“Personally I am so much engladdened that the pairs of young boys and girls whom I have placed in householder life are doing so nicely in the Western world. When Lord Caitanya delivered Jagai and Madhai He was also a householder, but when Jagai and Madhai were actually reclaimed, His wife, Visnupriya, was not there. But in this case and in many other cases also, I find that my disciples combined together, husband and wife, are doing this preaching work so nicely. So I am especially proud how my householder disciples are preaching Lord Caitanya’s Mission. This is a new thing in the history of the Sankirtana Movement. In India all the acaryas and their descendants later on acted only from the man’s side. Their wives were at home because that is the system from old times that women are not required to go out. But in Bhagavad-gita we find that women are also equally competent like the men in the matter of Krishna Consciousness Movement. Please therefore carry on these missionary activities, and prove it by practical example that there is no bar for anyone in the matter of preaching work for Krishna Consciousness.”
Srila Prabhupada – Letter to: Himavati — London 20 December, 1969
The fundamental argument for allowing women in ISKCON equal access to positions in management (temple president, GBC, etc.) and also act as diksa-guru is that Srila Prabhupada introduced something new. But did he?
What if this “new thing” in the history of the Sankirtana Movement is not that women after thousands and thousands of years have finally shown they are worthy of equal participation in preaching, governing and “guru”-ing. What if instead the “new thing” is that the Sankirtana Movement is being conducted in a society that is fundamentally disconnected from and averse to Vedic principles? In other words, the women in the West are not the different thing, but the extent to which a particular society is averse to Vedic principles is.
As Lord Krishna says,
yaḥ śāstra-vidhim utsṛjya vartate kāma-kārataḥ
na sa siddhim avāpnoti na sukhaṁ na parāṁ gatim
“He who discards scriptural injunctions and acts according to his own whims attains neither perfection, nor happiness, nor the supreme destination.” (BG 16.23)
Living in a society that is averse to Vedic principles, whether that aversion is out of ignorance of malice, or both, guarantees that the society will eventually fail. Hence, historians have posited that civilizations have their own life-cycle.
“A great civilization is not conquered from without, until it has destroyed itself from within. The essential causes of Rome’s decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars.”
Will Durant, 1944, The Story of Civilization
Civilizations come into existence for some time, they flourish, and then eventually they dissolve on account of the moral decrepitude that eventually overwhelms them, despite their own best efforts to stem their society’s moral rot.
And as Arjuna correctly observes in the first chapter of Bhagavad-gita, the abandonment of religious (Vedic) principles leads to the casual intermingling of men and women, which then, through illicit sexual intercourse, produces varna-sankara, persons who are unfit for spiritual advancement and cause social disturbance. Thus, when Srila Prabhupada came to America, the society he encountered was such a civilization–unconnected with Vedic culture and averse to its fundamental principles, in short a varna-sankara society.
So, the nature of “new thing” that Srila Prabhupada talks about is that Western society, being intrinsically against Vedic principles, was an example of an apat-kala, a time of emergency.
jaghanyo nottamāṁ vṛttim anāpadi bhajen naraḥ
ṛte rājanyam āpatsu sarveṣām api sarvaśaḥ
“Except in a time of emergency, lower persons should not accept the occupational duties of those who are higher. When there is such an emergency, of course, everyone but the kṣatriya may accept the means of livelihood of others.” (SB 7.11.17)
In the purport to this shloka, Srila Prabhupada comments (bolding added) that because the welfare activities conducted by the higher castes is stopped, it is now necessary to recruit persons from the lower sections of society in order to do these higher duties:
“Sometimes brāhmaṇas protest against our Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement for creating brāhmaṇas from Europeans, or, in other words, from mlecchas and yavanas. This movement, however, is here supported in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. At the present moment, society is in a chaotic condition, and everyone has given up the cultivation of spiritual life, which is especially meant for the brāhmaṇas. Because spiritual culture has been stopped all over the world, there is now an emergency, and therefore it is now time to train those who are considered lower and condemned, so that they may become brāhmaṇas and take up the work of spiritual progress. The spiritual progress of human society has been stopped, and this should be considered an emergency. Here is solid support from Nārada Muni of the movement known as Kṛṣṇa consciousness.”
A varna-sankara society is a circumstance wherein the social order is topsy-turvy, it is not in proper order. And in such a society no one can make spiritual progress. Therefore, as per this Bhagavatam shloka, in an apat-kala (time of emergency), persons may be recruited from lower or degraded classes in order to perform the duties no longer performed by the higher castes. It is on the same principle that women in the West were also allowed to take up duties that ordinarily are not allowed for women.
So, that “new thing” that Srila Prabhupada spoke of in his letter to his disciple Himavati Mata Ji, of women preaching Krishna consciousness side-by-side with their husbands (or sometimes even without husbands), seen for the first time in the 500 years since the inauguration of the Sankirtana Movement by Lord Caitanya, was an arrangement sanctioned by the principles of sanatana-dharma, also known as varnasrama-dharma.
A question may arise that if the emergency in the Western countries continues, then why not continue the policy of letting women continue to perform activities ordinarily reserved for higher-caste men? The reason for not allowing it to continue is that ISKCON itself is its own society, and to keep its members sufficiently pure to make advancement in bhakti, they have to follow the prescribed rules and regulations of varnashrama-dharma.
For example, in the very beginning of the movement, Srila Prabhupada himself performed the marriage rites for his disciples despite being a sannyasi. He had to do so because there was no one else qualified who could perform the ceremony. But after a sufficient number of qualified brahmanas had been trained up, he himself ceased performing marriages. The emergency was over, so the prescribed rules and regulations had to be followed. And Srila Prabhupada himself observed that.
For the same reason, because ISKCON is now an established society, it is now incumbent upon everyone within ISKCON to follow their prescribed varnasrama duties while performing bhakti. Otherwise, the impurity that will come with the neglect of varnasrama-dharma will be the result of scandal and so much social disturbance.
And if ISKCON is to perish, or transform into something mundane and immoral, like the sahajiya movements that had become prominent about 250 years after the advent of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, then it will be on account of neglecting the principles of dharma.
As Srila Prabhuapda says about the importance of dharma as found in the standard sastras:
aikāntikī harer bhaktir utpātāyaiva kalpate [Brs. 1.2.101]
“The purport is that to become a devotee one must follow the principles laid down in śruti and smṛti. One must follow the codes of the purāṇas and the pāñcarātrikī-vidhi. One cannot be a pure devotee without following the śruti and smṛti, and the śruti and smṛti without devotional service cannot lead one to the perfection of life.” (SB 7.11.7 purport)
So, the “new thing” in the Sankirtana Movement with respect to women preaching alongside of their husbands is that it is actually sanctioned by the principles of apad-dharma–varnasrama principles in a time of emergency. And when that apat-kala is no longer present, the apad-dharma is no longer to be followed. The standard principles of varnasrama-dharma are to be followed instead, so that ISKCON’s members can remain sufficiently pure in order to make steady progress in bhakti-yoga.