enough for him. He wouldn’t be able to relax until he saw her in a grave since she had tormented him so badly. As long as he knew that she was in the world, he couldn’t have any peace.
The Rabbi asked the rich miser to give him a few days to ponder over the matter and then contact him again. Once the rich man left, the Rabbi prayed to Hashem (God) for guidance.
Hashem enlightened the Rabbi, and he understood that there must be some deficiency in the husband who had driven his wife to act so cruelly to him. The Rabbi decided to send one of his faithful students to the man’s home to try to discover what the matter was.
The student, dressed as a beggar, went to the rich man’s house with instructions from the Rabbi to enter and search for anything unusual. The student managed to enter at a time when the rich man was out. He heard the man’s wife crying and cursing her husband: “That stingy, wicked man. He leaves me here without a penny and goes off to do his business. If only he would say one nice thing to me, but even with words he’s stingy. I’m going to make him suffer when he gets home. At least then I won’t be the only one suffering.”
The student came back to the Rabbi and told him what he had heard. The Rabbi, with this new perspective on the situation, came up with a plan. He called for the rich miser to come to him.
“Yes Rabbi. Do you have a solution for me?”
“Yes. I remembered the Talmud (a sacred text in Rabbinic Judaism), which says that the punishment for making a vow and not fulfilling it is that one would bury his wife (that is, it would cause his wife to die). For most people, this would be a punishment, but in your case, it will be the end of your problems. All you have to do is make a vow that you won’t fulfill and your wife will die.”
The rich man liked the idea.
“Okay. What vow should I make?”
“Well, we don’t have a mikvah here in town. (The Mikvah, the ritual bath, is one of the most important features of a Jewish community. A mikvah allows for the holiness of a family to be preserved forever.) Why not vow to build us a big mikvah, built to the highest specifications, with every comfort and luxury? It would cost a fortune to actually do it. Don’t do it, and she’ll die.”
“Okay, but how long will this take? Perhaps Hashem will give me a few years to fulfill such a big vow. I haven’t got strength to wait that long. I can’t bear my wife’s cruelty any longer.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll make the vow here in front of me and two other witnesses, which will make it impossible to annul. That, coupled with the fact that Hashem knows full well that you have no intention of fulfilling it, means that you should get the punishment almost immediately.”
“Give me a date, Rabbi. Otherwise I can’t take the pressure.”
“Fine. I promise you that if you make the vow now, she will die within three weeks from today.”
This satisfied the miser. With a joyous heart, he vowed in front of the Rabbi and two others to build a huge mikvah, big enough to cater for the whole community, and built to the highest rabbinical specifications. Then he went home.
“One minute,” the Rabbi called to him. “There’s one more thing I want you to do.”
“Of course, Rabbi. What is it?”
“Well, since your wife has so little time left to live, I want you to put in every effort to make her last few weeks in this world as pleasant as possible. Buy her whatever she likes, give her plenty of money to spend, compliment her, praise her and generally fuss over her. What do you have to lose? Once she dies, all the money will come back to you anyway. As for the compliments, what do you care? Give them to her now; soon, she’ll be gone and you’ll have peace from her.”
“No problem, Rabbi. I’ll do all that happily. The very thought that I’ll soon be rid of her gives me so much joy that I’ll have no problem in altering my normal behavior to make her happy.”
Two weeks passed. The rich man burst into the Rabbi’s room with tears in his eyes.
“Rabbi! Please! I want to annul my vow.”
The Rabbi looked at him and said gravely: “What do you mean? We specially made the vow in a way that it’s impossible to annul. Why do you want to annul it? Don’t you want your wife to die?”
“That’s just it, Rabbi. I don’t want her to die anymore. Since I made the vow, and then did what you told me – to do everything I could to make her happy – she’s completely changed. She’s so good to me. She’s taking care of me, loves me, even prays for me. She’s become like an angel. Suddenly I realized what a good wife she is, and I don’t want to lose her.”
“Well, we can’t annul the vow now. If you don’t want her to die, your only option is to fulfill the vow. You’ll really have to build the mikvah, exactly as you promised, with all the trimmings.”
With no other choice, the rich miser started that very day to organize the building of the mikvah, and from that time on lived peacefully and lovingly with his wife.
Be A Responsible Householder
The moral is that if a husband acts well, his wife will be happy and satisfied, and there will be little disruption in the family. If he doesn’t, most women will have difficulty in doing their duties as well as they should. I am not condoning this, just pointing out this reality. I fear, therefore, that if we construe Prabhupada’s statements to mean that men rarely have anything to do with their wives’ behavior (or misbehavior rather), we may be inadvertently undermining a man’s responsibility in making a marriage work. And we know that Prabhupada asked his men to be responsible householders. And part of that responsibility, aside from remaining married, is to “get yourself married and live peacefully with one woman.”
Becoming responsible householders means that the responsibility of a man is to guide and assist his family in going back to Godhead, like a guru does for his disciples. However, if he can’t keep them happy, there may be no family left to guide.
I am quite concerned, as we all are, about the large number of divorces and unhappy marriages in Iskcon. The Grhastha Vision Team, in preparing their courses on the grihastha asrama, identified unhealthy paradigms prevalent in Iskcon that undermine the stability of healthy marriages.
The negative paradigms they seek to address are in a document on their website entitled “12 Principles for a Successful Krsna Conscious Marriage.” (http://www.vaisnavafamilyresources.org/content/12-principles-and-values-behind-krishna-conscious-family-life). I quote it in part below.
Alignment with Srila Prabhupada
• Srila Prabhupada’s teachings must be applied with consideration of time, place and circumstance.
• In the field of grihastha life, one should take into account the local culture without compromising Srila Prabhupada’s teachings. One should not attempt to simply transpose practices from one culture to another without understanding the principles and values underpinning them.
Spiritual Equality / Material Difference
• Men and women exhibit general physical and psychological differences that need to be acknowledged as practical realities, while simultaneously avoiding rigid and/or unhealthy stereotypes.
Positive and Realistic Vision
• One should, as far as possible, avoid both negative attitudes and unrealistic expectations towards married life — both may dampen one’s enthusiasm.
If in the name of fidelity to Srila Prabhupada we interpret his instructions in a way that makes it difficult for Iskcon marriages to thrive, then we will be guilty of “the operation was a success but the patient died.” Many negative paradigms regarding women and marriage still abound in Iskcon and are responsible for problems in marriage (I know this well as I regularly counsel devotees facing marital problems). Many devotees have unknowingly accepted these negative paradigms (and even teach them). The work of the Grhastha Vision Team began with the realization that Iskcon imbibed many paradigms about grihastha life that were causing marriages to fail. The unfortunate reality is that some of these paradigms are alive and well in the hearts of some, are sometimes being given to us in temple classes, and are still being supported in some regions of Iskcon, all with detrimental effects on marriage.
What Does Prabhupada Say?
I wish to reiterate an important point I made in my initial response to the concern that I had misrepresented Prabhupada, and it is this: as kali-yuga progresses, the number of qualified husbands is decreasing. This is directly affecting the success rate of marriages today. I therefore humbly request men in our movement to understand the grave responsibility you hold to be an ideal grihastha and how much your example and behavior impact upon the success or failure of not only your marriage, but the marriages of others. Prabhupada asked his male disciples to become “ideal grihasthas.” Had he been of the opinion that failure in the grihastha ashram was only the fault of women, he would have only advised women to be ideal grihasthas. It is not just your wife’s duty to make your family life successful.
“Krsna-conscious, ideal grihastha-that, we want.” ~ Srila Prabhupada, (Quoted in TKG’s Diary)
Finally, Prabhupada also made this very important point:
“If a husband situated in the mode of goodness can control his wife, who is in passion and ignorance, the woman is benefited. Forgetting her natural inclination for passion and ignorance, the woman becomes obedient and faithful to her husband, who is situated in goodness. Such a life becomes very welcome. The intelligence of the man and woman may then work very nicely together, and they can make a progressive march toward spiritual realization. Otherwise, the husband, coming under the control of the wife, sacrifices his quality of goodness and becomes subservient to the qualities of passion and ignorance. In this way the whole situation becomes polluted.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 4.27.1)
In one of the comments to my article, this purport was cited to show that I had misrepresented Prabhupada. On the contrary, this purport supports my point by showing how a woman who can be prone to deviate and become the cause of divorce is benefitted by the protection of a man in the mode of goodness because his association will elevate her. Protection is not only physical. The husband, as explained here, protects his wife from succumbing to her lower nature. Of course, if she acts under the influence of the lower modes of nature, it is her fault. Here Prabhupada is stressing that a man, because he is supposed to be more intelligent and sense-controlled, helps elevate his wife by his association.
In addition, Prabhupada is speaking in the case of women who are specifically in the lower modes. He is not generalizing that all women are. We indeed find women who are in higher modes of nature than their husbands, or than other men. Prabhupada himself often praised his female disciples as being very intelligent, and he taught us to respect women by saying that the women in our movement are not ordinary women. Men’s intense desire to control women through fault-finding, criticizing, and being heavy-handed – no matter what their own conditioning and limitations may be – is not conducive to bhakti, neither for the husband nor for the wife.
In conclusion, we need to be careful in stigmatising women as the main cause of problems in grihastha ashram. And we need to be cautious of automatically equating husbands with the position of guru, because it can have adverse spiritual as well as material consequences when men are not living up to this role. All of us, men and women, should take personal responsibility for failing in every aspect of our lives. This, of course, is how Prabhupada trained us all to live.