Pulling Back the Curtain: The Importance of Context. ~ Vrindavan Rao

Via elephant journal
on Apr 21, 2013
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Over the Rainbow

Everyday Bhagavad-Gita: Context

Verse 1.40: When irreligion is prominent in the family, O Krishna, the women of the family become polluted, and from the degradation of womanhood, O descendant of Vrishni, comes unwanted progeny.

Today I have a choice: to face something head on or not.

What I mean is that I can either choose to address the fact that Arjuna is speaking about women becoming polluted and degraded due to irreligion, or simply ignore this “unpopular” idea. For me, the choice is easy.

I’m going to address it because it brings up a very important point which has nothing to do with men, women or degradation, but reveals the importance of context.

Context is so important and something most of us fail to consider unless we ourselves are taken out of context and portrayed in an unfair way. So many things are taken out of context and none more so than the concepts and principles that are associated with religion and spirituality.Radhanath swami

This is why one of the key messages of the Gita is the necessity to inquire and hear from authorized and self-realized bhakti yogis.

Now, I am by no means proclaiming to be such an advanced individual, but I can say that I have learned from, and am trying to follow in the footsteps of, such esteemed personalities. So my qualification is one of trying to be a transparent conductor of knowledge that others have spent years studying and realizing.

You see the practice of bhakti yoga is not provided in a step-by-step, do-it-yourself manual where you are provided the complete set of instructions and left to your own devices to figure it out. Bhakti requires teachers, friends, mentors, well-wishers and so much more. Essentially, the practice of bhakti yoga requires a community. There are things that you can learn on your own, but most lessons require personal guidance, clarification and role models.

This is essential to not only following bhakti yoga properly, but to understanding it with your heart and not just your mind. In other words, of allowing our knowledge and experience of bhakti to move beyond the theoretical into the realm of practical realization.

So, in the case of this verse, it is important to understand context.

Sometimes I hear newcomers, or even those who have not had a chance to study bhakti texts, ask: “What is the position of women in bhakti?”

Unfortunately, sometimes reading such verses, and only understanding them superficially, can even turn people away.

This verse can be analyzed on two levels—the material and the spiritual.

On the material level, which, let’s face it most of us are on, the question of the role of women is important to many. On this level, this verse is saying that the role of women is of paramount importance within society. Surprised? It’s true. Just as a king in his kingdom should be loved and protected from all negative influences, similarly women should be loved, protected, cherished and held in the highest esteem.

And who are those people who should be treating women this way? Other women of course, but even more importantly, men. When men treat women as objects this creates so many issues. We see it in our own society today. I can only imagine the dread that parents feel the first time they have to explain the wild promiscuity and portrayal of women as sexual objects in the media and the entertainment industry today. It’s quite an unfortunate situation.

On the spiritual level, the nature of this verse takes on a different quality as whether one is male or female is quite irrelevant.

The soul, the eternal spark which is in all of us, is the most important thing. And if one realizes this, then any reference to any designation, whether it be male, female, cat, dog, whale, elephant, bug, Chinese, Swiss, Conservative, Liberal etc., is of little value. It amounts to little more than an exterior shell designated to carry that which is most important: the soul. If this is the case, then every single living being should treat the other with respect and once again, this promotes equality. Thus, there is no higher or lower as all souls are equally dear to God.

So what does this mean?

This verse is a “Wake up!” call for our society. It stresses the fact that we all have our roles to play and that we need to acknowledge them and work cooperatively. Bhakti yoga does not promote neglecting our material roles of being a member of society, a daughter, son, mother, father, etc. But, at the same time, our ultimate spiritual role of  re-establishing our loving relationship with God is the most important.

The true practice of bhakti should inspire us to become better members and contributors to society by realizing we are all the sons and daughters of God.



Vrindavan RaoVrindavan Rao was born into the bhakti tradition and grew up enveloped in it. However, her personal discovery of the bhakti path began in 2004 when she had the opportunity to go to a Vedic College in Belgium and since that time she has embraced it completely. Her love for travel has given her the opportunity to study Vedic texts, such as the Bhagavad-gita, in places such as India, Canada, Belgium, Ukraine and the United States under the guidance of several advanced practitioners.

She especially loves the Gita and refers to it as her “Guidebook for Life” since it contains practical answers for complicated questions and is currently writing a daily blog on every verse of the Gita. In addition, you can keep track of all the happenings of Everyday Bhagavad-Gita on Facebook and viaTwitter.

Her background is in science and she not only has a Bacherlor’s degree in Biochemistry, but also a Masters in Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology. In her free time she loves to write, read, give presentations, sing and work out.

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Editor: Thaddeus Haas


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11 Responses to “Pulling Back the Curtain: The Importance of Context. ~ Vrindavan Rao”

  1. harikirtana says:

    Thank you for your thought provoking post, Vrindavan. I have a few observations for your consideration:

    The Sanskrit word that has been translated as “irreligion” in the verse is adharma. A partial translation would be, ‘without or against dharma’ (similar to ahimsa; without himsa, or violence). That would mean that dharma, in context, would be translated as ‘religion’. But, according to authorized and self-realized bhakti yogis that I've heard from, throughout the Gita the word ‘dharma’, as it applies to Arjuna’s unwillingness to fight, is taken to refer not to ‘religion’ but rather to Arjuna’s social obligation as a warrior. So, one may reasonably ask, why is dharma understood to refer to religion in the context of a woman and understood to refer to social obligation in the context of a man?

    And to which religion does Arjuna refer? And why does Arjuna focus on the notion that women become degraded and polluted rather than focusing on the idea that men become degraders and polluters? The implication is either one of the absence of agency or volition on the part of women (women are not free to reject degraded men) or that women are naturally susceptible to degradation and pollution when the opportunity for irreligious behavior presents itself (women are not capable of rejecting degraded men). Which of these is the correct, contextual understanding?

    Which brings me to the curious link: you propose that the verse indicates that “the role of women is of paramount importance within society.” But the link takes us to an essay about the role of men in family relationships: I don’t get to the connection (editor?). More importantly, you have not offered a definition of what the role of women is according to the Bhagavad Gita. One would surmise from the verse that, according to the Gita, when religion is prominent the role of women is to have "wanted" progeny. Is child production the only role afforded to women in the Gita's conception of a religious society?

    The idea that “women should be loved, protected, cherished and held in the highest esteem” and “protected from all negative influences” is the kind of attitude that produces invisible women hidden inside of black burkas who are prohibited from any form of independent activity from driving to voting to leaving the country without the permission of a ‘protector’, namely a male relative. It sounds as if you are saying that the Bhagavad Gita endorses the Saudi Arabian model for treating adult women as minors: is that the case? If this is the kind of respect that a soul in a male body should accord a soul in a female body then how does this promote equality on either a material or spiritual level?

    I think you may have to address these kinds of questions if you are to successfully contextualize the Gita’s position on this issue for modern, intelligent, and educated women whose frame of reference for ‘protection’ by men and for ‘religion’ when it comes to the role of women is one that understandably inspires them to close the book as soon as they come in contact with this verse, 18 verses shy of the first spiritually contextualizing instruction.

    I have faith in your ability to present a stronger argument for the contextual understanding of this verse than you have made thus far, though you may have to ignore the word count to do it. – Ys, Hkd

  2. Context is so important for a clear understanding of all religious texts, Vrinda. I have seen people taking religious texts out of context and misusing them for their own purposes. Your message to stand up and make a difference is so relevant and timely. Thank you.

  3. Jessica says:

    I really enjoyed this post and admire your assertion that context is important. Without context everything starts to seem so relative and uncertain. That essentially we are all spirit souls , irregardless of the bodies that we find ourselves in, is a truth I came across in The Bhagavad Gita As It Is, and when you really think about it it has some important implications…That all of us, regardless of our bodies (male, female, human, non-human) deserve respect and consideration. …That no matter our roles in this material world our primary goal is to develop a relationship with God.

    Great post. 🙂

  4. kathy says:

    What an insightful post. Context is critical in everything we see, hear, feel. It is so easy to take the sterotypical route when we see or hear something. Context gives perspective and meaning to otherwise just information. So true in religious matters as well. Great food for thought.

  5. Thaddeus1 says:

    As the editor, I will be happy to speak to the choice of links.

    I choose links for a number of different reasons. Some are informational, some are promotional, some are intended to induce further thought in support of the notion they are linked to, some are intended for the opposite, some illuminate a theme discussed throughout the piece in either a direct or indirect fashion, and in reality, most operate across several borders all at the same time.

    The one in question falls into the final category, as I don't agree with your characterization of it as simply pertaining to the role of men in family relationships.

  6. Vrindavan_Rao says:

    Hari-kirtana! Thank you so much for your thought provoking questions. I just wanted to assure you that I have not forgotten. I wanted to answer your questions to the best of my ability which is taking me some time. But rest assured! I will answer them. 🙂

  7. Vrindavan_Rao says:

    Hi Corinne, thank you so much. It's so true what you said of people taking religious texts out of context and misusing them for their own purposes. What to speak of religious texts, it's so easy to take each other other out of context. That's why it's so important to clarify and refrain from judging before we act or speak rashly.

  8. Vrindavan_Rao says:

    Thank you Jessica! I love how you got the true essence and import of this verse. Of course we have material bodies and certain designations that come associated with them (i.e. male/female), but if we focus on the spiritual aspect, everything is covered. Respect and compassion is not reserved for one species or gender – it's meant for all living entities.

  9. Vrindavan_Rao says:

    Hi Kathy! Thank you so much. 🙂 I really like what you said of context giving perspective and meaning to information. You totally got it! That's the most important thing. Whether it be in relationships or our in our path of self-discovery, if we don't take the time and effort to really understand the true meaning behind what is being said/written ultimately we are the ones who end up losing.

  10. Vrindavan_Rao says:

    Morning Hari Kirtana! You asked several questions and I'll do my best to address as many as I can here.

    With respect to the question you asked about "dharma", I would suggest we take this question/discussion offline if that is ok with you. I would definitely like to do more research.

    Coming back to the main point I was attempting to highlight from this verse, I think it's a matter of understanding things in context. Arjuna, at this point in time, doesn't want to perform his duty as a leader and protector and so he is offering many different perspectives to "get out" of doing his duty. One of the reasons he's come up with is the point addressed in this verse. I'd like to take the opportunity to point out here that at this point in time Arjuna is "overcome with grief" and is not thinking objectively or rationally, as most of us tend to do when we are stressed and confused.. As for why Arjuna is not focusing on men? Because he is emotional and distraught. His whole argument for not fighting isn't resting on this point alone, it's just one of many. I don't think one should read into this more than that based on this one verse.

    The role of women according the Bhagavad Gita, great question! A role is defined as "part played by a person in a particular situation." In that context, the Gita doesn't define the role of women because that's not what the Gita is about,. That's the reason why I didn't offer a definition. Other vedic texts such as a the manu-samhita go into further details. As for the point brought up about "child production being the only role afforded to women", nothing can be further from the truth. Both in the present and in the past, there are numerous examples of empowered and powerful bhakti yoginis. Many of them were great gurus or spiritual leaders and set the example for all of society. They all had their own natures and were powerful and intelligent women in their own right. Some had children and some didn't. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to surmise that child production is the only role, as you mentioned, afforded to women.

    I don't believe that the idea of "women being loved, protected etc.." is an attitude that produces invisible women. I believe that that attitude comes from persons (whether they be male or female) wanting to exert a controlling tendency over others. The Gita propounds that all living entities have souls and each soul is an eternal spiritual spark of consciousness. Those souls may be inhabiting various bodies whether they be male, female, animal, insect, plant etc… In fact, in Chapter 5, the Gita states that by virtue of true knowledge, one sees with equal vision a learned and gentle teacher, a cow, an elephant and all other living beings. This unequivocally means that every living thing should be treated with love and respect. The Gita is teaching us to be much more broadminded than many of us are presently. It's not only humans (whether they be male or female) that deserve respect and care: everything deserves respect and care.

    I'd like to end off by reiterating a point that I feel is so important. The bhakti texts, like the Bhagavad gita are not "learn it yourself" books. They are offering us a process by which we can attain true peace and happiness. Any process has many steps and levels. When we are new or don't have a qualified guide to help use understand these various concepts and details in the proper perspective, we can start speculating all kinds of things which many not be true. Therefore, it's so important to have bhakti guides and friends that we can discuss and clarify these kinds of points with.

    Hope that addresses at least the majority of the points your brought up! Thank you for the great questions and thoughts. 🙂

  11. I'm a relative stranger to the Gita, and haven't looked into it for years. But it seems to me that your words here embody a central theme of the whole work, which is that there must be a living dialogue between the ideal, i.e. the ultimate reality, and the everyday actual, which is the world in which one has duties. The duties are often distasteful, and may even be at odds with the truths of ultimate reality, but are duties nonetheless. It's a troubling book to me, but that's because in the Christian culture in which I was raised, there are overly-easy answers for almost everything. The message of the Gita is very different. I think the message is that life can't necessarily be made easy, but that there is a way through.