A couple of days back, I received a letter from a concerned devotee in Canada. He expressesd concerned about the “tilt towards female diksha gurus” [“FDGs”] amongst a section of ISKCON leaders in the West.
He forwarded me the following message that he saw on social media, under the title of “progressive vaishnavism”, and that thereafter I circulated his letter to a few like-minded devotees. In his letter, he forwarded the following open letter and a petition to ISKCON’s GBC (Governing Body Commission) to immediately reaffirm their earlier approval of FDGs in ISKCON, posthaste. The ISKCON GBC has recently suspended their approval for three years, after admitting a petition to do so from ISKCON India’s Governing Council (the Bureau).
One of the devotees I wrote to – he does not wish his name be published – wrote some responses to what appeared in the letter, and it is all copied herein below.
The responses have been inserted in italics, for easy identification.
Progressive Vaishnavism ·
Sadhvi Sanga ·
An Open Letter to Friends and Members of ISKCON.
In 1968, in his room at 26 2nd Avenue [in New York City], Srila Prabhupada told his small group of disciples, “I want each one of you to open a temple.”
One young lady blurted out, “Even the girls, Swamiji?”
Srila Prabhupada replied, “Yes! When you are preaching Krsna consciousness, there is no difference between the boys and the girls.”
And no wonder. Lord Krishna says, “Among women I am fame, fortune, fine speech, memory, intelligence, steadfastness and patience.”
Just as women are naturally gifted to protect children, women are naturally gifted to encourage and nurture new devotees.
Srila Prabhupada described women as “our secret weapon for spreading Krishna consciousness.”
In addition to wanting women to be good mothers, he wanted women on the front lines in the war against illusion and suffering in this world.
What exactly does “on the front lines” mean in practical terms, and what evidence given here explicitly supports the invention of FDGs in ISKCON?
Since that day fifty-four years ago, some special devotees among Srila Prabhupada’s 1,500 women disciples have given their lives to sharing Krishna consciousness with others. Sadly, since his departure in 1977, his GBC managers have been less encouraging to women in general.
Still, by Srila Prabhupada’s mercy, over the years, these special women have helped many newcomers come to Krishna consciousness, especially in the West. Some of those newcomers naturally want their Vaishnavi shiksa gurus to give them initiation.
This is glorious [that some Western women instructed their Western sisters in Krishna consciousness] , but ultimately all pure devotees (including sadhus and gurus) base all their actions on what sastra enjoins; so where is the explicit injunction from all of these authorities for creating ISKCON FDGs? It evidently doesn’t exist.
[My note: those who support the introduction of FDGs in ISKCON haven’t shown support from shastras – “sanction in vedic literature (as per what Srila Prabhupada wrote in his purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 3.24.40) – for FDGs. In fact, introducing FDGs would directly contradict what he wrote in his purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 4.12.32: “According to śāstric injunctions, there is no difference between śikṣā-guru and dīkṣā-guru, and generally the śikṣā-guru later on becomes the dīkṣā-guru. Sunīti, however, being a woman, and specifically his mother, could not become Dhruva Mahārāja’s dīkṣā-guru.”
This natural desire is authorized by guru, sadhu and sastra. As early as 1969, in a letter outlining his vision for education in ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada wrote, “I want that all of my spiritual sons and daughters will inherit this title of Bhaktivedanta, so that the family transcendental diploma will continue through the generations. Those possessing the title of Bhaktivedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples. (SPL, 3 January 1969).
This one quote, like the two or three others often cited from Srila Prabhupada’s personal letters, isn’t very convincing because it not only ignores centuries of shishtachara and shastric prohibition, but also requires a great deal of interpretation in order to support novel FDG proposals [the heretofore nonexistent system of FDGs].
In other words, it takes Srila Prabhupada’s words out of their intended context and it isn’t the ideal methodology he instructs us to use in his purport to Bhagavad-gita 17.15, etc. If Srila Prabhupada’s books are the basis, it’s better not to adopt bad examples like the one set by ritviks [note: by “ritviks” it refers to those who propagate that a guru can continue to give diksha – initiation — after his physical disappearance] and other spiritually creative upstarts [meaning concocted systems of so-called spiritual life – as per what Srila Prabhupada commented in his purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 3.24.40, as referred to above].
Further, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu encourages all qualified people to act as gurus: “Whether one is a brahmana, a sannyasi, or a shudra—regardless of what one is—one who knows the science of Krishna can become a spiritual master.” (CC Madhya 8.128)
Very true. But this still doesn’t constitute any explicit injunction to create a new class of diksha-gurus, yet it does deviate from the ideal example Srila Prabhupada inherited and exemplified himself. Thus people remain doubtful about it even after decades of prevaricating “debates.”
Remarkably, some devotees utterly inexperienced with preaching in the West recoil in terror at the idea of a few dedicated grandmothers accepting a few disciples. Under pressure from them, and despite an avalanche of shastric evidence to the contrary, the GBC for twenty years has delayed permission for senior ladies to accept disciples.
At least three of the above assumptions are fundamentally flawed:
The first trivializes the theological deviation in pramanas that is employed by FDG activists. Pramana alone provides the only possible justification for FDG creation, but the normal standards governing pramana are twisted here. So it isn’t just a question of anyone giving personal instructions. Bhagavad-gita 3.21 warns that the actions of any alleged authority establishes a precedent that people take as bona fide even when it actually isn’t. And that alone has massive ramifications that I’ve never seen any FDG advocates recognize – ever — which tarnishes their credibility. So it’s definitely pernicious.
FDG advocates instead appeal to, and primarily depend upon, support from less discriminating people who aren’t accustomed to reading Srila Prabhupada’s books as Srila Prabhupada instructed.
Secondly, it it probably true that only political pushback led the GBC to delay giving FDGs its full imprimatur, because that is unfortunately how the GBC actually works.
However this GBC norm is far from ideal, since Srila Prabhupada instead asked that his books be the lawbooks for the next ten thousand years in ISKCON — an ideal we have either fallen from or deliberately kicked out. This constitutes a serious and highly consequential theological deviation that should not be artificially portrayed as mere politics or “controversy.” Such protracted minimization, prevarication, and neglect regarding a core theological tenet like pramana will actually end ISKCON as we know it.
Or it will at least split ISKCON into so many more Gaudiya Math facsimiles.
Thirdly, the supposed “avalanche of shastric evidence” mentioned above actually rests upon just a few personal letters or statements along with the radical reinterpretation (by FDG advocates) of whatever few shastric references they find amenable to their cause.
And as already pointed out, this is the very same means employed by ritvikist theorists. For example, there is nothing in “kiba vipra kiba nyasi” [Chaitanya Charitamrita Madhya, 8. 128] that clearly endorses any radical alteration of our traditional vidhis governing diksha — until someone plants that speculation into readers’ minds. So far, that speculation remains unsupported by our standard pramanas.
So there actually isn’t any “avalanche” of contrary shastric evidence unless one deviates epistemologically.
Finally, preaching strategy is one thing, but philosophical integrity is another; don’t fuse or confuse the two. We might adopt whatever means necessary to induce others to chant Hare Krishna, but we cannot alter our theological standards in order to justify our activities. Intelligent people will sooner or later see the difference between what we’re saying and doing, and can then fairly call us hypocrites. And assuredly they will.
Finally, convinced of this undeniable truth, the GBC gave their permission for qualified women to initiate. Now, under even heavier pressure from the same party, the GBC rescinded permission again, this time for up to three years!
When this happened, one lifelong Vaishnavi preacher suggested to an aspiring disciple that she take initiation from a supportive guru in a male body while she continued to instruct her.
“No thank you,” the disciple said. “I’ll wait until my next lifetime.”
Is this really a shastric argument — or is it more of an emotional appeal?
Srila Prabhupada’s women disciples are now as old as he was when he came to America. Some have left their bodies already and the rest do not know if they will be alive in three years. Why should the GBC deny their aspiring disciples, nearly all women, the right to choose the qualified diksha guru of their choice simply on the basis of their material bodies?
Carefully consider Lord Krishna’s conclusion in the verses ending chapter 16 of Bhagavad-gita [23 & 24]. Then do so again, and question whether you truly understand what He means. Consider all of your acharyas’ commentaries on that passage. Have you taken this much trouble? Make sure your head is cool, dispassionate, and submissive. Then you may better appreciate the viewpoint of your conscientious objectors.
As Srila Prabhupada’s male disciples we are standing up to restore to ISKCON the empowering mood he personally established for women devotees.
“Restore”? When, where, and how was this as of yet poorly-defined “empowering mood” actually “established,” and on what solid grounds? Be as specific as possible about this, please. You may be unable.
In my experience, FDG advocates tend to be evasive, and they haven’t yet answered these crucial questions. But unless we desire an institution full of clueless goats, the long-term spiritual health and theological integrity of ISKCON both depend very much on responsibly (and responsively) addressing such reasonable questions from ISKCON’s well-informed, senior, and equally dedicated preachers. After all, their contributions to Srila Prabhupada’s are not less than those of their highly respected mothers.
We are not ‘feminists’ or mundane social reformers as some ignorantly insist. We are lifelong preachers who follow what Srila Prabhupada did to fulfill pashchatya desha tarine, his mission to share Krishna consciousness in the West.
Do you really mean “follow” here, or do you actually mean “imitate”?
If you are merely following, you definitely have an obligation to clearly prove that you received any explicit order to implement FDGs, instead of the daivi-varnasrama-dharma explicitly mandated by Srila Prabhupada. I’ve not yet seen anyone [who supports in the introduction of FDGs into ISKCON] do this.
If you can’t, then just let our acharyas adjust our orthodoxy [defined by Cambridge as “the generally accepted beliefs of (ISKCON) society at a particular time”, because even ISKCON’s committed leaders in good standing do not and should not place their confidence in shoddy and temporal ideologies (which will only increase if we ignore their flaws).
If you cannot at least speak like an acharya, then you most certainly cannot usurp your acharyas’ prerogative by trying to adjust time-honored religious principles that Srila Prabhupada, his books, and his own guru-janas so clearly endorse.
Without admitting this much responsibility, people can rightly call you out as half-learned cheaters, for pure devotees will only follow what is clearly recognized and shastric.
Please sign this petition to allow qualified ladies to initiate disciples in ISKCON. Please encourage your friends to sign too. You have a voice, and together we will be heard.
This approach is essentially “vox populi,” which Srila Prabhupada uniformly criticized.
But it’s completely understandable in this case, because our virtually dictatorial GBC has given you little other choice.