Special guests were coming for lunch prasadam. While putting plates, cups, spoons and so on on the dining room table, I thought about some of the standards for table settings that I've seen and heard about. Most was unnecessary because we are not meat eaters nor indulge in drinking, nor are we ever very formal in our dealings. So most likely my style would not be considered very refined, but that is where this post comes in. Often in today's world, refinement is associated with wealth or born in an aristocratic family, but Srila Prabhupada gave this example:
THE SHY SWEEPER WOMAN
"And woman's shyness is one beauty...And (it brings) command also. We have practical experience in our life. You have seen that my friend came, Dinanath Mishra. They were our neighbor. So one day we were sitting on the corridor of the house. One sweeper woman, she wanted to come within, but very shyful, and with a covering of the head, although with broomstick and bucket, she was waiting because we were sitting both side. So she was feeling little shy not to enter the house. So we decided to move so that she may come. This example is given. She is a sweeper, not very respectable, maidservant or sweeper, but on account of her shyness we had to welcome, 'Yes, we are moving. You come in.' Just see."
Srila Prabhupada so much appreciated her behavior, how she commanded his respect. Now compare her example with the following:
THE VEILED LADY ON A TRAIN
"In the year 1945 Prabhupada witnessed this scene while traveling on a train: A young girl riding on the train was traveling for the first time to her husband's house. Her face was covered with a veil, as she was observing the ceremony that after puberty and after engagement the girl goes to her husband's house, carrying presentations from her mother and father. But another modernized girl was mocking the village girl and reached over and pulled at her veil. The city girl did this once and then did it again. But when she tried a third time, the village girl slapped her in the face. 'Yes, you have done right,' said Srila Prabhupada, who was seated nearby in the same train car. Years later while telling the story, Prabhupada explained, 'That city girl was thinking, "What is this nonsense?" and she wanted to criticize. But when the other girl gave her a good slap, the whole train laughed. Shyness is the only protection for them. But now there is no modesty left. That is a woman's beauty, but we are breaking that, and so there is not beauty, no attraction.'" ( Prabhupada Nectar 2.139)
THE LADIES ON THE ROOFTOPS OF DVARAKA
In Srimad Bhagavatam 1.10.16 purport, Srila Prabhupada elaborates further on this quality of shyness that may adorn not only ladies of the higher classes, but in the lower statuses as well..
"Shyness is a particular extra-natural beauty of the fair sex, and it commands respect from the opposite sex. This custom (see SB 1.10.16) was observed even during the days of the Mahäbhärata, i.e., more than five thousand years ago. It is only the less intelligent persons not well versed in the history of the world who say that observance of separation of female from male is an introduction of the Mohammedan period in India. This incident from the Mahäbhärata period proves definitely that the ladies of the palace observed strict pardä (restricted association with men), and instead of coming down in the open air where Lord Krishna and others were assembled, the ladies of the palace went up on the top of the palace and from there paid their respects to Lord Krishna by showers of flowers. It is definitely stated here that the ladies were smiling there on the top of the palace, checked by shyness. This shyness is a gift of nature to the fair sex, and it enhances their beauty and prestige, even if they are of a less important family or even if they are less attractive. We have practical experience of this fact. A sweeper woman commanded the respect of many respectable gentlemen simply by manifesting a lady's shyness. Half-naked ladies in the street do not command any respect, but a shy sweeper's wife commands respect from all."
So there always have been working women, also known as public women (as Srila Bhaktivinode called them) or society women or sudranis, as their occupation is included with the sudra varna in assisting all other varnas, often working alongside men or as entertainment for them. Included in sastra, therefore, alongside the brahmanis and princesses and queens, we see examples such as Kubja or the maidservants accompanying Devaki at her marriage or the prostitutes of Dwaraka. Or we hear the glorification of the prostitute Cintamani, who greatly inspired Srila Bilvamangla Thakura's spiritual quest. And as a side note considering these points, it is interesting how Srila Prabhupada expertly engaged the western woman's sudra proclivity for working alongside men. By his great mercy, instead of just ordinary servants, they became the transcendental dasis of ISKCON. But in all of these cases, shyness is not necessarily appreciated, especially when it comes to the entertainment department.
TRULY HIGH CLASS
So what is it that makes a woman truly first class? We decided that wealth and status is not the way to determine this. Nor are all women expected to be shy or at home away from public view. A woman by necessity or karma may have to work outside and is mix with men to some degree or is situated as a temple servant. So what is it? Only is she truly classy if she does not mix unnecessarily. Prabhupada states in Srimad Bhagavatam 7.12.9 purport:
"Unnecessary association with women, even with one's mother, sister or daughter, is strictly prohibited. This is human civilization. A civilization that allows men to mix unrestrictedly with women is an animal civilization. In Kali-yuga, people are extremely liberal, but mixing with women and talking with them as equals actually constitutes an uncivilized way of life."
Unnecessary unrestricted unwarranted association between man and woman goes outside the boundaries of varnasrama, whereas human life is meant for refinement, to weed out distractions from the path of spiritual progress, and to do our duties and gain knowledge and gradually focus the mind with exclusive devotion for Lord Krishna. That devotion is like a ripened mango or sugar cane juice boiled and crystallized into rock candy or gold ore that is heated and refined. The impure is made pure. It requires no station; it is a matter of the heart.