The Word 'Mataji' as a Signifier
Consider the word 'mataji' and what image it conjures up in your mind. Don't think for a second that it is the same for anyone else. Many ladies in ISKCON have objected to the term’s use, while others insist on using it based upon what they consider to be tradition or the irrevocable instruction of Srila Prabhupada. Even if the term is traditional and its use was instructed by Srila Prabhupada does that make it right in ISKCON today?
Perhaps we need to stop talking for a bit and consider the language our dialogue inhabits. How does it work and perhaps why it often doesn't work for us. If we consider language in light of Saussurian terms (which I think can be helpful); language is a system of signs which only have meaning because they differ from each other. What is interesting for us in reflecting on this ‘mataji’ term is that for Saussure signs are made up of signifiers and signifieds. In simple terms this means that the series of sounds (word), otherwise known as a signifier, points towards a signified or word idea. Thus, meaning is neither fixed by the signifier nor what the signified claims to represent (the actual object). Basically what you have is a word and an associated idea. For instance when I say ‘cow’ referring to an object, some people think of an object of worship and others think of food. So in a simple sense you have three things: the object itself, the word and the idea of what it is. Thus the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, in the sense that they do not have fixed meaning and they are both seperate from the transcendent object.
Now let’s take that thought over to our topic of the signifier ‘mataji’, again we have three things: the object, which is the female (a term which may already contain certain prejudices), the word (signifier) and the word idea (signified). Now when we say ‘mataji’ can we be sure that we are all signifying the same word idea? Is the relationship between the word idea and the object true?
During the seventies and early eighties the signifier ‘mataji’ was used by many males in ISKCON as an address for all females, who had to be renounced as they were in actuality a distraction being the embodiment of maya or the distractive power of the material energy, which perhaps in Christian terms you might say a ‘form of the devil’. As a young bhakta I remember using the word with no sense of what it meant in Indian culture i.e. mother, rather it was a clear signifier for ‘danger’. As the male hegemony in ISKCON began to slightly decrease, the voice of the female members began to ring out in protest against the use of ‘mataji’ as a signifier because it no longer signified a caring, affectionate motherly type. Quite the contrary the signifier only conjured up a severe and oppressive anti-female ideology which also didn’t work well for men, most of whom after sometime required female companionship. Was the signified established in this case what both tradition and Srila Prabhupada were referring to when using the signifier ‘mataji’? And in opposing the signifier are the women standing against our tradition and Srila Prabhupada? It may well be more the case that some who stand for tradition and Srila Prabhupada are actually standing in opposition.
So now what to do with this signifier which seems to now remain somewhere between its past, its recent present and its present? Not only that but it may well be existing between cultures as in ancient Indian, ISKCON and the west. Where new members of ISKCON (much aloof from the past) and people of India heritage, may not see any problem with the term, that’s simply because it signifies something wholesome or to be loved, and why would any woman appose that? However, for those who suffered exclusion and prejudice in the past it unfortunately signifies harmful inequality. Perhaps in time and as memories fade it will revert back to its former meaning as respected mother and only then it may have a future.