The first try was a bit sharp at the edges for general audience, so I’m trying to smooth it out, and some new arguments are added, too.
Late last year GBC put the resolution authorizing women devotees to become diksa gurus on hold, reasoning that further discussions with its opponents is necessary. This opens up an opportunity for approaching this issue in a new way to avoid the stalemate we, as a society, reached approximately ten years ago.
In BG 3.20 Krishna gives King Janaka as an example of a person who attained perfection by executing his prescribed duties. Looking at Mahabharata and other sastric records we can learn that one of his distinguishing achievements was creating a perfect atmosphere for philosophical debates. For example, the entire story of Ashtavakra from start to finish relies on the assumption that one can always go to the court of King Janaka and showcase his learning there. His father went to participate in the debates before Ashtavakra was born and then Ashtavakra himself went there, too, and King Janaka accepted him as a guru (but not diksa guru) after hearing him speak. One of the reasons for our stalemate is the administrative arrangement where SAC can write papers but cannot respond to objections because it only does work when ordered by GBC, which is how … operate (fill the blank with one of the varnas yourself). Pertinent to this discussion, the famous female sage Gargi Vachaknavi attained her fame by engaging Yajnavalkya in a debate organized by King Janaka, too (but she didn’t win).
We do not have a system for conducting such debates yet and in the meantime we exchange opinions through open letters such as the one put out by forty seven senior female disciples of Srila Prabhupada. Personally, I looked at it with interest but it was quickly replaced by disappointment and here are my reasons why.
First of all, it looks like these senior vaishnavis argue for their right to become gurus. That’s the disqualification right there – anybody who argues that he should be a guru is an imposter and not an external manifestation of Krishna. They could have included a passage dealing with this “conflict of interest” but they didn’t. Not a good sign.
Secondly, they addressed this open letter to all ISKCON devotees, present and future, but they talk about the opponents as some third party, meddling, annoying, and perhaps even devious. Well, I can be counted as one of these opponents and I can sense that these vaishnavis do not want a dialogue, they want us to be “cancelled” – to be confined to our “culturally sensitive” reservations where we do not impede their glorious preaching. Interestingly, one of the accusations directed at the opponents is that they act against the principle of unity in diversity but this desire to remove their opponents from the conversation is not a symptom of unity either. In fact, these senior vaishnavis do not seem to want a conversation, discussion, or a debate (they just want to be gurus). This is also disappointing.
They talk about this issue of female gurus as if it has been settled and Srila Prabhupada’s desire was very clear. In the letter it’s “Srila Prabhupada’s clear instruction that we do so” (they probably meant instructionS – in plural). I will rephrase Sivarama Swami’s argument in this regard, taken from his video address a couple of years ago: they say that it’s “clear” but even the quotes they give in support of their position are already contradictory. In this letter they cite Srila Prabhupada’s conversation with professor O’Connel and a letter to Hansadutta. The conclusion given to O’Connell was “but not so many” and to Hansadutta it was “all my spiritual daughters”, so which one is it? Add to this the famous “Suniti purport” and we get a range from “women cannot become gurus” to “not so many” to “all my spiritual daughters”. Where is the clarity? The opponents see the obvious need for reconciliation here and declarations that it’s “all already clear” sound more like wishful thinking or avoiding the problem. This attitude will not get us anywhere and it will not bring “unity in diversity” either.
The letter argues against several objections to vaishnavi diksa gurus but avoids the main one – “it’s not what Srila Prabhupada wanted”. This objection is not rooted in “cultural sensitivity” but based on decades of studying and preaching Srila Prabhupada’s message, sastra, and it’s supported by ages old Vedic tradition (I’m not speaking about myself here). Can the proponents display a similar level of knowledge? Can they assert it in a debate? Let’s look at one of their arguments.
The letter states: “Even today women give initiation in different branches of the Gaudiya Math.” They most likely mean Sri Guru Prapanna Ashram that got into public discussion very recently, started by Gaura Keshava Prabhu (who has left ISKCON some time ago). This ashram has a website and in the biography of their founder we can read this:
“Shrila Acharyadeva soon left the math as a consequence of some problematic issues and incidents that arose, and went to stay at Vrindavan. The math atmosphere gradually seemed more and more detrimental to the practice of devotion and, without much delay, our beloved Shrila Prabhujee, being perturbed, decided to leave the math to continue practising devotion while avoiding the limelight of promotion and publicity.”
and then two sentences later:
“He established his own institution ‘Shree Guru Prapanna Ashram’ at Budge Budge, Dinhata, Raghunathpur, Navadwip, Basirhat and a few other places in West Bengal.”
It’s not a branch of Gaudiya Math, though their dedication to devotional service must be recognized. Speaking of which, this ashram was established in 1953 but we only learn about it now, seventy years later, and only because it came up in our own discussions on female gurus. This ashram existed all through Srila Prabhupada’s preaching and later thousands and thousands of ISKCON devotees have left to take shelter of various Gaudiya Math acharyas but no one has ever heard of this particular group. Shouldn’t it be taken as a testimony to how dynamic female guru preaching is? Also what was left of public conversations about this ashram was that it practices giving sannyasa to women, which was not at all accepted by Srila Prabhupada – “So-called spiritual societies concocted in modern times give sannyāsa even to women, although there is no sanction in the Vedic literature for a woman’s accepting sannyāsa.” (SB 3.24.40 purport)
Forty seven senior vaishnavis signed this letter and no one thought of checking bona fides of the example they give? This is also disappointing. If Gargi Vachaknavi I mentioned early was as careless with her arguments as these vaishnavis are with their statements on clarity and with their examples she wouldn’t stand a chance.
However, I felt most let down by the following two arguments.
“Moreover, there are women who have lost trust or been harmed by male authority figures even before joining ISKCON. As a result, some of those women feel they can open their hearts more sincerely, and better reveal their minds, to a Vaishnavi Diksha guru.”
This one talks about a search for a guru based on material considerations, as if one were choosing a date on the basis of one’s previous dating experiences. It would be okay if one were looking for a guru to teach how to play genuine ragas as opposed to teaching how to copy westernized tunes on harmonium or some material skill like that, but it’s absolutely not how Krishna manifests himself through a vaishnava guru. The name Ashtavakra means he was disfigured, “bent in eight places”, and surely King Janaka never thought he would meet such a repulsive looking guru, but he accepted Ashtavakra nevertheless. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, as the saying goes – when Krishna appears in the form of Sri Guru all material expectations need to be put aside. And then the above sentence was immediately followed by this:
“One woman said if she can’t receive initiation from the Vaishnavi guru of her choice, she’ll wait until her next life to receive initiation. This is heartbreaking. Why should a serious and qualified aspirant be…”
Counter question – why would forty seven senior vaishnavis think that a person postponing initiation until next life unless she is given a guru of her preferred gender is “a serious and qualified aspirant”? Such a person wouldn’t even pass ISKCON disciple course, so what does it say about people who support her in this and what does it say about their claim to become gurus themselves? Nothing good. In fact, if there was a list of possible guru candidates then these forty seven names can be immediately stricken out.
That should be the end of the conversation.
A couple of disclaimers, however. I say “I’m disappointed” and “I feel let down” not because I masquerade as a VDG supporter but because I want to see strong arguments from the pro-vaishnavi-diksa guru side, arguments worth considering and arguments which move the discussion forward. This letter doesn’t even want the discussion and arguments they present should be embarrassing for vaishnavis of such seniority. We all should feel bad when one of us does something ermm… stupid, shouldn’t we? We are all in this together as Srila Prabhupada’s followers, after all.
Secondly, the letter could mean not Sri Guru Prapanna Ashram but some other Gaudiya Match branch where women give initiations. The possibility is there but I have never ever heard of anything like it. I have heard of another female disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati who gathered a significant following, but not as part of Gaudiya Math either.
“Receive initiation from the Vaishnavi guru of her choice” could mean a deep personal connection and determination, similar to how Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati felt when he approached Srila Gaurakishora Dasa Babaji several times and was rejected. Or how Narottama Dasa Thakura felt when he was rejected by Lokanatha Swami. However, in both of these cases it’s not the disciples themselves who made a choice but they were directed to seek initiation from these personalities by senior authorities. Insisting on one’s own choice in the presence of many alternatives and against existing rules and regulations sounds like acting on a mental platform, so even this possible explanation needs a lot more arguments in support of it.
It is also understandable why our senior vaishnavis want to pass along their accumulated knowledge and realizations as a service to Srila Prabhupada. This is not a gender issue, however – every human of this age feels that his experience is invaluable and it’s the main thing he has left to contribute to the society. This is a material consideration, however, as this knowledge and experience comes with age and then becomes lost again, but spiritual realizations are not restricted in this way. Ashtavakra became King Janaka’s guru when he was only twelve, for example. Or Bipin Bihari Goswami was much younger than Bhaktivinoda Thakur but Bhaktivinoda Thakur was still directed to seek initiation from him. Anyway, in Vedic society there must have been ways for elderly women to feel included and be valuable contributors without giving out diksas. In fact, the opponents cite several examples of venerable women like that, personalities like Queen Kunti. Perhaps our real problem here is not vaishnavi diksa gurus but that the services given to our senior vaishnavis are not fulfilling enough.
That’s another point to get disappointed about – the letter implies existence of younger female devotees who could be qualified to become diksa gurus but does not acknowledge it other than a future possibility, as in “tragic precedent for future generations.” In other words, these vaishnavis do not see any other females but them to be qualified to become gurus. That’s some text book neophyte thinking – I’m a great devotee meant to save the world and I don’t see anyone else coming even close. I hope I’m exaggerating here.
I do really hope I’m wrong and there is a way to explain this letter as not unbecoming the status of the devotees who signed it. I welcome all such explanations.