What the MS-13 Gang and ISKCON Have in Common

Chanakya Pandit says, viśvāso naiva kartavyaḥ strīṣu rāja-kuleṣu ca:

“There are two persons one should not trust—a politician and a woman.”

And then there is this bit of recent news from the Washington Post:

In the summer of 2003, an angler working the dark waters of the Shenandoah River in Virginia made a startling discovery. Lying on the bank under a bridge was the tattoo-covered body of a 17-year-old girl.

Brenda Paz had been a “homegirl,” or full female member, of MS-13. But “Smiley,” as she was known, had wanted out and had begun helping federal authorities.

She was four months pregnant when MS-13 members slit her throat.

Her defection, and others like it, convinced gang leaders in El Salvador that women couldn’t be trusted and led to a ban on new female members.

Michael E. Miller and Justin Jouvenal, “‘Heinous and violent’: MS-13’s appeal to girls grows as gang becomes ‘Americanized’”, 7 May 2018, The Washington Post, 9 Jun. 2018 <https://www.washingtonpost.com/…>

Although the article was about how the MS-13 street gang was becoming “Americanized” by way of accepting women into their ranks, the point of interest for devotees is that the gang itself through their own experience came to the same truth the Vedic civilization holds about women: they cannot be trusted.

Now, a group like the MS-13 is interesting in that it operates outside the law and performs heinous activities that are certain to incarcerate its members if law enforcement catches them, or certain death if their own gang members turn on them. Hence, they are always in a state of existential peril–they are always “living on the edge.” In a situation like this, you are very intimately dependent on each other for survival, you are face-to-face with human nature.

The point of commonality between MS-13 and ISKCON is that in terms of trustworthiness, both consider there to be a significant difference between men and women, with men being the more trustworthy group and women not so trusted.

From jail, Iraheta claimed that others involved in killing Damaris may have done it to move up in MS-13 but that she was motivated by love — and hate.

“They keep saying I’m a gang member when I’m not,” she said. “If you really, really investigate, women are not allowed in the gang. They are not trusted.”

And so here is the relevant point of similarity. Both organizations fundamentally do not trust women, but in branching out to places like America where the population does not hold this distrust, the organization tends to adopt those local values.

In the case of MS-13, it’s progressive “re-acceptance” of women is a sign of its “Americanization.” In the case of ISKCON in the West, the promotion of women as leaders is a sign of it’s Westernization. Both terms “Americanization” as used in the article and “Westernization” as used here refer to the adoption of gender egalitarian values.

But here is the important question: are such values “socially constructed”? That is, is trust something that comes out of society or is it an innate thing, or a part of one’s svabhava, inherent nature?

This is not a question that can be settled by modern scientific means. To give an example of this, we see that some societies tend to have less corruption in them than others. That’s a measurable, empirical fact. And countries in the West are well-known for having some of the least corrupt countries in the world.

Hence, some believe that by spreading ideas of Western secular liberalism and democratic forms of government, the world will be a much better place. If India and other non-Western countries would just adopt Western values (they already adopted their political system), they would have a fairer, less corrupt society. And they would find that women can be trusted and make a significant contribution to society, too. At least, that’s what the true believers in secular Western liberalism think.

But what if there were an alternative cause for the West’s reputation for being less corrupt? How could you scientifically test it?

Manu-smriti, for example, in the beginning of its exposition on criminal law,  explains that punishment is the basis of peace in society.

Punishment alone governs all created beings, punishment protects them, punishment watches over them while they sleep; the wise declare punishment (to be identical with) the law (7.18).

The whole world is kept in order by punishment, for a guiltless man is hard to find; through fear of punishment the whole world yields the enjoyments (which it owes) (7.22).

G. Buhler (trans.), The Laws of Manu, ed. Max Mueller, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1993.

Here is an alternative, causal explanation: such countries as the West have stronger law enforcement.

Indeed, we see that Srila Prabhupada has described such a state of government:

Good government means that people will think that they’re secure, their property and person is secure. There will be no harm. Not very many years ago, say about hundred years ago, in India the native states, the rule was that if something is lying on the streets, valuable or invaluable, so nobody should touch it. The person who has lost or who has left that thing there, he would come and pick it up. You cannot touch. That was the law. And if one was caught, a thief, his hands will be cut off. In Kashmir state this was the rule. As soon as a thief is arrested and if he’s proved that he has stolen, the only punishment is cut his throat, aḥ, cut his hands. Bas. Exemplary punishment so that nobody will dare to steal. (Lecture on SB 1.16.4 — Los Angeles, January 1, 1974)

And it is our personal experience that laws in the Western countries enjoy a higher degree of enforcement than in many other places.

It should be understood that the descriptions and instructions found in Vedic literature are universally applicable. Hence, we should look to Vedic literature to understand how things are the way they are in the world. This also means that we can be confident that if followed anywhere in the world the result will be auspicious.

Of course, most people do not follow the Vedic culture but follow their own rules according to the three modes of nature (goodness, passion and ignorance). But that does not mean Vedic literature is not also good for them. They benefit according to their ability to accept good instruction. Therefore it is the duty of the civilized people to convince others that the direction given by Lord Sri Krishna and His bona fide, saintly devotees will be best for them. This is called preaching.

In the case of the initial subject of this essay, the trustworthiness of women, the consensus of Vedic literature is that women should not be given independence like men. According to Lord Manu, that means women are generally to be kept under the protection of a father, husband, or a son. Na striyam svatantram arhati.

As seen from recent developments in the Western countries, especially the #MeToo movement, though a veneer of equality can be maintained for some time, it cannot be permanent. What the #MeToo movement has shown is that men and women mixing freely in society will surely bring about mass scandal and cause extensive social disturbance.

What the MS-13 street gang’s experience with women shows is that confirmation of Vedic wisdom sometimes comes from the most unlikely of places. Yet it is nevertheless remarkable that some of those officially preaching Lord Krishna’s message find a way to avoid truths like this.

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