Q: Why do we address men as ‘prabhus’ and women as ‘matajis’.
A: Srila Prabhupada, the founder archarya of ISKCON, gives his Vaishnava perspective of the reason for the tradition.
Srimad Bhagavatam 1.3.13 Lecture – LA, 9/18/72:
“…..it is the system in Vedic culture, as soon as one sees another woman, she (he) addresses her, “mother,” Mataji. Immediately, “mother.” That makes the relationship. The woman treats the unknown man as son, and the unknown man treats the unknown woman as mother. This is Vedic civilization. So we should be very careful. In our society, you are all Godbrothers, Godsisters. Or those who are married, they are like mothers. So you should be very careful. Then you will remain dhira, sober. That is brahminical qualification, brahminical culture. Not that “Because I have got facilities to intermingle with nice girls, so I shall take advantage and exploit them.” Or the girls should take… No. Therefore our restriction: no illicit sex. Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.16.10 Lecture, LA, 1/7/74:
“Just like my Guru Maharaja, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada. He was brahmacari. He was brahmacari, strict brahmacari, ideal personality. So that is recommended for everyone. Up to twenty-five years’ age, nobody should have any connection with woman. That is brahmacari. Strictly. That brahmacari rules and regulation are there in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, that he would go door to door for collecting alms for his spiritual master, and address every woman as mother, from the very beginning. From five years old, if a child is trained to call all woman as “Mother,” naturally his culture is different. Because he has learned to call all woman as “Mother.” He has no other idea. A small child, any woman comes before him, he knows “(S)He is my mother.” So this was the practice. That is not only religiously, but morally, it is so good, to look upon all woman as mother. That is the system still in India, any unknown woman who has no introduction with you, (s)he is addressed “Mataji.” Address her. She may be just like daughter or granddaughter, but one would address, as a respect to the woman, as “Mother, Mataji.” This is Indian system. Now some rascals have introduced “Bhaginiji, sister.” But that is not shastric. In the sastra, all the woman, except one’s wife, should be addressed as “Mother.”
Srimad Bhagavatam 6.1.56,57 Lecture, Mumbai, 8/14/75:
“Pandita means matr-vat para-daresu: “to accept all women as mother,” para-daresu. Dara means wife, and para means others’. Except his own wife, he should treat all women outside, taking them as mother. Therefore, still in Hindu society, every woman is addressed by an unknown man, “mother.” It doesn’t matter if a person is unknown. He can speak with another woman, addressing him first…, addressing her first, “mother,” “mataji.” Then nobody will be offended. This is the etiquette.”
Srimad Bhagavatam 7.9.9 Lecture, Mayapur, 2.16/76:
“This is education. Where is that education? Matrvat para-daresu? All women mother. Where is that education? There is no education. Therefore in this age practically everyone is a mudha, not educated. He does not know how to look upon woman. Woman should be looked as mother. Still in India, a unknown woman should be addressed, “Mother.” The following is from the Brahmacharya in Krishna Consciousness book, by Srila Bhakti Vikas Maharaja: (but I believe the quotes are Srila Prabhupada’s): In a conversation in Seattle in 1968, Srila Prabhupada said, “Now, another thing: Girls should not be taken as inferior. Sometimes, of course, in scripture we say that woman is the cause of bondage. So, that should not be aggravated that women are inferior. The girls who come, we should treat them nicely. After all, anyone who is coming to Krsna consciousness, man or woman, is very fortunate. The idea of addressing each other as Prabhu means, ‘You are my master.’ Prabhu means ‘master.’ So everyone shall treat others as ‘my master.’ This is Vaisnava understanding. In spiritual life there is nothing like this sexism. The more we forget sex life means we are advancing in spiritual life. So this should be the attitude: women, godsisters, should be nicely treated.”
Some of us, who have had our so-called ‘spiritual beginning’ with the Hare Hrsnas, have been following this nice tradition of addressing one another respectfully.