We have been enriched in ISKCON by the sannyasa culture
many of the GBC represent. Perhaps no other spiritual organisation
has this strength of austerity. But in our efforts to follow Srila
Prabhupada in his austerity and carefulness in dealings between
men and women, the women of ISKCON have been denigrated. We are
becoming more impoverished by not honouring our diversity.
One example of how a culture is enriched by diverse voices is given
in the Bhagavatam story of the Pandavas' judgement against
Asvatthama for killing the sleeping sons of Draupadi. Bhima wanted
an eye for an eye. Draupadi, the bereaved mother of the slain children,
thought compassionately of the mother of Asvatthama, their family
relationship and the honour owed Asvatthama as a brahmana,
and urged that Asvatthama's life be spared. Arjuna, by his keen
intelligence, sought the counsel of all and, balancing all, made
the decision that pleased Lord Krsna.
In our Society, unscrupulous men, often in managerial positions,
have abused and neglected women. Under these conditions, women lose
their sense of worth as beloved daughters of Srila Prabhupada and
lose their voice within the assembly of devotees. With no standing
in the devotional community, women, especially those abandoned by
their husbands, become degraded and cannot protect their children.
Children become like orphans, 'unwanted progeny', as Arjuna says
in Bhagavad-gita, not recognised as the 'Vaikuntha children'
they are by birthright. Instead of the 'future saviours of the world',
as one gurukula promotional piece states, second-generation
devotees become angry, frustrated and want to sue ISKCON because
of their pain.
Our Society is being judged by how we treat our most vulnerable
members. As Jesus Christ said: 'As you do unto the least of these,
you do unto me.' Similarly, what we do to the least of these, we
do to Srila Prabhupada. The abuses and neglect of women and children
must be corrected immediately, as our sexist and inhumane behaviour
reflects badly on Srila Prabhupada and taints his movement in the
eyes of the world.
Instead of Vaisnava etiquette we have elitism - a culture of those
who have and those who have not - and women occupy the lower rungs.
Many gurus and sannyasis, as they grow elderly or infirm,
will have the finest medical care in the homes of wealthy disciples
and admirers. Women, especially women without husbands, children,
second-generation devotees, and soon-to-be elderly persons, are
treated as second- and third-class citizens in our society. What
will happen to these devotees as they grow older? Where are the
systems for their protection?
We are hearing the call for accountability from all sides. In the
1996 survey requested by the GBC, sociologist Burke Rochford, after
interviewing hundreds of devotees, concluded that the community
of devotees has little trust in ISKCON's leadership.
About two years ago my husband (Anuttama Dasa), Ravindra Svarupa
Prabhu and I met with the leaders of the anti-cult movement in North
America. In a private meeting, we requested that they no longer
refer to us as a cult. They said that for them to refrain from calling
us a cult they would have to see evidence of accountability. They
requested a position statement enumerating point-by-point how we
are caring for our devotees. Krsna is speaking to us through our
How can we expect our devotees to offer love and surrender if their
human needs are not met and if our leaders do not love them? It
is the responsibility of the GBC to maintain the quality of life
of the devotees. Each devotee should feel enveloped in a loving
network. If devotees felt supported spiritually, emotionally and
practically, there would be little danger of being vulnerable to
rtvik or other aberrant philosophies. Philosophical deviations
are a symptom of the vacancy that devotees feel in their hearts
when they are seen only as a means to fill a service or collect
money. As leaders, you meet women in the course of your preaching.
Often you give more deference to these women than to your Godsisters,
whom Srila Prabhupada considered Vaisnavis and more intelligent
than ordinary women.
We all hope to remember Srila Prabhupada's lotus feet at the time
of death. But if we fall short of our goal because of offences or
sins remaining in our hearts, some of us may take our next birth
as women in this Society. The GBC decisions you make now will determine
whether or not some of us will walk in fear of abuse in the future
We need each other - sannyasis, grhasthas, women
- all have diverse and enriching roles to play. Jayadvaita Svami
says that what ISKCON needs is grandmothers. In a culture where
we feel safe to give and receive love - dadati pratigrhnati17 -
devotees who have some difficulty will not fear being ostracised
and will not leave ISKCON to seek community or compassion elsewhere.
I recently spent two days at the Chowpatty temple in Mumbai. It
is a striking example of an ISKCON community that works. The resident
sannyasi is not micro-managing - he is not managing at all.
Instead, he is inspiring the grhasthas, who are fathering
and mothering the brahmacaris and enthusiastically financing
the community projects. The brahmacaris are not hustling
for money but are engaged in preaching, study, and worship of the
Deity. We should study this and other examples of successful communities
within our movement and try to replicate that success.
When I see the beautiful puspa-samadhi of Srila Prabhupada
with all the male figures in kirtana, I feel excluded. Half
of Srila Prabhupada's disciples are not represented. My Godsisters
and I are also part of that kirtana. Srila Prabhupada's glory
is that he brought so many diverse people to worship Lord Caitanya
here at Sridhama Mayapura and fulfilled the prediction of Srila
Bhaktivinoda Thakura. Chinese, Africans, Europeans, Americans -
and women - all should be represented. Whose movement is this? Is
it your movement, or does it belong to all of us? As Srila Prabhupada
wrote to Atreya Rsi, 'You must learn to get along with your Godbrothers
because in the spiritual world Brahmananda will be there, Syamasundara
will be there.' So in the spiritual sky, Yamuna will be there, Kausalya
will be there, Visakha will be there, all joining in the kirtana.
If ISKCON is to be considered relevant, the voices of our women
need to be heard. Yamuna, Visakha, Sitala, and other women are highly
intelligent, glued to Srila Prabhupada's lotus feet, and their sadhana
is impeccable. How enriched this GBC body would be to regularly
receive their wise perspectives.
Before I conclude I'd like to quote Radha Devi Dasi, a Harvard
I have been asked to express some thoughts on the roles and treatment
of women in our ISKCON society. There are a number of viewpoints
on this issue, but I would like to raise two points that I believe
are at the heart of the apparent dilemma we face. First, we misunderstand
our own philosophy and misrepresent our founder-acarya, Srila
Prabhupada, if we develop institutional structures that operate
as barriers to the integration of women into our ISKCON society.
Second, if we truly wish to build a Vaisnava community as well as
a religious institution, then it is imperative that we permit women's
voices to be heard in our public discourse.
Our own Vaisnava traditions and heritage are the best possible
evidence that women have a valuable voice in our society. It is
a mistake to contend that Vaisnava philosophy requires that women
fill one, and only one, social role. In the first place, Srila Prabhupada
made clear that our Vaisnava heritage is one of flexibility and
adaptation with the goal of bringing as many people as possible
to the practice of Krsna consciousness. It is essential that we
remember words spoken by Srila Prabhupada in the purport to text
1, chapter 4 in the First Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam:
Personal realization does not mean that one should, out of vanity,
attempt to show one's own learning by trying to surpass the previous
acarya. He must have full confidence in the previous acarya,
and at the same time he must realize the subject matter so nicely
that he can present the matter for the particular circumstances
in a suitable manner. The original purpose of the text must be maintained.
No obscure meaning should be screwed out of it, yet it should be
presented in an interesting manner for the understanding of the
audience. This is called realization.
Our Vaisnava history is not intended as a set of chains which will
bind modern persons to an historic lifestyle which has not existed
anywhere on this earth in a pure form for thousands of years. Used
in such a way, our Vaisnava history becomes a bar - prohibiting
others from approaching Krsna - and we fail to fulfill the injunction
laid upon us by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu to become spiritual masters
and free the entire world. Our preaching, no matter how emphatic,
is flawed if we cannot convince others to take up the practice of
This discussion of the uses and place of our history and tradition
has a profound impact on the actual operations and effectiveness
of our institution. By arguing that women must keep to traditional
roles for which they may not be suited, by preventing them from
participating in services where they could excel, and by forcing
them to 'stand in the back' both literally and figuratively, we
diminish our ability to function as Srila Prabhupada desired.
It is no secret that ISKCON's treatment of women and children has
drawn criticism from anti-cult groups, rights organisations and
even governmental bodies. It is easy, but foolish, to dismiss such
criticism as envy or the uninformed opinion of materialists. In
taking such a position we force ourselves to defend the indefensible.
Our own history includes women who served as spiritual masters and
engaged in public kirtana and preaching. Srila Prabhupada
himself engaged women in management, public preaching, his personal
service, in fact, in virtually every aspect of his newly formed
ISKCON organisation. Why should we offend half the world's population
in order to uphold a 'tradition' with which even Srila Prabhupada
was willing to dispense?
Most women in ISKCON are engaged in traditional roles. We are mothers,
wives, cooks, housekeepers and caretakers. We cook, we clean, we
care for the children and the men in our Society, as well as caring
for each other. But these tasks are not the whole of our abilities
or of the contribution we have to make to Srila Prabhupada's movement.
In fact, it is our very participation in the 'private sphere' that
gives us a unique contribution to the public discourse. There are
important gender differences that cannot be ignored. This fact,
often used as an argument for silencing women, is actually a reason
why they should be involved in ISKCON's public discourse.
Psychologists and others who have studied gender differences have
concluded that women are, either through biology or socialisation,
more invested in personal relationships than men are. They are more
concerned with the welfare of others and more likely to be forgiving,
insofar as they are more concerned with the facts of the case than
the letter of the law. These findings are no different in their
essentials from traditional Vaisnava thinking about the nature of
women. As a consequence of these differences, women have a unique
contribution to make to our Society.
Our Vaisnava society suffers when women are excluded from its public
life, from decision-making, management and formation of policy.
Our institution is then off balance, with too much weight given
to legalistic concerns and not enough to human ones, just as a family
without a mother may lack a warm and nurturing centre.
The viewpoints and contributions of both men and women are needed
if ISKCON is to grow and flourish in the future.
In conclusion I have three requests for you to consider:
1. Lend credibility to the Women's Ministry by increasing the representation
of women on the GBC on some level and inviting senior women to your
zones and temples to associate with your women devotees.
2. Issue an apology to women for lack of protection and exploitation
under your management and the management of those who came before
3. Return to your respective zones and hold ista-gosthis in
each temple. As you travel, establish the priority of providing
equal facilities, full encouragement and genuine care and protection
to the women members of our society. Hold meetings with leaders
and women to openly address their needs and problems.
You are the leaders of our Society. If you make the correction
of these abuses a priority, the position of women could be turned
around within one year. As I mentioned earlier, the 1996 GBC-authorised
survey of devotees told you that the devotional community has very
little faith and trust in you as leaders. These steps would be very
significant in re-establishing the community's faith in your leadership.