Dear Devotees, please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada and to your respective Gurudevas.
In reference to this survey that many of you have been requested to take part in,
I was asked to comment on it in part because I am a statistician (MS Statistics), who has both formal training in analyzing data and practical experience in preparing surveys and conducting them.
When conducting any survey, one of the most important concerns a researcher has is in eliminating bias. Even if the bias is unintentional, if your survey is biased in any way, the results will be unreliable or misleading. As declared in the first verse of Srimad-Bhagavatam, “The highest truth is reality distinguished from illusion for the welfare of all.” Bias prevents the discovery of truth. Therefore, both researchers and devotees have a common interest in eliminating bias.
My overall assessment of the survey is that while some of the questions are reasonable and interesting and not without some utility for ISKCON policymakers, the survey itself is strongly biased to produce results that reflect the opinion of the survey’s sponsor. In the survey there are various problems of response bias, especially framing bias, and also selection bias. It is also apparent that those who created the survey are unfamiliar with some of the basic principles of survey design. Prior experience and training do matter.
Now, I will present examples of these different biases. After that, I will address some general epistemological issues related to this survey and its purposes.
Biases in the survey
Lack of training and experience in survey design
The very first question quotes the verse and translation for Bhagavad-gita 9.32 and gives a 5-point Likert-scale response (from “I strongly agree” to “I strongly disagree”) to this question:
“In this verse, Lord Kṛṣṇa establishes that women, vaisyas and sudras, although according to varnasrama, are people of low birth, can achieve the supreme destination if they take the shelter of Lord Krsna through bhakti-yoga.”
The ONLY answer any devotee is going to give is “I strongly agree”. Answers “I agree”, “I am not sure”, “I disagree”, “I strongly disagree” are indications of progressive faithlessness. So, at the very least, a 5-point Likert-scale response is inappropriate for this question.
From a purely data analysis standpoint, a data field (like a column in an Excel spreadsheet) for which the value is the same for all observations (rows) is generally useless, because the result is uninteresting (in this case we already know that every survey taker will give the same answer) and therefore serves no useful purpose.
And given that devotees’ names, geographic organization and institutional position are collected, no one in their right mind who takes this survey is going to give any answer other than “I strongly agree.” Does anyone really want to be known as weak-faithed or faithless on account of taking this survey?
Overly Complex Questions.
Many of the questions are too complex to give a consistent interpretation for any of the responses obtained.
For example, question 2 has many parts to which an answer that is not “I strongly agree” or “I strongly disagree” will be difficult to interpret.
Question 2 says:
“2. Based on the purport of this verse, it is established that anyone, no matter how fallen they are, if they have taken shelter of a pure devotee, they can become a spiritual master, without any consideration of varnasrama-dharma status.”
But if the survey taker answers “I disagree,” this could mean disagrees with one of the parts of question while agreeing with the rest. He might disagree with “if they have taken shelter of a pure devotee,” or disagree with “they can become a spiritual master,” or disagree with “without any consideration of varnasrama-dharma status” but agree with the other propositions. Similarly, an answer “I agree” could mean he accepts most of the propositions but does not fully support one or another proposition.
Only the answers “I strongly agree” or “I strongly disagree” have unambiguous interpretations. Many of the questions in the survey are overly complex like this.
There is the fact that the identities of the survey takers and the answers they give will be known (or will be easily accessible at any time) to the survey sponsor, who himself has varying degrees of influence over the lives of the survey takers. Those who agree with the survey sponsor’s well-known opinion are more likely to take the survey than those who disagree with it.
Biased interviewer and Response Bias (general).
As a general rule, neutral persons or third-parties with no stake in the outcome should administer a survey to avoid response bias. But in this survey, the person commissioning the survey is known, his opinion on the survey’s topic is also known, and those taking the survey are asked to give their names, geographic organization and position. Hence, every survey taker is at risk of adverse consequences if his answers are not to the liking of the survey’s sponsor. The first question gave an example of this, and there are many others in the survey.
Framing bias is a type of response bias, and it happens when survey takers make a decision based on the way information is presented to them. That is, if the information were presented some other way, or if important information not included in the question were included, the survey taker might make a different decision.
Some examples of framing bias in this survey:
Biased selection of acharyas from other sampradayas.
In the survey there is an embedded Youtube video of Pejawar Swami (His Holiness Vishwesha Tirtha Swami) giving an interview that is felt to be positive evidence for female diksa-gurus. It is pointed out in the survey that he “is one of the senior-most sannyasis in Madhva-sampradaya” and “is considered one of the Orthodox acaryas.”
However, the survey does not make any mention of other Orthodox Vaishnav acharyas and scholars who object to women acting as diksa-guru. In this regard, there are attached three recent letters (see attached PDF):
- Sri (Prof.) M.A. Laksmithathachar (Melkote),
- Sri Muralidhara Battar (chief Archaka of Sri Rangam Temple and descendent related to family of Venkata Batta), and
- Sri Lakshmikumara Tatacharya (Sri Rangam, and professor Vishishtadvaita)
They have each raised their concerns over the GBC’s proposal to make women regular diksa-guru within ISKCON.
(It should also be noted that the survey sponsor knows of these letters, so he could be asked why his survey did not include them.)
Please also see this video interview https://youtu.be/WlRKVl8mGbg
More videos at this link: https://guru-sadhu-sastra.blogspot.com/p/1.html
The point here is that the survey itself is one-sided, biased to bring about a certain conclusion.
The GBC reproduces in full its Oct. 17 2019 public statement of explanation for its latest resolution to approve of FDGs. In the statement, they say that the GBC has conducted “15 years of thorough research and in-depth discussions” and have researched “the broader historical and sastric evidence in regards to diksa” in the Gaudiya Sampradaya.
However, the GBC has been aware at least since 2017 that the Narada Pancaratra in its presentation of the process of pancaratrika-diksa does in fact give explicit prohibition of women generally from giving diksa. Yet a majority of GBC policy makers continue to ignore the evidence.
- The Sastric Advisory Council (SAC) erroneously said in their 2005 and 2013 papers on FDGs that there is nothing in pancaratrika shastra that gives any special conditions or prohibitions for women to become diksa-guru. THIS IS UNTRUE.
- Narada Pancaratra (Bharadvaja-samhita, a shastra our acharyas quote from) has explicit prohibitions against women becoming diksa-guru and definite guidance for when a woman may be considered an exception.
na jatu mantra-da nari na sudro nantarodbhavah |
nabhisasto na patitah kama-kamo ’py akaminah ||1.42||
“Even then, a woman, a sudra and an antyaja can never act as initiating gurus, nor can anyone who is accused of a great sin or is fallen. And an aspiring disciple who is already accomplished in detachment (akami ) should never accept a guru who is infected with material desires.”
striyah sudradayas caiva bodhayeyur hitahitam |
yatharham mananiyas ca narhanty acaryatam kvacit ||1.43||
“Women, sudras, etc., can give ethical and moral instructions and are also worthy of respect as per their qualifications and conditions but are not entitled to get the position of acarya.”
kim apy atrabhijayante yoginah sarva-yonisu |
pratyaksitatma-nathanam naisam cintyam kuladikam ||1.44||
“But, because perfect yogis (or nitya-siddha devotees) who are on the stage of yoga-pratyaksa (i.e. are self-realized—seeing God face-to-face), pratyaksitatma-nathanam, may take birth in any family tradition, in such cases no consideration of kula, gender, etc. as mentioned earlier apply (they can become acaryas).”
This paper we have produced here was shared with the GBC in 2017.
In fact, several GBC members privately reviewed this paper before it was published, and they provided many helpful suggestions. And the paper in its entirety was shared with the GBC. It’s just that that the majority of GBC members are determined to ignore the evidence from shastra. Similarly, the survey presented framed its questions to favor female diksa-gurus by purposefully ignoring this evidence.
(To learn further about our initiation system as given by our acharyas, see this link https://archive.org/details/VDNAP)
A final example of framing bias is in how they deal with Srila Prabhupada’s statement about Suniti from his Srimad-Bhagavatam purport to verse 4.12.32:
“According to sastric injunctions, there is no difference between siksa-guru and diksa-guru, and generally the siksa-guru later on becomes the diksa-guru. Suniti, however, being a woman, and specifically his mother, could not become Dhruva Maharaja’s diksa-guru. Still, he was not less obliged to Suniti.”
That is what Srila Prabhupada says. But, in the ONLY reference to Suniti, the survey never gives a direct quote from Srila Prabhupada but only their general interpretation of the pastime, and then they ask the survey taker if they agree with their interpretation.
“[question] 8. The mother of Dhruva, Suniti, mostly women are not diksa gurus except in rare cases. However, she gave guidance to Dhruva Maharaja to take shelter of and look for the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Since she was his mother, in any case, she could not be his diksa guru. But she encouraged him in his search for Bhagavan. She was a vartma-pradarsaka-guru and siksa guru. Srila Prabhupada said that there is no difference between a siksa guru and a diksa guru. Thereafter Dhruva Maharaja, eventually got initiated by Narada muni, and by worshipping Krsna, he achieved all he desired. His mother went back to the eternal spiritual world because of her guidance to Dhruva Maharaja. We want all of our Vaisnavis to also be trained as vartma-pradarsaka-gurus and siksa gurus so that they can benefit their relatives and others, in the spiritual path.”
That is all they say about Suniti. And it is not a quotation by Srila Prabhupada but their own interpretation.
But throughout the survey they quote both shastra and Srila Prabhupada at length if it seems to support a particular answer in favor of FDGs. For example, in the preliminary information given to answer questions 5 – 15, the primary evidence presented is a conversation between Srila Prabhupada and Professor O’Connell dated June 18, 1976, Toronto, Canada. Not only is a lengthy exerpt from the transcript presented, but so is an audio clip as well. Suniti gets barely a mention.
The problem of framing bias pervades the survey.
Some issues of epistemology
The Absolute Truth is not understood by surveys but ultimately by revelation. And all Vedantists understand sastra to be the source of revelation. Srila Jiva Gosvami in Sarvasamvadini 9 says, sabda eva mulam pramanam. Therefore Srila Prabhupada taught that among the different kinds of sabda (verbal testimony), “sastra is the center for all” (CC Madhya 20.352). This is how all our acharyas and all Vedantists have understood the importance of sastra.
But in ISKCON we generally consider only Srila Prabhupada as our mulam pramanam, our primary evidence. This is wrong, and it has given rise to so many problems in our society.
For example, just as Srila Prabhupada says, “there is no sanction in the Vedic literature for a woman’s accepting sannyasa” (SB 3.24.40), all that was required to defeat the ritvik philosophy was to simply say that there is no sanction in Vedic literature for a guru who has physically departed to continue initiating disciples. But because, as a society, we instead consider Srila Prabhuapda as our root pramana (mulam pramanam), we could not say this. Consequently, ritvikism has persisted to this day.
So, at present, devotees who are trying to prove that Srila Prabhupada wanted women to become regular diksa-gurus begin with a biased sample of Srila Prabhupada’s own statements, as in the survey under review. They are biased because they are selected according to their own opinion on the matter. As we saw in the survey, other statements from Srila Prabhuapda that don’t support their opinion get ignored.
Next, they try to find sastra to give further evidence for their opinions if such sastra at all exists. If the sastra doesn’t exist or contradicts whatever of Srila Prabhuapda’s statements they have selected, then the statements of Srila Prabhupada’s they have selected are considered to be self-evident. So, sastra is not essential for their method of obtaining spiritual knowledge, only Srila Prabhupada’s statements are.
Srila Prabhupada, however, criticized this idea by showing how the Buddhists are in error by rejecting the Vedas.
“According to the Buddhists’ fifth principle, Lord Buddha is the only source for the attainment of knowledge. We cannot accept this, for Lord Buddha rejected the principles of Vedic knowledge. One must accept a principle of standard knowledge because one cannot attain the Absolute Truth simply by intellectual speculation. If everyone is an authority, or if everyone accepts his own intelligence as the ultimate criterion—as is presently fashionable—the scriptures will be interpreted in many different ways, and everyone will claim that his own philosophy is supreme. This has become a very great problem, and everyone is interpreting scripture in his own way and setting up his own basis of authority. Yata mata tata patha. Now everybody and anybody is trying to establish his own theory as the ultimate truth” (CC Madhya 9.49)
By making Srila Prabhupada as ISKCON’s Buddha, or central authority, we make the same mistake the Buddhists make and thereby become disconnected from the bona fide guru-parampara.
In order to save ISKCON from this deviation, it is the obligation of all those who have faith in shastra to try to convince those who believe only in Srila Prabhupada’s words that they must also believe in sastra as well–yasya deve parabhakti yatha deve tatha gurua (Svetasvatara Upanisad 6.23).
To properly settle the controversy over female diksa-gurus or any other controversy that arises in the future, the proper method, with sastra as “the center for all,” has to be accepted. Otherwise, like the Buddhists, we will fragment into so many opposing sects.
On the female diska-guru issue, we already are fragmenting.
Your servant, Krishna-kirti Das
p.s. I may be reached at this email address: krishnakirti at gmail dot com.