The status of women in ISKCON has long been a contentious issue. Is ISKCON's attitude to women a reflection of Vaisnava values or is it perversion of them? Are ISKCON members following Srila Prabhupada's instructions or manipulating them to support their own agendas? This year, for the first time, ISKCON's Governing Body Commission (GBC) heard presentations by representatives of the ISKCON Women's Ministry. We present here a brief history of women in ISKCON, the presentations made at the GBC meetings and the resolutions that they prompted. Future reports will be made on the effectiveness of these meetings and the resolutions.
In New York, in the spring of 1966, shortly after Srila Prabhupada had coined the acronym 'ISKCON' and had laughed playfully with the new word, he initiated the legal work of incorporating the society. Stephen Goldsmith, a young Jewish lawyer, fascinated by the idea of setting up a religious corporation for an Indian svami, began to help. On 11 July 1966, Mr Goldsmith came to Prabhupada's lecture and kirtana at 26 Second Avenue to get signatures from the trustees for the new society. To the surprise of the people gathered, after Srila Prabhupada's lecture, Mr Goldsmith stood up and made a short announcement asking for signers on an incorporation document for the Svami's new religious movement. The first trustees - those sympathisers with enough reverence towards the Svami to want to help him - were Michael Grant, his girlfriend Jan Marie Campanella, and James Greene.
Two months later, on Srila Prabhupada's Vyasa-puja day - 9 September 1966 - Srila Prabhupada held the first initiations in ISKCON. Michael Grant became Mukunda Dasa and Jan became Janaki Dasi, Srila Prabhupada's first woman initiate and one of three ISKCON trustees. Three days later, Prabhupada performed a marriage ceremony for them. In those early years, Prabhupada established a personal, warm rapport with each of his disciples and nurtured them in spiritual life. This was true of both men and women. Excerpts from letters that Srila Prabhupada wrote to Janaki over the years reveal how he spiritually transformed her life: 'I am so much obliged to you for your devotion and affection for me. I thought of you all throughout my journey from San Francisco to New York and I was praying to Lord Krishna for your more and more advancement in Krishna consciousness.'1 'Every minute I think of you and as you asked me to go to San Francisco while returning from India, I am trying to fulfill my promise.'2 'With the greatest satisfaction I have just now read over your nicely composed and hand-written letter ... and I thank you so much for the kind sentiments you have expressed therein. I had also been thinking of you because you were thinking of me, but as your letter has arrived first it is for me to answer it. Actually, I always think of you as my naughty daughter and from the start of this movement, you and your very good husband have always shown to be very sincere and important members of our society. So I know that both of your services are most sincere and I will always appreciate this.'3 'I was thinking of you since about a week why you are silent, and all of a sudden I got your letter with a golden ring enclosed. It was so much ecstatic. I thank you very much for your kind presentation which you have given ... immediately upon receipt of this ring I pushed it on my finger, and it is very nice.'4 'I lost my mother when I was only fourteen years old. So I didn't get much of my mother's affection in my childhood. But in my old age, Krsna has given me so many young mothers to take care of me.'5 '... even I am far away, as you say you are remembering me, so also I am remembering you, and in that sense we are never separated.'6
As Srila Prabhupada expressed fatherly emotions towards his disciples, sometimes addressing them as 'my dear sons and daughters', so the early temples that he established had a family spirit. Women served side by side with their male counterparts, opening centres, giving class, singing and chanting, performing varieties of other service, and personally caring for their elderly spiritual father. However, as the movement grew, the camaraderie of the early years dwindled. A growing number of Srila Prabhupada's male disciples accepted the renounced order of sannyasa; and subsequently devotee women were no longer viewed as partners in a spiritual renaissance, rather they were categorised as personifications of the illusory energy, Mayadevi, who threatened to cause men to deviate from their noble spiritual quest. Women were tolerated more than welcomed. In some temples they were relegated to the back of the temple room where they would not distract the men (rather than the side, where they could see the Deities without peering over the heads of their male counterparts). Generally, women were no longer asked to give classes, to lead kirtanas or to manage. They had to sit through many discouraging and disparaging lectures in which the intelligence, motives and capabilities of womankind were criticised or scorned.
Women's asramas began to close. Those who were provided asrama facility were often expected to perform disproportionate service or sell paraphernalia on the streets for the Society's income (thus the evolution of the infamous women's parties). Women's role as mother was also called into question, and patience lacked with women who refused to take up temple service rather than care for their children. These conditions were exacerbated by the complete social and financial dependence each temple resident had on the management.
By 1974, this mood reached a zenith: women were now unwelcome. Tamala Krsna Goswami writes of the Radha-Damodara Travelling Sankirtana Party (RDTSKP), which he led:
The [male] visitors felt strengthened by the atmosphere of renunciation, not so easily available in the temples, where there were so many women. Visnujana strictly maintained a principle of not preaching to women. Seeing that I was bent on making new devotees, men or women, he had sagaciously directed, 'Whenever you make a woman a devotee, you lose one man.' [Referring to the fact that women had to be married eventually, and there was the possibility that the men would become absorbed in household life and thus be diverted from preaching activities.] At least for our party of sannyasis and brahmacaris living on a bus, it was sober and practical advice. (Tamala Krsna Goswami, ch. 13)
Several years of this kind of preaching created a major controversy between grhasthas (householders) and sannyasis. In Sridhama Mayapura on 14 March 1976 it was reported to Srila Prabhupada that: 'Brahmacaris were being told that if they remained in the temples they would end up married, entangled in family affairs, and therefore useless. On the other hand, they could accept the alternative of a carefree life, travelling and preaching with the RDTSKP buses.' However, 'Tamala Krsna Maharaja was adamant, defending his party and their record-breaking book distribution. He proclaimed the accusations as outright lies.' Srila Prabhupada settled the issue by 'wonderfully preaching to everyone that it does not matter what one is, one can do anything and go anywhere for Krsna. We are not to discriminate against anyone on the basis of external dress. One is to be judged on the basis of one's advancement in Krsna consciousness.' (Hari Sauri Dasa, Vol. 1, Ch. 9)
Although Srila Prabhupada's words were unequivocal and from that day the Radha- Damodara Party never again had the same mood or influence, the attitude towards women in the Krsna conscious movement was never restored to the original, family-like warmth that Srila Prabhupada had instituted in the early days. While the standards and expectations regarding women varied from place to place, in general women were not considered for any managerial positions, their counsel was not sought in any decision-making, they were still obliged to stand in the back of the temple, they were not asked to lecture in the temples, and women as a class were still denigrated in lectures. There was no system of grievance resolution or channel for communication when difficulties and exploitation arose.
Then, in 1977, the Society's spiritual leader, father, solution provider and counsellor passed away from this world.
Times were difficult. 'As a single woman living in the temples in the late 70's and 80's I witnessed a social demoralisation of women and families,' recounts one female devotee. 'Women acted more and more as men. Men lost touch with their feminine qualities. Children felt isolated. Growing numbers of families left behind their temple services and moved out of the temples, sometimes forced, to seek stability and financial independence elsewhere. Domestic violence was on the rise. Conditions for women living in the temples became abysmal, and the terms "protection" and "exploitation" seemed practically interchangeable.'
Yet, through the difficulties, rays of hope began to emerge. When an elderly woman of 70 travelled from the United States to Mayapura for the yearly festival there, she was told to stay on the roof of one of the buildings. That night brought a downpour. Many were outraged. A letter was written to the Mayapura authorities decrying this travesty. Women galvanized their efforts and thinking and began to seek support, which they found in the Communications arm of the Society. Discussions ensued, papers were written, and Priti Laksanam, a publication of uncensored presentation, was established by Pranada Dasi.
Other developments were afoot. In 1992 a conference was held by ISKCON Communications on the subject of women in ISKCON at the German farm (Nava-jiyada-nrsimha-ksetra), then widely viewed as a bastion of male dominance. Ravindra Svarupa Dasa gave an influential address at this conference. Within a year the German National Council decided to reserve a third of its seats for women and by 1994 three German temples had women serving as temple presidents.
In 1995 Harikesa Svami, at that time GBC for Germany, declared that 'where there is discrimination, it should be abolished.'7 He stressed that women be given equal facility in temple life and be respected according to their position. This statement cleared the way for abolition of such practices as women being left to stand at the back of the temple room during aratis, being ignored for any management position or not being invited to give Bhagavatam class in major European temples such as Radhadesh (Belgium), Bhaktivedanta Manor (UK) and Heidelberg.
In the US, women were attending the North American GBC and temple presidents' meetings. After a moving presentation on the women's issues by a mixed panel of men and women, Sudharma Dasi was elected an executive officer for ISKCON North America. That position entitled her to be a guest of the international GBC body (Governing Body Commission, the highest managerial arm of ISKCON) in Mayapura. There, with the help of several male GBC members, she formed the International Women's Ministry, which was officially approved as an ISKCON ministry in 1996. Later, Malati Dasi, with the help of the Women's Ministry and the support of her local GBC, was recommended as a regional GBC candidate. Together the two began attending the International GBC meetings in Mayapura.
The Women's Ministry began holding conferences in the United States and Europe. These conferences afforded women the opportunity for training, uplifting positive association within ISKCON, and dialectic experience. Women's Ministry conferences are held annually in the US with an average of more than 150 attendees. Many attended these conferences, including male and female leaders of ISKCON, professional counsellors and professors of religious study.
Sudharma's repeated requests for the GBC to examine the situation of women in ISKCON was postponed year after year until, in September 1999, a crisis brought the topic to the forefront. One morning, just before mangala-arati (the first ceremony of the day, at 4:30 a.m.), in ISKCON's International Krsna-Balarama Temple in Vrndavana, the brahmacaris formed a human chain, linking arm-and-arm, to prevent the women from taking close darsana (view) of the Deities. Some women tried to break through this chain and were physically rebuffed. When news of this went out on the Internet, devotees throughout the world were alarmed. Dozens of versions and hundreds of opinions about what happened were exchanged. Using this incident as a catalyst, the Women's Ministry was able to put the women's topic on the table at the annual international GBC meeting in Mayapura. On 1 March 2000, nine women spoke to the assembled GBC representatives. It was the first time in the movement's 30-year history that such a testimony was be heard.
The presentations that follow will lend insight into the struggle of the women of the Krsna consciousness movement - a struggle that has encountered and helped synthesise the apparent contradictions between Eastern and Western lifestyle and culture.
What follows are the texts of their talks.
Tamala Krsna Goswami, Servant of the Servant. Hong Kong: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1984.
Hari Sauri Dasa, A Transcendental Diary, Vol. 1. San Diego: HS Books, 1992.
1 Letter to Janaki, 10 April 1967.
2 Letter to Janaki, 4 November 1967.
3 Letter to Janaki, 9 September 1968.
4 Letter to Janaki, 18 January 1969.
5 Letter to Janaki, 20 February 1969.
6 Letter, 27 December 1972.
7 Memo to the German National Council, 6 January 1994.