A Reply to the GBC Action Order 305 (2009)

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

“Suniti, however, being a woman, and specifically his mother, could not become Dhruva Maharaja’s diksa-guru.” SB 4.12.32 purport
In this response to SAC’s (Sastric Advisory Committee) paper titled Female Diksa-gurus in ISKCON, on which the GBC based its Action Order 305 (2009), we will explain why we think the SAC’s paper is unsound in its reasoning and presents conclusions that will further undermine the institution of diksa-guru within ISKCON not only for men, but also for women.

The problem with the paper is not with one of its premises, that a qualified woman can become a diksa-guru—a premise we agree with (whether a qualified woman should become a diksa-guru is another matter; see Bg 3.35 and 18.47). Instead, the problem is that the paper does not adequately distinguish between certain statements in the sastras or from Srila Prabhupada that fully apply to a soul at a higher stage of spiritual advancement but not necessarily to a soul at a lower stage. The SAC’s paper on female diksa-gurus is therefore a special case of a more general problem in ISKCON. It is based on a way of thinking that predisposes ISKCON’s members to treat some devotees as liberated souls when typically they are not liberated.

This way of thinking in part has its origin in how devotees interpret Srila Prabhupada’s description of the guru. In almost all of his statements about the guru, Srila Prabhupada describes him as a topmost, liberated devotee—”A person who is liberated acharya and guru cannot commit any mistake.” Rarely does Srila Prabhupada describe a guru as someone “less qualified or not liberated, but can still act as guru and acharya by strictly following the disciplic succession.” [1] The abundance of the former kind of statement on the one hand and the rarity of the latter kind on the other predisposes many devotees to consider only liberated gurus as being bona fide. Through the lens of this predisposition, many devotees try to see their gurus, or god brothers acting as guru, as examples of the topmost, liberated guru and acharya Srila Prabhupada so often describes. This tendency has, of course, been a general problem in other areas that are well known and beyond the scope of this paper. In the case of the SAC’s paper, this tendency has special relevance.

The SAC’s paper is special case of the same general problem because Srila Prabhupada, following sastra, generally describes the nature of women in negative terms. Although he sometimes describes the nature of women in positive, sometimes glowing, terms, overall his statements tend to be negative. These statements and statements about the guru as a topmost, liberated devotee are therefore difficult to put together. This is especially so when it is presumed that in ISKCON the general case of a female candidate for guru will be that of a conditioned soul. The SAC’s attempt to reconcile these disjoint statements sheds needed light on the fact that whether we are considering a man or a woman as candidate for guru, the candidate will probably not be liberated. Overall, this is a positive discovery.

This discovery also raises an important question: if a candidate for diksa-guru is still a conditioned soul, will his material sva-bhava affect his ability to act as a diksa-guru? The straightforward answer to this is “yes,” and in the case of women it is most obvious in authoritative statements about matters of judgment. Here are some examples:


yosito navamanyetana casaà visvased budhaù
na caiversur bhavet tasu nadhikuryat kadacana
“A wise man should never insult women, nor should he trust them. He should never become jealous of women, nor should he ever appoint them.” [2]

Mahabharata: “Consolest thou women and are they protected in thy realm? I hope thou placest not any confidence in them, nor divulgest any secret before any of them?” [3]

Ramayana: “Do you keep your womenfolk pacified? Are they duly protected by you? I hope you do not repose excessive faith in them and do not confide your secrets to them.” [4]

Srila Prabhupada:

As children are very prone to be misled, women are similarly very prone to degradation. Therefore, both children and women require protection by the elder members of the family. By being engaged in various religious practices, women will not be misled into adultery. According to Canakya Pandita, women are generally not very intelligent and therefore not trustworthy. [5]

Women as a class are no better than boys, and therefore they have no discriminatory power like that of a man. [6]

Since Lord Siva is himself associated with women, he knows very well their defective nature, and he might not take very seriously Diti’s unavoidable offense, which occurred due to her faulty nature. [7]

A woman’s nature has been particularly well studied by Kasyapa Muni. Women are self-interested by nature, and therefore they should be protected by all means so that their natural inclination to be too self-interested will not be manifested. Women need to be protected by men. A woman should be cared for by her father in her childhood, by her husband in her youth and by her grown sons in her old age. This is the injunction of Manu, who says that a woman should not be given independence at any stage. Women must be cared for so that they will not be free to manifest their natural tendency for gross selfishness. There have been many cases, even in the present day, in which women have killed their husbands to take advantage of their insurance policies. This is not a criticism of women but a practical study of their nature. Such natural instincts of a woman or a man are manifested only in the bodily conception of life. When either a man or a woman is advanced in spiritual consciousness, the bodily conception of life practically vanishes. [8]

And, we should note that the SAC’s paper has provided many more such examples. These statements about women are typical of Srila Prabhupada, not exceptional. They matter because they are related to adhikara— qualification, and qualification is related to the status of one’s being liberated or not liberated. If a woman is liberated from the bodily concept of life, there is no problem with her accepting disciples (whether she should is another matter, there have been many liberated women in the past yet extremely few accepted disciples. Why? Because they would be setting wrong example of how a woman should behave see BG 3.35 and BG 18.47). However, if she is not liberated, approving her as a diksa-guru is to also approve of a guru who by nature has the above-mentioned liabilities. Such characteristics are a part of one’s material sva-bhava if one happens to be a woman.

More generally in the case of a conditioned soul, his particular sva-bhava influences all of his activities. This includes the activities of a diksa-guru. Of the five factors that contribute to the success or failure of any action, four of these factors are material. [9] As per the Gita, they must also be considered. For example, a brahmana by nature has characteristics that are also desirable in a diksa-guru. These characteristics are well known: peacefulness, austerity, self-control, honesty, religiousness, learning, wisdom, etc. But a ksatriya has a different nature with different characteristics, which are not always desirable in a guru. For example, isvara-bhava (a tendency to rule) can be troublesome for someone who is acting as a guru. A guru who “lords it over” his disciples almost always creates unnecessary trouble for himself and his disciples. Also, arjavam (honesty) is not one of a ksatriya’s characteristics. Ksatriyas sometimes have to engage in diplomacy; they sometimes tell half-truths or even lie. Although sometimes this is necessary, a lack of the brahminical commitment to honesty is generally a liability for a diksa-guru, which his disciples and the rest of society would have to put up with.

Even as compared with the sva-bhava of a ksatriya, the sva-bhava of a woman presents many more liabilities that one would not want in a diksa-guru. Some of these liabilities, such as deficiency in judgment, have already been described. However, there are many others as well. Although some say that women are classified according to varna as are men, the sastras also categorize women as a special category distinct from the other varnas (we shall discuss this at length later). The series of verses in the Bhagavatam 7.11.25 – 29 make such a categorization. Like a similar series of verses in the Gita (18.42 – 44), this series also describes the occupational principles of the four varnas. However, the fifth verse describes the principles chaste women should follow. The inclusion of verse SB 7.11.29 in this series justifies a comparison between men and women in terms of varna with women as a special category of varna.

A further significance of this categorization is that women as a class are subordinate even to sudras. As per verse SB 7.11.29, a chaste woman is enjoined to “render service to the husband, to be always favorably disposed toward the husband, to be equally well disposed toward the husband’s relatives and friends, and to follow the vows of the husband.” Since a woman requires the supervision of a husband (or father or son)—even if he is a sudra—women, as a special class and in terms of sva-bhava, present the greatest liability when considering who, among non-liberated devotees, is fit to be a diksa-guru. This would be true even in the case of a brahmani, the wife of a brahmana. Nevertheless, when considering someone for the post of diksa-guru, the material sva-bhava can be disregarded in the case of a man or a woman who is liberated. However, it cannot be disregarded in the case of someone who is not liberated. Just as no one would reasonably want a guru who, as a ksatriya, has a tendency to “lord it over” his disciples and be untruthful, no one would reasonably want a guru who, as a woman, has a tendency for lapses in judgment and, as per Srila Prabhupada, is “very prone to degradation.”

This brings us to reconsidering the SAC paper’s reference to Hari-bhakti-vilas (quoted in Cc Madhya 8.128), along with Srila Prabhupada’s comment, in which Srila Sanatana Gosvami recommends accepting as a guru a vaisnava brahmana instead of someone from a lower varna if the brahmana is available:

“It is stated in the Hari-bhakti-vilasa that one should not accept initiation from a person who is not in the brahminical order if there is a fit person in the brahminical order present. This instruction is meant for those who are overly dependent on the mundane social order and is suitable for those who want to remain in mundane life. If one understands the truth of Kåsna consciousness and seriously desires to attain transcendental knowledge for the perfection of life, he can accept a spiritual master from any social status, provided the spiritual master is fully conversant with the science of Krsna. . . Factually the qualifications of a spiritual master depend on his knowledge of the science of Krsna. It does not matter whether he is a brahmana, ksatriya, sannyasi or sudra.” [10]

This is an instance of Srila Prabhupada’s speaking of the guru at a highly advanced stage of spiritual realization. And we do not think that Srila Prabhupada is correcting Srila Sanatana Gosvami. There must be some time, place, and circumstance where Sanatana Gosvami’s recommendation is indeed for the spiritual benefit of others. If a person who is liberated is available, then they would always preferable to a guru who is not liberated. But in the absence of such a liberated guru, a non-liberated vaisnava brahmana acting as guru will generally be preferable to a non-liberated kshatriya, who will be preferable to a vaisya, and so forth. Srila Prabhupada’s caveat, that one may accept a spiritual master from any social status, “provided the spiritual master is fully conversant with the science of Krsna,” seems to support this understanding. A spiritual master not yet liberated from the influence of the material energy cannot be fully conversant with the science of Krishna. His realization is not yet mature. Therefore in the absence of a liberated guru, the sva-bhava of a non-liberated guru must be considered.

But the SAC does not interpret Srila Prabhupada’s statement in this way. Instead, it seems they interpret this statement and others similar to it as banishing any material consideration—even in the case of a non-liberated devotee. Two points in the SAC’s essay cause us to believe this: the first is that the SAC places extraordinary emphasis on the post of guru instead of on the person aspiring to the post. “The proper vision of our philosophy on the topic of eligibility to become a Vaisnava guru,” says the SAC, “[is that] there cannot be placed any material prohibition on the post of guru—it is transcendental being based on one’s devotion.” The emphasis on “the post of guru” seems to be undue, because in the lower stages of devotion one’s material sva-bhava does seem to have some bearing. However, the SAC still concludes that “gender is also a consideration to be discarded in judging a guru’s eligibility.”

The second point is that the SAC seems to be well aware that they are in fact dealing with non-liberated, female candidates for diksa-guru. Thus, the SAC recommends that a female diksa-guru “should normally have some family support. . . and a residential base to ensure her psycho-social stability.” Whether male or female, a liberated guru does not require “family support” and a “residential base” to ensure “psycho-social stability.” Gangamata Goswamini dressed in rags and slept on the banks of the Yamuna even before her guru Haridas Pandit initiated her. She did not require residence and family support for her mental well-being. Liberated devotees get along quite well without them. That is why they are called “liberated.” Thus we believe that the SAC has interpreted Srila Prabhupada’s comment in Cc Madhya 8.128, with regard to Srila Sanatana Gosvami’s prescription, as removing any material consideration for the post of guru even in the case of a non-liberated devotee.

But there are many reasons that cause us to believe this to be a misinterpretation. Firstly, if material consideration is not required in the circumstance of a non-liberated soul, then it is unlikely Srila Sanatana Gosvami would have made his prescription about seeking a vaisnava brahmana as a guru first before seeking a guru from the lower social orders. And even then, Srila Prabhupada would not have needed to add his own caveat about the spiritual master needing to be fully conversant with the science of Krishna. Secondly, as demonstrated in this paper, one’s material sva-bhava does affect one’s ability to act as a diksa-guru. And it is furthermore our experience over the last 30 years in ISKCON that this is indeed the case.

And thirdly, the SAC’s claim that their recommended material adjustments correspond “to the many recommendations and warnings of women becoming independent given in dharma-sastras” is implausible. For example, what is likely to happen if some conflict of interest arises between a non-liberated female diksa-gurus family and her disciples? On account of her dependence on family, it is likely that she will act against the interests of her disciples. In order to always act in their best interests, she must necessarily be independent. She must be able to act outside of “the many recommendations and warnings of women becoming independent given in dharma-sastras.” A person who is allowed to act outside of her material sva-dharma must necessarily be free from the influence of her material sva-bhava. And one who is free from the influence of her material sva-bhava must necessarily be a liberated soul.

This alone explains why female gurus have been so rare. Although this rarity is explored further in the next part of this paper, it is enough to note that when a non-liberated vaisnava brahmana accepts disciples, he does not act outside of his material sva-dharma. He is independent by nature. His occupation usually involves his accepting students, giving them upanayanam, teaching them, and so forth. He does not have the liabilities that a non-liberated female diksa-guru would have. Unlike the non-liberated female diksa-guru, he does not have to act outside of his prescribed varnasrama duties to properly care for his disciples. And, Krsna Himself states in Gita 3.35 and 18.47 that one should not perform others duties but only those of your own sva-dharma. The SAC’s claim that their recommendations for (non-liberated) female diksa-gurus are in line with the prescriptions of the dharma-sastras is therefore implausible.

These reasons cause us to believe that the SAC has arrived at an incorrect understanding of “the proper vision of our philosophy on the topic of eligibility to become a Vaisnava guru.” And this misunderstanding in part seems to arise from a general tendency to misapply to non-liberated devotees statements that apply fully to the liberated but not necessarily to the non-liberated.

Democratic Socialism

However, another source contributing to the SAC’s particular understanding of female diksa-gurus seems to be related to the fact that ISKCON exists in a world in which western ideas of freedom, democracy, and individual rights are influential. What causes us to believe that these ideas have exerted some influence on the SAC’s paper is in how the paper itself deals with the dharma-sastra’s prescriptions for women. How they deal with these prescriptions resembles less their descriptions in Srila Prabhupada’s commentaries, or in their historical expression, than they do laws inspired by a popular current of political thought known as “democratic socialism.”

Democratic socialism is the political idea that society has an obligation to compensate for differences that arise from birth or social circumstance. This compensation allows all citizens as equal an opportunity as possible to get ahead in life and to fully participate in society’s civic and political affairs. For example, in order to give women a more equal chance to compete with men in the job market, most democratic countries have made laws that require businesses to give women paid maternity leave. With paid maternity leave, women retain their jobs and suffer no loss of income on account of bearing children. Women have a “right” to maternity leave because the desired outcome of equality requires it. And society in turn has an obligation to “level the playing field” in order to help them compete with men in the workplace. From this principle of “leveling the playing field” comes the idea of “equal rights.”

The SAC’s paper seems to treat the dharma-sastra’s recommendations and warnings of women becoming independent in a way similar to the social democratic notion of leveling the playing field. “These kinds of statements,” say the SAC, “may be followed, and thus reconciled, by supportive facilities in the form of relative prerequisites in deciding female diksa-guru eligibility.” As per the SAC, since gender is to be “discarded in judging a guru’s eligibility,” these statements point to the means for overcoming any disadvantage related to gender. They cannot be taken as disqualification. Since this line of thinking resembles the notion of “leveling the playing field,” it is necessary to explore the possible influence of “equal rights.” Even though the SAC paper itself offers assurances that women will not be made gurus for the sake of “equal rights,” this idea is influential within ISKCON and therefore cannot be discounted.

The mundane idea of “equal rights” in ISKCON has three main sources: (1) lingering conditioning from our previous existence as karmis, (2) association with karmis, and (3) association with non-devotee academics. To begin with, devotees don’t leave all their anarthas or bad ideas at the temple entrance when they join ISKCON. In particular, this manifests as indifference to varnasrama-dharma. Here is one such example:

Vedic life, as extolled in our scriptures, is highly interpretive. Understanding what is truly Vedic is elusive. Srila Prabhupada, taught us about Vedic society and the role of varnasrama in elevating society, but he did not practically speaking, engage his spiritual daughters within such a system. They were active preachers, pujaris, cooks, etc. Srila Prabhupada in fact, introduced a new model with new standards; one based on preaching. He had Yamuna dasi perform Abhisehka in Jaipura when the Radha Govinda Deities were installed in 1972 before thousands of Indian pilgrims. He had Malati dasi speak before a large crowd including Gaudiya Matha in Mayapura after the laying of the corner stone in 1972. He was proud to showcase his competent daughters to his god-brothers.

This was stated in 2004 at a meeting of senior Vaishnavis who met to discuss the “non-compliance of the ICC [Indian Continental Committee] regarding GBC Resolutions 501 and 618, passed in 2000.” Here we have senior devotee women declaring that varnasrama is not only incomprehensible but that Srila Prabhupada gave us some other social system to follow. Especially from 1975 on up to his departure in 1977, Srila Prabhupada spoke frequently on the topic of varnasrama-dharma and, above all, exhorted his followers to implement it within ISKCON. These facts and statements are so well known that it is not necessary to reproduce them here. Yet here we have senior women, who actually have a say in how ISKCON is run, saying that varnasrama is not only irrelevant but that Srila Prabhupada wanted us to follow some other newly created social system.

Whatever else may be said about their views, their statements here cause us to believe that they are opposed to having varnasrama in ISKCON. And, hence, it is to be expected that they would be similarly opposed to having varnasrama criteria used in vetting female candidates for diksa-guru. The fact that opposition to varnasrama exists among some of ISKCON’s most senior devotees means we are obliged to consider how feminist thought and sentiment shapes ISKCON insiders’ views of spiritual life.

A second source of opposition to varnasrama is bad association. Most devotees now live outside of ISKCON asramas, and because they live outside of asramas they have to associate regularly with non-devotees. Because of this association—asat-sanga—their ideas about spiritual life are inevitably shaped by their outside friendships. Naturally, this creates a demand for mundane social justice in the form of equal rights. Hence the greatest agitation in ISKCON for “equal rights” and therefore having some representation of females in the role of diksa-guru comes from devotees living in western countries, where this type of social and sexual justice has the strongest influence.

Negative influence of mundane academics

A third source of opposition to varnasrama is the association of professional academics. It sounds harsh to say that their association is “asat,” but it is impossible to deny that they have had a profound influence on ISKCON’s internal debate about the public role of women in ISKCON. And certainly, their reasons for wanting to see a more gender-inclusive ISKCON are based on mundane ideas of social justice.

For example, in his Srila Prabhupada Centennial survey, E. Burke Rochford Jr. implored ISKCON leaders to be more inclusive of women:

I recommend that ISKCON leaders immediately move to restore the rights and responsibilities afforded women by Srila Prabhupada. Men should be educated accordingly. Guru and non-guru leaders should teach respect for women; women should again be viewed as capable devotees in the service of Prabhupada’s movement rather than as temptresses or other such derogatory characterizations. To do so would immediately increase the self-esteem of women and make them more productive members of ISKCON. This will also make the movement more attractive to potential members who view ISKCON’s position on women as antiquated and morally objectionable.

What is also notable about this statement, and many others from professional academics we do not mention here, is that ISKCON devotees use these statements in arguing for more gender-inclusive ISKCON. This particular statement by Rochford was quoted by Kusha Dasi in her presentation, which she delivered with other members of the Women’s Ministry, to the GBC in 2000. Kusha Dasi is by no means unique in appealing to outside experts to make her case. Since these professional academics’ concepts of social justice are based on mundane concepts of equal rights, and since devotees cite them as authorities, mundane ideas of “equal rights” have a significant influence on ISKCON’s internal social discourse.

There have also been bold, recent appeals from professional academics to women in ISKCON to challenge ISKCON’s own tradition in order to establish a gender-egalitarian society. For example, in a recent book titled The Hare Krishna Movement: Forty Years of Chant and Change (2007) , which is a joint project between ISKCON devotees and professional academic observers of ISKCON, anthropologist Anna S. King recommends that ISKCON adopt a “feminist re-reading of Radha” (a “theology” of Radha) for the sake of establishing social and sexual justice within ISKCON. More specifically, she recommends that women who are also ISKCON insiders take up the task of revisioning and challenging the Chaitanya tradition. “The critical task then for feminists would be to confront the Chaitanya tradition wherever the historical perpetuation of unjust, exclusionary practices that have legitimated male superiority are found.” [11] And it appears that King is aware that such a radical revisioning of ISKCON’s theology and tradition will likely undermine ISKCON’s ethics of sexual abstinence.

Self-restraint is the dominant virtue in sexual ethics, together with a body-rejecting model of sexuality. ISKCON spirituality therefore presupposes a cultural system that denies, displaces and sublimates sexualities. Behind the veil of rasa puritan (and misogynist) values are hidden. While these may appear to offer points of reference in a postmodern world, they also imply that gender inequality is divinely revealed. [12]

These examples demonstrate that both insiders and outsiders are putting much pressure on the rest of ISKCON to implement a mundane concept of gender equality as a matter of social justice. “Equal rights” by whatever name is a popular social cause within ISKCON. Therefore, we believe that the SAC paper’s assurance that “such a decision will surely not be based upon the equal-rights doctrine found in modern Western civilization” is an empty assurance.

As stated at the beginning of this paper, we are not against the concept of women diksa-gurus. However, the difference we have with the SAC is on the matter of qualification. We agree with the SAC that if someone is liberated, gender is not a difference to be considered. However, we differ with the SAC on the matter of qualification in the case of non-liberated devotees. Our difference with the SAC can be summed up as follows: we believe that in the case of non-liberated devotees, gender, as is the sva-bhava of non-liberated men, is a factor that must be considered in determining qualification. The SAC, however, seems to reject gender as a qualifying or disqualifying criteria for the non-liberated devotee.

We have detailed in this paper why we believe this conclusion is in error. It seems to us that there are two factors that underlie this error and most of the other errors in SAC’s papers: one is a tendency to apply Srila Prabhupada’s statements about the liberated guru to non-liberated devotees, and the other is feminist thought and sentiment internal and external to ISKCON. The SAC’s paper, however, has other problems, which are detailed in the next section. We believe these other errors should not be overlooked.

To be continued…


[1] Letter to Janardana, 26 April 1968
[2] Hari-bhakti-vilasa 11.708, quoted from Visnu Purana 3.12.30
[3] Narada says to Yudhisthira. Sabha Parva, Lokapala Sabhakhyana Parva, section 5; Mahabharata, Ganguli edition, PDF version, p. 654
[4] Lord Rama inquires from Bharata. Ayodhya-kanda 100.49, Valmiki Ramayana, Gita Press (Gorakhpur 1992) 585
[5] BG 1.49 purport
[6] SB 1.7.42 purport
[7] SB 3.14.36 purport
[8] SB 6.18.42 purport
[9] BG 18.16 purport
[10] CC Madhya 8.128 purport, quoted in SAC 10
[11] Anna S. King, The Hare Krishna Movement: Forty Years of Chant and Change. 225
[12] King 224


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